Harmony Day Address, Rockdale
Dr William Jonas AM, Acting
Race Discrimination Commissioner and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
Social Justice Commissioner
21 March 2002
I would like to acknowledge
the Eora people, the traditional owners and custodians of the land where
we meet today.
I would also like
to thank Rockdale City Council for inviting me here today to speak to
this forum about community harmony and multiculturalism. This is indeed
a most timely subject.
Today we celebrate
'living in harmony'. But today is more than 'harmony day.' March 21 is
also the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
While it is important to celebrate our achievements in creating what is
a relatively harmonious and stable society, we also need to recognise
that racism is still a serious problem in Australian society. To eliminate
and prevent racial discrimination in Australia, much work remains to be
As the Race Discrimination
Commissioner, it is my role to identify and denounce racial discrimination
where and when it occurs, and to strategise ways to bring about positive
To this end, I convened
a national conference on racism last week at the Sydney Opera House. This
conference was the culmination of 12 months preparations for the United
Nations World Conference Against Racism, which was held in Durban, South
Africa in August-September last year.
The most rewarding
and challenging work in relation to the World Conference were the extensive
national consultations on racism which we held across Australia in 2001.
The Commission, with financial support from the Office of the UN High
Commissioner for Human Rights Mrs Mary Robinson, conducted a national
summit and youth summit on racism in Canberra in May 2001, followed by
regional consultations in capital cities, rural and regional towns and
remote communities across the States and Territories of Australia. We
also conducted specific consultations with Indigenous women in western
NSW and with refugee and migrant women in Sydney. The records of these
consultations have been posted on our website and summarised in "I
want equality and respect: A summary of consultations with civil society
on racism in Australia".
The Commission's strongly held view about these consultations was that
for the World Conference to be meaningful it must relate to the day to
day experiences of people who suffer racism. The consultations sought
to engage communities in a dialogue about racism - the extent to which
it exists and measures to overcome it. In local meetings across the country,
we held up a mirror to ourselves and revealed many imperfections.
The responses and
observations we received clearly demonstrate an overwhelming sense that
racism is widespread, institutional in nature and practiced at all levels
of society. As one Indigenous woman told us during the consultations:
'We just live
with racism everyday. It's like getting up, washing your face and having
a cup of tea.'
Every community consultation
identified that Australia's Indigenous people are worst affected by racism,
both directly and indirectly. Many people saw that past discriminations
practiced against Indigenous peoples has left them in a severely disadvantaged
position, for example through limited access to appropriate education
and consequently lower educational achievement rates, leading to higher
also identified people from diverse cultural and linguistic groups as
victims of racism. Their experiences of being the targets of racial discrimination
were, they believed, due to a lack of tolerance of difference and cultural
diversity. "Visible" ethnic and religious minorities identified
themselves as regularly subjected to racism. They included Arabs, Muslims,
Africans, Jews, Palestinians, Asians and Turkish people. The participants
also expressed significant concern about the stigmatisation and criminalisation
of asylum seekers as 'illegals'. This was seen as leading to an increase
in xenophobia against particular nationalities such as Palestinians and
people from Middle Eastern countries and appearance. And this was well
before September 11 or last year's federal election campaign.
were also raised about the intersection of discrimination on the basis
of race with other forms of discrimination, such as that based on gender,
youth or age, disability and sexuality. In these circumstances, discrimination
was seen to be multi-layered and cumulative and this makes it much more
difficult to identify. People suffer disadvantage within and between fundamental
aspects of their identities.
also sought to identify the sources and causes of racism, to understand
how and why racism occurs in order to identify effective strategies with
which to respond to it. What was particularly remarkable about the consultations
was that regardless of the geographical location, educational level or
professions and backgrounds of the people who attended, common themes
were identified in relation to the causes of racism in Australia. There
was overwhelming agreement on three key issues.
Firstly, the legacy
of colonialism was seen as the main cause of racism in contemporary Australia.
The inherently racist process of colonisation provided the basis for continued
and systemic racism against Indigenous Australians. The consequences of
colonialism are evident in the disadvantaged position of Indigenous people
in today's society. Colonisation is an inherently racist process. In Australia
it involved land theft, massacres, destruction of religious sites, denial
of citizenship, the forced relocation of communities from their lands
and the forced removal of children from their families.
At the national conference
last week we heard from various Indigenous speakers that dislocation and
dispossession continues to be perpetrated on Aboriginal Australians by
various mechanisms including the inherently discriminatory nature of the
Native Title Act, through to an ineffective education system that continues
to insist children be taught within the constraints of an Anglo system
of educational values. The school system was seen by many participants
attending the consultations as being a product of a specific cultural
mode, one unresponsive to not only Indigenous values but to cultural differences
A second recurring
theme was that the structures and power relationships in Australian society
are a major factor behind racism. Racism can be used to maintain power
and privilege, and the fear of others who are perceived as different because
of their race, colour, national or ethnic origin or background, can be
the veiled expression of a reluctance to give up power and influence in
Finally, racism was
seen to result from the ignorance, fear and lack of understanding of cultural
difference that participants saw in the communities around them. For many,
ignorance and fear have been present throughout Australia's history of
immigration of non-British people after colonisation, primarily given
expression in the White Australia Policy. While policy advances such as
multiculturalism were recognised, there was still an underlying tendency
to define non-British people as "others" and to fear cultural
practices different from those of Australians of British origin.
The recognition of
cultural difference is one of the key issues that we face in relation
to contemporary forms of racism. It is, essentially, the flipside of racism
and one of the main ways of combating racism.
