Skip to main content

Harmony Day speech - What role do I have to address racism? (2012)

Race Race Discrimination

Harmony Day speech - Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities

What role do I have to address racism?

Dr Helen Szoke
Race Discrimination Commissioner
Australian Human Rights Commission

21 March, 2012


Good morning. I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land, the Ngunnawal people, and your elders past and present.

Why is it that we celebrate Harmony Day each year? I suspect that if I asked a random sample of people on the street, not many would be able to tell me.

The official name for Harmony Day is actually International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. It’s not the catchiest of names, and in the 1990’s, with the rise of the One Nation Party and concern about racism, it was found that the concept of harmony was more inclusive and less confronting.

This day was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1966, in remembrance of the events that took place in Sharpeville, South Africa, on 21 March 1960. On that day, the police opened fire on a large crowd who were peacefully demonstrating against apartheid pass laws, killing 69 people and injuring 180. The actions rightly received international condemnation. However, it was not until 26 years later, in 1986, that the apartheid laws that prompted the march were repealed.

It is easy to be complacent about eliminating racial discrimination. It is easy to look at the most extreme human rights abuses, such as occurred in South Africa, and consider our own problems with racism comparatively unimportant. But 2012 is an important time to take stock. We have a large multicultural population; in the 2006 census over 40% of Australians were born overseas or had one or more parents who were born overseas. We live in a country where acts of overt racism are condemned by our leaders. We have federal and state laws that are designed to protect us from discrimination.

And we have an annual day to recognise the many positive aspects of living in a multicultural society. It is important that we celebrate our achievements and reinforce positive messages of welcome. But it is just as vital that we take today to acknowledge that racism does still exist in Australia, and consider how we can address it.

We should see Harmony Day as an opportunity to reflect on how far we have come, and how far we still have to go.

Many people in Australia continue to battle with both overt racism and the more hidden forms that have come to replace it. It happens in many settings: in employment, in schools, in housing, on the internet, in sport, in the media, even on the street.

The Challenging Racism project, undertaken from 2001 to 2008, found that around 85% of respondents believe that racism is a current issue in Australia and 20% had experienced forms of race-hate talk such as verbal abuse or racial slurs.[1] The internet is opening new avenues to promote race hate; research has found that the number internet and social-networking sites devoted to racism have been increasing.[2]

Reconciliation Australia surveyed over 2000 people and found that 71 percent of the community acknowledges that that Australians hold “very high” “or “fairly high” levels of prejudice towards Indigenous Australians. 93 percent of Aboriginal respondents had the same opinion.[3]

Another academic study found that people with Chinese and Middle Eastern names have to submit over 50% more job applications to receive the same number of call backs as Anglo-Australian candidates.[4] Some people have resorted to changing their names in order to get a job.

And if we go back to the naming of Harmony Day, it is worth thinking about what we know of social cohesion. The Mapping Social Cohesion 2011 report, sponsored by the Scanlon Foundation, found a decline in all social cohesion indicators, demonstrating fragility in our community harmony.[5]

The Commission’s own consultations with Arab and Muslim Australians and African Australians have revealed numerous examples of discrimination, ranging from exclusion from services, to racial abuse, physical assault or being pelted with eggs or beer bottles.

As one participant told us:

You start to feel that you have no place in this new land and you wonder what the experiences of your children will be as they grow up, and perhaps also find that the colour of their skin is the only reason that they will not be seen by some as belonging here. This is what I mostly fear.[6]

During the 1980s, the Greater London Council ran an anti-racism campaign with the slogan ‘If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem’. This is the message I would like to emphasise today. Racism is like a disease – it needs an environment that allows it to flourish. And just like a disease, racism is often under the surface. We may not see or experience its symptoms as part of our everyday lives, but that does not mean it is not damaging our society or its people.

The good news is that it is not incurable. There are things that we can do to fight racism: on a personal level, on an organisational level, and on a national level. Today I will talk to you about a few examples of each of these.

