Skip to main content

Race Relations in Contemporary Australia

Race Race Discrimination

Race Relations in Contemporary Australia

Presentation to the AGM of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, Melbourne, Victoria

Race Discrimination Commissioner, Dr Helen Szoke

27 November  2011

Thank you for the opportunity to address this AGM. I am delighted to be here,
and of course to take the opportunity to meet you all in my home town of

I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land,
the people of the Kulin Nation, and to pay my respect to elders past and

Over the past three months, I have had both the luxury and challenge of
moving from my general human rights perspective to focus specifically on race
and the human rights breaches that result from race. This has been an
interesting time. I have left the comfort of a state jurisdiction with a long
history of bi-partisan commitment to multiculturalism, a human rights act, a
modernised equal opportunity act, and comprehensive vilification legislation,
and now contemplate a broader, much more complex canvas with change afoot: the
prospect and optimism of a clearly articulated multicultural policy for the

I am in the process of visiting many parts of the country to engage with
communities in different settings, of different ages and with different life
experiences. I am also taking this time to visit the more remote communities,
where the issues that face Aboriginal Australians are stark and challenging and
the solutions elusive and disputed.

At times, I am surprised by what I see. At others, I am deeply and
disappointingly unsurprised. It gives me great pleasure to share my observations
and reflections with this group because the Jewish community in Australia has
made a significant contribution to our country’s development and progress,
yet still continues to experience discrimination and harassment. This puts your
community in a powerful position to advocate for and shape the continued growth
and development of multiculturalism, and ensure that existing protections
against discrimination and harassment are reinforced and developed.

Today, I will talk to you about a range of facets of race relations in the
Australian context.

  • I will discuss the fact that multiculturalism must acknowledge first and
    foremost the dispossession of our first nations people, Aboriginal
  • I will take the long, historical view of race and how we view it in
    Australia – how the very development of our Constitution as a nation both
    reflected and skimmed over the early multi-racial aspect of this country;
  • I will also reflect on why, when connection to culture, language and belief
    systems is a lifeline for people of different races and cultures, it is still so
    poorly understood in Australia, and why it must be advocated for and protected
    to build our future sense of being a multicultural country;
  • And finally, I will discuss some of the current opportunities to patch the
    holes in the legal and social protection of racial equality and multiculturalism
    in Australia, and urge you to do your part in that work.

So let me
define my terms.....

What is Multiculturalism

The Oxford English Dictionary offers a
broad definition of multiculturalism as the "characteristics of a multicultural
society" and "the policy or process whereby the distinctive identities of the
cultural groups within such a society are maintained or supported".

But arriving at a single definition of multiculturalism as it applies here,
in 21st century Australia, is difficult and almost always coloured by
the personal and cultural experiences of the individual. I see multiculturalism
from a human rights perspective: as a critical policy framework consistent with
human rights principles which promotes understanding, respect and friendship
among racial and ethnic groups in Australia and combats the prejudices that lead
to racial discrimination.

Former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Tom
Calma described it in these terms:

Multiculturalism is also a set of norms or principles in which the human
rights of all are respected, protected and promoted. In particular it resonates
with a notion of equality which enables all Australians to participate fully in
the social, cultural, economic and political life in Australia irrespective of
race, religion, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin.

Finally, multiculturalism, both as policy and ideal, supports the ideals
of a democratic society in which every person is free and equal in dignity and

But as I mentioned in my introduction, embedding multiculturalism in the
fabric of a society relies on the strength of the yarn with which it is knit. In
Australia, that means giving as much regard to the culture, beliefs and rights
of the first inhabitants of this country as we do to someone who arrived
yesterday. I am continually horrified by how many discussions about social
cohesion and multiculturalism overlook the importance of achieving true
reconciliation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This is vital
to achieving a harmonious multicultural society. The current process of
considering constitutional reform to recognise our First Nations peoples is a
big opportunity for Australia to right a century old wrong, and advance racial
equality more broadly.

What do we do about racial equality?

The Jewish community has always played an important role in colonised
Australia, and of course in the very formation of the Constitution of Australia.
Sir Isaac Alfred Isaacs (1855-1948), was part of those early constitutional
debates, and then subsequently led an important role in the early life of
federated Australia, filling the roles of governor-general, judge and
politician. He and the other delegates who came together in this beautiful city
for the Constitutional Convention in 1890’s had their origins in many
other parts of the world. But we should not forget that even at this stage of
the birth of our Constitution, some groups were notably excluded: for example,
Aboriginal Australians and the migrant workers who had come to Australia to
benefit from the gold rush of the nineteenth century.

