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Keynote speech by Race Discrimination Commissioner Dr Helen Szoke at International Year for People of African Descent Conference

Race Race Discrimination

Keynote speech by Race Discrimination Commissioner Dr Helen Szoke at
International Year for People of African Descent Conference

30 September 2011

Sebel Hotel, Parramatta

I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land, the Dharug
nation, and pay respect to their elders past and present. I acknowledge that
many people from African nations carry the residual weight of colonial histories
– highly familiar territory to many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
Australians who have repeatedly and urgently called for concrete measures to
protect their languages, cultural practices and identities.

I would like to thank African Australian Women Inc. for inviting me to
participate in this important conference. The International Year of People from
African Descent isn’t just a platitude or a positive gesture from the
United Nations General Assembly, it’s a call to action. It coincides with
the ten-year anniversary of the Durban Declaration and Program of Action,
which focuses on addressing everyday racism and systems- based discrimination.
These are important issues for all people in Australia: racism is
everyone’s business.

I am delighted to be here today in my capacity as Australia’s Race
Discrimination Commissioner, a role I commenced only four weeks ago, following
Mr Graeme Innes AM, who held this role jointly with his responsibilities as
Disability Discrimination Commissioner.  Previously I served as the
Commissioner with the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission
from 2004 until August 2011. I have built many positive working relations with
African community members in Victoria, including the African Think Tank and also
through the work that the State Commission undertook with the Sudanese community
in the City of Greater Dandenong, following the murder of Liep Gony, a young
Sudanese man, in 2007. I look forward to continuing that work with you all in
the future.

Today I’m going to speak briefly on four points.

First, I’m going to briefly discuss the Australian Human Rights
Commission’s ongoing work with African Australian communities. And then
I’m going to touch on the importance of your involvement in three national

  1. the development of a robust National Anti-Racism Partnership and Strategy;
  2. the Constitutional reform process – formally acknowledging the special
    place of our First Nations Peoples and removing from the Australian Constitution
    discriminatory clauses based on race; and
  3. the development of priorities for my term as Race Discrimination

When compared with other countries like Brazil and the
United States, Australia has a relatively small population of people from
African descent. But these communities are growing steadily in Australia. While
2006 census data reveals that people from the UK still constitute the largest
portion of Australians born overseas (about 23.5 percent), the largest growth
patterns are from Africa. For example, since the 2006 census the number of
people from Liberia has increased by over 1200 percent, Sierra Leone is up over
400 percent, and Sudan is up nearly 300

In 2007, the Commission initiated the African Australians: human rights
and social inclusion
project. The main objectives of the project were to
identify what can help – and what can hinder – the settlement and
integration experiences of African Australians; and to suggest practical
solutions to inform the development of policies, programs and services for
African Australians, as well as broader community education initiatives.

As some of you will remember, from 2008 to 2010 the Commission held
consultations with African Australian communities across Australia, which went
on to inform the In Our Own Words: African Australians: A review of
human rights and social justice issue
Report. Some of you may have led or
participated in these discussions. During this process you told us that
discrimination, prejudice and negative attitudes impact on your education
experiences, on your chances to find meaningful work and your experiences in the
workplace, and on your access to core government services. You also said that
you wanted to improve your working knowledge of human rights in Australia.

You also told us that to address these barriers we need to work together to:

  • develop effective and targeted strategies to address discrimination,
    prejudice and racism experienced by African Australians
  • include African Australian communities as genuine partners in the
    development and delivery of services, programs and education initiatives for
    their communities
  • provide information and education programs on the backgrounds, culture and
    diversity of African Australian communities, and the pre-arrival experiences of
    refugees, to assist service providers and other stakeholders
  • engage and support African Australian communities to develop initiatives to
    address particular areas of concern they have identified, including child
    protection and family violence.

We listened. And we shared this
information with governments across Australia. The Commission has continued to
engage government departments and agencies, community organisations and leaders
of African Australian communities to foster dialogue among them. To this end, we
have recently hosted two roundtables, one in Western Sydney and one in Perth, to
progress the recommendations in the Report and to develop concrete strategies to
improve the human rights outcomes of African Australians. Our consultation
tells us that racism against people of African descent still exists and we must
be vigilant in exposing this and changing practices and procedures.

Whilst we look at systemic projects such as the work with the African
Community, we must remember that individual redress is available where it is
possible to lodge a complaint.

