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Agenda for Racial Equality - Address to the National Press Club (2012)

Race Race Discrimination

Agenda for Racial Equality

Address to the National Press Club

Dr Helen Szoke
Race Discrimination Commissioner
Australian Human Rights Commission

Wedneday 29th August 2012

May I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land, the Ngunnawal people and to pay respect to Elders past and present.

I am here today to talk to you about race.

A lot of people tell me it is hard to be positive when talking about race.

They tell me that race is political, that it is inflammatory and that it gets people worked up.

When I talked about racism to a senior member of a community organization he said to me – that won’t go down well in some parts of Australia – people will ark up!

Well, in some cases I’ve got to say that is true. But it is not the full picture by any means. The reality is that for people who have never experienced racism it is hard for them to understand how damaging it is.

My father is a refugee from World War II and I know the challenges that he faced in his life were very different to mine, born as a child of a migrant but growing up in this country.

We heard from Dr Charlie Teo in January this year, where he made it clear that he still experiences racism – a successful medical practitioner who is internationally recognised!

What I want to do today is outline a national agenda for building racial equality, so we can continue to build on our great strengths as a country.

I want to do this by focusing on both the promotion of racial equality, as well as tackling racism. That is the purpose of the Agenda for Racial Equality.

I could stand here and just focus on the negatives and how we could do better, but I know that if we are going to continue to develop positively in tackling racism and promoting equal opportunity, then we have to win hearts and minds, we have to work in partnership and more importantly we have to own this issue as one for all Australians!

Today I will set the scene and context for this Agenda.

Firstly, I will share with you what I have taken from the many discussions, meetings and consultations that I have been privileged to be part of since my appointment as Race Discrimination Commissioner in September last year.

Secondly, I want to give you my view of how I think we are going in the pursuit of equality and in reducing the occurrence of racism.

And finally I want to talk about the drivers for the development of this Agenda, and why I think the issues that have been identified are ones that are worth focusing on.

But first – what is the Agenda? You all have a copy of it there.

It identifies four major aims in working towards Racial Equality. The aims are:

  • Ensuring social and economic outcomes
  • Building a strong legal framework
  • Preventing racial violence and harassment
  • Promoting leadership in support of Australia’s diverse communities.[1]

I have not set out to identify an exhaustive Agenda in terms of the possibilities for improving racial equality. It does not pretend to be comprehensive. But it does outline those areas where I think that there are real, concrete and immediate opportunities to make a difference. And it identifies possibilities to build partnerships to make that difference.

It also tackles those areas that have been constant themes in the discussions and deliberations I have had with Australians from all walks of life across the country.

And it calls for leadership from all walks of life.[2]

This Agenda is looking at two sides to the coin. On the one side, it looks at how we actively promote equality. On the other side, it deals with the need to name and tackle racism.

Another way of looking at this is to understand that whilst racism tends to be experienced as acute incidents, inequality tends to be a chronic condition, which is rarely headline news.

As we work to eradicate racism, we need to keep working towards achieving racial equality.

This Agenda will form the basis of a report card mapping our progress towards equality, and it creates a framework for my work as Race Discrimination Commissioner.

So what I have I heard from people?

I recently met with a delegation from Vietnam, who told me about the 54 different minority groups that live in that country. When I asked why the Government paid so much attention to their interests, I was provided with all sorts of polite but slightly unlikely answers and then we got to the crux.

If we don’t make sure these minorities are able to fully participate in society we create problems for ourselves!

While this is pragmatic, and somewhat self interested, it is also an honest answer. It holds the key to why we need to ensure that people have equal opportunity, irrespective of their race or ethnicity. We want a peaceful, prosperous and harmonious country.

We also have some compelling economic reasons why we want to develop a greater level of racial equality.

When everyone can actively take part in work life, we will immediately increase the number of productive workers contributing to our economy. We also open up a broader spectrum of talent and capability.

That’s pretty important, especially when it has been suggested that we will need 800,000 new workers over the next five years, if we are to ensure economic growth.[3]

Access Economics has indicated that the cohort of migrants arriving in Australia in any one year contributes $535 million to the federal budget in their first 12 months. This rises to $1.3 billion 20 years after settlement.[4]

So it is clear that making sure that people who come to Australia are happily settled here helps our bottom line!

We also know that if we bring difference together in any walk of life, it expands our thinking and our capacity to innovate.

You only have to look to sport for an example of looking into the future and identifying new opportunities and new markets by embracing difference. Imagine the AFL or NRL without Indigenous and Pacific Islander players?

But sport hasn’t just focused on the inclusion side of the coin. The most successful codes have kept one eye to the future of the game, while keeping the other on protecting it by naming and deterring racism when it occurs.

