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Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Communities Conference

Race Race Discrimination

Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Communities Conference

Graeme Innes
Race and Disability Discrimination Commissioner

Australian Human Rights Commission
Melbourne, 12 May 2011

I would like to begin by acknowledging the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, the traditional owners of the land upon which we meet. I pay my respects to their elders, both past and present.  

I would also like to acknowledge Dr. Linda Sydor Petkovic from the Victorian Multicultural Commission, and my colleague at the New Zealand Human Rights Commission, Sam Sefuiva.

Thank you to the organisers of the Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Communities Conference for inviting me to speak to you today about cultural understanding in Australia.  

An inclusive (not integrated) Australia

My focus today is on how we create a truly inclusive Australia.  A nation that accepts and welcomes diversity – not as a problem that needs to be managed or controlled by various social and economic policies, but one that takes this simple truth as universally acknowledged:

Cultural diversity is, irreversibly, both our demographic norm, and our strength.

As the Race Discrimination Commissioner I have taken this message all over Australia.  Not once have I been questioned or challenged on this point, which is encouraging and says something about the opinions of my audiences (or about acceptance of the truth of the message!).

Most of us in this room are at least committed to, if not passionate about multiculturalism, and about human rights. This is why we are here.  Comments about multiculturalism and human rights will be a focus of my presentation today.

We are also concerned about racism and related forms of discrimination – all barriers to true inclusion.  In the words of a participant at the Equal Dialogues forum the Commission co-hosted with FECCA in December 2010:  “The barriers to cultural and social inclusion are discrimination and racism; get rid of these and economic inclusion will follow.” I hope to outline some of the ways we can do this to make social and cultural inclusion a reality.

Before I do, I want to draw your attention to an important point.  I talk about ‘inclusion’ and ‘inclusiveness’ rather than ‘integration’ as a theme of this conference.   To be sure, my strong preferences for ‘inclusion’ and ‘inclusiveness’ are more than semantic.  ‘Integration’ in this context is a highly contested concept and is worthy of questioning and caution. It’s a discussion I am happy to leave to my fellow presenters, and for now I will say this much – we cannot talk about social and cultural integration without talking about substantive equality and human rights.  Otherwise we fast get on that slippery slope of talking about assimilation. 

ATSI and reconciliation

As I’ve mentioned, I want to focus on how we build a truly inclusive Australian nation.  I begin with what to me is a basic, but sometimes overlooked, proposition in discussions about inclusion and multiculturalism. This inclusive nation building cannot be achieved without true reconciliation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and without formal, constitutional recognition of their special and unique status. Fixing Aboriginal disadvantage will also require the intergenerational commitment of the whole nation, and constitutional protection against racial discrimination. These must form the foundations of any such discussion.  

The Northern Territory Intervention has done serious damage to the relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. As a nation, we must acknowledge that the Intervention will have long lasting, intergenerational negative impacts. Recovery, if at all possible, is not achievable until the Australian Constitution guarantees protection against racial discrimination. Otherwise, as Aboriginal Australians have sorely learned from lived experience, the Racial Discrimination Act can be suspended tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.  Ad infinitum. 

Multiculturalism – a nation building exercise

The next block in our nation-building exercise is multiculturalism.

Australia’s first comprehensive multicultural policy since 1996, the People of Australia, released in February of this year is a welcome redress of a major policy gap, and a welcome signalling of the Australian Government’s commitment to a multicultural Australia. However, it is imperative for a multicultural policy to take cultural diversity as the starting point, and incorporate into that policy a human rights framework.

What do I mean by a human rights framework?

The policy must be based on the principles of respect for others, and promoting inclusivity, equality and non-discrimination. Promoting multiculturalism should not just be about eliminating racism and religious intolerance, but about promoting a holistic approach to equality and non-discrimination.

A human rights framework provides an opportunity to work with diverse communities and to develop new mechanisms to talk about how a society deals with cultural difference.

Multiculturalism and human rights

I opened this speech with the statement that multicultural policy cannot be isolated from discourses of substantive equality and human rights. Just as the multicultural policy must embrace diversity and social inclusion, a recognition of multiculturalism is an essential foundation for any human rights framework.

For today, I want to make the point that to build an inclusive Australia, we must understand and respect that we have multiple identities as human beings.  To be clear, this is not about forcing people to see themselves through a single lens of race, gender, disability or the like.  It is not about privileging a particular cultural identity. All of us in this room know that identities are based on multiple intersections of race, culture, religion, gender, sex, language, country of origin and most likely other factors.  Our human rights, and the responsibility of all to respect these rights, can assist in this building exercise.

At a minimum, we must promote cultural understanding and tolerance to advance an understanding of other cultures based on broader human rights principles of equality and non-discrimination.  You cannot be effective and achieve respect for human rights without understanding the complexities if the multiple aspects of identity that shape individuals and communities.  And it is more than promoting this awareness.  Human rights principles of equality and non-discrimination must be a key feature in all modern tools – including policy design, service delivery and public discourse.

