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Is Australia a Racist Nation?:Zita Antonios (1998)

Race Race Discrimination

"Is Australia a Racist

Speech by Zita
Antonios, Race Discrimination Commissioner, 8 July 1998

Let me begin by acknowledging
the Eora people, the traditional owners of the land we are on today.

It is an acknowledgement
which I make where ever I speak in Australia.

It is an acknowledgement
which I made to the Dene people last month when I spoke at Yellowknife
in the Northwest Territories of Canada.

This small gesture
of respect to indigenous peoples is perhaps a useful starting point for
us today in grappling with the question:

Is Australia a racist

I have no doubt that
to some Australians my acknowledgement of traditional Aboriginal connection
to this land would be seen to be somehow racist. A kind of inverse racism.
To the same people the very existence of native title would be regarded
as inherently racist, because it is a right to land only held by indigenous

To many other Australians
the attempts to deny our history of indigenous dispossession and repeated
calls to extinguish native title are certainly seen as racist.

This sharp divergence
of opinion, this collision of perspectives, reveals the complexity of
the issues which have created so much division and turmoil in Australia.
It also reveals the emptiness of the mere term ‘racism’ to analyse
and resolve these issues.

This is, of course,
not to say that racism and racial discrimination are empty expressions
without meaning.

The assumption that
people of a certain race, colour, descent, national or ethnic origin are
inferior to others (and adverse treatment based on this distinction) clearly
leads to the mistreatment of both individuals and communities within Australia.

In plain terms, racial
discrimination is real. It is an abuse of human rights. It is proscribed
by our domestic law at both national and state levels. It is internationally
condemned by the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial
Discrimination (CERD) to which Australia is a signatory.

The problem is not
with an understanding that racial discrimination is profoundly wrong.
With a few virulent exceptions, parallelled in other countries, Australians
reject overt racism. That is why the term has so much currency at the
moment. It is fired as a common term of censure across a political no-man’s
land of social justice, where Indigenous rights, multiculturalism and
Asian immigration are both attacked and defended by appeal to the same
catchcries of fairness and equality.

The real problem
in Australia lies in the lack of a commonly understood meaning for these

If the opposite of
racism is equality; and the One Nation party constructs its platform on
an appeal to equality, then you know you have a problem of understanding.

Essentially two broad
concepts of equality are in dispute in Australia today.

Formal equality and
substantive equality.

Formal equality is
as simple and as obvious as the Earth is flat. It asserts that everybody
should be treated in exactly the same way. Sameness of treatment is equated
with fairness of treatment.

On the other hand,
substantive equality recognizes difference and responds to it. The object
of substantive equality is to achieve equity in outcomes. The focus is
on fairness in results.

Whether difference
stems from historical circumstance or some inherent factor which requires
recognition, distinctions are drawn to achieve justice in substance.

Indigenous spiritual
beliefs are unique in form, sacred sites and places of ceremony lie unstructured
within the landscape of this country. Because of their nature they require
special legislative protection. This is not preferential treatment, it
is the protection of a common human right to freedom of religious practice.
(Articles 18 and 27 ICCPR)

Similarly, the native
title right to negotiate is required, not as a special privilege, but
as a means of achieving substantive equality in the protection of a distinctive
form of property.

Specific Aboriginal
health, education, employment and housing programs target the accumulated
disadvantage of generations of discrimination, indifference and neglect.

Immigration settlement
support, interpreter services, migrant resource centres, English as a
Second Language programs - all of these - are not inherent rights, but
they respond to particular needs.

These measures are
based on a rational, commonsense recognition of difference, not to give
special advantage, but to ensure practical equality of opportunity.

Within a multicultural
society such as Australia these responses to diversity are not an affront
to equal treatment, they are essential to give it reality.

Generally Australia's
political and legal systems have produced an innovative mixture of laws
and policies to protect commonly held human rights and to meet particular

However, a sound
understanding of substantive equality has never really achieved a secure
foundation at the political level.

For example, the
right to negotiate in the Native Title Act 1993 has always been considered
by government to be a special measure capable of modification or withdrawal
at will. It has never been considered as an inherent right - which leaves
it vulnerable to the vagaries and shifts of the political process.

Even more so, substantive
equality has never become embedded in the popular mind.

A general notion
of fairness... "a fair go"... Remains the most potent idea which
draws general allegiance. And it is a loose, highly subjective notion
capable of distortion under pressure. And we are now seeing the degree
to which it can be distorted.

There has been an
eruption of anger and resentment triggered by a cascade of economic and
social changes. They are as diverse as structural unemployment, the variability
of commodity prices, the bite of raw economic rationalist policies withdrawing
services in rural and remote communities, bankruptcy, the recognition
of native title and the examination of our past treatment of indigenous
Australians, the Asian economic crisis, the fall of the Australian exchange
rate, the rate of rural suicide, the privatization of public services,
the loss of confidence in public institutions including the parliamentary
process, republicanism, el nino, environmental degradation, globalization
and GATT. We have the MAI to look forward to.

From the intensely
personal, to the communal, to the national, to the international - from
the barely manageable to the inexorable and erratic movements of market
forces and natural forces beyond human intervention - the tide of change
has heightened anxiety and excited a level of insecurity which has broken
a threshold of tolerance. There is a feeling that the centre will not

It is by no means
exclusive to rural and remote areas, farmers and primary producers, but
many of these factors have a particular impact on their lives.

