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"A Multicultural Cocktail! Is Australia On the Rocks?": Dr William Jonas AM (2002)

Race Race Discrimination

"A Multicultural Cocktail!
Is Australia On the Rocks?"

Speech by Dr William Jonas
AM, Acting Race Discrimination Commissioner & Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, 29 September 2002, Newcastle

I would like to acknowledge
the Awabakal people, the traditional owners and custodians of the land
where we meet today. I would also like to thank the Newcastle and Hunter
Region Ethnic Communities Council for inviting me to speak today.

Today's theme, 'A
Multicultural Cocktail - Is Australia on the Rocks' is a novel one. My
invitation to speak, which featured a picture of a martini glass, filled
with what looked to be a number of drowning Australians, had me faintly
troubled at first. That picture prompted me to think about whether a martini
was really the most appropriate metaphor for multicultural Australia.

Now how, you may
well ask, can we liken a martini to present day multicultural Australia?
It's not hard when you think about it.

To make the perfect
martini you need four things: ice, vermouth, gin and an olive. There are
several secrets to getting the mix right:

  • temperature -
    the ice should be so cold and hard that it won't melt;
  • restraint - only
    the tiniest drop of vermouth is needed to coat the ice before you discard
    it;
  • use the best quality
    gin, preferably British; and
  • only a green
    olive will do for a garnish.

As events over the
last year have shown, multiculturalism in present day Australia does seem
to fit this recipe. The current political climate could be likened to
an icy deep freeze impervious to concerns about human rights. Vermouth
is like compassion - our present politicians use it sparingly and stingily
before discarding it altogether. Gin, the most important element of any
martini, is the legacy of 200 years of colonialism in Australia. Finally,
the olive could represent the select few new migrants and refugees allowed
to become part of Australia's multicultural cocktail.

This is a very cynical
and tongue in cheek view of multiculturalism. Rather than stretch this
metaphor any further, I want to talk to you seriously about whether multiculturalism
is under threat in contemporary Australia. I will begin by explaining
what I understand multiculturalism means. I will then examine what I think
have been the major challenges to multiculturalism over the last twelve
months. Finally, I will end on a more constructive and positive note by
talking about what we can do to defend and uphold the principles of multiculturalism.

So what is multiculturalism?

Multiculturalism
is a word that is often used but seldom defined. What does it mean?

Multiculturalism
describes, recognizes and celebrates cultural diversity. This diversity
is a significant feature of modern Australian society.

Newcastle is no exception.
The 2001 Census showed that almost 10% of people living in the Newcastle
area were born overseas. These people come from a range of countries including
the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland,
the Philippines and Macedonia. In addition, around a third of people living
in Newcastle have at least one parent who was born overseas. Clearly,
Newcastle is 'multicultural'.

Multiculturalism
is a policy that addresses the challenges and opportunities arising from
cultural diversity evident in places like Newcastle. It provides us with
a framework for thinking and acting that allows us to respond in a positive
and constructive way - as individuals, as communities, as a nation - to
Australia's diversity.

Multicultural policy
has undergone a number of significant developments since it was first
adopted in the 1970s. The latest version of this policy emphasises four
main principles. These are:

1. Civic duty:
the idea that everyone should support the basic structures and principles
of Australian society.

2. Productive
diversity
: the idea that Australians should all benefit from the cultural,
social and economic dividends created by cultural diversity.

3. Social equity:
the idea that all Australians are entitled to equality of treatment and
opportunity. All Australians should be able to contribute socially, politically
and economically without being discriminated against because of their
race, culture, religion, language, gender or birthplace.

4. Cultural respect:
the idea that all Australians have the right to express their own culture
and beliefs within the law and accept the right of others to do the same.

Today, I want to
talk about how these principles have fared in Australia over the last
twelve months. I want to focus particularly on how events of the last
year have impacted on what I think is one of the most important principles
of multiculturalism: cultural respect.

Over the last year,
a number of significant events have occurred which have led me to question
Australia's commitment to the principles of multiculturalism. Australia's
response to certain global, federal and local events suggests to me that
multiculturalism is under threat.

The terrorist attacks
of September 11 have had a profound impact on how people in Australia
respond to cultural difference. Muslim and Arab-Australians felt the immediate
repercussions of September 11, becoming the targets of violence and retribution.
The increase in incidents of racial vilification directed against Muslims
and Arabs in schools, workplaces, in the media and on the streets has
been documented by police, state equal opportunity commissions and community
organisations around Australia. Some examples include:

  • fire-bombing and
    bomb threats to mosques in Brisbane and Sydney;
  • numerous physical
    and verbal attacks on Muslim women, particularly those who wear the
    hijab or headscarf;
  • schoolyard taunts
    and graffiti - such as "death to Muslim scum" or "kill
    rag heads";
  • bricks being thrown
    through the windows of Muslim homes in the middle of the night;
  • and vandalism
    of businesses owned by Muslims and Australians of Arabic background.

