Information is the Real Power: Victorian Advocacy and Global Engagement Speech

This is an edited extract from a speech delivered by Ethnic Communities’ Council of Victoria Chairperson Mr Sam Afra at the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations IBIS Forum on Friday 7 October 2011 at the Melbourne Town Hall. 

To rule you need power and in this century information is the real power.

In Tunisia last week the Arab bloggers conference began with hundreds of bloggers across the region arriving to share their social media knowledge.

Using global media technology, these young Arabs have been a driving force in the protests across the Middle East these past 10 months.

One Syrian blogger said the American Occupy Wall Street movement was now learning from them how best to use social media campaigns.

These movements tell us that we, as global citizens, must learn to respect and understand diverse opinions if we are to live successfully in a modern world.

Australia remains strong in its commitment to democracy, intercultural awareness and mutual respect.

The Ethnic Communities’ Council of Victoria draws its vision from these universal values; values also held by the United Nations.

Our organisation’s patron Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser recently called on Australian political leaders to renew their commitment to these principles.

Our organisation advocates to give Victorians of all backgrounds a voice in our community and we represent sixty different ethnicities covering 100,000 members.

Our members have hybrid identities and are often part of global information communities, connected across the internet. 

I escaped to Australia in 1984 during the war in Lebanon, with the belief I would return to Lebanon once the war ended. Only in 1993 did I make the commitment to call Australia home and I am now a proud Victorian Australian - Lebanese.

Hybrid identities bring many benefits to Victorian community life such as cultural and language knowledge, skills bases and international perspectives.  

There are also additional needs of a diverse population which must be addressed.   

In Victoria, new and emerging communities face challenges such as; employment barriers, access to housing, media stereotyping and strained relations with law enforcement.

More established communities face challenges such as; cultural maintenance, access to aged care facilities and appropriate language services.

ECCV leads policy initiatives across a broad range of sectors including youth, health and aged care, new and emerging communities and women.

Advocacy organisations such as ours cannot afford to react to community need once it reaches the point of crisis.

We deliver policy that anticipates emerging trends. We believe that successful policy depends on building cohesive national and international partnerships to serve the needs of our diverse community.

While there have been many positive improvements in acknowledging the vital role of diversity in Australia, in public debate there is still room for improvement. 

The release of the Scanlon Foundation report last week strongly highlighted the relationship between media reporting, public perception and the experiences of our migrant communities.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, the survey revealed a significant number of Australians hold negative attitudes towards asylum seekers and Muslim immigrant groups.

The survey also revealed that under a quarter of Australians accurately knew how many asylum seekers arrived by boat each year and many believe that migration was rising in Australia, despite a fall in net migration last year.

Public perceptions like these show us the powerful role media coverage of emotional political arguments plays in influencing public opinion.

ECCV has initiated a bold media strategy to proactively improve media coverage of ethnic communities from within the industry.

Our organisation is currently working with SBS, RMIT and Macquarie Universities to build a journalism mentoring program. This program will build media pathways for refugee and migrant students into the media industry.

At the regulatory level, ECCV is working in consultation with the Australian Press Council to improve media reporting guidelines for non-English speaking communities.

In uncertain political and economic times, we must remain committed to social cohesion.

We must avoid using multiculturalism as a scapegoat for the civic challenges we face.

Victorians have a strong role to play in promoting the value of multiculturalism and diversity in our global society, regardless who is in government. I invite the Australian political parties to work together to agree on solutions addressing issues of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, because these issues will define Australia’s future.

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