Skip to main content

Opening Speech, Equal Dialogues forum (2010)

Race Race Discrimination

Opening Speech, Equal Dialogues forum

Speech by Graeme Innes AM
Race and Disability Discrimination


7 December

I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet
- the Gadigal people of the Euroa nation.

I also acknowledge the chair of FECCA, Pino Migliorino, and Juliana Nkrumah.

Welcome to the Commission and thank you all for coming here today, to this
forum on Equal Dialogues. Most of us in this room are passionate about
multiculturalism, and about human rights. This is why we are here. Most of us
in this room are concerned about racism and related forms of discrimination. We
don't need persuading about the urgent need to protect human rights, and to
understand cultural diversity.

However, for many Australians, and that includes key people responsible for
public policy, persuasion is still necessary. For more than a decade, Australia
has lacked a national multicultural policy, an effective, strong policy that
recognizes our diversity as a strength, not as a weakness.

Put simply, Australia is changing. It will continue to change.

But, while Australia is a culturally diverse nation, we know that some people
experience discrimination, vilification or violence, increasingly through
cyber-racism on the internet, because of their ethnic, racial, cultural,
religious or linguistic background. In recent years, this has been an
increasing issue for Arab and Muslim Australians, newly arrived immigrants
especially from Africa, and also for international students, particularly from
India, who have been subjected to violent attacks.

Australia's population is 22 million. According to the 2008 report on
population flows, natural increase (that is, births and deaths) accounted for
only 41% of population growth[1].

Immigration to Australia makes up most of this growth (59%). In fact, it's
predicted that, within four years, as the baby boom generation start to retire,
“net overseas migration will become the only source of net labour force

This is something we cannot ignore.

In 1900 approximately 25 percent of the world's population lived in Europe.
At the same time, 8 percent lived in Africa, and 57.4 percent lived in Asia. A
century later, Europe's share of the world's population had reduced to just over
12 percent, Africa had increased to nearly 13 percent, and Asia to 61 percent.
By 2050, it's estimated, Europe's share will be down to 7 percent, Asia will be
relatively stable at 59.1 percent, and Africa will rapidly expand to 19.8

These changing global demographics will continue to influence Australia's
demographics. Immigration from traditional sources is declining - while people
from the UK remain our largest overseas born group (23.5 percent), the largest
growth patterns are from Africa - for example, people from Liberia increased by
1239 percent since the last census, Sierra Leone is up 437 percent, and Sudan up
by 288 percent.

In speeches such as this one, we like to quote the fact that Australians
speak over 200 languages. That is, 3.2 million Australians speak a second
language to English. Over 500,000 Australians speak Cantonese, Mandarin or
another Chinese language, and languages such as Shona (up 530 percent) and
Swahili (up 120 percent), are increasing significantly.

However, when we also consider that Indigenous Australians alone have over
145 languages, its clear the figure of 200 is a low estimate. In fact, as a
total population, it's more likely that Australians speak closer to 350

This means that:

  • While Australia is already diverse now, it will be increasingly so in the
    future. As members of a culturally diverse society, we already interact with
    people from different backgrounds - this will drastically escalate in the

  • Secondly, that the relevance of these facts are largely ignored in political
    and policy debates on - amongst other critical topics - human development,
    freedom, community harmony, environmental protection, public safety, economic
    sustainability and social inclusion.

  • Thirdly, the potential that human rights has to play in informing these
    debates. In short: many of the issues about culture are issues about human

And so I come to why we are here today.

There is an urgent and worrying gap in the discussion on human rights and
cultural diversity. This is a discussion about the future that is already here,
a discussion that, if we fail to have, we fail in our debt to the next
generation of Australians to enjoy a civil and sustainable society.

Let me reiterate some of the pertinent recommendations the Commission has
made in the past, and continues to make:

  1. That the Government renew its commitment to multiculturalism by implementing
    and funding the recommendations of the AMAC, and continue to support programs
    building resilience and social inclusion among culturally and linguistically
    diverse communities.

  2. Reconciliation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and
    formal, constitutional recognition of their special and unique status. Fixing
    Aboriginal disadvantage will also require the intergenerational commitment of
    the whole nation, and constitutional protection against racial discrimination.
    These must form the foundations of any discussion on human rights and diversity
    in Australia.

  3. Recognition of immigration as a positive, essential and inevitable part of
    Australian life. It is not a problem, despite it being framed as such in some
    public discourse about asylum seekers, international students, and population
    growth. Cultural diversity is, irreversibly, both our demographic norm, and our

  4. Implementing the Government's human rights framework, released this year, is
    a welcome start. It commits to-

    • human rights education for the community and public sector;

    • developing a National Action Plan on Human Rights;

    • establishing a federal parliamentary scrutiny committee to test all new
      federal legislation against Australia's human rights obligations; and

    • developing a consolidated federal anti-discrimination law.

Human rights education is critical, because it's
proactive, protective, and preventative. It is how we can build human rights
literacy that creates understanding and respect, and that strengthens

5. Combating racism

To combat racism, we need leadership, strong
policies underpinned by clear strategies to support communities to live
meaningful, safe lives.

We need policies that address the often intersecting discrimination faced by
vulnerable groups within culturally and linguistically diverse groups- women,
people with disabilities, people with differing sexual orientations, and who are
gender diverse.

We need to challenge the normalisation of racism. We cannot do this without
strong commitment from government, from business, from communities.

6. Extensive consultation

A multicultural policy must be based on
extensive community consultation. It must be framed by a broad definition of
multicultural community, to include people from refugee backgrounds, newly
arrived migrants, international students, temporary and seasonal migrant
workers, and established communities.

We - Governments, organisations, and
all of us as individuals - must strive for an Australia where your job
application is not more likely to be rejected based on the race assumed from
your name; where Muslim communities are embraced as part of us rather than
viewed as different; where international students, asylum seekers and newly
arriving communities are welcomed to our country, in the same way we welcome
people to our homes; and where the place of our first Australians is marked by
equality not disadvantage, and is constitutionally recognised.

In the words of that human rights practitioner Mahatma Gandhi, "I want the
cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible."

[1] Population Flows: Immigration
Aspects 2008-09 Edition