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I’m not racist, but... - National Press Club speech (2011)

Race Race Discrimination

I’m not racist, but...: Zero tolerance or zero acknowledgement?

Address to the National Press Club

Race Discrimination Commissioner, Graeme Innes

Australian Human Rights Commission

Tuesday 9 August 2011

Good afternoon. I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land, the Ngunnawal people, and your elders past and present. You are the original inhabitants and custodians of the land. You came before us, with unique worldviews, spiritual practices, and a profound connection to your lands. On the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples, it's my sincere hope that all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are able to take their rightful place in Australian life, with your cultural identities and aspirations intact.

I welcome you all to the Press Club, for lunch on my birthday. Its ok, i don't expect presents- except from journalists who should only ask friendly questions.

The theme of this year's International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples is Celebrating stories and cultures, crafting their own future. As federal Disability Discrimination Commissioner, and a life-long disability advocate, I know the importance of using my own voice to tell my own story. The mantra of the disability sector is nothing about us, without us. There's no substitute for representative voices.

In the race portfolio, I've considered it a major responsibility to communicate the diverse views and experiences of people from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds, and culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. I'm not representative of these communities, and so I've done two things to include first voice in my work. First, I've consulted heavily - which I know can be a burden on community groups - already feeling over-consulted, but not listened to, or not understood.

Second, I've respectfully told people's stories. Because stories deserve to be told. In fact, some stories contain such critical messages that they demand to be told. I've been able to illustrate, and practically communicate, important principles, gaps and risks through these stories.

I know the importance of getting people to see beyond the "issue", and to understand the lived experiences. Perhaps I shouldn't share this secret, particularly at the press club, but I've convinced a number of cabinet ministers on a policy issue with a relevant story. Because in matters of discrimination, nothing is as simple as it seems. Nothing is as simple as a headline, a witty news grab, a sound bite, or a seemingly benign phrase like, "I'm not racist, but...". Because nine times out of ten, it’s the prelude to a racist comment.

My term as federal Race Discrimination Commissioner ends soon. This role has been an extraordinary experience, in a critical area of public policy. I'm sad to leave. But our country clearly needs a full-time Race Discrimination Commissioner. So I welcome Dr Helen Szoke, who will commence her term on 5 September.

Multiculturalism is Australia's norm. It has been for hundreds of years. With generations of migrants, and generations of people born to migrant parents, multiculturalism has been our past. It's our present – 44%[1] of Australians are born overseas, or have an overseas-born parent. And it's also our certain future.

Once we accept that multiculturalism is our norm, we'll begin to appreciate the need for leadership that doesn't problematize particular cultures, or make them wrong. We'll realize that igniting, and exploiting, cultural or religious differences, for the purpose of political expediency, and building monocultures, is the most dangerous legacy that governments, or politicians, can bestow. Because it fractures our identity, and constrains our development.

So here is my main point for today. We need to delve into our collective wisdom, both ancient and modern - delve into our stories - to find a shared solution for racism.

We need a clear, considered and contemporary conversation about race, racism and race relations in Australia, that properly recognises our individual and national connections to our region, and the world. We need firm, bipartisan commitment to racial equality in Australia, and a durable plan to achieve it. It's often convenient to defer to our governments, but governments alone won't get us there. This is a conversation for us all. And it’s serious.

I'll consider the prospect of a multicultural nation, and a shared solution, in three ways:

  • Firstly, by looking at racism and denial in Australia - do we have zero tolerance, or is it zero acknowledgement of racism?
  • Secondly, by considering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and human rights protections
  • And finally, by looking to the future.

So, let's reflect.

When I think back over the last two years or more, the question I've most commonly been asked as Race Discrimination Commissioner is - "Is Australia racist?

How do you answer that question without buying into the very headline, the divisive news grab, the quick political quip?