At a personal level

Firstly, we can speak out when we see racism happening. Many of you have probably experienced some form of it in your lives, either as a victim or a witness. The inappropriate joke, the comment on Facebook or YouTube, the school yard bullying… which all may seem harmless enough that they do not warrant confrontation.

I understand that it can be difficult to intervene. A review by VicHealth found that there were a number of reasons for this, including fear of losing friendships, fear of becoming a target of violence or abuse, not knowing how to respond, or believing that speaking out will not make any difference.[7]

However, our silence is as good as quiet consensus to those who perpetrate racism and to those who experience it. It does not always take a grand or heroic gesture to make a difference. Sometimes a small act of support is enough. One participant in our consultations with African Australian communities told us the following story:

“I got on the bus, and there was one seat left next to a woman at the back. But as I was walking up I noticed that she put her bag on the empty seat. I thought ‘not again’, but I decided that I would this time do something different, so I looked at the bag and said to the bag “Did you pay?” and then I said “What? You didn’t pay!?” The woman quickly snatched her bag and as I went to sit on the seat, she turned her back to me. So I did the same, and then the people on the bus started clapping and I felt very good to know that not all people in Australia are like that.”[8]

It is disheartening that many of the media conversations around cultural diversity continue to foster people’s anxieties and to create dichotomies between “us” and “them”. We do not often hear the stories like these; the stories of resilience; of ingenuity; of maintaining a sense of humour in the most difficult of circumstances. We celebrate these stories in our diggers and in the survivors of natural disasters, but rarely in our first or our newest inhabitants.    

So until the media culture changes, it falls to each of us to look deeper than the spin and to get informed about the issues.  

Being informed can help us to feel more confident in responding to racist opinions, and in some cases might lead to better public policy. For example, recently there has been considerable media attention on the constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians. The expert panel that was convened to consult with communities recommended, among other things, that a racial non-discrimination provision be added to the constitution. You may not agree with this recommendation, but if there is a referendum we should all fully understand the reasons why the panel came to the decision before we vote.

A third way that we can help to reduce racism is to get involved in Harmony Day activities. The theme for this year is sport, and there are events taking place in arenas, schools, community parks and centers across Australia. It’s a great opportunity to meet and learn from people from cultural backgrounds that are different from our own.

But let’s not limit ourselves to engaging with new people one day a year. Many new migrants, refugees and international students experience social isolation when they arrive in Australia. It is much easier to overcome the effects of racism when you have a strong support network to rely on for friendship and support. As the old adage goes, “a problem shared is a problem halved”.

There are many other things we can all do, but these are three simple ways we can begin to address racism: speak out, get informed about the issues and engage with others. They may seem fairly obvious, but imagine what a different place the world would be if we all did them.

I will now turn to what the Australian Public Service can do to address racial inequality.

At an organisational level

As members of the public service, we have all committed to upholding its values, which include:

  • providing a workplace that is free from discrimination and recognises and utilises the diversity of the Australian community it serves; and
  • delivering services fairly, effectively, impartially and courteously to the Australian public and being sensitive to the diversity of the Australian public.

In 2005, the APS developed an Employment and Capability Strategy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Employees. The current target is 2.7% Indigenous employment by 2015, which is a reflection of the national Indigenous working-age population. Despite this, the level of Indigenous employment has actually fallen in the public service in the last few years, from 2.6% in 2002 to 2.1% in 2011.[9] [10] Some agencies have been more successful than others at meeting the target. I congratulate your Department for being one of those who has well exceeded the quota.

Figures also show that we have a proportionately low level of culturally diverse staff in the public service, with only 5.1% identifying themselves as being from a non-English speaking background.[11] The Australian Bureau of Statistics calculated that the national figure for people who speak a language other than English at home was around 16% in 2006.[12] This means that either the public service does not currently reflect the cultural diversity of the broader community, or that people are electing not to identify themselves as being from a cultural diverse background. Either way we need to ask ourselves why.

