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Racial equality and social cohesion in Australia- building a future together (2012)

Race Race Discrimination

Racial equality and social cohesion in Australia- building a future together

Race Discrimination Commissioner, Dr Helen Szoke

Ethnic Communities Council of Queensland (ECCQ) Multicultural Summit 2012

29 October 2012, Brisbane

Good morning. I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land, the Turribal and Jagera peoples and to pay my respect to elders past and present.

I would also like to thank the Ethnic Communities Council of Queensland (ECCQ) for inviting me to speak today and contribute to the conference theme; working together for a future together.

I would also like to commend the people in this room and the organisations that they represent in promoting the rights of and giving voice to the culturally and linguistically diverse communities in Queensland. You work at the front line of multicultural Queensland and work tirelessly for racial equality and social cohesion in this state, and should be congratulated.

Our keynote speaker, Mr Sohail Inayatullah, has eloquently shared with us his vision for the future of Queensland given the expected continued rate of migration.

Today I will look at one of the great challenges our society is facing as we move into the future; how we create racial equality and community cohesion.

As the Race Discrimination Commissioner, I will talk to you about the challenge of not only eliminating racism in society, but taking it a step further; I will talk to you about creating equality- a key ingredient of social cohesion.

Looking to the future- I want to explore a number of aspects of social cohesion and equity and take you through some of the tools that we have to work with.

Let me reflect first on whether this is a new challenge. I greatly enjoyed reading George Megalogenis’ latest book ‘The Australian Moment. How we were made for these times.’[1] Let me quote some extracts.

‘Australians prefer not to hear that we hurt each new immigrant group because we see ourselves as terrific hosts. We are, but not in the way we imagine. Whenever voters are asked if they want more people to come here, a majority will either say we should stick to the present intake, or reduce it. There has never been a poll with clear majority support for a higher intake. Yet each new immigrant group has the same story to tell: after a rough initiation, they are quickly accepted as members of the national family.’

Whether you agree completely with this conclusion, we still have to be vigilant about what the journey is for many new arrivals, but also what the impact is on the community they come to.

How do we achieve racial equality and social cohesion?

Before we can even begin to imagine a world characterised by social cohesion and racial equality we need to address the elephant in the room- racism- and ask ourselves “how does racism impact social cohesion?”

As part of the consultations for the National Anti-Racism Strategy, we ran an online survey which asked the question, ‘how does racism affect the Australian community’. One response that resonates with me is:

“[Racism] creates a divide. Australia is one country but it doesn’t feel like it.”

In Queensland and at the Federal level, we have a number of legislative tools aimed at eliminating that divide. Indeed it is absolutely essential that we have a strong legal framework to prevent discrimination and remove other barriers to equality.

However, if legislation alone could create social cohesion and stamp out racism, I would be out of the job.

So I put it to you that equality and social cohesion cannot be legislated alone. Instead, we need a broad commitment by policy makers, businesses, educators and community organisations to work in partnership to change entrenched racist attitudes and hidden discrimination.

I call this entrenched and often subtle racism as the unconscious bias that exists in society to the detriment of certain racial and ethnic groups. It is what creates systematic barriers to the full enjoyment of activities in society. In the workplace it could be best described as a cultural glass ceiling. We see it in the lack of cultural diversity in our leadership groups and on our representative bodies, in a similar way that we are still challenging the gender glass ceiling.

While I am no futurist myself, I do appreciate the need to anticipate likely opportunities and obstacles we will face in the future and to chart the best course through them.

In launching my program - Agenda for Racial Equality[2], the blueprint for my term as Race Discrimination Commissioner – I have identified things that promote equality as well as initiatives that address racism. This means that we have to look at enhancing economic and social outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as well as people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, we have to continue to improve legal protections, we have to address race hate through its various mediums and we have to show leadership.