And even sport still has a job to do – at the level of local clubs we still see the racism exhibited in local competitions,[5] and only last week we heard Wendell Sailor, a star in both league and union, talking about the racism that he still experiences and the racism that he sees on the street.[6]

If there are benefits involved in achieving racial equality, then there are real costs if we don’t.

Inequality is detrimental to our society as a whole, and it comes with a huge price tag.

When some of us have less access than others to employment, education, health care or other essential services because of our race, we become less able to contribute productively to the economy and the community.

As long as we accept inequality of access to employment and education, we limit people’s ability to be fully productive, and make an optimal contribution to our economy and society.

And this comes at a very real cost to the individual. For example, research demonstrates that the barriers for newly arrived refugee and migrant groups in gaining sustainable employment, have consequences for their financial security, health and wellbeing.[7].

As long as our community accepts that some people will have poorer life outcomes or are marginalized because of their cultural background, we lay the groundwork for an atmosphere in which it’s acceptable to treat different people with different degrees of respect and acceptance.

My view is that we have to maximise the tangible benefits that accrue from racial equality, and limit the very real costs that arise from individual and systemic barriers to equality.

So how are we going so far?

The Agenda includes a timeline that tracks our journey towards racial equality. I included it as a way of capturing some of our history and breathing life into the story of how we developed as a country.

It reminds us that our diversity has always been a feature of this country: not just since European settlement but in the tens of thousands of years in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have lived on this land.

But the timeline also reminds us of how we have only begun to focus on issues of equality on the basis of race very, very recently.

Humans have walked this earth for over 100,000 years. .

Only in my father’s lifetime, in the wake of the devastation wrought by World War II, did the Universal Declaration of Human Rights codify the rights that belong to each of us simply because we’re human.

Only during my lifetime did we recognise Aboriginal people as citizens and give them the vote.[8]

Only within my adult years was the White Australia policy finally repealed, [9] and the Racial Discrimination Act introduced.[10]

And only within my children’s lifetime was there finally recognition of the land rights of our First Peoples.[11]

That’s a lot of change in three generations – a minute microcosm of human history

But if a lot has changed, it’s equally true that we still have a lot to do.

And we’re gradually coming to realise that, while laws lay down a strong foundation, you can’t legislate equality.

Yes: you can make unequal treatment of people unlawful, and we have done so.

But change at the community level is crucial.


I want to give you some insight into why I have developed the Agenda, and what has helped me to identify its focus.

Three drivers have helped me translate my understanding of research and my conversations with everyday Australians to a plan of action.

The first driver is the link between discrimination and disadvantage.

There’s a symbiotic relationship between the two. Research shows that racial discrimination contributes to social and economic disadvantage, and likewise, social and economic exclusion can exacerbate experiences of racial discrimination.

This link means that identifying where discrimination and exclusion happens, and eliminating it, benefits both the individual and the whole community. There is no benefit to us as a community to have some people marginalised and left out of our social and economic life. This is why I have included an aim which specifically focuses on ensuring economic and social outcomes.

So what does that mean in reality? I have had so many discussions with groups representing particular waves of migration, who have faced great difficulty in finding work or accessing education, and as a consequence have found themselves and their families in deep economic disadvantage.

This sets the stage for inter-generational poverty – an easy trap to slide into, and a wicked problem to get out of.

Let me give you one example. Victoria Police recently reported an increase in crime rates among Somali- and Sudanese-born Victorians.[12] I want to make it clear that criminal behaviour from any group is unacceptable and should not be condoned.

Notwithstanding, public discussion of the issue was telling: many reports veered dangerously close to stigmatising a whole group of young people, without offering any insight into their journeys to this country, let alone the challenges this community faces in taking part in the social and economic life of mainstream Australia.[13]

There are real risks in reporting raw facts without contest or context. When this happens it often contributes to a level of public mistrust that would actually make it harder for these young people to get access to jobs in the community, and thus drive them further into disadvantage.

We have to challenge ourselves to remember that disadvantage and discrimination are intertwined, and guard against allowing them to become self-perpetuating.

The second driver of this Agenda is an awareness of the systemic barriers that prevent people from different racial, ethnic or cultural backgrounds achieving equality. The Agenda looks at various forms of systemic discrimination.[14]

Systemic discrimination is hard to identify and hard to understand, but when we look at outcomes that are disproportionately bad for particular groups in our community, and it has particular racial or ethnic feature, we have to ask where the barriers are. And I’ll give you a hint: they don’t lie in individual personal characteristics.

Systemic discrimination is often the barrier to realising real diversity in employment, for example.

We’ve been talking about diversity in workplaces for a long time. Up until now, though, we’ve mostly focused on gender diversity, and even with that focus, real, lasting change has been hard to come by.