It is simply not

Feeling rubbed back
to the bone there are a significant number of Australians who are willing
to find fault-lines within our country based on race. Characteristically
it is not a sense of superiority so much as a deep sense of grievance
which spills intemperately into expressions of hostility towards Aboriginal
people and immigrants, especially those from Asia.

Without a shred of
irony, the most dispossessed and chronically disadvantaged people in Australia,
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, are attacked as privileged
and the recipients of preferential treatment.

Ethnic minorities,
because of their desire to maintain their distinct cultural traditions
and identity, are stigmatized as a threat to nation unity and cohesion.
Yet the assertion that "it is never immoral to want to retain one’s
own independence and identity" is a core principle of the One Nation
immigration, population and social cohesion policy.

The confusion and
illogic of people who would strip others of their identity to maintain
their own, who would deny the need for specific Aboriginal health programs
to transfer funds to their own special needs, whose fear of dispossession
fuels the further dispossession of peoples historically reduced to poverty
and humiliation by their loss of country is not difficult to understand.
Australians are not impervious to anxiety, insecurity and fear.

The rapid decline
of a national atmosphere, where the celebration of multiculturalism mirrored
a growing willingness to deal honestly with our past and negotiate a durable,
just reconciliation between Indigenous and non-indigenous Australians
has shocked many people. The rate of change and economic factors are rightly
seen as powerful catalysts of this decline. But they are an insufficient

The stresses touch
on particular Australian vulnerabilities. They are deep unresolved tensions
regarding the foundation of this nation and a fear of being overwhelmed
by Asia. Both are issues which have been vigorously debated. The reconciliation
process, Mabo, and particularly the Wik decision, have accelerated that

Immigration levels
and Australia’s relationship within the Asian region are not new
issues. There have always been differing views. The inter-relationship
between immigration and employment levels is a perennial issue. However
the tone of these debates in the past was generally controlled and guided
by reason.

Both matters need
resolution through rational debate. This requires vigorous, principled
leadership to check excess and hold to the facts. Unfortunately the perception
that too much ground has shifted and that the rights of minority groups
have swung out of balance with the interests of mainstream Australia has
been interpreted by some as encouragement to assail the accommodation
of difference, to isolate groups within our country and aggressively insist
on uniformity.

Formal equality has
become a means to deny rights. The removal of the native title right to
negotiate on pastoral leases is a clear example . It is said that because
pastoralists do not have such a right, native title holders should not
have it, irrespective of the unique nature of their title and its unique

"All Australians
should have the same rights". It has a ringing appeal. Sounds fair.
Race does not enter into the equation. But race is the suppressed premise
and the outcome is unjust. Where this is the leading edge of government
policy it should be no surprise that crude racial discrimination spills
out and that anger and resentment is focussed on those who are visibly

It is clearly right
to acknowledge the hardships of all Australians and to seek equity across
our society, but this cannot be achieved by denying legitimate rights
which flow from our history and the diversity of our people.

The stresses of acute
economic and social change are not limited to the bush in this country,
they permeate through every aspect of Australian society. They are experienced
in virtually every country in the world, globalization is precisely that.
The same pressures have stimulated the growth of right wing parties in
France, Germany, Canada, Austria and the United States of America to name
only a few where their emergence is similarly contrasted against a backdrop
of broadly democratic societies, each with their own particular historical

This does not excuse
the eruptions within Australia, but it places them within the broader
context of nations grappling to maintain or define their sense of identity,
security and sovereignty while achieving substantive social justice for
all their citizens.

Within our country
there is also another story.

The same critical
events which have sparked a conservative reaction have created a quite
different response.

Mabo, Wik and ‘Bringing
Them Home’ the report of the national inquiry into the separation
of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families,
have galvanized a generation of Australians to look, perhaps for the first
time, without flinching at our full history, and to stand up in support
of another side to that history.

Our past is deeply
etched with racism: the attempt to forcibly assimilate Aboriginal people
and cut the descent lines of their culture; a white Australia policy which
leaves us with the residue of the ‘race power’ in our constitution.

But conscious of
this past we should also be proud of another tradition and the achievements
of our national institutions which express a deep belief in justice. The
high court’s mabo judgement unambiguously stated that the common
law of this country "should not be, nor should it be seen to be ,
frozen in an age of racial discrimination".

And grass-roots movements
such as Australians for native title and reconciliation, and the tens
of thousands of people who have signed sorry books throughout Australia
stand in proof of that statement. Their signatures do not only acknowledge
past wrongs, they are a commitment to a future in which our racial, ethnic
and cultural diversity is not a source of division, it is source of strength.

We need to recast
our perspective. Last week the one nation party’s policy on immigration,
population and social cohesion stated:

"Australia has
a unique political history of which we can be proud. Australia led the
way with the secret ballot, the 8 hour day, votes for women, invalid and
old age pensions, strong trade unions, the arbitration system and the
basic wage.&Quot;

New Zealanders may
take issue with who was first with the vote for women, but the general
point holds true. Australia has a strong tradition of social justice which
can provide a common source of inspiration across political divisions.

We also have a history
of racism.

Just as the past
is not a source of guilt, but guidance for the future, so the past is
no guarantee that justice will prevail.

Nothing is static.

And nothing is assured.

Whether Australia
is a racist nation lies with the people of this country and the answer
still lies in the balance.

updated 1 December 2001