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Launch of Position Paper onMulticulturalism, Human Rights and Democracy

Race Race Discrimination

Launch of Position Paper
Multiculturalism, Human Rights
and Democracy

Speech by Tom Calma,
National Race Discrimination

Sydney, 17 August

I want to commence by thanking Aunty Sylvia for
her welcome to country, the country of The Gadigal People, the Traditional
Owners of the land on which we meet today.

month in an address to the National Press Club I told my audience: ‘I
stand before you today - not the favourite person in some people’s books -
But this won’t hold me back for one moment from directly raising a few
difficult home truths.’ That was in relation to my latest report to
Parliament, the 2006 Social Justice Report.

Today, in launching my position paper on multiculturalism,
I will again give voice to some home truths that have apparently lost their
glamour and political appeal. As the paper makes clear, in my view,
multiculturalism provides a dignified, equitable and just ethos for fostering
harmonious relations between the many different ethnic, racial and religious
groups that live in Australia today. As a policy of community harmony it has
worked well over the past two decades, replacing the failed policy of

It now needs to be reaffirmed and
reinvigorated so that it can meet the new challenges that a culturally diverse
society continues to present.

Yet, despite its
effectiveness, there is an increasing ambivalence and at times, antagonism
towards multiculturalism, both as a set of norms or ethical principles and as a
government policy that frames social relations in Australia.

For instance, following the London attacks and
the Cronulla riots in 2005, some politicians and media commentators claimed that
multiculturalism was to blame. The logic they applied went something like

  • Multiculturalism gives people the freedom to enjoy
    and practice their own culture and religion
  • Some cultures and religions are not compatible
    with the core values of Australian society.
  • And because of this incompatibility between
    cultures and beliefs within Australia there is an erosion of social stability
    and national cohesion, and this instability and lack of cohesion manifests in
    events like the Cronulla riot, and those taking place in other countries
    throughout the world.

In order to
rebut this argument I want to put forward an alternative logic. One that I
think is far more conducive to social stability and cohesion.

This logic starts with the statement that
“showing respect for each other’s culture, religion and race is a
core universal value and is fundamental to our democratic principles in

Instability is caused, not
through a diversity of people from different cultures and religions living
together as citizens of Australia, but rather, instability is caused when racial
and religious intolerance is allowed to govern relationships between diverse

Fuelled by fear and insecurity racial
prejudice turns into racial hatred, and resentment turns into violence. In
order to break this cycle of prejudice and fear and to reinstate social
stability, we need our leaders to commit to a policy framework which puts
respect and tolerance at the top of the

Another argument we hear against
multiculturalism is that the word ‘multiculturalism’ is inadequate
and should be dropped from governmental use because of the ambiguity, and the
confusion, it creates.

While some argue that
removing the word multiculturalism would not necessarily have an impact on the
substance of the policy, in my view, words matter a great deal. The word
‘multiculturalism’ is imbued with meaning, ethos, visions and

As the National Multicultural
Advisory Council reported in 1999 ‘the term ‘multiculturalism’
has served the Australian community well and best describes our positive
acceptance of the reality of cultural diversity and a proactive approach to
addressing the challenges and opportunities arising from

The federal government’s
policy entitled New Agenda for Multicultural Australia covered the years 2003 -
2006. In 2005 the department conducted a review of this policy and HREOC, like
other organisations and community groups, made submissions to this review. Yet,
following this review, there has been no policy statement to affirm the
government’s commitment to multiculturalism. As my position paper makes
clear, this policy vacuum needs to be filled and this has prompted me to act

Let me summarize how I understand
multiculturalism. Relying broadly on the work of Christine Inglis, we can trace
three overlapping uses of the term

First, multiculturalism as a
social reality and as a way of life.

Australia is one of the most diverse nations
on earth. Australians speak some 364 languages, of which 170 are Indigenous
languages[1] and between 1996 and
1998, 52% of marriages in Australia were ‘mixed’ in the sense
that they involved people from different countries of origin, and 43% of
Australians have had one or both parents born

Second, multiculturalism as a set of
norms which affirms diversity and equality over a homogenous society or one that
is made homogenous through coercive measures. In this instance,
multiculturalism is a subset of the larger debate about the true ideals of a
democratic society, a debate that might be expanded on by Professor Ivison

Third, multiculturalism as a public
policy that aims to support and derive benefit from the social reality of
cultural diversity by ensuring equity and access to the economic, social and
cultural capital of our contemporary society. Or as Geoffrey Levey puts it,
multiculturalism as ‘a set of practical polices aimed at harmoniously
integrating a culturally diverse society around liberal democratic

Some might say that
HREOC’s main contribution to this lexicon of multiculturalism would be to
show how the norms of multiculturalism share the same ethical imperatives as
universal human rights principles: such as the right to enjoy one’s
culture and religion and not to be discriminated against on the basis of
one’s race or ethnic origin. This is certainly a task I have undertaken
in the position paper.

However, as the position
paper also makes clear, we are equally committed to multiculturalism as a policy
framework. Within this framework there should be a firm commitment to equal
employment opportunities, education, health, housing - in fact all those
rights that enable us to fully integrate and participate in all walks of

In this regard I’m in full
agreement with the way Malcolm Fraser understands Australian multiculturalism.
For Fraser multiculturalism is about, and I quote:

‘...basic human rights, not benevolence, which the
giver bestows or withdraws at will. No society can long retain the commitment
and involvement of groups that are denied these rights. If particular groups
feel that they or their children are condemned, whether through legal or other
arrangements, to occupy the worst jobs, the worst housing and to suffer the
poorest health and education, then the society in which they live will pay a
high price for that division’

In this
society no preference should be given to one culture or ethnic group above
another. This is what multiculturalism is about.

What Fraser hints at also, is that
multiculturalism is not just a social justice policy but also a great recipe for
social cohesion.

In my view, combating
extremism should not mean yielding to the anxieties and fear that fuel racism
and racial violence. Rather it requires a strategy in which the positive effect
of multiculturalism plays a central role in providing a rational, democratic
antidote against all forms of extremist action.

Most people acknowledge the multicultural
reality of Australian society. As the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship,
the Honourable Kevin Andrews said at the recent Annual Congress of FECCA, and I
quote: ‘Australia is a multicultural society full stop.’

My main issue with this statement are the
words ‘full stop’. The full stop should be replaced with a coma.
And after the coma there should be a statement of commitment by the government
to a policy of multiculturalism which affirms the primacy of Australia’s
Indigenous heritage and upholds the policy principles as set out in the position

part of this commitment the government should release the findings of its 2005
policy review for broad community debate with the aim of rejuvenating
multiculturalism to meet the new challenges that a culturally diverse society
continues to present.

thank you

[1] Document link