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Embracing the Challenge of Changing Times: Zita Antonios (1997)

Race Race Discrimination

Embracing the Challenge
of Changing Times

Speech by : Zita Antonios, Race
Discrimination Commissioner, Cultural Diversity Forum, Ethnic Communities
Council - Tasmania, Hobart - 25 October 1997

Thank you for inviting
me to participate in your cultural diversity forum. It has been a tough
year for race relations in Australia and it has been the most challenging
year of my term to date. In the past twelve months, racism remained a
contentious political issue and race discrimination Australian style continued
to dominate the landscape, featuring daily in local, national and even
international media.

Our significant migrant
presence, the policy of multiculturalism and the immigration intake especially
from Asia have been questioned or under attack. The vulnerability of native
title, the forcible removal of Aboriginal children, the continuing appalling
indicators on Aboriginal health, Aboriginal imprisonment and the pressing
need for reconciliation were all issues which confronted us directly this
past year and forced us to ask questions about our history and identity.

As federal Race Discrimination
Commissioner I administer the Racial Discrimination Act which allows people
to make a complaint if they feel they have been discriminated against
on the grounds of their race or ethnic origin.

In the last year
the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission received a total of
589 complaints under the Racial Discrimination Act. Complaints under the
Racial Discrimination Act received by the Commission’s central office
rose from 154 in 1994-95 to 197 in 1995-96 to 375 in 1996-97 - a staggering
increase of 90% over the past year. The two biggest areas were discrimination
in employment and complaints under the relatively recent racial hatred
legislation which was introduced two years ago in October 1995.

Let me give you a
couple of case examples. An employee in the manufacturing sector alleged
she had been the subject of racist taunts for several years by her co-workers.
She said that she had become isolated in her workplace and that her attempts
to stand up for herself had been met with increased hostility. Although
she brought the abuse to the attention of her supervisors, she complained
they were unable to exert any pressure for changes of behaviours by her

Following a conciliation
conference, the respondent agreed to pay financial compensation and implement
a training program and grievance process to address harassment in the

Indigenous complainants
have told us of a steep rise in endemic racial abuse. A mother was harassed
by other mothers at a school after she complained about her child being
victimised. Such complaints are not uncommon and represent the tip of
the iceberg.

Like many, I welcomed
the Australian parliament passing a resolution affirming the country’s
core commitment to the rights of all Australians to enjoy equal rights
regardless of race, to restate the principles of racial tolerance and
to reaffirm our commitment to a non-discriminatory immigration policy
and to reconciliation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
However, the context in which the statement "had" to be made
- that of growing intolerance and blatant racism in some sections of the
Australian population is a sad reflection of where Australia is today.
While such statements are an important reminder to us all, if public and
private actions within this country deny these principles, then the resolutions
stand not as an affirmation of this country’s values - but a benchmark
of our hypocrisy.

Many of you may ask
me why, after a number of years of tolerance, did multiculturalism suddenly
become a dirty word? Why are there groans at the sound of the term "access
and equity"? Why did ATSIC, (which represents, if not self-determination,
at least some substantial degree of self-management), suddenly become
a reviled body? Could it be that they were revealed as policies or agencies
that were indeed beginning to deliver substantive equality? That is, they
actually started to affect the status quo.

Let me try and explain.
Historically disadvantaged groups - Indigenous Australians in particular,
but also women, and people of non-English speaking background, have been
the targeted beneficiaries of formal, legal measures to achieve equality
in comparatively recent times. I refer here to the passage of legislation
such as the constitutional changes after the 1967 Referendum; the repeal
of discriminatory immigration laws in 1973; the passage of the Racial
Discrimination Act in 1975; and the Sex Discrimination Act in 1984.

These were profoundly
important steps and the legislation could be used by affected groups for
beneficial changes and for redress of complaints. But the legislation
per se did not have a particular meaning or resonate much in the
lives of so-called 'ordinary Australians’ - a shorthand term for
members of the so-called dominant culture.

However, social policies
which came slowly in the wake of legislative change operated at a more
personal level. The results were, for example, signs in other languages
in public buildings; on official forms you were asked if you were of Aboriginal
or Torres Strait Islander descent; terms such as `non-English speaking
background’ and `Abstudy’ came into the language.... and then
there was more! Then there was Mabo!

Mabo was a profound
shock to those who believed consciously or unconsciously that they were
superior to other groups on the basis that their forebears had brought
culture and civilization to this land - had claimed it from the wilderness
as `terra nullius’ and made it what it is today. That comfortable
sense of superiority was challenged by Mabo.