I mention this because, from our 2011 perspective, it’s easy to forget
how much of our colonised history comprised multicultural elements, and how
these were used and abused, or simply neglected, in our yen for progress.
First, we denied our own First Nations people recognition. Then, having been
colonised by Europeans, we were settled by people from the Asian continent as
the gold mines opened, and people of Muslim faith and of course Jewish faith, in
addition to the various iterations of Christianity, who contributed to building
our railways, taming our deserts and building our towns and cities. Despite the
critical contribution they made to our development, we denied many of these
groups recognition. That’s why so few of their stories have made it into
the historical narrative of our nationhood.

While the early debate on the formation of a Constitution of Australia
brought about an opportunity to enshrine the right to equality firmly in our
value system in Australia, this opportunity was lost.

David Marr, in his Human Rights Oration delivered for the Victorian Equal
Opportunity and Human Rights Commission in 2010 reflected that the drafting of
the Constitution proposed a range of inclusions.

One option was to include:

A guarantee for all time for the citizens of the Commonwealth that they
shall be treated according to what we recognise to be the principles of justice
and equality.

Marr describes the process in this way: The 42 delegates camped in the
Legislative Assembly of the Melbourne parliament growled and sniped for an hour,
broke for lunch and came back – clearly in a foul mood – to shred
that rights initiative in less than 20 minutes. First went the notion that:

... a state shall not make or enforce any law abridging any privilege or
immunity of citizens of the Commonwealth.

Then hacked down was:

... nor shall a state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property
without due process of law.

And finally by 23 votes to 19 the delegates ditched

... or deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of
its laws.[2]

This lost opportunity is now history. To some extent, we have since righted
this omission with the passage of the discrimination and human rights
legislation that has guided our country since the 1970’s. We have also
gone some way to righting it by becoming signatories to treaties and conventions
at the international level.

So why do I mention these injustices of more than a 100 years standing today?
I believe that these snippets of history demonstrate that combating
discrimination and promoting equality requires vigilance, attention and constant
renovation. They further demonstrate that these processes are often
conservatively viewed. And if we need more recent evidence of this fact, we
need only reflect on the disappointment that followed the national human rights
consultation in 2009, in which a very modest human rights approach for us as a
country could not be agreed.

So what does this mean for us? Might we now finally have a real chance to
enshrine multiculturalism, promote equality and enhance existing protections
from racial discrimination at the systemic and community levels?

I believe we do: there are currently opportunities where all these things are
in play and are ready to be influenced.

How do we achieve racial equality?

One opportunity to achieve equality on the basis of race exists within the
current process of consultation around constitutional reform. It is an oft
forgotten fact that that the Australian Constitution does not recognise
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

In response to this glaring oversight, the Prime Minister has established an
Expert Panel to lead a national conversation on constitutional recognition. The
Australian Government, the Opposition, the Australian Greens and the Independent
members of Parliament all support the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres
Strait Islander Australians in the Constitution. My colleague, Social Justice
Commissioner Mick Gooda, is part of the Expert Panel which is putting together a
discussion paper to help identify processes for how this constitutional reform
may be pursued.

Of course the Constitution which underpins our federal laws and institutions
can only be changed by the people. This means that it requires a referendum and
next year we will see the campaign to develop the case for this change to

But constitutional change is a very hard thing to achieve in this country. An
overwhelming majority of referenda put to the Australian people to date have
failed. This time, it’s vital that we help people understand that this is
an issue for all Australians, not just Aboriginal Australians, just as
multiculturalism is an issue for all Australians not just people from culturally
different backgrounds.

I commend the strong submission that has been made by the Executive Council
of Australian Jewry in support of the constitutional recognition of Australian
Aboriginal peoples, and implore you to continue to advocate, wherever possible,
for its adoption.

The second opportunity arises in the area of law reform. You are all aware
that we have in place at the Commonwealth level the Racial Discrimination Act
The Racial Discrimination Act 1975 gives effect to Australia's
obligations under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms
of Racial Discrimination. Its major objectives are to:

  • promote equality before the law for all persons, regardless of their race,
    colour or national or ethnic origin, and
  • make discrimination against people on the basis of their race, colour,
    descent or national or ethnic origin unlawful.