Racism and inequality

Queensland is blessed with great environmental and cultural diversity; from its tropical beaches, Great Barrier Reef, Daintree Rainforest, it boasts no less than 50 languages of Aboriginal and Torres Strait peoples, who were the first and original inhabitants of this State for tens of thousands of years. More recently, it has also become the home to British, Irish, European, as well as Pacific Islanders, Asian and African migrants and refugees. This is something to be celebrated.

Queensland, like the rest of Australia, shares a history of dispossession, discrimination and damage that appears in different ways. We see that racism rears its ugly head in this place as it does in others!

It is one of the strange paradoxes of Australia that we pride ourselves on our egalitarianism, but often dismiss or ignore those who are experiencing inequality.

I do not believe all Australians are racist.

But the fact is that many of us might not always be able to identify racism and inequality even when it occurs right before our eyes. That old saying- “you need to walk a mile in another man’s shoes”- holds true for racism.

This is because racism has multiple causes and forms. It is not always in-your-face verbal or physical abuse; crass jokes or being denied access to a shop because of the colour of your skin. It is also both covert and systemic.

To build social cohesion, we need to admit that racism exists in Australia- and in Queensland. We then need to begin to understand how both covert and systemic racism manifests and impacts marginalised groups. This is a particularly difficult task, as racism in Australia can be described as racist denialism.

The denial of racism

We deny that racism exists- often genuinely due to a lack of understanding of what racism is, and also due to deliberate falsehoods, misinformation and evasion.

Suggestions of racism in the media are often dismissed by some radio shock jocks as an overreaction, a conspiracy theory, where victims of racism are told to “harden up” and to “take a joke”. Too often stories start with “I’m not racist but...”

This is why Australia is beginning to have the conversation- “are we really racist?” The Festival of Dangerous Ideas at the Opera House recently held a panel session on “All Australians are racist” – please note the absence of a question mark. The panellists gently suggested that we are so racist, we don’t even know it. And then there was the TV series “Dumb, Drunk and Racist” which also seeks to assist us in overcoming our denialism.

Ultimately, racism:

is a denial of human relationship. Yet for many people it remains almost invisible, unnoticed except when violence is involved. Those who do not experience it often fail to understand how profoundly offensive it is.[3]

We need to move the conversation from a place of denial and apathy to recognition and engagement.

Racism Exists in Australia

Our own complaints system at the Commission confirms that racism exists in Australia. The Queensland’s Anti-Discrimination Commission will have a similar experience.

It is also identified in research. National data from the Challenging Racism Project[4] was released in 2011 and gave us information about the prevalence of racism and attitudes about racism.

In this research it was revealed that people born overseas experienced higher rates of racism than those born in Australia, and were twice as likely to experience racism in the workplace. [5]

The Australian Human Rights Commission’s recent work with Arab[6] and Muslim Australians and African Australians[7] suggests that these communities are at a higher risk of experiencing discrimination and prejudice. This supports previous research undertaken by the Commission that found “visible" ethnic and religious minorities such as Arabs, Muslims, Africans, Jews, Palestinians and Turkish people, are groups more likely to be regularly subjected to racism. Members of these communities identified that their "difference" in terms of skin colour, dress or cultural/religious practices singles them out as targets of racism.[8]

There are also particular groups within culturally and linguistically diverse communities which appear to particularly experience racism. For example, shock jock radio presenter’s frequently veer into racial stereotyping and demeaning of asylum seekers and refugees.

Similarly, the Commission’s work with international students[9] makes clear that these temporary residents are often taken advantage of – or discriminated against – by employers and real estate agents because of their race or colour or their ethnicity, their sex or their age, and sometimes because of a combination of these factors.

The Scanlon Foundation’s Mapping Social Cohesion 2012[10] released last Friday reported that in 2012 12% of surveyed participants experienced racial discrimination over the last 12 months.