Figures - statistics - often tell a clearer story than prose. So let's look at the Challenging Racism research[2]. In March 2011, a group of respected Australian researchers, from institutions across the country, released data that measured racist attitudes, and experiences of racism in Australia. It was collected through telephone surveys, over a twelve year period. The research provides a picture of prevalence, and gives us tools to address everyday racism - things like offensive name calling, and race-based harassment - in different local contexts.

The findings are very interesting. Around 85% of respondents believe that racism is a problem in Australia.

Around 20% of respondents – relative to the sample size this is roughly the equivalent to the population of Sydney - had experienced forms of race-hate talk - verbal abuse, name-calling, racial slurs, offensive gestures and so on; around 17.5% had experienced race-based exclusion from their workplaces and/or social activities; and around 17% - again relative to the sample size, this is roughly the population of Queensland - had experiences of racism in education.

On an attitudinal level, it showed that 12% of respondents self-diagnosed, or admitted, their own racism- I guess you could call them the I'm racist, no buts group. That's much lower than the 33% who admit being racist in Europe;

41% of Australians - the equivalent of NSW and WA - have a narrow view of who belongs in Australia; and 41% of Australians have some anxiety about multiculturalism.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander respondents returned much higher rates of experiences of racism. In fact, when it came to things like contact with police and seeking housing, their experiences of racism were FOUR times that of non-Aboriginal Australians.

People born overseas also experience higher rates of racism than those born here. They're TWICE as likely to experience racism in the workplace. And some birthplace groups, such as those born in India and Sri Lanka, reported even higher rates of racism.

So, "Is Australia racist?"

I could share a number of experiences and observations which go to the heart of this question.

  • I could talk of the Somalian man who was refused rental accommodation because "we've had trouble with Africans." and you've had no trouble with anyone else?
  • I could talk of the Iraqi cab driver in Canberra, who is a qualified engineer with twenty years’ experience, but whose qualifications aren't acceptable in this country. A man who is often told to go back to his own country, when his chosen country is Australia.
  • I could talk for a long time about cricket- and some here will tell you that I talk about cricket for far too long- and the last South Africa test in Perth, when black players were continually sworn at by spectators.

But in the time I have, I'll share one experience.

The controversy surrounding international students in this country astonishes me. Here's a snapshot.

In May 2009, over 4000 students from Indian backgrounds staged a protest in Melbourne's Federation Square. They claimed that recent attacks on Indian students were motivated by racism, and that the government was not responding adequately.

This followed an April 2008 protest outside Flinders Street Station staged by 500 taxi drivers from Indian backgrounds. It was in response to the death of a taxi driver of Indian descent, and called for improved safety measures. Then, in May 2008, around 50 taxi drivers protested in response to another serious assault.

What's pertinent to our big question is the way in which Governments chose to respond.

The Australian Government dashed to the media, and quickly dismissed the possibility that racism was the cause, or even a factor, in the attacks on international students. And remember that some of these attacks had been fatal. They referred to Australia's zero tolerance for racism. State governments followed suit. Zero tolerance, or zero recognition?

Let's consider? This was an environment with escalating tensions. Would a reasonable person think that completely dismissing the possibility that some acts of violence could be racially motivated is either good leadership, or sophisticated diplomacy? I doubt it. If Aussie students were assaulted, and some killed, in another country in similar circumstances, would we accept such a dismissal? I doubt it.

In the eyes of the world, the Australian Government appeared indifferent. In fact, the Government of India viewed it as inflammatory. On 28 May 2009, India's Economic Times even printed a story entitled, 'Australia, Land of Racists'[3]. This was followed by a massive media flurry in India, that deemed Australia intolerant.

Whether international students are being targeted due to race hate, or with other motivations - as a host country, we have a Clear Duty of Care.

The Australian Human Rights Commission is currently developing a set of Minimum Standards for International Student Safety, which in part sets out this duty of care.

In November 2010, the Government released its International Student Strategy. But, despite some positive measures, such as community engagement to address the social isolation of some students, the strategy missed the mark.

