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Key note: Federation of Ethnic Communities Council of Australia Conference

Race Race Discrimination

Key note: Federation of Ethnic Communities Council of Australia Conference

Race Discrimination Commissioner, Dr Helen Szoke

Seizing the Moment for a Multicultural Australia

18 November  2011, Adelaide

May I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land, the Kaurna people. I would like to pay my respects to elders past and present.


My father came to Australia a refugee from World War II. Born in what was then a part of Hungary, he fled the onslaught of the Cold War and arrived in 1950 – young, handsome, with some fingers lost to bomb blasts and a stutter that would stay with him as a mark of this time. Having ridden around Australia on a Harley Davidson, my father settled in Adelaide and established a brick making business. He eventually married my mother, herself an immigrant from England, and together they built a life.

Meanwhile, fearful of implicating them, my father did not contact his family again and lost many links with his community – his language, his custom, his sense of who he was. Those links he did retain, of course, we failed to appreciate – begrudging rye bread when others had white bread and vegemite; goulash when others had lamington and sponge.

It is a source of sadness for me then, that despite 60 years of investing himself in Australia, my father never really felt accepted. ‘Tightly stitched’ is how he describes Australia upon his arrival and, for him, tightly stitched it stayed. Having come seeking welcome, he did not truly find it. He worked hard but never found this quite enough. Australia accepted the gift of his toil and made citizens of his children, but failed to find him real room at the table. Did he make enough of an effort?  I don’t know. Did barriers exist that discouraged him?  I know that there were.

With a lukewarm reception in his new home, then, and cut off from his old, my father has spent much of his life with no wider sense of belonging. Obviously, his is just one experience and one that, so long after his arrival, we would hope to be more unusual. Yet, as this audience well knows, the same disconnect rehearses over and over as Australia struggles to see the true value of its diversity.

Acknowledging the problem

Certainly, I saw this in my time as Victoria’s Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner. Equally, I see it now as a member of the Australian Human Rights Commission - an organisation which, for 25 years, has championed rights and addressed discrimination through its wide ranging complaints, outreach and policy work.

It is through this work that the Commission sees the damage caused by loss of culture and connection. It is because of this work that we know that racism is alive and well in some sectors of the Australian community. From discrimination in access to affordable housing; through the begrudging treatment of international students; to cyber-bullying targeted at particular ethnic groups, we know that the fear and misconceptions that dogged my father as he struggled to make a new life plague new arrivals still.

It is astonishing, of course, that race should remain such a hot button issue in a society that has so long considered itself multicultural. It seems, however, that, in signing up for multiculturalism, the fine print noted that conditions apply – an echo of our lurching journey towards nationhood. From the violent dispossession of colonisation and its deliberate policies of assimilation; through to the White Australia Policy; from our relatively compassionate reception of the first refugees from Vietnam to our more conflicted response to recent boat arrivals, ours has been a muted hospitality; strong leadership on this issue too infrequently heard.

As a consequence, we struggle with concepts of race and discrimination, such as the need to balance freedom of expression with everyone’s right to be treated with dignity and equality. More astonishing on a pragmatic level, we show reluctance to recognise overseas qualifications and experience amidst a widely recognised skills shortage. Similarly, as we discovered in the employment  context, job applicants with Arabic or African sounding names are still significantly less likely to be granted a job interview, regardless of their other qualifications on paper.

We only need look to Europe and the UK to see what occurs when we let the opportunity that lies at the heart of multiculturalism slip through our fingers. We only need look to rising tides of discontent to understand the urgent need to explain the value of diversity.

Each one of us knows, then, that we must seize opportunities when they become available and, just as the skills shortage is a chance to explain the benefits of immigration; there are currently other factors offering us a unique occasion to further the story of a diverse Australia.

A once in a generation opportunity

One such factor is Australia’s renewed national commitment to multiculturalism. Conspicuously absent from federal discourse for over a decade, the People of Australia policy establishes multiculturalism as Australia’s norm and, in doing so, rediscovers some room at the table.

Implicit in this is a recognition that multiculturalism benefits all – that an investment in settlement services and cultural diversity is an investment in social cohesion; in the full acknowledgment, development and participation of every individual; and, by implication, in the success of the wider community.
I am excited by the windows that this policy will open and the conversations it will start. At a more systemic level, however, I am also excited that the Commission has been charged with leading the development of a National Strategy to combat racism. It is early days and there is not a huge amount of money, but we do have a rich body of experience, research, and successful programs to harness for what might constitute an effective Strategy.

How, though, might an Anti-Racism Strategy be realised?

Should we ask government to direct existing funding to focus on prevention? Should we raise community awareness of the economic cost of racism, thus making a more pragmatic appeal? Should we utilize social media? Should we call on business to show leadership? Should we invite the media establishment to commit to responsible reporting on issues of race? I’m certainly keen to hear your ideas and suggestions.

Whatever direction we take, however, we cannot let this particular moment pass. We must harness the momentum that has been ignited – fuelling it in such a way that it becomes self-propelling, so that we do not lose the impetus again. This means garnering support from right across the political spectrum; from business and community leaders; from those in high profile positions of all kinds. It means encouraging those in leadership when they show strength; it means calling them on it when they don’t.

Bottom line, we have to make good on the promise of Australia – on that egalitarianism we so like to proclaim.