As Race Discrimination
Commissioner, I see the necessity for there to be legislative mechanisms
such as the Racial Discrimination Act which prohibit racially discriminatory
forms of behaviour accompanied and reinforced by positive
recognition and celebration of cultural diversity and difference.
Under the Racial
Discrimination Act, for example, the responsibility for holding someone
accountable for discrimination or racial vilification lies with the victim
of that racism. Multiculturalism and EEO policies, on the other hand,
require government agencies in particular to ensure that their services
and programs are reflective of and responsive to our diverse society.
Put differently, they are required to demonstrate that their programs
are not discriminatory.
It is within this
multilayered context, that I would like us to consider and analyse multicultural
policies and programs. We should constantly ask ourselves how do they
further the enjoyment of civil, political, economic, cultural and social
rights of individuals and communities?
Multiculturalism was initially intended to rectify the lack of recognition
and protection of these rights. But in the last 15 years these rights
have slowly been wound back. I would like to give just a few examples
by looking at some elements of the 'Agenda for a Multicultural Australia'.
The principles of
the Agenda are Civic Duty, Cultural Respect, Social Equity and Productive
On the surface it
would be hard to argue with these principles. I would contend that we
need to closely look at the assumptions which may underpin these principles.
Let us look at Productive
Diversity. It has been part of the multicultural agenda for over 15 years
and it has gained in importance and significance. While no one would doubt
that there are comparative economic advantages that Australia can draw
from its linguistically and culturally diverse make up we have to ask
ourselves why is it an underlying principle of a multicultural policy
and what consequences may it have.
It could be argued
that there are two assumptions underlying the productive diversity principle.
One is that it is there to ensure that individuals from culturally and
linguistically diverse backgrounds have equal access to the economic structures
thus ensuring their economic rights of being able to equally share in
the financial opportunities offered by society. The other assumption could
be that unless there is a net economic benefit to Australia from people
of linguistically and culturally diverse backgrounds then we need to reconsider
not only multiculturalism but also the intake of our immigration program.
I would contend that the second assumption has more sway than the first;
we need to only look at the increase in the skills and business focus
of our immigration program.
Basically, your rights
and place in society could be circumscribed by your capacity to contribute
Civic duty is another
one of those terms which is often bandied around but rarely analysed.
The Agenda asserts the civic duty of all Australians to support those
basic structures and principles of Australian society which guarantee
us our freedom and equality and enable diversity in our society to flourish.
The clear assumption
here is that Australia already has in place a civil and legal fabric which
guarantees freedoms and equality. One of the main outcomes of the recent
consultations for the World Conference, and indeed from the scrutiny by
United Nations human rights committees during the year 2000 was to highlight
the clear inadequacy of legal structures in Australian society for guaranteeing
rights. We are, for example, the only 'western' country in the world without
a Bill of Rights or entrenched protections against racial discrimination
in our constitution.
Clearly, it is legitimate
for any citizen to challenge the structures and principles of that society.
I would contend that this falls within their 'civic duty'.
We could argue that
civic duty is about guaranteeing the rights of individuals to be equipped
to effectively participate in the political, social and cultural life
of the nation. A notion of 'civic duty' in this sense ensures that the
views and opinions of all citizens - from differing backgrounds and cultures
- can contribute to the broader public discourse that determines the future
direction of the structures and principles of our society. This would
place the responsibility on the political and civil structures within
society to ensure that people's participation rights are actively facilitated.
I would argue that
the difference is not semantic but substantive and provides a useful analytical
tool for questioning and challenging the assumptions that underpin many
policy statements - not only in the area of multiculturalism.
I trust that my comments
are not seen as a criticism of the National Agenda. I merely wanted to
pose some challenges which hopefully will lead to a debate about the substantive
issues confronting multiculturalism and race discrimination in Australia.
There is a need for
a renewed and vigorous debate on multiculturalism in Australia. Given
that multiculturalism has come under sustained and increased attack over
the past few years, the need for this debate is especially pressing.
So where to from
I am committed to following up the outcomes of my national consultations
and the World Conference Against Racism. I am encouraged by the notion,
raised in the national consultations, that Australia does have positive
experiences to draw upon. Participants in the consultations viewed Australia's
multicultural society as a positive on which we could draw. The level
of relatively peaceful interaction and development should provide us with
lessons to assist in combating racism. It was clear to many that this
is not a "natural" process which just happens. There are people
and institutions which undertake positive actions to assist this process
My role as Australia's
Race Discrimination Commissioner includes the function of promoting compliance
with the federal Racial Discrimination Act. But it also includes a broader
function of developing and implementing programs to combat racial discrimination
and the prejudices that lead to racial discrimination, to promote understanding,
tolerance and friendship among ethnic groups and to propagate the purposes
and principles of the International Convention on the Elimination of All
Forms of Racial Discrimination.  Those purposes and
principles include ensuring that national, State, Territory and local
laws are in conformity with the Convention and do not promote racism.
Within these broadly
stated statutory functions, there is much that I could take on. There
are three critical factors which will be taken into account in our planning
as to where I should go from here. The first is the limitations of my
budget. Second is the need to deploy my resources strategically on projects
and programs most likely to bring about change. And third is the importance
of working together with other anti-racism agencies, local government,
NGOs and civil society.
For the remainder
of this year, therefore, the Commission will focus on the role and responsibilities
of the media, school education and Indigenous rights. Attention will also
be given to the adequacy of anti-discrimination legislation and complaint
handling practice. One area of specific concern is the utility of current
legislation in addressing systemic discrimination.
I look forward to
your comments on these priority areas and your participation in our planning
and development as well as our implementation of relevant and necessary
projects to promote respect for diversity and equality for everyone in
updated 20 September 2002