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Preventing Racism to Build a Cohesive Society

Race Race Discrimination

Preventing Racism to Build a Cohesive Society

Race Discrimination Commissioner, Dr Helen Szoke

Social Cohesion Conference
UWS Bankstown Campus

10th October

I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land, the Darug,
Gandangarra and Tharawal peoples Nations. I would like to pay my respects to
elders past and present.

Thank you to the conference organizers for
including me in this important conference. It is early in my term as Race
Discrimination Commissioner, and I see conferences such as these as an
opportunity not only to comment on the many important considerations that are
part of these events, but also to meet people like those in attendance and to
hear from you what are the priorities that I should be thinking about during my
term as Race Discrimination Commissioner.

I am pleased to take on this
role, having worked closely in my previous capacity as Victorian Equal
Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner, with the previous Commissioners
– Graeme Innes and Tom Calma.

Today I am also pleased to be sharing
this session with my Victorian colleague Des Cahill, whose contribution to these
debates is important and constructive.

Barak Obama, a great orator in his
own right, recently said:

It may make your blood boil and your mind
may not be changed, but the practice of listening to opposing views is essential
for effective citizenship. It is essential for our democracy.

What I
would like to explore today is what conditions we need to create to allow this
open dialogue to occur, and at its heart what this means in term of citizenship
in a pluralistic society.

From my perspective, I am particularly keen
to explore what this all means in a country where we have, for the first time in
a decade, a commitment to a national multicultural policy. What are all of our
responsibilities as citizens in this context?

Let us first establish some
agreement about terminology. We know that the early understandings of
citizenship arose in ancient Greece, where there was not a separation between
the public life and the private life of citizens. The notion of citizenship in
those times was based on the obligations that citizens had to the community as a
whole. It was necessary to ensure the continuation and betterment of the
community, as Aristotle once famously expressed: “To take no part in the
running of the community's affairs is to be either a beast or a

Modern concepts of citizenship incorporate consideration of
both rights and responsibilities – and this means that we expect, in a
modern community, that active citizenship will include economic participation,
public participation in events such as voting, volunteering and other
initiatives that improve the community for everyone as a whole. It also
incorporates consideration of protections that citizens should expect, and not
the least of these are protections of basic human rights.

If we turn to
the concept of pluralism, we know that pluralism is an important concept of a
modern democracy and that it incorporates the acknowledgement of diversity and I
would say in the Australian context, should incorporate the acceptance of

This is the challenge which underpins multicultural
Australia today.

Many of you will have seen the recent coverage of the
release of the Mapping Social Cohesion 2011 report sponsored by the Scanlon
Foundation. In that age old catch cry, this report contains some good news and
some bad news! Its main message –that all of the indicators demonstrate a
fragility in our social cohesion – is a critical message for all of us.

There is no doubt that we live in complex times – politically,
globally, culturally, economically and socially. But just as the early lessons
of the polis developed and grew through complex challenges, so too should we.
The type of dialogue that we have today is critical in that regard.

do we enable both citizenship and pluralism to be realized and

The Scanlon report gave us some indicators. The good news was
that the survey reported that the vast majority of Australians have a high level
of identification with their country. This is important when we think about
citizenship – and both the responsibilities and the rights that come with

However, there were mixed findings when we think about
citizenship and pluralism. For example the understanding and attitudes towards
immigration were varied, with the majority of respondents agreeing that the
current intake of immigrants was ‘about right’ and seeing strong
reasons for favouring a policy of immigration being economic growth and a need
to replenish the ageing population. However, the attitudes towards asylum
seekers were less clear in terms of recognition of the complexities that this
issue raises.

Of great concern to me was the reported experience of
discrimination, where 14% of respondents in 2011 reported experiencing
discrimination on the basis of their skin colour, ethnic origin or religion.

There are many other aspects of the survey that relate to attitudes to
asylum seekers, international students, and trust and involvement in the
community more generally. Disturbingly, the conclusion of the aggregated
consideration of the data is:

Thus these findings point to erosion of
individual connectedness, weakening of communal organizations and a low level of
trust in government, key indicators of threats to social inclusion.