Perhaps it is due to the fact that the only moderate growth in culturally diverse staff has been at the lower levels of the public service.[13] The proportion of SES staff from diverse cultural backgrounds has remained the same, suggesting that some glass ceilings may remain.

Or perhaps it is a reflection of the consistent message I am receiving from communities. That is, that we need more cultural competency across the public service.

What do I mean by cultural competency? The National Health and Medical Research Council define cultural competence as:

“a set of congruent behaviours, attitudes, and policies that come together in a system, agency or among professionals and enable that system, agency or those professions to work effectively in cross-cultural situations”.[14]

Cultural competency is more than being aware of cultural differences. A person can know that Aboriginal peoples have a wider definition of family than the Western sense of the word, but that does not necessarily mean they have the will or capacity to translate that knowledge into practical strategies for engagement. Cultural competency is about creating a culture in the public service where diversity is respected; where all of our policies and programs address cultural diversity and where all staff have the opportunity to develop skills in cross-cultural communication.

We cannot assume that just because we don’t receive complaints that our services operate in culturally competent way. Many times people choose to simply not engage with government services, rather than exposing themselves to a conflict situation. We at the Commission have heard many stories of cultural misunderstandings that have gone unreported.

Such as that of the African Australian woman who was threatened with removal of her children, because Community Services found no food in her fridge and assumed that the children were not being fed. The reason why her fridge was empty was that she would get up before dawn each morning to go to the markets and prepare fresh food for the day.

Or the story of the health service that did not question whether it was culturally appropriate to let a Muslim woman’s young son translate for his mother’s doctor’s appointment.

One thing that the public service desperately needs is a better policy on the use of interpreters. The Commonwealth Ombudsman released a report in 2011 on the use of Aboriginal interpreters in six federal government departments, including the former Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts.[15] It found that these services are under-utilised and that departmental policies are inconsistent.

A 2009 report by the Ombudsman also considered the use of interpreters in community languages. It proposed eight best practice principles:

  1. That all Australian Government agencies that provide services to the public should have a clear and comprehensive policy on the use of interpreters that covers all programs and services delivered by the agency.
  2. That Government agencies should provide a direct link on their website homepage to information on interpreter services.
  3. That Government agencies should try to provide interpreters wherever necessary.
  4. That Government agencies policies on interpreters should clearly state who should and should not be used as interpreters, such as friends and family members or multilingual staff.
  5. That all government staff that liaise with clients should receive practical training in working with interpreters.  
  6. That Government agencies should keep records of a client’s interpreter needs, including language and dialect, any gender or other requirements.
  7. That Government agencies should have an accessible complaint handling mechanism that allows clients to complain about access to, or the use of, interpreters. 
  8. And finally, that Government agencies should encourage the development of interpreters in emerging languages.

I would encourage all Government agencies to consider how effectively they meet these principles in their work. Even we at the Australian Human Rights Commission can do better in this respect, and are working towards improving our practices.

Cultural competence can also be improved through access and equity reporting. I realise that this is often seen as just another cumbersome reporting requirement for government agencies. Where once a year we have to scratch our heads to come up with examples of when we have included culturally diverse communities in our services. But we don’t have to think of it this way. The access and equity framework can also be a helpful tool to build more culturally inclusive practices into our front end planning of programs and services.[16]

Think about how much easier reporting would be if we sat down at the beginning of a new planning cycle and said “which of our programs would benefit from consultation with culturally diverse communities?”. Or “what improvements to our services have culturally diverse communities told us they need, and how can we start to deliver them?”.      

The APS must lead by example in creating an Australian culture that respects the rights of culturally and linguistically diverse communities. We have got much better, but we still have a long way to go.

At a national level

At a national level, I believe we are at a crossroad in the direction of public policy. We now have a multicultural policy and a commitment to developing an anti-racism strategy, a social inclusion agenda, a sustainable population strategy, a consolidation of federal anti-discrimination laws and a possible constitutional referendum on race discrimination provisions. Unfortunately I don’t have the time to speak about all of these in detail, so I am going to focus on two areas: the National Anti-Racism Strategy and the Sustainable Population Strategy.

