Skip to main content

Address on Issues around racism in Australia

Rights Rights and Freedoms

Address on
Issues around racism in Australia

by Dr Sev Ozdowski OAM, Australian Human Rights Commissioner to the National
Ethnic and Multicultural Broadcasters Council

November 2001, Melbourne

Thank you for inviting me to speak today.

Firstly, I would
like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we are
now meeting, the Kulin Nation. Recognition of the traditional owners reflects
respect for the elders of this land. It also acknowledges that Australia
as a nation is at least 40,000 years old.

I would also like
to acknowledge Mr George Zangalis - the national treasure of ethnic broadcasting;
as well as all delegates and volunteers from interstate and everyone who
has the good of community broadcasting at heart.

Multicultural Australia is
a reality

Australian society
is one of the most, if not the most, culturally diverse in the world.
It has an enormous breadth of cultures, attitudes, beliefs and mores.
Your recent submission to the Australian Cultural Ministers Council contains
all the information necessary to illustrate this point.

Australia has also
a range of multicultural policies that were developed over the years,
by all levels of government, in a response to our diversity. The National
Agenda for a Multicultural Australia - mark 1 and 2 or the Access and
Equity Strategy which mandates that government services should be available
to everyone who is entitled to them and should be free of any form of
discrimination irrespective of a person's country of birth, language,
culture and religion - provide good examples of policy responses.

Cultural diversity
also protected by a range of human rights legislative measures. We have,
both at the Federal and State levels, legislation prohibiting racial discrimination
and racial vilification. Also, under the International Covenant on Economic,
Social and Cultural Rights, ratified in 1975, Australia is obliged to
ensure that all people here - including those in immigration detention,
might I add - receive health and education care, provided in a manner
which is culturally appropriate and which respects the inherent dignity
of the human person.

Challenges to our culturally
diverse society

We are living in
difficult and troubling times. Internationally, we have witnessed incomprehensible
acts of terror and intolerance that have outraged the conscience of humankind.

Events of September
11 are based upon total disregard for the fundamental rights and freedoms
of others. They emerge through racism, xenophobia, and dehumanisation
of those who we think are different from us. The US was targeted because
its culture is seen as an enemy of fundamentalism and a leader of freedom
of thought and religion.

There are also enormous
challenges facing Australia at home. Australia has traditionally prided
itself on being a multicultural and tolerant society. It has championed
and cherished the notion of a "fair go" for everyone.

However, events of
the recent past - possibly starting with Pauline Hanson's ill informed
bigotry and more recently with emerging prejudice against Islamic communities
- have presented us with an opportunity to do some national soul searching
about what that actually means. In particular, after more recently listening
to talk-back radio on the issue of asylum seekers, it would not be difficult
to conclude that our notion of a "fair go" is not as robust
as we'd like to believe.

The community reaction
to the latest wave of asylum seekers has confirmed that unfortunately
Australians are also able to allow their prejudices and bigotry to rise
to the surface. This is not a new phenomenon in our history. In the past,
for example, the first act of Federal Parliament established the White
Australia Policy. The sentiments expressed against Jews in the 1930s and
40s are precisely those being expressed now about Muslim asylum seekers.
At present Muslim asylum seekers are also being collectively labelled
as terrorists, in spite of the fact that the vast majority are accepted
as genuine refugees.

Why it is so? A part
of the answer lies certainly in the fact that the enormous complexity
of the current situation has not been recognised in our public debate.
We deal with at least four separate issues - protection of our borders,
refugee intake program, our international obligations towards asylum seekers,
and the issue of fear of the unknown by some Australians. Each of these
issues is a separate one and may attract separate attitudes and solutions.
Unfortunately, lumping all the issues together by media and public commentators
does not add to our understanding or development of solutions. It has
resulted in ideological attitudes either for or against and added to the
development of prejudice and racism.

Possible long lasting impact

Now I would like
to focus on the issue of prejudice/racism because of its possible long
lasting impact on our society

As you well know,
racism is it is like cancer. For members of many ethnic communities, racism
is not merely a broad, abstract philosophical construct, but may be part
of their everyday experience. A common theme that emerged from Race Commissioner
Bill Jonas' community consultations, in the lead-up to the World Conference
against Racism, was that racism is an experience many Australians know
only too well.

Racism is not a single,
understandable thing. It takes many shapes, and affects diverse communities,
groups and individuals differently. Just to mention a few examples, which
I have learned from some of you:

- I was told that
anybody, particularly women who wear culture-specific clothing such
as a hijab or a sari, encounter racism on a daily basis.

- Most women who
choose to wear the hijab found that they were treated as new
, regardless of how long they had been in Australia.

- Traditional dress
also provoked taunts and more subtle insults.