Identifying barriers to equal participation in employment, including the racism created by unconscious bias, is important even for those workplaces that already have comprehensive diversity programs.[15]

We know for example that to recurit for diversity is one thing. To filter for racial barriers in institutional practices and procedures, or in requirements for roles, is another. Just as we ask the hard questions about the gender filter, we have to do so around the cultural glass ceiling.

Analysts are increasingly noting that businesses prosper when they reflect the characteristics of their markets in their management profile.

Diversity can also lead to innovation: a critical attribute for Australian businesses at a time when the world economy is being reshaped.[16]

There is a need to continually build the business case for promoting equality and tackling racism, and check it repeatedly through the filter of commercial reality.

The third driver of my work derives the wisdom of those from across the world who helped us identify human rights after WWII, and who gave us the tools and frameworks we need to protect them.

Internationally, our ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination provides a solid foundation for pursuing equality. This gives standards that make specific human rights breaches very clear. It gives us tools to address systemic issues and a way to understand equality as a community in which people are able to contribute independently and productively.

I have included two critical issues in the section of the Agenda that addresses legal protections.[17] The first relates to the Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The second is that I believe it’s time we actively began to implement the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.[18]

If Australia is serious about its support for the Declaration, we must use it to guide the development of an overarching policy framework, working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Take for example the varied reactions to the passage of the Stronger Futures legislation.[19] Billions of dollars will be poured into the Northern Territory over the next ten years with the aim of improving outcomes for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who live there.

But, whatever the dollars involved, its success will rest on two critical ingredients. The first is that it needs to hold the communities at its core: so that work is done in conjunction with the communities, and communities are given the chance to own the problems as much as they will own the solutions.

And secondly, confidence and trust must be rebuilt, which will require independent oversight of the implementation of these measures. After all, our track record in this area is poor.

The thing that has struck me in my visits to the Northern Territory communities is not a lack of willingness or a lack of ambition on the part of local people, but rather that the weight of generations of dispossession systemically impact communities in a way that comes very close to authorised racism.

This cannot be overcome by exhorting either the community or the government to try harder. It must come through meaningful dialogue and building the capacities of these communities.

For our efforts to change outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to succeed, the principles enshrined in the Declaration - of self-determination; participation in decision-making and free, prior and informed consent; respect for and protection of culture and; equality and non-discrimination - must be built in.

Any government intervention or private enterprise negotiation must build a sustainable relationship rather than impose an outcome that is not owned and not respected.

The other aspect of working within a human rights framework is that it gives us the tools that can help us resolve situations when rights compete.

I want to dwell on this a bit, because it has been a feature of recent public discussions. The recent case of Eatock v Bolt [20] is only one example of what these provisions are about and this case demonstrates how poorly understood they are.

Many people will be familiar with the recent ‘Aboriginal memes’ page on a popular social media site, in which images of Aboriginal people were published with highly derogatory captions.

At the Commission we heard from many outraged Australians who found the images appalling and who recognised the harm and the hurt they caused a group of people on the basis of their race.

A question I have been asked in my capacity as Race Discrimination Commissioner is ‘where do you draw the line’ and make such behaviour unlawful, as opposed to simply treating it as in extremely poor taste?

The Racial Discrimination Act 1975 makes unlawful public comments that cause offence, insult, threat and intimidation based on race. The provisions were carefully drafted to balance the right to freedom of expression and the protection of individuals and groups from harassment and fear because of their race.

Most human rights are not absolute. They involve a fine ‘balancing act’ of the rights and freedoms of different people. The general rule of thumb is that one person’s rights and freedoms should not infringe on the rights and freedoms of others.

This is particularly so in relation to freedom of speech. My right to freedom of speech should not extend to racial hatred.

The Racial Discrimination Act includes a number of exemptions, such as in relation to media reporting, to ensure that the balancing act is done appropriately. So if what is published by media is a fair and accurate report in the public interest, or comment made reasonably and in good faith as a genuine belief held by the person making it, it will not be unlawful under the Racial Discrimination Act. .

There are many other limitations on freedom of speech that exist where words cause harm: defamation, copyright, obscenity, censorship, contempt of court and consumer protection to name a few. We rarely question the importance of providing for these limitations.

And yet when the provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act are used to prohibit public expression that constitutes racial hatred, there is a debate about whether these provisions are justified.

What is missing in this debate is an acknowledgement of how the provisions actually work in practice and the important role they play.

I know, from the number and tenor of the complaints received by the Commission, that those who make use of the protections afforded by section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act do so to help them feel safer and more secure as they go about their daily lives.

Increasingly, these complaints involve what is published online – cyber-racism. I am often made aware of websites on which members of racial and ethnic communities are regularly abused, threatened and denigrated because of their race.