Here are just three reasonable things it could have done:

  • Firstly, it passed on the opportunity to provide dedicated police, with specialized knowledge around international student safety - an approach used in places such as the United Kingdom.
  • Secondly, there were no specific strategies for female international students that might address areas such as the rape, sexual violence and sexual harassment we've been told about, linked to study-related work placements, and as part of the price of accommodation.
  • And thirdly, there was no commitment to gathering ongoing data about international student safety in Australia? Surely we need this if we're to address the problem properly.
  • Am I depressing you with this gloomy reality? It’s not all gloom.

2010 research[4] by Universities Australia found that around 90% of international students had a positive education experience in Australia. And, despite data gaps and under-reporting, anecdotally racist violence seems to be experienced by relatively small numbers of international students. It also seems that international students more commonly experience discrimination in the area of employment, and in accessing accommodation. Additionally, racism is just one factor among many, that heighten the vulnerability of international students.

So, what does this urgent denial signal to us?

  • it signals that our communities are not always safe, particularly for people who are visibly different, or have a temporary status;
  • it signals that our claim of zero tolerance of racism lacks substance;
  • it signals that we have to rethink the full range of our responsibilities, as a country that hosts international students and other temporary migrants;
  • it signals that we must make greater commitment to, and investment in, multiculturalism;
  • it silences people who have legitimate reasons to feel aggrieved. It ends the conversation; and
  • it signals that we dismiss, discount and deny their stories.

But you can't get anywhere from denial. At least, not anywhere that we want to go.

For now, we find ourselves in the situation where, similar to a number of other issues, these negative public discussions about international students have given rise to the idea of an outsider status.

Desperate people seeking asylum become queue-jumpers.

People who wear cultural dress become a threat.

In places such as the WACA and the MCG - hallowed ground to many Australians- we vilify players for the colour of their skin.

And what does encouraging an outsider status achieve? Well, it's pretty simple - it keeps the ‘outsider’ vulnerable, and disconnected. And it makes our societies fragmented and unequal.

What does that mean? Again, it's very simple ... and tragic. It means nobody wins.

So, is Australia racist?

Let me move to our second area of discussion.

I, probably like you, am a proud Australian, and have been all of my life. I have no patience for racism, and no tolerance for people who are intolerant - just in case you hadn't got that. I'm also an optimist, so I think most Australians share this view.

One of the biggest experiences I had in this role, and sadly one of the times where I felt least proud to be an Australian, was in Geneva in 2010, when Australia appeared before the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination[5].

Two Aboriginal elders also attended that session. They travelled for over 40 hours from their remote communities in the Northern Territory to deliver a pressing message to the Committee about the survival of their Aboriginal brothers and sisters, and sons and daughters, who were living under the Northern Territory Intervention. They told me that they decided to participate in the session because, and I quote, "we hoped it would ease our own and our communities despair". They told me that they felt a need to step back from developments in the Intervention to see, and again I quote, "what is left of us mob".

No community should ever have to ask this question. But particularly not a community whom we dispossessed 200 years ago.

These two elders obviously can't speak on behalf of all people who lived under the Intervention. However, they are both trusted community leaders. So I'd like to share with you some of the language that they used to describe their community's experiences:- Loss and losing; ...Grief; ...Brokenness; ...Numbness; ...Fear; ...The death of feeling; ...The death of dreaming.

I don't know how many of you have been to the communities affected by the intervention. I visited some earlier this year. As you enter them, you're greeted by Tall Blue signs that mark the prescribed communities. They say "Warning - Prescribed Area, No Liquor and No Pornography." These communities are people's homes. Is that how we would like our homes identified?

In sessions with the Committee members, these two elders described the shame and humiliation they felt living between those Tall Blue signs. The signs made communities feel criminalised. They explained that, in many Aboriginal languages, there's no word for pornography. So community leaders had to explain to some people the detail of what pornography is.

The elders told the Committee that their children must be able to sing, learn and develop in their own languages - dance on their homelands.