From my perspective, these considerations will inform my work as
Race Discrimination Commissioner.

We have a unique opportunity to
address some of these challenges.

So, for example, for the first time in
a decade we have a national recognition and commitment to multiculturalism. The People of Australia policy establishes multiculturalism as
Australia’s norm, and implicit in this policy is the recognition that
multiculturalism benefits us all. The investment we make in having excellent
settlement services, recognition of cultural diversity and country origins, and
multi-faith commitments is not just about assuring different cultural groups
they have a place in this country. It is actually an investment in social
cohesion, it is an investment in the development of citizenship and by
implication it is an investment –in an economic as well as a social sense
– in the future success of our pluralistic society.

At a more
systemic level, the Commission has the responsibility to lead a partnership in
the development of a National Strategy to combat racism. The purpose of this
strategy is indeed to contribute to building a multicultural Australia where all
people, including those who are considered citizens, can participate equally and
thus contribute equally to the community as a whole.

It is early days
in the development of the Strategy, and we need to hear about your ideas and
suggestions. There is not a huge amount of money, but we do have a rich body of
experiences, research, pilot programs and successful community based programs to
draw into what might constitute a successful Strategy.

Preventing racism
is a benefit for all of us. The investment that we make in ensuring people who
come to this country can settle well – while retaining the links to their
own faith, their own culture and their own religion – builds a strong base
for their contribution to the community as a whole. The benefit is for all of

So how might an Anti -Racism Strategy be realized?

Should we
ask the federal government to direct its many existing funding programs to focus
on prevention programs as a theme of their work, to integrate this basic human
right protection into all levels of Government?

Should we utilize
social media more expansively to reach young people, in the hope of developing
inclusive attitudes that encourage them to stand up when they see racism in

Should we reach out to the unusual suspects to try and
develop a direct understanding of the cost of racism to the community, thus
appealing to that self-interest to change attitudes and behaviours?

Should we appeal to business to show leadership and to tackle racism in
all employment places across Australia – big or small?

Should we
engage the media to sign up to a commitment that they will show sensitivity and
responsibility in the way that they report issues of race?

There are many
opportunities and we need your views on this. Citizenship needs to be nurtured
and pluralism needs to be put into effect.

I have chosen not to dwell
on the more legal aspects of what constitutes a citizen, other than to say that
we need to be mindful of two things:

  • In Australia, in reserving the right of who may become a citizen, it is
    important to draw lessons from international human rights instruments such as
    the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial
    Discrimination (ICERD), to ensure that this process is not in and of itself
  • That our non-citizens, those people who are in our country but do not have
    the legal status of citizens, still have the human rights protections that are
    afforded to all Australians.

There may be many barriers to the
active participation of citizens in our community. It is not that long ago that
a significant proportion of our community was deliberately excluded from
recognition as citizens – our Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander communities.

When we think about citizenship and a pluralist
society we must remember that currently we have a nation-wide consultation
process concerning Constitutional reform. An Expert Panel has been established
to facilitate public discussion and debate around proposed changes to the
Constitution. This may include the formal recognition of Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islanders in a new preamble to the Constitution, the removal of racially
discriminatory aspects of the Constitution, and building in the capacity for
measures which promote the achievement of equality of all people irrespective of

It is notable that in the Scanlon Foundation research, in ranking
issues of concern, the interests of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
communities barely featured! What are the implications for this in relation to
citizenship? We need to develop and nurture!

At the end of the day, we
are made stronger if all of our citizens can participate equally in the
community. We are made stronger if our non-citizens are still afforded the same
protections as others in relation to human rights.

These are the
considerations that I will take forward in my term as Race Discrimination
Commissioner, and these are the considerations that I would like you to build
into the important work – both voluntary and paid – that you
undertake every day.

If we achieve this, then we go some way to the
aspiration that was outlined in the initial quotation from Barak Obama, and
indeed we go some way to the aspiration of a vibrant and modern society.