The development and implementation of a National Anti-Racism strategy is a key component of the Australian Government’s multicultural policy, The People of Australia.

The Government’s intention is that the National Anti-Racism Partnership will draw on the existing expertise across three government departments – the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, the Attorney-General’s Department and the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs – together with the Australian Multicultural Council and the Australian Human Rights Commission. The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples and the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia (FECCA) also participate in the Partnership as non-government representatives.

The membership of the Partnership makes clear that while the National Anti-Racism Strategy was born in the multicultural context, we are looking at its development through a broader focus – encapsulating both the experience of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and our culturally, linguistically and religiously diverse communities.

The Partnership has been tasked with designing, developing and implementing the Strategy, with five key areas of effort:

  • research and consultation;
  • education resources;
  • public awareness;
  • youth engagement;
  • and ongoing evaluation.

It is anticipated that the Strategy will be drafted by July 2012 and implemented over three years, 2012-2015.

Over the coming months we will release a discussion paper, accept submissions and run an online survey to try and gauge people’s reaction to what will work with a campaign and also define an overarching concept. Both the survey and the submissions are open to everyone, so if you have any great ideas, we would love to hear them.

I am hopeful that with sustained leadership, community investment and a little imagination we can make a noticeable difference to conversations about race in Australia.

Because the reality is, multiculturalism is no longer a social experiment - it is the norm. We live in a world in which physical distance is less and less of a barrier to connecting with people across the world. We can no longer consider ourselves the isolated island we once were. Figures suggest that Australia is reliant on immigration for our continued growth and prosperity.[17] Tertiary education is Australia’s third largest export income; in 2009 it generated $18.6 billion and sustained around 125 000 jobs.[18]

If we are prepared to accept the benefits of a migrant economy; we must ensure that we meet the basic human rights of all who partake in it. We already have the guidelines for what we need to do. They are clearly set out in a number of conventions and declarations that Australia has ratified. They include:

  • the right to security of person and protection by the State against violence or bodily harm;
  • the right to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work, to protection against unemployment, to equal pay for equal work, to just and favourable remuneration;
  • the right to housing;
  • and the right to public health, medical care, social security and social services.[19]

Unfortunately Australia’s policies and infrastructure are not always equipped to meet these rights for culturally diverse communities. For example:

  • anecdotal evidence suggests that a number of real estate agencies now have policies that automatically reject rental applications from people who have obtained bond loans. The rationale for doing this is that people who require financial assistance to pay a bond are more likely to default on rent repayments. However, the practical effect this policy is that those with the greatest socio-economic barriers, such as Indigenous Australians and refugee families, are virtually being blacklisted from obtaining decent housing.
  • employer sponsored visa holders are vulnerable to work exploitation precisely because of their reliance on their employer’s support to remain in Australia. You may recall the Federal court case last year of a Perth employer who was found to have paid five Chinese construction workers $3 per hour to work 10-11 hour shifts at least six days a week. Four of the men were not paid at all for the first three months of their employment.

These are the kinds of issues that we will continue to grapple with unless there are effective strategies put in place to cope with the growing population.

The Sustainable Population Strategy is an important tool for addressing these challenges. I sincerely hope that activities aimed at improving the delivery of social services and housing, which have been funded under this strategy, will continue beyond the 2011-12 budget.[20]

In whatever future form the strategy does take, I would encourage those responsible for managing it to continue to consider how this work can feed into other developing policies, such as the social inclusion agenda and National Anti-Racism Strategy. Our work will only be strengthened by better cross-government collaboration.   

I would also caution against heeding calls for immigration to be limited to particular regions with better so-called “integration potential”. Community concerns about integration have been raised during the current Inquiry into Multiculturalism in Australia.[21] We have heard it many times before, as each new wave of immigration reaches our shores.