In this threatened
state - whipped up by a frenzy of hysteria in certain media and populist
quarters - some in Australia looked around fearfully and realised, possibly
for the first time, that there was a great deal of diversity in the faces
in the street. `This is not my Australia’, they thought, `this is
not the place I grew up in’. And indeed, it probably wasn’t.
Substantial changes had taken place in the last twenty years.

At the time that
this realisation was dawning, the racial vilification bill was wending
its way, yet again, through the corridors of parliament. The press had
a field day: never has one piece of legislation faced such a concerted
attack. It hammered the point that the new concerns people were feeling
about Mabo, about land rights, about immigration policy etc. could never
find expression because this draconian new law would prevent any freedom
of speech! Visions of innocent bystanders being dragged off to gaol for
repeating Irish jokes became standard. But there were people who stood
up for the bill and it was eventually passed, although without any criminal

The attacks on the
bill were damaging, and certainly contributed to the change in climate.
The emphasis on `free speech’ without regard to responsibility in
speech had a negative result. Some thought it became acceptable to use
terminology that would have been regarded as unacceptable a short while
before. It also became acceptable to air opinions that directly contravened
what were formerly bipartisan social policies. Any objection to these
opinions was dismissed as `political correctness’.

Racist ideology could
now be spouted with impunity. The speaker of the racist diatribe insists
that he or she is operating under the principle of freedom of speech and
airing views that were repressed in former times - as if the Australia
of the 1980s and early 1990s was somehow analogous to a repressed state.
Anyone who objects to the racist content is deemed to be an agent of the
repressive state, part of the `thought police’. Following that peculiar
logic, a person who expresses opinions in favour of multiculturalism or
Aboriginal self-determination etc. is therefore branded as one who wants
to perpetrate the system of state repression and put an end to individual
freedom of expression. The tolerant one is called intolerant. The perpetrator
becomes the victim.

There are, of course,
other factors at play. It is inevitable, unfortunately, that at times
where many people feel concerned, for example, about the rising cost of
housing, health care costs, failing crops in drought affected areas, there
is likely to be an upsurge in racial tension and communal disharmony.
The disaffected in seeking answers to their uncertainty find unfortunate
solace in the belief that their problems can be attributed to "too
many migrants" or "too much money being spent on Aboriginal
health". As we have all witnessed in the last eighteen months, people
like one prominent agent of division speaks to the disaffected in terms
which grossly oversimplify, deliberately mislead and wrongly scapegoat
migrants and Indigenous people. "Everyone should be treated equally"
is a common argument. In the face of structural and other disadvantage,
this of course denies the reality that equality of treatment does not
necessarily result in equality of outcome. In other words, treating people
the same does not mean one is being fair.

It could be suggested
that the impact of racism and discrimination has been cushioned to an
extent because of our federal and state anti-discrimination legislation
and because of the work of a number of government and non-government organisations
dedicated to the elimination of racism and other forms of discrimination.

Unfortunately such
protection is not set in concrete. It is something that must be vigorously
defended. The sort of climate which allows public expressions of racism
is the same one which allows attacks on the institutions which speak for
the victims of intolerance and discrimination. At the very time when advocacy
is most needed, it becomes increasingly difficult to be an advocate.

It is no coincidence
that at this particular time we have cuts of a very significant magnitude
to all sorts of community and advocacy bodies, including the Human Rights
and Equal Opportunity Commission.

However, we all know
the problems and today we are here to talk about identifying strategies.
Before I try and summarise some of those strategies, I want to make a
point about focussing on the message and not the messenger.

I recognise the anger
that many of us feel about the recent upsurge in public expressions of
racism. I know full well the indignation of having our language and our
concepts - the language of human rights - stolen and misappropriated.
I also feel the frustration when people start lecturing me about equality
for `ordinary Australians’ - as if I am not an Australian. But despite
all of these provocations, we must make sure that our anger is not directed
towards identifiable individuals.

We know that our
arguments are sound; we know that we occupy the high moral ground. We
must work with logic and decency. We cannot afford to make cheap jibes
at those we disagree with - especially jibes that can be seen to have
sexist or class overtones - references to occupation, employment or educational
status, for instance. If we support racial hatred legislation and the
principles it stands for, we must speak out about the issues - attack
them - not the person.

Each one of us has
to take a personal responsibility for action. If we do this, we can become
part of the movement which has clearly already started - started by people
who are clearly not about to wait for governments or for others. We rely
on ourselves. We are seeing aspects of this movement in street marches;
the formation of the group `Australians for Native Title’; and others
such as racial respect; in the number of phone calls received by the Commission
offering donations to ensure the monitoring of the recommendations of
the `stolen children’ report.

