Skip to main content

Human Rights and Multiculturalism: Zita Antonios (1998)

Race Race Discrimination

Human Rights and Multiculturalism

Speech by Zita
Antonios, Race Discrimination Commissioner, 2 March 1998, Adelaide

Thank you for inviting
me to speak at your first meeting in this year celebrating the 50th anniversary
of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I would like firstly to
acknowledge the Kaurna people on whose land we stand and thank them for
welcoming us on to it.

The Universal Declaration
of Human Rights states that the foundation of freedom, justice and peace
in the world is the recognition of human dignity and the inalienable rights
of all people. The Declaration aspires to a world in which all people
enjoy a set of common standards simply because they are human.

The original impetus
for the United Nations’ concerted action on human rights was the
horror of the Second World War. In its aftermath shocked nations came
together to establish some effective means of recognising and enforcing
human rights.

At the same time
Australia began the largest and most successful immigration program in
the world. The management of this program in a relatively short period
was a major accomplishment. Given the enormous diversity of cultures,
religions, languages, political and social histories the fact that Australia
has been able to maintain a socially cohesive and tolerant society is
one of the nation’s greatest achievements. It is internationally
recognised and often referred to globally as the successful model for
managing cultural diversity.

How has Australia
managed to succeed in this way. I believe there were two very significant
reasons. The first was the essentially fair-minded nature of post war
Australia. Many Australians highly valued giving people a fair go and
treating people equally.

The second reason
for our success was the recognition that a socially cohesive society is
inclusive only when it recognises and respects the differences within
it. Assimilation failed to give people a fair go. It did not allow people
to contribute their linguistic and cultural backgrounds to an Australian

The policy of multiculturalism
offered a new way forward. Multiculturalism has an inclusive vision of
diversity and equality. It underpins much of Australia’s actions
towards ensuring that all Australians enjoy their basic human rights.
Multiculturalism is a policy for all Australians. It has had strong bi-partisan
support since 1973 and is 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 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.

is also framed by a series of rights and responsibilities. These include
that all Australians should have an overriding and unifying commitment
to Australia; acceptance of the constitution, the rule of law, tolerance
and equality, English as the national language and equality of the sexes.
In return all Australians have the right to participate in decision-making
which effects them; the right to an equitable share of government resources;
the right of all Australian to be free from discrimination based on race,
ethnicity, colour, language, gender, place or birth and so on.

Particular assistance
is often needed to ensure that all Australians realise their human rights.
We are not talking about people receiving privileges that would provide
people with luxury items like funds to send their children to privates
schools or see private doctors.

Is it a privilege
to expect to be able communicate with your doctor, to be able to tell
the doctor that your twin baby sons have swallowed poison? This really
happened in Sydney back in the 1970's before the introduction of interpreter
services. Is it a privilege to have your many years of legal, medical
or any other qualifications recognised? Is it a privilege to walk to the
bus stop without being heckled or abused because of your race? If special
measures are not taken inevitably inequities arise which cause poverty,
hardship, and social unrest.

Let me try explaining
this in another way. If a mother continues to treat all her children in
the same way when one of them is sick the child’s condition could
deteriorate damaging both their long term well being and the cohesion
of the family. Devoting attention to the sick child does not take rights
away from the other children.

So why is multiculturalism
being contested? Why is it being dismissed as politically correct and

When multiculturalism
is criticised for attempting social engineering I believe the charge is
made only by those who seek to privilege one set of criteria for Australian
life over others - that is an Anglo-centric one.

Other Australians
who themselves feel disenfranchised through unemployment, retrenchment,
aging or other reasons. They see multiculturalism as privileging migrants
over themselves.

Still others see
multiculturalism as divisive because it highlights respect for differences.
They fail to see this in the context of overall unity as spelt out very
clearly in the policy. It is not difference itself which divides us. It
is our attitude to difference. Those who fear others’ differences
fail to see the many positives diversity has given us and can continue
to give. Genuine equality then requires policies that are grounded in
historically sensitive understanding of cultural differences.

The business community
are increasingly realising that our diverse society is our richest asset.
The National Australia Bank has been using the diversity of its staff
to build better relations with ethnic communities, in particular the small
business sector. Qantas meets the demand of its culturally diverse clientele
by employing a culturally diverse staff, skilled in cross-cultural communication.

South Australia has
been at the forefront in this area of productive diversity and is to be

Another example of
South Australia leading the way is of course in the arts. (And again I
congratulate you on your wonderful arts festival). We know that the arts
have been at the cutting edge of change in society throughout history.
They have provided new ideas, new ways of thinking, new symbols and images
and new visions for the world. We know that Australian art has been the
poorer for non-English speaking background artists not being significantly
represented in it. They are nearly absent too in popular forms of entertainment
like the block busters. The rarity of their images on the screen or the
stage and their voices on radio except on ethnic-specific radio have rendered
them invisible and unable to be heard by an Anglo dominated and controlled
cultural industry. South Australia has contributed resources to ensure
Australia harnesses all its artistic talents.

In concluding then,
I believe that multiculturalism is justified in the strongest possible
moral and political terms. However it can also be viewed as a key pragmatic
strategy in promoting social cohesion, economic efficiency and respect
for difference.

Recognising difference
and responding to special needs through special measures will continue
to ensure social cohesion and positive development for Australia.

Let us recommit ourselves
to the principles upon which the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights
are built and together work towards eliminating racism in Australia and
promoting harmony and social cohesion. It is time too, to reaffirm our
commitment to the principles of multiculturalism by actions we take and
values we espouse. With our enviable democratic system and diversity we
can keep on building a great nation. We simply need the will, the honesty
and the courage to make it happen.

updated 1 December 2001