Skip to main content

Launch of Wentworth Area Health Services'- Preventing Racial Harassment & Discrimination Guide: Zita Antonios (1998)

Race Race Discrimination

Launch of Wentworth Area
Health Services'- Preventing Racial Harassment & Discrimination Guide

Speech by Zita
Antonios, Race Discrimination Commissioner, 22nd July 1998, Sydney

Let me begin, as
we at the Commission always do these days, by acknowledging the Darruk
people, the traditional owners of the land upon which we meet this afternoon.
I understand there are representatives of the Darruk Nation present and
I pay my respects to you.

Now, I know in making
this acknowledgement that I may have upset some people present - people
who think that by my doing this I am being racially discriminatory to
non-indigenous people - people who think that through this act of "political
correctness" I am bestowing a privilege on Aboriginal people. But this
is not the case at all. It is simply an act of courtesy, a way of showing
respect to a group of people who in the past in our country have been
showed very little respect and whose rights have been too often ignored.

And moreover, I also
pay my respects to all of you. It is a great pleasure for me to have the
opportunity to address so many people who are providing health services
to the Wentworth area. You are charged with a huge responsibility, as
the work you perform and the services you provide are crucial to the health
of our community.

Of course, the health
of our community is not only about hospitals and medicine. My esteemed
former colleague and former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social
Justice Commissioner, Mick Dodson, described health as,

...not just the
physical well-being of the individual but the social, emotional and cultural
well-being of the whole community ...

and it is this holistic
approach to our community's well being that I would like to focus on today.

Australia is a very
diverse mixture of people. At the core are more than 300,000 Aboriginal
and Torres Strait Islander peoples - the first peoples, with an unbroken
cultural association with the land and waters going back at least 50,000
years. Much more recently, other people have arrived from all over the
globe. In the last fifty years, 5 million immigrants have come to make
a home in Australia. Australia's diversity is drawn from some 150 cultures
around the world in addition to the distinctive indigenous cultures.

The 'social, emotional
and cultural well-being' of the whole Australian community depends on
mutual respect - I repeat, mutual respect - between all groups within
the country. When this happens you have a healthy society and a strong
society.

However, when racism
is allowed to flourish, as it has been recently, the society becomes sick
and dysfunctional. Racism pits one group against another, causing bitterness
and hatred. It festers and pollutes like an untreated sore. It stops children
learning properly at school; it prevents people from getting jobs. It
saps the country's strength and leaves it weak.

But why have these
feelings of confusion, resentment and anger emerged within our society?
It is not hard to identify a combination of economic and social factors
which might be seen as catalysts of discontent. High levels of unemployment,
the privatisation of public services, the debates over republicanism and
native title, the rate of rural suicide and the withdrawal of services
in rural communities are just some of the factors which have cumulatively,
over time, eroded security and reduced our society's threshold of tolerance.

Australians are not
impervious to anxiety, insecurity and fear and it is understandable that
many Australians feel disenfranchised by social and economic forces beyond
their control. But recently, for a significant number of Australians,
this social malaise has manifested itself through finding fault-lines
within our country based on race. And while economic hardship and social
vulnerability is no excuse for racism, the illogical answer to our social
and economic ills is to strike out at those who are different, particularly
those who are visibly different.

Many people think
that living in a democratic society like Australia is enough to ensure
that discrimination does not occur. But my experience and no doubt many
of your own experiences, tells us otherwise. In fact the workshops leading
to the development of the preventing racial harassment and discrimination
package
showed that for many of you here today, discrimination is
indeed a reality.

Cultural insensitivity
is bad in any context, but cultural insensitivity in the health profession
is potentially life threatening. Providing people with access to information
in their own language, or ensuring that interpreters are available and
used is not providing people with special privileges or advantages, it
is addressing disadvantage.

Many people of non-english
speaking background and Aboriginal Australians may be seriously disadvantaged
by their inability to communicate effectively within a system which is
daunting and unfamiliar. Medical emergencies are traumatic for all of
us, imagine how much more so for those who cannot deal effectively with
the system.

We talk easily today
about giving people equal opportunity but it is worth thinking a little
more about what phrases like "equal opportunity" and "equality" actually
mean. In some situations equality requires being treated exactly the same
as any other person. So, for example, if a real estate agent refuses to
offer rental accommodation to a Somalian refugee simply because she is
black, this is unequal and unfair treatment. Equal treatment will occur
when she is offered housing on the same conditions as any other customer.

However, for a Bangladeshi
man with poor english skills to enjoy the same standard of care within
the health system, there is no equality in treating him exactly the same
as any other patient. For a start he may need translation services to
ensure that he understands what is going on in a hospital that speaks
only in highly technical english. In addition, there may be other cultural
or religious issues which must be considered in ensuring that he receives
the high standard of care that we all expect when we are admitted to hospital.
Giving this man exactly the same treatment as that received by an Australian
born man who is familiar with both the english language and the Australian
health care system, is clearly not equitable. So the message is treating
people the same doesn't always mean you're being fair.

In only two decades
we have come from a situation where the infant twin sons of a Turkish
woman died because she was unable to communicate to medical staff what
type of poison her boys had taken. At that time, in Australia's not too
distant past, there was no interpreter service available for her to access.
I don't think the provision of an interpreter would be seen as offering
some sort of special privilege to that woman. And yet, this is precisely
how some people view special policies for Migrants or Aborigines. They
are wrong of course. There is no unfair advantage in recognising and acting
on disadvantage.

And so I would like
to commend the Wentworth Area Health Service in taking this important
step to tackle discrimination at the workplace level. This is important,
because discriminatory attitudes in the workplace spill over into other
areas of daily life. In the health field, above all others, the consequences
of this can be dire.

The good news is
that there still remains a great deal happening in the area of equal opportunity
and non-discrimination in employment and the workplace, and initiatives
like the preventing racial harassment and discrimination package
give me even further cause for optimism. It is great to see that policies
and strategies are being developed not only at all levels of government,
but also extensively across the private sector.

It is no easy task
to unravel the mass of State and Federal Government legislation which
governs anti-discrimination. Despite the existence of legislation, these
mechanisms should be used as a last resort. All businesses, whether they
are government or non-government, should implement workable anti-discrimination
guidelines and policies and appropriate training at the organisational
level, just as you at the macquarie health service are doing now. In the
majority of cases, this will diffuse or deflect the need for recourse
to formal legislative dispute resolution.

A strong message
flows from this preventing racial harassment and discrimination package.
It is that all individuals, every one of us, can make a difference by
speaking out against racism and speaking up if you are a victim of racism.
You should never underestimate the potential you all have on an individual
level to confront and challenge discrimination. I know that often it is
hard to speak out, but none of us can afford to stand by and allow racist
behaviour to go unchallenged.

Many organisations
increasingly understand this reality. The Wentworth Area Health Service's
approach to developing the preventing racial harassment and discrimination
guide
paid close attention to first hand experiences and feelings
of those staff involved in focus groups who had themselves suffered racial
discrimination. The views of these individuals have been valued and are
reflected throughout this project.

In closing I once
again commend the efforts of the Wentworth Area Health Service to combat
workplace racism. In striving to create good health, we must think not
only of good physical health on a personal level, but also more broadly
of the well-being of our community and of the spiritual health of the
Nation. With this sort of health, diseases like racism cannot survive.

Last
updated 1 December 2001