The idea that people from any culture or nationality deserve less of an opportunity to live a safe and dignified life is at odds with the human rights principles that we are bound to uphold. Human rights are based on a fundamental respect for, and belief in the worth of, each human being. Our immigration policies cannot discriminate based on the mere assumption that a person from a particular culture will act in ways at odds with Australian values. This only diminishes the worth of the person, and denies the complexity of individual identity.

Australia is made stronger, not weaker, by our diversity.

As anti-apartheid activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu said “Differences are not intended to separate, to alienate. We are different precisely in order to realize our need of one another.”

For a nation known for its tall poppy syndrome and love of the underdog, I believe Australia as a whole are fiercely proud of our premier position in the world. This can make it difficult to convince people that there may be any room for improvement. But the fact is we are not immune from many of the complex social problems faced by nations of all colours and creeds.

However, if we commit to developing sound policies and programs that address the structural barriers to inclusion; if we work in partnership with communities, NGO’s, business, and academics and building on our diverse strengths, I believe that we can create innovative solutions to some of these problems.

Our benchmark for success should not be that we are better than the worst human rights offenders. As a prosperous and thriving multicultural society we should aim to be the world’s leaders in putting human rights principles into practice.

I started my speech today with the history of International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

When people look back at us 50 years from now, what will they think? Will we been seen as a people complicit in allowing racism and inequality in its various guises to continue? Or will we be the people who learned from the experiences of the past, harnessed the possibilities of the present, and worked to create a different future?

It’s up to you.

[1] The research was based on random phone surveys with 12.500 people conducted between 2001 and 2008. See: Challenging Racism Project at: (viewed 27 November 2011).
[2] E Messmer, Racism, hate, militancy sites proliferating via social networking, Network World, 29 May 2009; Simon Wiesenthal Center for Tolerance, Digital Terrorism and Hate 2010.
[3] Reconciliation Australia, Australian Reconciliation Barometer 2010 (2010), p9
[4] A Booth, A Leigh and E Varganova ‘Does Racial and Ethnic Discrimination Vary Across Minority Groups? Evidence From a Field Experiment’, (September 2011) Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics
[5] A Markus, Mapping Social Cohesion 2011: Summary Report (2011), p1.
[6] Australian Human Rights Commission, In Our Own Words: African Australians: A review of
human rights and social inclusion issues (2010), p8
[7] J Nelson, K Dunn, Y Paradies, A Pedersen, S Sharpe, M Hynes and B Guerin, Review of bystander approaches in support of preventing race-based discrimination (2010). At
[8] Australian Human Rights Commission, African Australians: human rights and social inclusion issues project compendium (2010), p215. At
[9] Australian Public Service Commission, State of the Service Report 2010-11 (2011). At
[10] Australian Public Service Commission, APS Employment and Capability Strategy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees (2005). At
[11] Australian Public Service Commission, State of the Service Report 2010-11 (2011). At
[12] Australian Bureau of Statistics, “Language Spoken at Home by Sex”, Basic Community Profile: Australia (2007).
[13] Australian Public Service Commission, “Chapter 7- Diversity”, State of the Service Report 2010-11 (2011).
[14] National Health and Medical Research Council, Cultural Competency in Health: A guide for policy, partnerships and participation
(2006), p 7. At
[15] Commonwealth Ombudsman, Talking in Language: Indigenous language interpreters and government communication (2011). At 
[16] The current framework can be found at: Department of Immigration and Citizenship, “Appendix A: a revised framework for access and equity reporting”, Accessible Government Services for All: 2006 Annual Report (2007). At:
[17] Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, “Immigration paves our way into the Asian Century”, The Australian, 9 March 2012, p14. 
[18] Council of Australian Governments, International Students Strategy for Australia: 2010-2014, p2. At:
[19] UN General Assembly, International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, Article 5, (1965).
[20] Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Sustainable Australia – Sustainable Communities: A Sustainable Population Strategy for Australia (2011). At:
[21] For example, Commonwealth, Inquiry into Multiculturalism in Australia, Joint Standing Committee on Migration, 15 June 2011. At