Skip to main content

Avoiding a monocultural bunyip aristocracy

Race Discrimination

Avoiding a monocultural bunyip aristocracy
Remarks at the launch of Beyond the Pale
30 July 2018
University of Sydney Business School

It’s wonderful to be back at the Business School and back on Gadigal land and I want to also join in paying my respects to the Gadigal people as the traditional owners of the land.

Congratulations to Dimitria Groutsis, Rae Cooper, Greg Whitwell and AICD. The Human Rights Commission is very proud to be associated with this piece of work and to continue the collaboration we’ve had with the Business School. Greg has already mentioned some of the research we’ve done together over the years and I believe we are starting to see a more serious conversation around cultural diversity across the country now. We still have a long way to go, and it remains the case that culture is a poorer cousin in the diversity family. But we have made a start here.

The research that’s being launched today should be required reading for all board directors, all CEOs, all scholars and researchers on diversity and governance – and indeed for anyone who aspires to a life on boards or positions of leadership in this country.

You’ve already seen or heard references to what our cultural diversity looks like in Australia. When we launched our second instalment of Leading for Change earlier this year, we drew on the findings of the 2016 census and estimated that 58 per cent of Australians have an Anglo-Celtic background but that about a quarter have a non-European or Indigenous background.

Now think of what our leadership looks like. Whether it’s in business or in politics or in government or indeed in higher education or any other field of endeavour, you simply do not see anything even remotely resembling our cultural diversity represented. We should be asking why. And not just asking why, but demanding that we do better.

Because if we are a successful multicultural society, we should be seeing some of our multicultural talent at the top of our organisations – certainly by now, after seven or so decades of mass immigration. The White Australia Policy came to an end in the mid-1970s. If we say that it’s only a matter of time before we see cultural diversity, we should be seeing the changes happening by now. And I daresay we would have been hearing the same things being said ten, fifteen or twenty years ago.

There can be no more complacency on this. If we’re not careful we might be seeing some backward steps in cultural diversity. We don’t want a future where we have a multicultural society but have a monocultural bunyip aristocracy leading our institutions in this country. That would not serve Australia well.

This report is strong in recommending that targets be considered for boards – a welcome recommendation. But targets only make sense when you have the data and here I believe there is much more work to be done. Unfortunately there is too much hiding behind a lack of numbers when it comes to cultural diversity.

Now, I would like to give organisations and leaders the benefit of the doubt on this. I want to see the conversation mature. I want to give every chance to CEOs, chairs and board directors to see the scales lifted from their eyes on this.

I hear very often that there are concerns about privacy or anti-discrimination law that prevent organisations from collecting data on cultural diversity. Well, it is possible to collect data on these things, it doesn’t breach anti-discrimination laws. And if you’re in doubt about all of this, just look at our cousins in other English speaking democracies. The New-Zealanders collect good information on ethnic backgrounds, Canadians collect information on this, Americans do it, the British do it as well. And yet there seems to be a deep reluctance in Australia to collect data on Cultural Diversity.

This report is a qualitative study; it’s a landmark study. But I hope that it opens up the way for some quantitative data to be collected and for some information to be gathered.

Finally some thoughts about the big picture on cultural diversity today. We are faced with some fundamental challenges on race and cultural diversity right now. You need only look at the debate we are having here in Australia right now and in recent weeks: in particular, the panic, the hysteria we hear about African crime and gangs in Melbourne. We’ve had open questioning about whether Australia’s immigration program should continue to be non-discriminatory in character. We’ve had politicians talk about Australia veering towards a European separatist model of multiculturalism. Others have referred to the ghettoization of Australian suburbs.

Now, you might say this is a different topic from what we’re talking about today but they are connected. If we’re not careful the hysteria around race, the noise in those debates can drown out any meaningful conversation that we can have on diversity.
And the challenge to you in the room today – and many of you have been good and powerful friends of diversity – is to reflect on this. While we believe that we’re talking about separate debates, there may come a time when they are no longer two debates but one and the same. And I believe that all friends of diversity need to consider their responsibility to speak up right now as the hysteria and the panic builds.

With that, once again, to Dimitria, Rae and Greg and to the AICD, a job well done. I’m really looking forward to the conversation we’re about to have.

Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Race Discrimination Commissioner