Government and governance, Arts, culture & society | Australia

14 January 2021

If the Australian government hopes to fight the COVID-19 pandemic effectively, it should reconsider the way it engages its multicultural citizens, Cerelia Lim writes.

This pandemic is testing democracy. Public authorities have the authority to place limits on individual rights for the sake of public safety, and when they enact public health measures, governments need the trust of their citizens if they hope to limit the spread of infection.

The way a government builds that trust is through ongoing communication of the rights, obligations, and entitlements of its citizens. This creates the norms of a political community.

When the Australian government runs public information campaigns, like those used to deal with the pandemic, it does so primarily in English. This creates a norm between itself and the community that reflects the values of the government. As such, norms the government is trying to implement may carry a cultural tone.

In a multicultural country like Australia, doing this almost entirely in English is a missed opportunity. Norm creation presents an opportunity for the government to engage its citizenry along various cultural lines, building a broader base of trust in the process.

More on this: Public messaging, trust and COVID-19: some pointers for policymakers

Language is an important component of norm creation for governments, as it acts as a pathway for shaping and internalising norms. When a government has a norm or a piece of behaviour it would like to encourage or discourage, it has to communicate that.

When this is done only in English, it will rely on references to beliefs and practices produced among English-speaking communities. When norms are translated and contextualised culturally instead, governments gain an opportunity to create a multicultural Australian norm.

A government of a multicultural and, therefore, multilingual country must recognise that engagement through a range of languages creates more opportunities to shape behavioural norms across the country.

On top of this, a government of a multicultural country needs to carefully consider the way its communications are understood – or misunderstood – by its communities. A community whose primary language is not English, especially one experiencing racial profiling and discrimination, in part thanks to government action or inaction, may rightly be difficult to convince on any number of issues.

In the pandemic context, the norm the government is pushing is that Australians must accept limitations on their rights as public health measures are necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19 infections. How can it get this message across?

More on this: Podcast: When good policy communication goes bad

Importantly, these limitations on rights should be clearly non-discriminatory, while communities should be aware of their rights to legal redress of any harm resulting from these restrictions. If restrictions exacerbate existing inequalities, that must be addressed too.

On a more fundamental level though, this situation is a reminder of the need to reconceptualise diversity.

A multicultural society should not have ‘culturally and linguistically diverse’ communities – the common vernacular of government now. This description implies there is a dominant culture in reference to which all other cultures exist. Instead, a multicultural society should be one in which a multiplicity of cultures co-exist in a spirit of mutual cooperation and tolerance.

The government’s current framing of diversity can devalue communities within Australia’s multicultural society. For some of those groups, this creates a sense of threat, and this can develop into a need to protect cultural practices from change.

Without serious effort to engage with them, such communities could be resistant towards participating in new norms spruiked by the government. This weakens trust between a government and its citizenry in ways that could be detrimental in managing a public health emergency.

A government of a multicultural country must recognise that norm creation with its citizenry is not just a political act, but also a cultural one. Engaging along cultural lines creates more opportunities to change behaviour in positive and lasting ways, something that deepens trust between citizens and their government, strengthens democracy, and, most importantly, brings us one step closer to managing crisis effectively.

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