With their stories, the elders engaged the Committee members in a way that I couldn't. They gave the process a level of legitimacy that I couldn't, because of their direct, lived experience under the Intervention.

The Northern Territory Emergency Response legislation[6] - all five Bills and 480 pages of it - contained far reaching measures, including suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act. I don't dispute that the Australian Government has an obligation to promote and protect the right of Aboriginal people to be free from family violence, and child abuse. However, I don't accept that to take the urgent action required, it was necessary to discriminate on the basis of race. Less restrictive and non-discriminatory action could have been taken to protect the rights of children and families.

The entire legislative process - including a Senate inquiry - took ten days. This was a scandalously abbreviated parliamentary process. And remember, there was no Aboriginal representative in Parliament at the time.

So, was the Intervention racist?
The UN Committee thinks so[7]. The Un Special Rapporteur thinks so[8]. Most importantly, many of the people living under the Intervention think so.

Zero tolerance ... or zero acknowledgement.

What can I say? North is south. Left is right. Right is wrong. I'm not racist, but......

Let's be clear - Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians are entitled to the same human rights protections. Throughout my term, I've been concerned about the use, or misuse, of the special measures provision of the RDA. Because delivering standard services to Aboriginal communities, that are available to ALL other Australian citizens, cannot be properly considered as special measures. It’s wrong thinking, it disregards the rights, and it diminishes the citizenship, of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

When the government suspends human rights legislation - Your human rights legislation, designed to protect You, and all other Australians, from racial discrimination - surely, it's time to sit up and worry. As your Race Discrimination Commissioner, I'd say that it's, in fact, time to participate in full throated protest.

Racism can only be resisted, and eradicated, through solidarity, and cooperation. There are no exceptions. History has no bystanders - only participants.

The next generation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians must be able to say more than "We survived".

The negative impacts of the Intervention will have a long shelf life. Recovery is not achievable until protections against racial discrimination are guaranteed through the Australian Constitution. Otherwise, as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have sorely learned from lived experience, the Racial Discrimination Act can be suspended Tomorrow ...and Tomorrow ...and Tomorrow.

And I come back to my point about the importance of stories. The Australian Government will have to keep its ear to the ground, and listen carefully to the stories, the voices, in each of the communities it consults with, knowing that this is a start, rather than a solution. Do we think, given the sheer number of communities, and the complexity of the conversation, that the six-week time-frame allocated to this next round of community consultations is adequate?

Consultation must be ongoing. As the disability community have said- "nothing about us without us."

After all I've said, are you thinking that the prospect of finding that shared solution for race relations in Australia is looking particularly bleak?

Well, let me turn to the third and final area of discussion - our future. Because as Charles F Kettering said "we should all be concerned about the future, because we will have to spend the rest of our lives there." There are some issues, but there are also positive achievements in recent times.

Three things will have a significant impact on moving us closer to achieving racial equality.

The first is the Rudd Government's endorsement of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples[9], on 3 April 2009. This Declaration contains the minimum standards for the survival, wellbeing, and dignity of Indigenous Peoples. My colleague Commissioner Mick Gooda identified achieving the aims of the Declaration as a key priority for his term as Social Justice Commissioner.

Secondly, in July this year, the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples became operational. This is a great positive, because it gives Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples a say on the issues that are important to them. The Commission is very proud to have assisted with the creation of the Congress, through the work of the previous Social Justice Commissioner, Tom Calma. Once again, there is a credible national platform for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices.

Thirdly, in March 2011, the Gillard Government launched its national multicultural policy, The People of Australia[10]. This is the first effective national multicultural policy for more than a decade.

  • It identifies multiculturalism as a social norm, and a firm part of Australia's future.
  • It establishes the Australian Multicultural Council,
  • It commits the government to examine the responsiveness of Government services to clients from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. This is particularly important for new and emerging communities in Australia, such as African Australian communities. In 2010, the Commission produced the 'In Our Own Words' report[11], about the experiences of African Australians. I attended some of the consultations, and was ashamed that when Australia welcomes new communities we don't follow what my mother always told me, and learn from our past mistakes.