- Women's traditional
clothing often prevents them from getting jobs, as being "well
dressed" is defined in terms of western standards of dress. Women
in cultural dress are therefore virtually invisible in public life.
It is extremely rare, for example, to see service providers wearing
a hijab at your local Medicare centre.

Also my Brisbane
consultations with young people pointed to the fact that children of migrant
families frequently see themselves as the subject of stereotyping by police
who associate certain ethnic groups with crime.

The need to tackle racism

There is no doubt
that we need to deal with terrorism internationally. However, it appears
that the combating of prejudice and racism will need to be given priority
at the domestic front. Here in Australia, we must build a community in
which all are entitled to freedom of religion and belief, and freedom
from fear and want. Our fight against intolerance must be one that tackles
the attitudes and principles in which it is grounded. We must promote
a society that respects the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable
rights of all members of the human family

It is vital that
we now heed the lessons of 50 years ago, and return to the principles
of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

One of the root causes
of racism is stereotyping based on misinformation, and fear of difference.
This places a particular responsibility on the Australian media.

Role of ethnic community broadcasters

Ethnic community
broadcasters have several important roles to play in addressing racism
and promoting mutual understanding and a commitment to human rights by
all Australians.

Firstly, ethnic community
broadcasters need to provide intellectual leadership through provision
of information based on facts and solid analysis.
Nor should you be
afraid if your analysis and facts differ from the information provided
by mainstream broadcasters. In terms of combating prejudices and adding
clarity into the public arena, it would be a major achievement if ethnic
broadcasters could assist with the de-coupling of the issue of border
protection from that of asylum seekers.

Secondly, ethnic
community broadcasting has a vital role to play in providing a forum
for debate and discussion of the different forms and effects of racism
experienced by individuals
from particular ethnic and cultural backgrounds,
or sub-groups within them. It is only through understanding the different
specific causes and effects of racism that the Australian community can
begin to address the systemic prejudices that have unfortunately taken
hold at community and institutional levels. Share with others your individual
experiences. Invite refugees to your studios to talk about why they left
their countries, how they made the trip to Australia, and so on. Australians
want to know the facts first hand.

Thirdly, ethnic community
broadcasters play a vital role in community cultural development.
According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the
right to freely participate in the cultural life of his or her community.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that everyone
has the right to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their
own religion, or to use their own language. It is important to note that
participating in and expressing one's culture, religion, language or beliefs
are not privileges - they are in fact fundamental human rights, to which
every person is entitled simply because they are a member of the human
family. Ethnic community broadcasters play a vital role in extending the
enjoyment of this right to all members of Australian society, particularly
those who because of cultural or linguistic differences would otherwise
be isolated from Australian society. This often includes new migrants,
asylum seekers, the elderly, the unemployed and people who are less mobile
due to physical disabilities.

Fourthly, ethnic
community broadcasters play an important role in facilitating mutual
understanding and tolerance between ethnically and culturally diverse
communities and others in Australian society.
One of the root causes
of racism is stereotyping based on misinformation, and fear of difference.
Ethnic community broadcasters enable communities to develop and embrace
their own culture, while exposing the wider Australian community to aspects
of the culture with which they would otherwise have been unfamiliar. This
is what we call multiculturalism. Similarly, ethnic community broadcasters
facilitate the participation in Australian society by new migrants and
those with poor English skills, by making community information, news,
current events, debates and discussions accessible to ethnic communities
in their own languages.

Finally, the World
Conference Against Racism in Durban earlier this year, to which my colleague
Race Commissioner Bill Jonas was a delegate, highlighted the importance
of civil society in combating racism, and the ways and means by which
it can do so. The Declaration and Program of Action produced at the Conference
are available both on the website of the United Nations Office of the
High Commissioner for Human Rights and HREOC. Perusal of these documents
will be instructive for ethnic community broadcasters.

Tribute to Volunteerism

If one agrees that
leadership is about doing the right things and management about doing
them right - you have shown both solid leadership and good management

Ethnic community
broadcasters provided a clear and principle based leadership in fight
against prejudice and racism. You also clearly play a very important role
in facilitating the participation of members of ethnically and culturally
diverse communities in the cultural, social and political life of Australian
society. In so doing, you can make a great contribution to creating a
more tolerant society based upon mutual understanding, in which the human
rights of all are acknowledged and respected. This means you must continue
to speak out against injustice, bigotry and laziness of thought.

This contribution
would not be possible without the tireless and selfless efforts of the
numerous volunteers who devote many hours to providing information, cultural
and language services to their communities. They deserve special recognition
in this UN International Year for Volunteers, for their contribution to
the development of multicultural Australia and their effective promotion
of the human rights of every member of Australian society.

Thank you.


updated 1 December 2001

See Also