It is generally agreed
that in fighting racism, we must have a complimentary mixture of both
legislation and education. Legislation is critical. Even though it may
not be perfect in its drafting or in its execution, it nevertheless, at
the very least, sets a standard for community behaviour - a symbol for
what is absolutely unacceptable in our society.

Education too is
vital in the fight against racism and the promotion of cultural diversity.
It can be of a formal nature through organised curricula and programs
within educational institutions. It can also be of an informal nature,
organised by community groups as part of their advocacy and lobbying roles.

Social policy
lies somewhere between legislation and education. It has a strongly educative
role but is not mandated by legislation. Social policies such as access
and equity
and arguably the ten-year program of reconciliation
were put forward by the government of the day with bipartisan support
and which strongly influenced services and programs at a federal level.

was a major policy spelt out in the 1989 national agenda for a multicultural
Australia. There are many who decry the use of the term multiculturalism,
who see it as a term that has "had its day". These are people
who don’t know the meaning or the value of the term. But let’s
stop and ask what exactly is it claimed "has had its day?" Multiculturalism
means the right of all Australians to express and share their individual
cultural heritage, including their language and religion ; has this right
had its day? Multiculturalism also means the right of all Australians
to equality of treatment and opportunity and the removal of barriers of
race, ethnicity, culture, religion, language, gender or place of birth
- has this right had its day? It also means the right to maintain, develop
and effectively use the skills and talents of all Australians regardless
of background. Has this too had its day? I think not. We must protect
these values and rights even if we do not continue to use the term multiculturalism.
Let’s review the word by all means - but not the meaning.

Another strategy
which should be easily recognisable is that of local solutions for local
diversity - the strategy of working within your own area, whether a geographic
area or an area of specific expertise. For example Ipswich Council has
embarked on a reconciliation process for the community in that area.

Forming coalitions
is another strategy. In some areas of Australia, I have been enormously
heartened by the coming together of Indigenous groups and ethnic communities
with the common purpose of combatting racism. We must continue to search
out partnerships where we can.

Employment has always
been a key element of anti-discrimination measures and I note is a topic
on today’s agenda. Protecting peoples right to work and to develop
economically was a vital part of a social justice imperative to address
racial inequality. Employment cases have always accounted for the bulk
of complaints received under the Racial Discrimination Act as people have
sought their right to equality in employment.

Firstly, I suggest
you make sure that your employers have clear anti-racism and anti-discrimination
policies. Not merely paper principles - ensure that they are implemented,
reviewed and amended as appropriate. While complaints about race discrimination
can be made to the Commission - I really believe that most often local
resolution is going to be more satisfactory.

Secondly - value
and use diversity to your advantage. At the Commission we often have difficulty
with the idea that diversity is something to be managed. In the way that
the term is sometimes used, managing diversity is too often about addressing
the diversity "problem". Diversity is a fact of life and a reality
for modern management, but I would assert that it is not a problem to
be managed. Rather diversity is a source of untapped potential.

Ask the diversity
questions. Workplaces need to think about the diversity they need to succeed.
Ask questions about the language skills you need, the professional backgrounds
you should draw on, the various informal skills that would offer a new
perspective on your particular situation.

Lastly, dissemination
of information is essential at this time - using your networks to distribute
accurate information about critical race issues is one of the most powerful
things that any of us can do. Firstly you can inform friends and fellow
employees that there are rights and responsibilities regarding the Racial
Discrimination Act. Secondly, dispelling the myths is crucial at this
time. Use the information contained in publications like Face the Facts
to counteract popular misinformation. One company took to printing a section
with their pay slips. Others have reproduced sections in their newsletters.
Such tactics are immensely useful in combatting popular myths.

If our country is
to be measured by its actions, if the restoration of community faith is
to be continued, then ultimately the quality of life of all Australians
within the next ten years will be moulded by the actions not only of our
leaders, but all of us, individual Australians, in those areas where we
have influence.

What we need to do
now is strive for a society where respect for racial equality is so deep-seated
that occasional irresponsible outbursts, whether in parliament or elsewhere,
go nowhere because no-one is listening.

We must I believe
stop exaggerating the differences between us; we must stop under estimating
the similarities. By over-focusing on difference, we lose sight of all
the fundamental things we share; we have to talk more about what unites
us, our shared core values - and shared hopes and goals - we all, regardless
of our skin colour or the shapes of our eyes want security, safety, freedom,
good health; we all value and want peace.

In general, we must
recognise that we need different strategies for different purposes. We
have to work to the best of our capabilities and our resources, using
our strength wisely - and not shooting the messenger. As a young man remarked
to me recently, discussing the need to work strategically, `now is the
time to work with warm hearts and cool heads’.

updated 1 December 2001