Towards solutions: anti racism strategy and tackling racism

The problem of racism in Australia: we know that Australia has pockets of persistent racism. We know that racism has increased over the last 10 years, at least.  Surveys conducted in the past decade as part of the Kevin Dunn led Challenging Racism project found that, about 80 percent of Australians consider that racial prejudice is still a problem.

We know that racism has long-term and serious impacts and human consequences. Research by Dr. Yin Paradies, from the University of Melbourne, provides compelling evidence that discrimination is a cause of poor health outcomes, and lower quality of life.

Racism restricts people’s access to health, employment and housing services. Compared to Australian born people, those from countries where English is not the main language are:

  • twice as likely to experience discrimination in a shop, restaurant or sporting or large public event;
  • three times as likely to experience discrimination in the workplace;
  • twice as likely to experience discrimination in education;
  • four times as likely to experience discrimination in policing and housing.

So we know that racism has long term, destructive intergenerational consequences. Insidiously, these can become so entrenched as community beliefs, attitudes and perceptions, that they are normalised.

I will quickly give some examples of issues affecting groups that are particularly vulnerable.  I will also give some examples of what we at the Commission have done and are doing to address these inequities.

Indigenous Australians

The Challenging Racism project recorded that some three thousand respondents expressed some sort of prejudice against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Other national research reveals that about 20 percent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults report regular experiences of racism.

The impacts of discrimination include:

  • an unemployment rate of 13% compared to 4% for non-Indigenous Australians
  • lower high-school completion rates – 40% compared with 75%
  • low rates of home ownership (25%)
  • lower income – $340 a week, compared with $618 a week.

Of course, our Social Justice Commissioner has primary responsibility for issues relevant to Indigenous Australians. Each year the Commissioner releases a Social Justice Report, which considers key issues in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs over the past year. If you have not already done so, I would encourage you to look at these on the Commission’s website.

Muslim Australians

There has been considerable evidence that Muslim communities have been targeted by perpetrators of racism and racist violence. Some research suggests that acts of discrimination, verbal abuse and violence were so commonplace for Australian Muslims that it has come to be seen as an ‘ordinary experience’ of Australian life: “it happens so often and goes unnoticed, therefore we have learnt to accept this sort of bad behaviour” they say.

The Commission’s goal has been to increase social inclusion, and counter discrimination and intolerance, towards Australia’s Muslim communities by:

  • increasing awareness of human rights and responsibilities, in both the broader community and in Muslim communities
  • increasing skills, and facilitating opportunities for groups and individuals, to help reduce the impact of marginalisation
  • facilitating relationships and opportunities to build trust between Muslim communities and law enforcement agencies; and
  • increasing social connectedness to build social capital, and empower Muslim communities.

Over the past four years the Commission has implemented a number of projects in partnership with Muslim communities. For example, the Community Policing Partnership Project supported the development of local partnerships between police and Muslim communities across Australia. 38 joint community and police projects received funding of up to $10,000 to develop local solutions to community issues.

International Students

The number of international students in Australia has grown rapidly in recent years. At over half a million people, international students now represent a significant group of Australian residents. Up to 40 percent are engaged in the workforce, and around 20 percent go on to become permanent residents.

The Commission has done work on the safety and well-being of international students. They tell us that, while student safety has received the most attention, it is a symptom of other issues, including racism and discrimination, lack of accessible and affordable accommodation, poor employment conditions, transport costs, lack of student support services, variable quality of education, and social isolation and exclusion. Some international students, particularly from non-English speaking backgrounds, routinely experience:

  • personal, social and cultural loneliness and isolation
  • having an outsider status
  • workplace exploitation
  • discrimination in the private rental market
  • violence and street abuse (in particular racist verbal abuse);
  • female international students experiencing race-based violence, sexual exploitation and rape;
  • and barriers to accessing justice.

We are currently leading the development of minimum standards for International Students. They will outline the rights and entitlements of international students in Australia, and be based on broad national consultations.

African Australians

In 2010, the Commission released In our own words – African Australians: A review of human rights and social inclusion issues. This review was the culmination of three years’ work, including consultations with over 2500 African Australians. It considered, for the first time, the everyday experiences and urgent challenges that face African Australians – from their viewpoint, from a national perspective and within a human rights context.

The key issues noted in the report included:

  • the need for an improved understanding of child protection and family law in Australia
  • the over-policing of young men; and
  • pervasive employment discrimination.

The Commission is continuing to consult with the community including to identify ways in which the communities impacted and relevant, primarily government, decision-makers can be brought together to address these issues.

Towards solutions: anti-racism strategy

So the evidence of racism, the existence of particularly vulnerable groups and the need to do more to promote racial equality is plain for all to see. It follows that we need to mobilise in a way that enables people to act, to challenge, and not feel overwhelmed by years of government, political and social denial and inaction.  Let me be clear: we must continue to challenge the acceptance and levels of indifference that foster the normalisation of racism.    