Complaints give important signals to decision makers and policy makers. For
example, over the last two years, our complaints about cyber racism have more
than doubled. The increase in online race hate content incites real world
hatred in our workplaces, schoolyards, on public transport, on our sports fields
and in public life. Social media technology is an emerging setting for racism
and racial vilification. It is also a highly participatory environment that
encourages strong networks of people who feel the same way about an issue; as a
result it can help mobilise people around racism regardless of location.
Individual complaints can have an impact in having sites removed and messages
taken off them where they are found to be racist.

As I said at the outset, I would like to share with you three broader
national conversations.

Firstly, I’d like to make two brief comments on The People of
policy – the Federal Government’s national
multicultural policy – and then discuss one of its chief initiatives, the
National Anti-Racism Partnership and Strategy.

The People of Australia policy is an important document because it
establishes multiculturalism as Australia’s norm. Inherent
in this is a notion of reciprocity and mutuality. Rather than the soft racism
that expects that migrants – newly arrived and established – should
adjust to life in ‘Australia’, there is explicit recognition that
multiculturalism necessarily transforms us all. As a result governments should
never be strained to articulate a clear message on multiculturalism or on
rejecting all forms of racism, and we should remain vigilant in reminding them
of this. On this point, I would like to take the opportunity to welcome the
establishment of the Australian Multicultural Council, an independent body that
will provide advice on multiculturalism, have a research and advisory role and
implement a multicultural ambassadors program.

The Commission has been asked to lead the development and delivery of the
National Anti-Racism Strategy, in partnership with the Australian Multicultural
Council, the Federation of Ethnic Communities Council of Australia, the
Department of Immigration and Citizenship, the Department of Families, Housing,
Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and the Attorney General’s
Department. An invitation has also been extended to the National Congress of
Australia’s First Peoples. Partner agencies had their first meeting in
early September 2011.

The Commission is at the very beginning of a process in developing the
National Anti-Racism Partnership and Strategy. This is an area where we will
want your views. There is not a huge amount of money, but this provides an
opportunity to look more broadly at resources that we might use. For example,
what are creative ways to reach out to pockets of racism, how do we use the
extensive research which is now developing around racism, how do we build an
understanding of the damage that racism does, not only to individuals but also
to the broader community? These are the sorts of things where we want to hear
from communities, and where we will use existing research and consultations to
inform our work.

I expect that A DRAFT strategy will be available in around July 2012. I
strongly believe that the success of the Strategy – its substance,
legitimacy and positive impact – will rest with the rich input of
communities across Australia. I look forward to dynamic conversations with
community leaders over coming months to inform the planning and development of a
comprehensive strategy.

The second national conversation of consequence relates to Constitutional
reform. The Australian Government in December 2010 established a process to
progress the constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
peoples. An Expert Panel has been established to facilitate public discussion
and debate around proposed changes to the Constitution. The Commission’s
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Mick Gooda is
represented on the panel. The Government has drafted a discussion paper, which
sets out the possible options. The Expert Panel has instructions to consult
broadly and report back to Government on levels of support for each option in
December 2011.

It does not serve us well as a community to have a Constitution which still
allows racial discrimination, not just against Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islanders but against anyone. Just as we know the benefits of multiculturalism
are for all the community, so too is the need for legal recognition and law
reform to ensure equality for our Aboriginal community. Changing the
Constitution is a complex process, but it is achievable. Our Constitution is
the highest expression of the vision that we have for ourselves as a nation, but
our foundational document currently contains out-dated thinking that permits and
anticipates racism. The reform process is therefore an important platform for
reconciliation and for social inclusion more generally. While this process has
rightly focused on the formal recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander peoples, racism is everyone’s business.

I’d like to conclude by saying that in coming months I will be in
dialogue with communities to inform the development of clear priorities for my
term as the Race Discrimination Commissioner. I expect to announce these
priorities in March 2012. The National Anti-Racism Partnership and Strategy
will feature as a key part of my program of work. What other areas of work
should I prioritise? I want to hear from you. Forums like this provide me with
that very important opportunity.

I’m looking forward to participating in discussions this morning and to
hearing from you directly.

I want to finish with the words of an African man who is universally known.
Desmond Tutu has said:

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of
the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say
that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.

That is the challenge that we all have as we work to eradicate racism.

I wish you and the African Women’s Inc success with this conference and
encourage you all to think about how you may have some influence across each of
the three national conversations that I’ve flagged with you this

Thank you.

[1] Speech by Race Discrimination
Commissioner at the Equal Dialogues Forum, 7 December 2010. This Forum was
co-hosted by the Commission and FECCA