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Whatever the voice vote’s result, Australia has a racism problem we must tackle

Race Discrimination

This opinion piece by Race Discrimination Commissioner Chin Tan, appeared in The Guardian Australia on Friday 6 October 2023

Australia will, fundamentally, be changed on 14 October.

However the cards fall in the voice referendum, one thing is for sure: our next urgent national priority is tackling racism.

It is a tentacled monster that feels impossible to slay, and its venomous nature seems to have only mutated in recent times.

Earlier this year, I urged politicians and the wider public to refrain from allowing the voice debate to degenerate into one about race, and for respect to underpin all discussions.

My greatest fears were sadly realised.

At its best, the debate surrounding the referendum has shown inspiring examples of respectful listening, patient and dignified explanation, and optimism for a better future.

At its worst, we have heard hurtful rhetoric and seen bigoted and racist stereotypes left unchallenged and people labelled as “un-Australian”. Misinformation and disinformation have run rampant, bringing racism in this country to the fore.

For such ideologies to be permitted and often uncontested in the national debate is profoundly dangerous, and totally unacceptable.

I am disappointed at the way some people have engaged in the debate and have stoked racial tensions and caused harm to First Nations peoples. Sadly, this has obscured the message that a voice to parliament is a necessary measure to overcome the inequality, discrimination and structural racism experienced by First Nations people by involving them in decisions which affect them.

The Australian Human Rights Commission has been consulting for some time with First Nations and multicultural communities on their concerns, priorities and solutions around tackling racism. We will gain a clearer picture of the extent of the damage in coming months.

What we do already know and what has been reinforced during this referendum is that Australia urgently needs a national anti-racism framework and bipartisan response to racism.

We cannot afford to delay. This monster has no place in our society. It not only harms First Nations peoples, whose continued collective suffering should be enough of an impetus to inspire change. But for far too many Australians across a multitude of backgrounds, racial discrimination remains a daily occurrence.

In 2021, the Australian Human Rights Commission released a proposal for a national anti-racism framework (Narf), a central reference point to help guide the country - from political to civil society – to comprehensively combat racism. We are currently working with all levels of government, institutions and community organisations to develop the framework.

It will set out strategies and specific actions to tackle racism in its interpersonal, institutional and systemic forms.

Education and raising public awareness will be a core element of the proposed framework. As the past few months – and the scale of misinformation and disinformation – have shown, there are critical gaps that need to be filled. Nationally consistent education based on fact, empathy and understanding can emphatically diminish the fake news and scaremongering tactics and serve to promote racial equality.

Without widespread awareness of racism and how it operates in our society, we won’t collectively be able to identify or prevent it and respond safely and effectively. Tailoring unified solutions that are grounded in the lived experiences of negatively racialised communities is the critical way forward.

The monster of racism can only be truly challenged if we all stand together to confront it. Those in power must take the lead.

After five rewarding years, I end my term as race discrimination commissioner on Saturday, precisely one week before the referendum. I, again, urge all Australian to help build a community rooted in our better nature, one that abhors racism and fosters racial equality and justice for all.

I will be watching, with hope, the vote closely as a private citizen, knowing that the serious harm the debate has caused First Nations peoples must never be repeated. For any race. On any scale.

Published in The Guardian
Mr Chin Tan, Race Discrimination Commissioner