The multicultural policy also commits to the development of a National Anti-Racism Strategy. There's a clear need for such a strategy, which must be sustained, and evidence based. And the Commission, with a full-time Race Discrimination Commissioner, will have a leadership role in its development.

So lastly, cyber-racism.

Our future is online. More and more of us are connected, more and more of the time. Some of you are probably tweeting about me as I speak- and if you are, follow me at graemeinnes. My daughter at high school does her homework with the help of Dr Google, while she's on Facebook and texting.

In most respects, these developments in technology are welcome. In fact, as a blind person, I couldn't do my job without them. They have also connected the world's indigenous peoples, as well as ethnic minority groups, in a way that they've never been connected before - to share stories, coordinate their work, and collectively organise.

However, they can also be used to cause serious harm. The proliferation of race hate websites and materials, breed and incite real world hatred. And our cyber-racism complaints have more than doubled in the last couple of years. Racism online means that racism in our classrooms, workplaces and communities moves onto our screens, and into our pockets and handbags. Cyber-racism, much of which is just flavoured bullying, can cause huge damage to victims, mental and physical.

It's the same old racism in a new space, but with increased potential for anonymity, exponential capacity to go viral, and a complex interjurisdictional environment.

So what do we do about it?

Many organisations, here and overseas, are running effective anti-bullying programmes and campaigns. We're having some success at the Commission with discrimination complaints, and material and sites are being taken down.

We don't yet have all the solutions. What we do know is that - just like that broader conversation on racism - it will require partnerships between Government, social networking sites and Isp's, and the community. And it will require members of connected communities to stand up and say it’s not okay.

In closing, Australia is a great country. There's no single story about Australia. Instead, we're a country of great diversity, and many, many stories. We are, for the most part, a proudly multicultural country.

Australia should be a country of which we can ALL be proud, and in which we can All feel safe, and at home.

We're all responsible for naming, and saying no to, racism. We must call it when we see it. We must call it when the talkback show host, the internet friend, or the person sitting next to us, starts their sentence with the seemingly innocent, but loaded phrase, "I'm not racist, but...".

Race hate, racism, careless words - can harm entire populations. They can change the way that we live together.

Denial also changes the way that we live together. It keeps Australians stuck. The denial of racism doesn't just come from our politicians and our newsrooms. It exists in our neighbourhoods, in our workplaces, in our communities. In fact, the denial of racism often exists in the very words we use in our everyday lives.

Denying racism says “We don't believe you”. Or, that you've imagined or misunderstood your own circumstances. There can be misunderstandings. People have complex identities, complex lives, and complex interactions. But denial can't be our default position.

When 4000 students from Indian backgrounds stand on the streets of Melbourne, claiming that there've been racist attacks, and stating, quite simply, we're afraid - sit up and pay attention Australia. I note that it was Wurundjeri elders who, with kindness and respect, acknowledged and counselled international students during this time.

The denial of racism is just a form of racism itself. I'm not racist soft racism.

There's been a tendency to name race as a problem in this country. And in doing that, we've named some cultures as the problem. But the REAL problem is not reaching full equality. However, full equality IS within our reach.

We need to act together, without delay, to eradicate racism and racial inequality in all its forms - to find a solution. This is a REAL zero tolerance approach to racism.

Thanks for the chance to speak with you today.

[1] 1370.0 Measures of Australia’s Progress (2010)

[2] View Challenging Racism research at:
[3] Australia, Land of Racists (2009) can be viewed at:
[4] View survey findings at:
[5] Copy of the Commissioners speech at the ICERD Committee session can be viewed at:
[6] Northern Territory Emergency Response Act 2007 can be viewed at:
[7] ICERD Committee Concluding Observations can be viewed at:
[8] View Special Rapporteurs statements at:;;
[9] View the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples at:
[10] View the People of Australia policy at:
[11] View In Our Own Words: A review of human rights and social inclusion issues at: