Lying in State: the state
of Australian tolerance in 2001
Keynote speech by Dr William
at the launch in Wagga Wagga of "Courage to Care"
15 November 2001
I'm deeply grateful to the organisers for this invitation to open "Courage
to Care" because it gives me an opportunity to make public my admiration
for the exhibition and its aims and an opportunity to reflect on the state
of tolerance for ethnic and religious diversity in Australia, and indeed
internationally, as we come to the end of the first year of this new millennium.
During the year my
staff at the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission and I have
spent a good deal of time in regional Australia learning about people's
experiences of racism. We undertook national consultations on racism in
preparation for the World Conference Against Racism convened by the United
Nations in South Africa in late August and early September. Sadly those
consultations confirmed that racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia
are endemic in our economy, our social relations and our political culture;
that many Australians - too many - experience racism as an almost mundane,
every day, phenomenon as common as a shopping trip. They confirmed what
Geoffrey Barker has recently written:
Racism is as
Australian as billy tea and gum-nuts. Like a tiger snake in hibernation
it lies curled up sleeping just below the level of national consciousness
until it is kicked into wakefulness. 
was kicked into wakefulness in no uncertain terms in tragic circumstances
when the MV Tampa rescued 433 Middle Eastern boat people in international
waters between Indonesia and Australia in late August. Since then, the
bipartisan support for draconian border protection legislation has booted
xenophobia into the spotlight as the key federal election issue - with
both leaders scrambling to be acknowledged as toughest on "queue
And this debate was
built on lies. The first lie - which first gained currency around the
beginning of the year - was that the boat arrivals are "illegals".
In fact, Australian law does not label them as "illegal" - they
are committing no offence by breaching our borders without the proper
papers.  In fact international law - voluntarily adopted
by Australia - gives them the right to seek Australia's protection - including
by presenting themselves on Australian territory - if they reasonably
fear persecution at home. This has been accepted principle since 1948
when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights first proclaimed that:
the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.
Being an asylum seekers
is a legal status in international law to which Australia subscribes.
The second lie is
that Australia is within its rights to turn asylum seekers away without
a hearing. Australia surrendered that right when it adopted the Refugee
Convention in 1954. Under the Convention, Australia has accepted an obligation
to consider the claims of unauthorized arrivals (article 31) and never
to return a refugee to the borders of a country where he or she risks
persecution (article 33).
The third lie was
that Australia could only be sure of excluding terrorists if all asylum
seekers were denied entry. Australia's security checking on every asylum
seeker has even kept people accepted as refugees in continued detention
in this country for months. Nor does the Refugee Convention require Australia
to harbour such people. Indeed the protection of the Convention is explicitly
refused to people reasonably regarded as representing a threat to the
The other lies, defaming
the character of asylum seekers, are more recent and did at least receive
media exposure. 
long demonstrated their tolerance for lies which feed on xenophobia and
contempt for unfamiliar others. The longevity of the practice of forcible
removal of Indigenous children from their families is largely attributable
to the lies that sustained it: that the children were happy in the homes,
that they were productive as adults in a way they could not have hoped
for had they remained with their families, that their parents did not
feel the loss of children in the same way a white parent would, that removal
was in the best interests of the children. We have seen these lies recycled
since the Bringing them home report was published in 1997 as justification
for a national policy of denial of responsibility for the suffering which
continues to afflict Indigenous families.
Lies and denial are
hallmarks of racist policy-making everywhere and in every age. Yet there
are always some whose resistance shines out and serves as an inspiration
to their neighbours and to future generations. "Courage to Care"
celebrates some of these heroes and it is particularly important in this
dark period that we listen and learn from them.
Two Australian heroes
during the dark days of the 1930s - when eugenic policies were close to
being endorsed nationally and were being implemented with particular vigour
in Western Australia - were Mary Bennett and Bessie Rischbieth, both of
whom argued strongly against the forcible removal policy as practiced
in WA. In evidence to a Royal Commission, Mary Bennett
They are captured
at all ages, as infants in arms, perhaps not until they are grown up,
they are not safe until they are dead. 
saw clearly that, even if Aboriginal children were being neglected, "the
system of dealing with the parents should be improved in order that they
might keep their children"; in other words, the system for Indigenous
family support should mirror that for non-Indigenous families. 
Today I'd like to
acknowledge the courage and insight of a very contemporary group of Australians
- Rural Australians for Refugees - who stand not just for humane policy
and practice - as if that were not enough - but against deception masquerading
as unimpeachable and against an overwhelming national sentiment.
I'd also like to
commend the Community Relations Council of NSW for its quick response
to an anticipated - and sadly realised - backlash against Arabic Australians
following the terror attacks on the US by establishing bilingual hotlines
for victims of racist attacks to report these and find support and comfort.
The terrible stories of women having their hijabs pulled off, of Islamic
school students being stoned in their school bus and of mosques being
defaced and damaged illustrate the vicious mindlessness and ignorance
at the core of much Australian racism.
Can we look to international
example as an alternative to the current Australian agenda? Sadly, many
nations are looking to Australia's harsh treatment of asylum seekers as
an example to be admired, even emulated. Yet few have yet to implement
mandatory detention to the extent we have done over the past decade.
Sadly too the debacle
of the World Conference Against Racism and its associated forums in particular,
offers little to be optimistic about and a strong warning that we cannot
afford to be complacent. I participated in that World Conference as well
as in some of the preparatory work. It was clear from the beginning that
the program would be hijacked by single issue interest blocks. The most
inflammatory of these was the question of the Middle East - specifically
Israeli-Palestinian relations. The intransigence of the Arab Block in
singling out Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories initially caused
the US to downgrade the level of its representation at the conference
(with Secretary of State Colin Powell declining to attend) and then determined
the US and Israeli delegations to leave the conference on the 4th day.
It also meant the conference was unable to conclude as scheduled and a
compromise was only reached during a one day extension of negotiations.
Ultimately, the Conference
rejected language which would have condemned Israel for "racial discrimination"
in the Occupied Territories and expressed concern about "racist practices"
of Zionism but did express concern about the plight of the Palestinian
people under foreign occupation. It also called for Palestinian self-determination
and separate statehood to be progressed and for an end to the Middle-East
violence and the resumption of peace negotiations.
The Australian Government
response was one of disappointment at the final language:
documents include language on the Middle East which neither helps bring
peace to that region nor advances the objectives of [the] Conference
[including] some language with which [Australia] could not be
Apparently a number
of other countries effectively entered reservations to some of the sentiments
and language in the Durban documents. Despite this compromise, the Durban
Declaration and Programme of Action have not even now been finalised and
For us in Australia,
though, at least once the documents are concluded, there are some commitments
which should act as a line in the sand against any further attacks on
multiculturalism and diversity and some program ideas which are worthy
of consideration and, I believe, of support. In particular, I will be
sponsoring the drafting of a national action plan on racism in collaboration
with all sectors of civil society which we will subsequently present to
government for endorsement and implementation. This drafting process will
be initiated at a national conference on racism to be held over 2 days
in Sydney next year - 12 and 13 March. The conference will give us an
- examine and analyse
the findings and issues arising during our national community consultations
and forums earlier this year
- consider what
we might learn from international experiences and the World Conference
- evaluate and assess
best practice models and
- identify areas
where we need to recommit our efforts and develop new responses.
I hope "Courage
to Care" will be presented as a best practice model at the conference.
I congratulate B'nai B'rith and other sponsors on the exhibition and related
education programs and warmly commend "Courage to Care" to you
"Confronting or exploiting racism?", book review published in
Dissent, Spring 2001, pp14-15, 64.
2. The Migration Act 1958 (Cth) refers generically to
all those present in Australia without proper entry authority as "unlawful
non-citizens" (section 14). The former term "illegal entrant"
was removed from the Act in 1992.
3. Article 14.
4. Article 33.2.
5. It is also misleading to label all boat arrivals as
"queue jumpers" when neither Australia nor the UNHCR offers
protection processing in Afghanistan or Iraq. And the Immigration Minister's
claims that boat arrivals destroy their documents on purpose cannot be
verified and must be queried in most cases of people escaping such regimes
6. See Bringing them home, HREOC, 1997, p109.
7. Quoted by Pat Jacobs, Mister Neville: A Biography,
Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Perth, 1990, p234.
8. Quoted by Fiona Paisley, "Feminist challenges
to White Australia, 1900-1930s" in Diane Kirkby (ed) Sex, Power and
Justice: Historical Perspectives on Law in Australia, Oxford University
Press, Melbourne, 1995, p266.
9. Joint media release Ministers Downer (Foreign Affairs),
Williams (Attorney-General) and Ruddock (Immigration and Multicultural
Affairs), dated 10 September 2001.
updated 20 September 2002