12 February 2019

Has the multicultural festival made Canberra a better place?

| Genevieve Jacobs
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The Colombian Cultural and Folkloric organisation appeared at last year’s Multicultural Festival. File photo.

Hundreds of thousands of people will throng Civic this weekend for meat on a stick, beer, dancing and the kind of huge, friendly, buzzing vibe that makes the Multicultural Festival perhaps Canberra’s most beloved event.

It’s family-friendly fun for everyone, but has 40 years of the Festival made a real difference to how harmonious and accepting we are as a community? Sam Wong from the Canberra Multicultural Forum has been involved with the Festival for decades. He says the biggest benefit is that it’s taken multicultural Canberra mainstream, and that’s good for us all.

“When the Festival began 40 years ago, there were probably ten stalls,” he says. “Today it’s 300 stalls, 2000 performers and quarter of a million people – in a city of 400,000.

“Back in the ’60s and ’70s, the multicultural communities in Canberra were in a backwater. They didn’t have much visibility, so individuals communities struggled with recognition and support. But the Festival has helped multicultural communities in Canberra become mainstream.”

Wong, who is originally Hong Kong Chinese but has spent most of the last 40 years studying then working in Australia, says that mainstream visibility through the Festival has been hugely helpful for communities in multiple ways.

“There’s better dialogue between individual multicultural communities for sure as a result of the Festival,” he says. “But a lot of mainstream organisations like the Red Cross and the Salvation Army use the Festival to make contact with communities, and both the ACT and Federal governments do too.

“Beyond all that, it’s a chance for dialogue with ordinary Canberrans. If we have 250,000 people coming, that’s all kinds of ordinary people who are not necessarily from multicultural backgrounds. There is really so little negativity about the festival and that is a huge blessing.”

There’s a determined effort to leave political differences at the door in the interests of harmony, and Sam says the Festival is lucky to enjoy bipartisan local political support. “We encourage each community to bring their best performance, their best food, everything that adds value. The politics from overseas are left out.

“This is a showcase that’s unique in Australia, and the message is that we are happy to give it our best shot for the development and prosperity of the country.”

Entertainment begins from 3 pm on Friday (15 February) and Festival stallholders will begin cooking at 12 noon that day, giving people more opportunities to experience the diverse range of food the Festival has to offer, one of the key highlights for many visitors.

The entertainment programme continues through the weekend on six stages. Headline acts include Christine Anu, chef Mark Olive, and Eurovision contestant Isaiah Firebrace.

After dissension around the government’s licensing decisions last year, community groups will be selling culturally relevant alcohol and commercial operators will only be selling locally-brewed alcoholic beverages.

In 2018, police had raised concerns that community groups were not required to hold responsible service of alcohol (RSA) training for the Festival. But they also said they had inspected every licence at the event and found “no real problems”.

Despite this alcohol licences were cut last year, but after criticism, the guidelines have been revised. The festival has a history of good behaviour: in 2017, only three people were arrested for intoxication out of a crowd of 280,000.

The full entertainment program and list of stallholders is available on the Festival website, www.multiculturalfestival.com.au. A special Multicultural Festival Late Night Rapid bus services will run on the Friday and Saturday nights, www.transport.act.gov.au

Why do you enjoy the multicultural festival?

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