Racism undermines social cohesion

There is a clear link between experiences of discrimination by certain groups and social exclusion. Discrimination can lead to exclusion, while those who find themselves on the fringes are also more likely to encounter discrimination.[11]

Social inclusion requires all individuals be able to ‘secure a job; access services; connect with family, friends, work, personal interests and local community; deal with personal crisis; and have their voices heard’.[12] Racism towards any individual or community undermines the achievement of each of these goals.

In its work with African-Australians communities and in through its National Anti-Racism Strategy consultation process,[13] the Commission has heard examples of social and economic exclusion and racism from participants, leaving many feeling like they do not belong in Australian society. I am going to share some of these poignant experiences with you now.

A number of young African Australians spoke of being regularly stopped and questioned by police in public, police asking them to move on without any legitimate reason and racist comments being made to them by police officers.

One African-Australian youth said:

I don’t think there is a day where I haven’t been asked to move on, or police have come over to us and asked us why we are hanging around. We do go around in big groups, but that is normal for us.[14]

Another participant explained to us:

When we’re ‘good’ we’re Australians, when we’re ‘bad’ we’re Lebanese.[15]

Talking about discrimination in renting, an African-Australian said:

The big problem is that, even if there is work or even if there is some houses, it is people and how they think about Africans, that is a bigger problem. We get told that we cannot be trusted, that we are lazy. This is much harder to fight than looking for houses.[16]

In employment, the ‘cultural glass ceiling’ was described by one participant:

The thing with discrimination is that if you go to a shop there are lots of apples – you can choose any one you like. It is the same with employers - they choose whichever apple they like the look of.[17]

Others we consulted identified hidden racism which can lead to feelings of social exclusion:

I have a Cambodian daughter-in-law and mixed-race grandchildren. I accompanied them to a mothers group at the library. Nobody talked to my daughter-in-law or the children until people realised I was with them. This makes me feel very sad and concerned for the potential difficulties in the future for my grandchildren.[18]

To sum up the impact of racism and inequality, I will share just one more quote:

You start to feel that you have no place in this new land and you wonder what the experiences of your children will be as they grow up, and perhaps also find that the colour of their skin is the only reason that they will not be seen by some as belonging here. This is what I mostly fear.[19]

We must talk about racism in Australia.

Legislating against discrimination

Federal Discrimination laws

We have a strong history of legal protections against racism, dating back to Australia becoming a signatory to the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) in 1966. The ICERD outlines Australia’s obligations to safeguard human rights in the political, economic, social, cultural and other fields of public life so that human rights are ensured to everyone without racial discrimination.

The Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) was then passed in 1975. It seeks to promote equality before the law for all persons and implements the principle of prohibiting discrimination against people on the basis of their race, colour, or national or ethnic origin.

I should also mention that the Government will shortly release a bill that will reform Commonwealth Anti-Discrimination laws, including the RDA. The project to consolidate Australia’s anti-discrimination laws into a single Act was announced by Australian Government in April 2010 as a key component of Australia’s Human Rights framework.[20] The consolidation will make race discrimination and other discrimination laws easier to understand, comply with, and where necessary to enforce - through greater simplicity and more consistency – both across grounds of discrimination and between Commonwealth discrimination law, industrial law, and State and Territory anti-discrimination and equal opportunity laws.[21] I also note that there will be no reduction in the level of protection currently provided under the RDA.[22]

What we know is that in addition to the law, we must educate, we must build a culture of tolerance and understanding and we must make sure that people have the economic and social means to participate equally in society.

National Anti-Racism Strategy and Campaign- Racism. It stops with me.

I want to talk about a key initiative that I have direct responsibility for; the development of a National Anti-Racism Strategy. In particular, I want to focus on its campaign Racism. It stops with me, which is all about taking personal responsibility for racism.

The National Anti-Racism Strategy is a key tenant of the Agenda for Racial Equality- which recognises that with racism there cannot be racial equality or social cohesion and vice versa.