However, as I have
already mentioned, there is no constitutional entrenchment of the principle of
non-discrimination in Australia, nor is there a Bill of Rights. This means that
the current process of consolidating all of the Commonwealth ‘equality and
human rights Acts’, including the Racial Discrimination Act, is an
important process that you need to be aware of and have input

This process seeks to gather community views on consolidating existing
Commonwealth anti-discrimination law into a single Act – a task which is a
key component of Australia’s Human Rights
Framework.[5] It is an opportunity to
ensure that we have the best level of protection against discrimination –
on all grounds – that is possible.

When I consider the Jewish community’s particular experience of racial
hatred and discrimination, here and abroad, I believe it is critical that you
connect with this opportunity to ensure that it does not pass without the best
possible protections in future a comprehensive Commonwealth law.

This is one area of lawmaking where personal experience is powerful and
highly relevant. I am particularly aware of the experience of many Jewish
people, of harassment at best and vilification and violence at worst, in public
places. The infamous experience of Menachem Vorcheimer led, through his own
tireless advocacy, to the development of changes to Victorian sentencing laws
and to a deeper consideration of prejudice motivated crime.

And every visibly different group in our community has a similar tale of harm
to tell. The work that the Australian Human Rights Commission has done with
African communities,[6] is a case in
point, and the African communities claim that their ‘blackness’ is
often a barrier to their equal participation in various aspects of public life.

This has also been the experience of the Commission’s work with Muslim
communities, where attacks and abuse occur daily in public places and where
unconscious bias or institutional barriers prevent equal participation in the
daily life of the
Clearly, the
influence and advocacy of a few – particularly those with a strong and
recognisable voice in our community, such as your membership – has the
potential to benefit many who are already living among us, and those who have
yet to arrive.

I am still in the process of developing the agenda for my role over the next
five years, and have much still to consider, but I wanted to use the time today
to focus on one aspect of the current debate about multiculturalism which I find
quite astonishing.

Many of you will be aware of the Mapping Social Cohesion 2011 report
sponsored by the Scanlon Foundation. Its main message – that all
indicators demonstrate fragility in our social cohesion – is a critical
message for us to hear.

While the report found that a majority of Australians viewed economic growth
and the need to replenish an ageing population as a good reason for immigration,
there was minimal support for investing in ethnic or migrant communities to
ensure that they stay in touch with their cultural heritage. One of the many
questions of the Scanlon research asked was whether it was better for immigrants
to maintain their distinct customs and
traditions.[8] It seems that too
many Australians believe that, rather than cultivating this heritage, new
arrivals should check their cultural luggage at the door.

To me, this is a deeply unsatisfying one-sided take on identity. Under this
model, to be ‘Australian’ requires the denial, rather than the
acceptance, of the full spectrum of each person. Yet all who have arrived on
these shores – whether in the last twenty, the last two hundred, or the
last 20,000 years have brought different experiences, mindsets and customs with
them. They did so while still taking advantage of the freedom and opportunities
that this new land offered.

We only have to look at the devastation that was wreaked on this
nation’s first peoples to understand what happens when language, history
and custom is denied – the grief passed down through generations; the
tragic loss of strength and self.

Yet, in a disturbing bookend to this proclivity for assimilation, we’ve
assumed that Australian identity is an immutable fixture into which new arrivals
must also be absorbed – with these individuals and their families
adjusting, but the community remaining the same.

This is a theme which is well understood by the Jewish community in
Australia, and one that has been explored in your own commissioned research on
Jewish continuity and what is needed to protect your identity into the
future.[9] As this report, prepared
by Professor Andrew Markus, acknowledges:

Jewish Australians have a proud record of achievement, both in their
contribution to Australian society and in their ability to nurture a thriving
and diverse communal

Why then have we not learnt the lessons of the past? Why do many Australians
fail to recognise that the continued investment in the retention of these links
is in fact an investment for us all? Why can we now finally accept that the
1950s wave of migration enhanced us in ways beyond economic development
– in sport, in culture, in culinary pursuits, yet suspiciously deny that
possibility to our more newly arrived communities from Africa, Burma,
Afghanistan or Sri Lanka?

What is currently happening in this space?