Incidents like these
have created a climate of fear and uncertainty for members of Australia's
Muslim and Arabic communities. When people live in fear of being attacked
because of their religion or ethnicity, clearly there has been a break-down
in cross-cultural understanding and respect.

The increase in hostility
towards Muslims and Arabs after September 11 has been compounded by particular
national and local events cynically linked by politicians and the media
to provoke public anxiety.

The Tampa 'crisis',
which began in late August 2001, also stirred up fears of the Muslim or
Arab 'other' in Australia. It raised anxieties about the perceived threat
to national security posed by desperate asylum seekers on leaky boats.

The crisis was played
out against the backdrop of an impending federal election. The 433 mostly
Iraqi and Afghani asylum seekers rescued by the Tampa became pawns in
a contest to win votes.

In this contest,
asylum seekers were portrayed as 'terrorists' and 'blackmailers' willing
to throw their children overboard in order to reach Australian soil. As
we now know, the only thing that went overboard on the Tampa was truth
and compassion.

With these events
happening internationally and nationally, the stage was set for ethnic
tensions to erupt on a local level. In Sydney, these tensions were revealed
in the controversy over ethnic gang rapes.

No-one is denying
that the crimes committed by a group of young men of Lebanese background
in Sydney in 2000 were horrific. However, the recent media furore surrounding
the trials and sentencing of the rapists has done nothing but fuel racial
divisions.

It is illogical to
blame an offender's culture or religion for his or her crime. Individuals
commit crimes. Their communities should not - must not - be smeared merely
by association.

In an environment
where globalisation has brought with it fears of economic and social change,
some Australians have sought scapegoats on which they can pin their anxieties.
Refugees and ethnic groups are popular and easy targets. But when we allow
them to become the targets of political rhetoric and public scorn, we
all lose. By socially sanctioning intolerance towards any one particular
group, we make it more acceptable to discriminate against all minorities.
Attacking the very principle of cultural respect affects us all.

So what can we do
to change things? Rather than end on a gloomy note, I want to leave you
with some practical suggestions for positive action.

I think we can begin
by trying to be better informed about important issues like refugees and
asylum seekers. Who are refugees? Why are they seeking asylum?
What happens to them in Australia? Look beyond newspapers and talkback
radio for answers to these questions. There are many good sources of information
out there addressing these questions from different viewpoints. My Commission's
publication Face the Facts which is about to be updated and re-launched
on our website is a good place to start.

We should all be
more skeptical of what we read in the papers and hear on talkback radio.
Muddled opinions based on factual errors only inflame racial tensions.
There have been so many examples over the last year of journalists getting
their facts wrong.

  • Just recently
    you may have heard how The Australian's columnist Janet Albrechtsen
    was caught out conjuring moral panic about ethnic gang rapes. Albrechtsen
    took the findings of an academic study that talked about rape as a male
    initiation rite, twisted them around, and cited the study as proof that
    rape of 'white' women was an initiation rite for Muslim males. The original
    study talked about young males in general - not Muslim males at all.
    Luckily, her misrepresentation captured the attention of the ABC's Media
    Watch
    program and was exposed.
  • Another small
    example which has so far escaped the attention of Media Watch
    concerns this claim: 'only 3% of migrants find Australia racist'.
    This figure was originally presented to the media by both the Minister
    for Immigration, Philip Ruddock, and the Minister for Citizenship and
    Multicultural Affairs, Gary Hardgrave in early September this year.
    The claim was picked up in numerous newspaper articles and cited as
    proof that Australia is a harmonious, tolerant place. Now if journalists
    had bothered to examine the source of this statistic, they would have
    found that the claim was misleading. The survey it came from did not
    ask new migrants the direct question 'do you find Australia racist?'
    Instead, this finding was extrapolated from responses to an unstructured
    open-ended question 'what things do you dislike most about Australia?'

Be alert to misrepresentations
like these. They may be small. But collectively they help shape the prejudice
that can lead to discrimination.

Finally, we should
make the principle of cultural respect the foundation of your relationships
with others. Try to exercise - and encourage others to exercise - compassion
and understanding in relationships with people whose culture you may perceive
as different from your own.

Without compassion,
our society is debased and second rate. Like a Martini without Vermouth
- multiculturalism without compassion does not work.

Our society must
recognise and accept that all of us have the rights to enjoy our own culture,
to profess and practise our own religion, and to use our own language
without fear of discrimination. That is a goal worth striving for.

Thank you.

Last
updated 16 December 2002