The need for a strategy had been clearly articulated by the Australian Multicultural Advisory Council to the Government in April 2010.[23] This advice was taken up in February 2011, when the establishment of a national partnership to develop and implement a National Anti-Racism Strategy for Australia was announced as a key component of Australia’s new multicultural policy, The People of Australia.[24]

While the National Anti-Racism Strategy was born in the multicultural context, we are looking at its development through a broader focus – encapsulating both the experience of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and our culturally, linguistically and religiously diverse communities.

The aim of the National Anti-Racism Partnership and Strategy is to promote a clear understanding in the Australian community of what racism is, and how it can be prevented and reduced.

One powerful method by which the Partnership and Strategy achieves this end is through its campaign- Racism. It Stops With Me.[25]

Racism. It stops with me is about making Australia a racism free zone and articulating what role each of us have in achieving this. So it requires all of us to play a part – by not perpetrating racist actions ourselves, by not passively standing by while others perpetrate such actions and by committing ourselves to the notion that the ‘fair go’ is for everyone in our society.

Through its campaign website and support from 55 organisations (and the list is growing) including businesses, sporting organisations and peak bodies, as well as 300 individual Ambassadors, the Commission will facilitate an anti-racism movement to encourage others to name racism when they see it, hang out it out and speak out against it.

Sporting organisations have come out as strong leaders in naming racism and understanding it as a barrier to equality and social cohesion. A number of sporting heroes have become champions for the campaign, including Michael Clark and Ricky Ponting and as well as a number of AFL and Netball players. Queensland’s own AFL’s Gold Coast Suns star, Joel Wilkinson is one of our sporting Ambassadors. We will be looking to Queensland for more sporting heroes to get behind the campaign.

We also want to work with the media to see people of race on the news (showcasing their good work) rather than just in tv ads and Australian soaps, to counteract the media stories that demonise multicultural Australia. We are thrilled that SBS have got behind the campaign, but we will also need to tap into mainstream media to really have an impact. In its submission to our consultations, SBS cited the findings of the 2006 ‘Reporting Diversity’ study that most representations of cultural difference in Australian media reinforce stereotypes of the ‘bad, sad, mad or (the) other.[26]

The media is also believed to have been a significant factor in undermining relations between police and African Australian communities.[27] For example, Victorian police recently reported an increase in crime rates among Somali and Sudanese-born Victorians;[28] a report that failed to explain the context, dangerously reporting raw figures.

Africa Media Australia’s Collective Action Group provide a leading example of the good work in this area, as they work as a community watchdog on negative representations of Africans in the media and promote a more positive image of African-Australian communities.[29]

Clearly, the media has a role to play in preventing stereotyping and reporting on the success stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) people who have achieved success- and the National Anti-Racism Strategy will be strongly encouraging initiatives like this.

The Strategy also sees business as vital partners in the fight against racism. Corporate Australia has a big leadership role to play in promoting the benefits of skilled migration, creating the opportunities for those without local qualifications or experience to find a foothold in the Australian job market- and in breaking down the cultural glass ceiling, that prevents so many from realising their full potential in the workplace. We have already signed up Deloittes and Elders and are in the process of signing up a number of other employers.

The key thread tying the Racism. It Stops with Me. Campaign together is education- education is a vital competent of any society free from discrimination. By education, I do not mean only formal anti-racism programs in our schools and workplaces. Education is also experience and engaging emotion.

One of the most powerful ideas behind the Strategy and Racism. It Stops with Me. is its potential to reach people through sharing stories and experiences- educating individuals and connecting them with those who experience racism. This is in turn will help create social cohesion as we learn to understand one another a little better.

Racial equality and social cohesion in Queensland

Queensland is a state that has both its challenges and opportunities to tackle racism and promote social cohesion.

You are a sporting state – which is important because we are told time after time again that “sport is glue that holds us together”.