For anyone who has doubts, human rights tell us why action and mobilisation is required.  Everyone has the basic human right to a life free from violence and from cruel, degrading and inhumane treatment. Violence can be one of the most extreme manifestations of discrimination, on bases such as race or ethnicity, religion, etc. Discrimination is often a key factor behind violence, harassment and bullying, and addressing this root cause is critical to building a safer, more inclusive Australia. Addressing these issues is one of the Commission’s priorities.

So I am encouraged that the Government’s new multicultural policy provides for the development of a new National Anti-Racism partnership and strategy.  It follows from all I have said that the anti-racism strategy must be informed by an understanding of human rights and responsibilities.  Work on this strategy will commence in the near future.   Amongst other things, the partnership will draw together expertise on anti-racism and multicultural matters, expand the number of networks in the migrant and broader community sectors, and enhance leadership capacities. It will involve consultation with the community.  The design, development and implementation of the strategy will explore areas such as education resources, public awareness and youth engagement.  The Commission will play a leadership role.  Beyond this, it is too early to say much more about this important development.

Future challenges

Australia’s demographic future will inevitably be more racially, culturally and religiously diverse. Working together to renew our commitment to racial equality is therefore critical.  In this regard, migration is a positive, essential and inevitable part of Australian life. It is not a problem, despite it being framed as such in some public discourse about asylum seekers, international students, and population growth.

An inclusive Australia is one where your job application is not more likely to be rejected based on the race assumed from your name; where Muslim communities are embraced as part of us rather than viewed as different; where international students, asylum seekers and newly arriving communities are welcomed to our country in the same way we welcome people to our homes; and where the place of our first Australians is marked by equality not disadvantage, and is constitutionally recognised.

Put simply, Australia is changing. It will continue to change.

This means that:

  • While Australia is already diverse, it will be increasingly so in the future. As members of a culturally diverse society, we already interact with people from different backgrounds - this will drastically escalate in the future.
  • The relevance of these facts are largely ignored in political and policy debates on - amongst other critical topics - human development, freedom, community harmony, environmental protection, public safety, economic sustainability and social inclusion.
  • A human rights framework offers great potential in informing these debates. In short: many of the issues about culture raise issues about human rights.

There is a worrying gap in the discussion on human rights and cultural diversity. This is a discussion about the future that is already here, a discussion that, if we fail to have, we fail in our debt to the next generation of Australians to enjoy a civil and sustainable society. But, while Australia is a culturally diverse nation, we know that some people experience discrimination, vilification or violence, increasingly through cyber-racism on the internet, because of their ethnic, racial, cultural, religious or linguistic background. In recent years, this has been an increasing issue for Arab and Muslim Australians, newly arrived immigrants especially from Africa, and also for international students, particularly from India, who have been subjected to violent attacks.

Let me reiterate some of the pertinent recommendations the Commission has made in the past, and continues to make:

  1. Reconciliation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and formal, constitutional recognition of their special and unique status is vital. Fixing Aboriginal disadvantage will also require the intergenerational commitment of the whole nation, and constitutional protection against racial discrimination. These must form the foundations of any discussion on human rights and diversity in Australia.
  2. Immigration is a positive, essential and inevitable part of Australian life. It is not a problem, despite it being framed as such in some public discourse about asylum seekers, international students, and population growth. Cultural diversity is, irreversibly, both our demographic norm, and our strength.
  3. The Government's human rights framework, released last year, is a welcome start. It commits to-
  • human rights education for the community and public sector;
  • developing a National Action Plan on Human Rights;
  • establishing a federal parliamentary scrutiny committee to test all new federal legislation against Australia's human rights obligations; and
  • developing a consolidated federal anti-discrimination law.

We need policies that address the often intersecting discrimination faced by vulnerable groups within culturally and linguistically diverse groups- women, people with disabilities, people with differing sexual orientations, and who are gender diverse.

If we are to achieve genuine social inclusion, then the struggles of immigrant, minority and vulnerable  communities must be recognised as struggles for equality – social, cultural, economic, civil  and political equality.

When we speak of human rights we must acknowledge that some groups, at different times and in different contexts, encounter forms of exclusion and discrimination that those from the mainstream do not experience.  

We know that some immigrants face a complex range of barriers and disadvantages. The Commission’s own research has shown, repeatedly, that limited English, insecure resident status, poverty, financial dependency, homelessness, limited access to education, unemployment, isolation, discrimination - all of these things - can impede CALD access to equality. 

Just as identities are based on multiple intersections of race, culture, religion, gender, sex, language and country of origin, we need interventions that are complex and sophisticated enough to redress this intersectionality. An inclusive Australia means that we – policy makers, human rights practitioners, diversity experts – must commit to working with the complex, often contradictory and competing demands on identities and working in areas where rights can compete. We cannot be effective and achieve respect for human rights without understanding the complexities of the multiple aspects of identity that shape individuals and communities.

The basic principles enshrined in human rights and multiculturalism frameworks have much to offer each other in making this an achievable reality.