What do we need to do to raise awareness of the value of strong cultural
ties, and their nurturing effect on citizenhood, and what barriers are there to
achieving this? Happily, 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 implicitly recognises that multiculturalism benefits
us all. It makes the connection between our investment in excellent settlement
services, our recognition of cultural diversity and country origins, and our
multi-faith commitments, and the benefits of that investment and commitment to
social cohesion, the development of citizenship and the future economic and
social success of our pluralistic society.

Once again, I would commend this organisation for its strong advocacy and
support for a multicultural policy for Australia.
But we are not talking
about change that can be achieved merely at the national policy level. It is
change that can only be achieved when it filters through every level of society:
through government at all levels, through the public institutions and systems,
through smaller cultural, recreational or affinity networks, and on through the
individuals that make up our community.

At a systemic level, the
Australian Human Rights Commission is leading a partnership to develop a
National Strategy to combat racism. The purpose of this strategy is to
contribute to building a multicultural Australia where all people, can
participate equally and thus contribute equally to the community as a whole.

How, though, might an Anti-Racism Strategy be realised in the grass roots of
the community?

Should we ask government to direct existing funding to focus on prevention?
Should we raise community awareness of the economic cost of racism, thus making
a more pragmatic appeal? Should we utilize social media? Should we call on
business to show leadership? Should we invite the media to commit to responsible
reporting on issues of race? I’m certainly keen to hear your ideas and

But whatever direction we take, we cannot let this particular moment pass. We
must harness the opportunity that has been ignited – fuelling it in such a
way that it becomes self-propelling, so that we do not lose the spark again.
This means garnering support from right across the political spectrum; from
business and community leaders; from those in high profile positions of all

It means encouraging those in leadership when they show strength; it means
calling them on it when they don’t.

In thinking about the opportunities and the possibilities of activism for all
of us, I am reminded of the comment made by Otto von Bismarck in nineteenth
century Europe when he noted:

Laws are like sausages. It's better
not to see them being made.

I would dissent from that view. We should be part of this production, so that
we can really reassure ourselves about what we’re getting when it lands on
the plate.

I know that as I speak to you today there is no need for me to call you to
action. The Executive Council of Australian Jewry is there already, knocking at
the door of governments, and leading community debate. Rather, I see this as an
opportunity to build a relationship and to extend the working relationship I
have had with my Victorian colleagues, in order to work for racial equality for
all Australians.

And I look forward to doing that with your support, advice, influence and
vast experience of all the benefits and challenges of retaining a strong
cultural identity while participating fully in the life of this country.

Thank you.

[1] Paper by Tom Calma, Race
Discrimination Commissioner, ‘Addressing Racism in Australia: Accentuating
the Positive and Eliminating the Negative (But don’t forget about Mr
In-Between)’ [paper presented at the Metropolis Conference 2007 by
Margaret Donaldson, Director Race Discrimination Unit, Human Rights and equal
Opportunity Commission], view at (viewed
25 November 2011)
[2] David Marr, Belling the Cat, 10th Human Rights Oration, 10 December 2010.,
audio available at (viewed 25 November 2011)
[3] The Expert Panel appointed by
the Federal Government has established a website providing information about the
constitutional reform process: You Me Unity is the national conversation
about updating our constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander peoples and culture for the benefit of all Australians: see (viewed 25
November 2011)
[4] See Commonwealth
Attorney General’s Department, Consolidation of Commonwealth
anti-discrimination laws
, (viewed 25 November 2011)
[5] See Commonwealth Attorney General’s Department, Australia's Human
Rights Framework
, (viewed 25 November 2011)
[6] See
Australian Human Rights Commission, African Australians Project: Human rights
and social inclusion issues
, (viewed 25 November 2011)
[7] See
Australian Human Rights Commission, Isma - National
consultations on eliminating prejudice against Arab and Muslim Australians
, (viewed 25 November 2011)
[8] Professor Andrew Markus, Mapping Social Cohesion 2011: The Scanlon Foundation
Surveys Summary Report 2011,
Scanlon Foundation, Australian Multicultural
Foundation, Monash University, page, 43. (viewed 25 November 2011)
[9] Andrew Markus et al, Jewish Continuity, Report Series on the Gen08
Survey, Report 2, June 2011, (viewed 25 November 2011)
[10] Ibid. p. 2