You should be proud of your Rugby Union in particular- Queensland Reds are the first Rugby Union team to sign up to the Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) program, and are already equality champions in the Queensland community, employing 35 young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in work through its Queensland Reds joint employment program with Mission Australia.[30]

Queensland Rugby League and the Queensland Anti-Discrimination Commission are setting a great example of leading the sporting arena in Queensland with its zero-tolerance approach to racism in the code- displaying messages on the stadium screen during the final State of Origin match informing the crowd that racism will not be tolerated.

Queensland has also been doing some great work through its Local Area Multicultural Partnerships Program; working to improve the accessibility of local government services in 13 Councils.[31] This program relies on a strong supporting framework and is based on a partnership approach which we believe is key to its success.
I also know that Queensland is doing it tough- and a lot of you will be feeling worried about the future of frontline multicultural services, and the ability to carry out your important work under increasing financial strain.

We need front-end investment in culturally competent services to build a bridge to equality in essential services- employment and education, overcoming systematic barriers- the unconscious bias- that stands in the way of fully participating in society.

So what can we do to help Queensland?

I am currently working with the Anti-Discrimination Commission Queensland through the National Anti-Racism Campaign, which will provide an opportunity for us to work in partnership to promote the campaign locally and to share best practices and resources to tackle racism.

All of you here today can sign up your organisation to become a supporter to the National Anti-Racism Campaign – our website address and contact details are contained on our business card, which was included in your show bag.

By promoting the Campaign, your workplace can become part of a growing network of organisations who are working to eradicate racism and you can access a range of resources including best practice examples. We can help each other develop strategies to address racism, share our experiences and we can encourage sectors to do the same.

You can also play a role in promoting the campaign through your schools, universities, or sporting teams.

We look forward from hearing from you and working with more Queenslanders through the National Anti-Racism Strategy.


In conclusion, let me say that I believe racial equality and social cohesion in Australia is within our grasp- if that is the future we want and are willing to commit head and heart to.

If we commit to complementing our strong legal framework with sensible and culturally sensitive policies and programs; and if we are willing to work in partnership with government, communities, NGOs, business and educators, to address the structural barriers to inclusion as well as the unconscious bias which is stunting the potential of this State and nation- I believe we will find solutions to create the future we really want.

I want to conclude with a glimpse of the future. When asked how the National Anti-Racism Strategy could be considered a success, participants described Australia in five years’ time:

“The colour of someone’s skin will not matter. The gap between the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and the rest of Australia will have closed significantly.”

“The debate over asylum seekers and refugees is put into proper perspective. Our politicians have stopped using people as pawns to advance their political careers. The media is held much more accountable for inciting hatred or perpetuating misinformation and fear.”

“People of different cultures will feel safe in the streets, online and in their workplaces. They will feel that they make a valuable contribution in bringing their culture to their chosen country.”

“People will recognise their own racist attitudes as racist and will work on confronting them. People will feel ashamed to express their racist ideas publicly because they will know that "Australia" does not agree with them”

And finally,

“A dark skinned woman wearing a veil will not cause a second thought; a dark skinned male wearing a hoodie will not be suspected; our kids will experience diversity.....and not even notice

This is the challenge for all us.

Thank you

[1] G Megalogenis, The Australian Moment: How We Were Made for These Times (2012) p 111.

[2] Australian Human Rights Commission, Agenda for racial equality 2012-2016 (2012). At (viewed 24 October 2012).