Yes, we have many varied riches to offer – a wealth that perhaps we have guarded too jealously. Far from being depleted, however, these riches only multiply when we nurture multiculturalism; when recognise every aspect of every member of the community. These riches multiply when we tackle that disconnect about which I spoke earlier and on which I wish to focus further today. 

Investing in cultural connections

For, though my father’s experience taught me that people need to feel a part of their new community, it also taught me to remember that they are part of something old as well. It taught me to value the contribution that they make within this new context, yes; but also to see that, by nurturing custom, history and language, we only make that contribution stronger.

No doubt you’re all aware of the Mapping Social Cohesion 2011 report sponsored by the Scanlon Foundation. Its main message – that all indicators demonstrate fragility in our social cohesion – is a critical message for us to hear.

While the report found that a majority of Australians viewed economic growth and the need to replenish an ageing population as a good reason for immigration, there was minimal support for investing in keeping ethnic or migrant communities in touch with their cultural heritage. It seems that too many Australians believe that, rather than cultivating this heritage, new arrivals should check their cultural luggage at the door.

To me, however, this is a one-sided take on identity. Under this model, to be ‘Australian’ becomes the denial, rather than the acceptance, of the full spectrum of each person. Yet all who have arrived on these shores – whether in the last two decades, or last two hundred, brought different experiences and custom with them; whether it be the Irish continuing to celebrate their faith; or so many perpetuating  the new Victorian penchant for fir trees and turkey at Christmas. They did so while still taking advantage of the freedom and opportunities that this new land offered.

We have to acknowledge, then, that migrants can appreciate – indeed, seek out - Australia’s values and opportunities while cherishing the culture and history that has helped shape who they are. After all, to seek a better life for one’s children does not mean that we shed the experiences and connections of our own.

French philosopher Michel de Montaigne once said that ‘the most universal quality is diversity’. Despite this, somewhere along the way we’ve mistakenly assumed that unity means homogeneity; that harmony means sameness, rather than a range of complementary notes sung in unison.

Well, we need to get better at explaining that the song only swells when every note is played – when we celebrate every part that makes each person whole.

We only have to look at the devastation that was wreaked on this nation’s first peoples to understand what happens when language, history and custom is denied – the grief passed down through generations; the tragic loss of strength and self.
Yet, in a disturbing bookend to this proclivity for assimilation, we’ve assumed that Australian identity is an immutable fixture into which new arrivals must also be absorbed – with these individuals and their families adjusting, but the community remaining the same.

We know, however, that the community is better fed when everyone brings something different to the table. Certainly, in the great Australian tradition of bringing a plate, the fare would be pretty slim pickings if all that was on offer was dried mutton.

We have grown and developed as a nation where we have looked to the best of others to find the best in ourselves. Just as our culinary values have expanded to include a bevy of delicious alternatives, then - most of which feature in our weekly fix of Masterchef - so must our appreciation of the other qualities that multiculturalism brings for all the community to share.

We need to remember that human beings are not mathematical equations. Just because I am a Commissioner from the Australian Human Rights Commission does not mean I don’t have other interests. I am half Hungarian, a quarter English, and entirely Australian. I love each of my children with every inch of my heart, yet somehow there is room in there for all of them. I’m an avid reader, and a fanatic footy fan. I love the beach, but hate meat pies.

I bring all these qualities to every experience and decision I make, yet the presence of one does not diminish the power of another. In other words, I am a collection of many varied parts and, in being so, am just like everybody else.

It’s my hope that we can use the national multiculturalism policy, and the Anti-Racism Strategy, to help this message resonate – and, in doing so, help people like my father find belonging on this soil.

To do so, we must turn old constructions on their head. Far from using the claim of ‘what unites us is greater than what divides us’ to discard difference, we must explain that difference, as well as a desire for a good life - are the very qualities we share.

For, aside from those unlucky enough to endure transportation, the forebears of all Australians saw this place as a chance for this good life. The ancestors of our first peoples travelled to these shores many, many thousands of years ago and forged a unique connection to the land. My father and my mother’s family arrived half a century ago; while others continue to come seeking safety and opportunity.

All do so bearing hope for the future, and the gifts of their past. All bring their own particular offering to the table. They may be vastly different in background and experience, but what they share is this diversity – as well as the chance to make Australia truly great.

As Martin Luther King Jnr said of another nation’s future:

        We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now’.

Well, this is the time to point the till in the right direction. On the horizon is that chance to see this nation reach maturity – to see a return on the investment that Australia’s ethnic communities – those you work so hard to represent - have made over so many years.

For, though we’ve indeed worked hard, our message has not always resonated and we have to find the language to make it do so.

Yes, we have to state plainly and unapologetically that racism exists - that it is situational and embedded; generational and contextual; that, given all its forms, we need multiple ways of addressing it.

Just as importantly, however, we must make clear the value of diversity – of investing in it, rather than merely enduring it; of building it up, rather than pulling it down. After so many years of talking around it as a nation- of starts and stops; of possibilities and disappointments – we have to stop looking for unity in uniformity; for reassurance in the monotony of those relaxed and comfortable lives.

I don’t pretend it will be easy. We’ve already lost a decade of momentum, a national commitment to a multicultural Australia set firmly on the shelf. Well, here is our chance to take it down and dust it off – a challenge we must be sure to meet, for it may not soon come again.  

Now is the time, then, to let that music truly swell – to let each distinct note rise, not in sameness, but in genuine harmony; to reveal the full potential of our unfinished song.