Consider, for example, the landmark case under the legislation of Jones v Toben. This case concerned material published on the internet which cast doubt on the occurrence of the Holocaust and the existence of homicidal gas chambers in Auschwitz, and implied that Jewish people who were offended by such denials were of limited intelligence or driven by financial gain.

The judge concluded that such material would make Jewish Australians feel treated contemptuously, disrespectfully and offensively.

This type of hate speech has no place in modern Australia. The use of the Racial Discrimination Act provisions to condemn its expression is perfectly reasonable.

I am all for a debate to make sure we have the balance right when human rights compete. I think this is critical for human rights that underpin a robust democracy.

But we should be mindful of the importance of protections from behaviour that creates a climate of fear, a climate in which discrimination can thrive, and a climate in which violence can take place.

We must also be mindful of the safeguard that we take away from the victims of this behaviour if we were to conclude that such protections are not important.


As a country, we have a fear of naming racist attitudes and behaviours for what they are.

I suspect that this particular aversion to calling others on their behavior arises from a misguided sense of ‘live and let live’, but the fact is, ignoring racism is damaging our society.

Let me be clear: I don’t think Australia is a racist country.

However, I do think that we have a racist history. And we don’t have a sufficiently robust culture of standing up to racism when it occurs.

This is the reason why it is important to have a National Anti-Racism Strategy and campaign that names racism and that calls on all walks of life to address it – as the individual experience and at the institutional level

If we want to continue to grow, develop and hold a place in the international stage as a go-to country on all levels then we need to understand how racism works, and call it when we see it.

Moreover, we need to understand how racial equality works, and what it will look like when we achieve it.

That is the essence of the Agenda.

If we succeed what will it look like? Here is my view:

We will recognise the ongoing contribution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to our nation’s prosperity and richness.

We will recognise the legacy of treatment of our First Peoples, and in future work with communities rather than imposing solutions on them.

We will acknowledge and maximize the contribution that successive waves of migrants have made to our country.

We will also recognize that as a community we have been highly successful in evolving in response to the benefits and challenges presented by different cultures.

And finally, we will recognise that along with rights, all Australians have a responsibility to abide by the laws of this country and work towards building a cohesive society.

Only by achieving racial equality, can we can ensure that every individual is given the opportunity of full participation in our social and economic life.

And that is good for all of us.

Thank you.

[1] Australian Human Rights Commission, Agenda for racial equality 2012-2016 (2012), pp 5, 9-18.
[2] Australian Human Rights Commission, note 1, p 18.
[3] D Crowe, ‘Wanted: 800, 000 workers in five years’ The Australian, 13 August 2012. At (viewed 27 August 2012).
[4] Australian Human Rights Commission, note 1, p 11.
[5] D Ryan ‘Towards a new culture of inclusion’ The Age, 30 July 2012. At (viewed 27 August 2012).
[6] Interview on Channel Ten Breakfast, 24 August 2012.
[7] Department of Immigration and Citizenship, Settlement outcomes of new arrivals (2011), p30 and 32. Research also indicates that new migrants who are overqualified for their jobs are more likely to suffer from mental illness if they are unable to secure meaningful employment after 3.5 years. Western Australian Institute for Medical Research, ‘Skilled Migrants in Low Paid Jobs Risk Depression’ (2012). At (viewed 27 August 2012).
[8] National Archives of Australia, The 1967 referendum – Fact sheet 150. At (viewed 27 August 2012).
[9] The final vestiges of the White Australia Policy were abolished in 1973. See Department of Immigration and Citizenship, Fact Sheet 8 – Abolition of the 'White Australia' Policy (2010). At (viewed 27 August 2012).
[10] Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth).
[11] Mabo and others v The State of Queensland [No 2] (1992) 175 CLR 1; 107 ALR 1.
[12] D Oakes, ‘African youth crime concern’ The Age, 20 August 2012. At (viewed 27 August 2012); A Bainbridge, ‘Police worried by crime in immigrant communities’ ABC Lateline, 30 August 2012. At (viewed 27 August 2012).
[13] Australian Human Rights Commission, In our own words: African Australians: A review of human rights and social inclusion issues (2010), pp 8, 10-17. At (viewed 27 August 2012).
[14] Australian Human Rights Commission, note 1, pp 10-12.
[15] Australian Human Rights Commission, note 1, p 18.
[16] Australian Human Rights Commission, above; Australian Human Rights Commission, Racism. It stops with me: Business Prospectus (2012), pp 2 and 4. At (viewed 27 August 2012).
[17] Australian Human Rights Commission, note 1, pp 14-15.
[18] GA Resolution 61/295 (Annex), UN Doc A/RES/61/295 (2007). At… (viewed 27 August 2012).
[19] The Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory Act 2012 (Cth); the Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Act 2012 (Cth); and the Social Security Legislation Amendment Act 2012 (Cth).
[20] Eatock v Bolt [2011] FCA 1103.