[3] International Council on Human Rights Policy, The persistence and mutation of racism, Policy paper, 2000, Preface. Access at (viewed 3 October 2012).
[4] Challenging Racism Project. At (viewed 3 October 2012). The project was based on random phone interviews with 12,500 people.
[5] Kevin Dunn et al, Challenging Racism: the anti-racism research project, 2008 Attitudes to cultural diversity, old racisms and recognition of racism, state level comparisons (opens in new window), 4Rs Conference (University of Technology, Sydney) 30 Sept - 3 Oct 2008. At (viewed 2 October 2012).
[6] Australian Human Rights Commission A dialogue on human rights and responsibilities (2008) Report on the Commission's Muslim Women's Project 2006. At (viewed 5 October 2012); Australian Human Rights Commission, Ismae – Listen, National Consultations on eliminating prejudice against Arab and Muslim Australians, 2004. At (viewed 5 October 2012).
[7] Australian Human Rights Commission, In our own words African Australians: A review of human rights and social inclusion issues, 2010. At (viewed 5 October 2012). See also: Australian Human Rights Commission, African Australians: human rights and social inclusion issues project: A compendium detailing the outcomes of the community and stakeholder consultations and interviews and public submissions, 2010. At (viewed 5 October 2012); Australian Human Rights Commission, Human rights issues affecting African Australian communities: Western Sydney and Perth Roundtables, 2012. At (viewed 5 October 2012).
[8] Australian Human Rights Commission, I want Respect and Equality: A summary of Consultations with Civil Society on Racism in Australia, 2001. At (viewed 5 October 2012).
[9] The Australian Human Rights Commission developed Minimum Standards for International Student Safety and Well Being – in close consultation with international students; with stakeholders including Universities Australia, the National Union of Students, the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations, the Council of International Students Australia and international student service providers; and with input from decision makers and regulators. The Principles to promote and protect the human rights of international students were launched on 4 Octobers 2012 and are available here: Human Rights Commission, Principles to promote and protect the human rights of international students, 2012. At (viewed 9 October 2012).
[10] Markus, A, Mapping Social Cohesion 2012: the Scanlon Foundation Survey, Monash Institute for the Study of Global Movements, Monash University, Victoria. At (viewed 26 October 2012), p 42.
[11] Australian Human Rights Commission, In our own words, African Australians: A review of human rights and social inclusion issues (June 2010) p 13.
[12] Australian Social Inclusion Board, ‘Principles for Social Inclusion - everyone’s job’, 2008. At (viewed 1 February 2012).

[13]Australian Human Rights Commission, Report of the National Anti-Racism Strategy consultation process – June 2012. At (viewed 6 October 2012)
[14] Australian Human Rights Commission, note 11, p 40.
[15] Anonymous response, online survey, Australian Human Rights Commission, note 13.
[16] Australian Human Rights Commission, note 11, p 12.
[17] Participant, Broadmeadows public meeting (30 March 2012) Australian Human Rights Commission, note 13.
[18] Anonymous response, online survey, Australian Human Rights Commission, note 13.
[19] Australian Human Rights Commission, note 11, p 12.
[20] Attorney-General the Hon Robert McClelland MP and Minister for Finance and Deregulation the Hon Lindsay Tanner MP, ‘Reform of Anti-Discrimination Legislation’, Joint Media Release, 21 April 2010. At (viewed 1 October 2012)
[21] Australian Human Rights Commission, Submission to the Attorney-General’s Department, Consolidation of Commonwealth Discrimination law, 6 December 2011, para 3. At (viewed 1 October 2012).
[22] McClelland and Tanner, note 20.
[23] Australian Multicultural Advisory Council (AMAC), The People of Australia, 30 April 2010. Accessed at (viewed 15 October 2012).
[24] Australian Government, The People of Australia: Australia’s Multicultural Policy, launched on 16 February 2011. At (viewed 15 October 2012).
[25] For more information on the National Anti-Racism Campaign see
[26] Reporting Diversity, (viewed 5 October 2012), cited in SBS, Submission 79 to the National Anti-Racism Strategy Consultation.
[27] Australian Human Rights Commission, note 11, p 30.
[28] D Oakes, ‘African youth crime concern’ The Age, 20 August 2012. At (viewed 27 August 2012); A Bainbridge, ‘Police worried by crime in immigrant communities’ ABC Lateline, 30 August 2012. At (viewed 27 August 2012).

[29] See Africa Media Australia at
[30] Reconciliation Australia ‘Queensland Reds dare to lead’ (2012) 24 p 11.
[31] Local Government Association of Queensland, Local Area Multicultural Partnership., At (viewed 18 June 2012)