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Racial Equality – Myth or Possibility (2012)

Race Race Discrimination

Racial Equality – Myth or Possibility?

Opening address – Unity in Diversity Conference 2012

Dr Helen Szoke
Race Discrimination Commissioner
Australian Human Rights Commission

Thursday 16th August 2012

I would like to begin by paying my respects to the Wulgurukaba and Bindal peoples, past and present, the traditional owners of these lands.

And I would also like to acknowledge:

  • Senator the Hon Claire Moore
  • The Hon Mayor of Townsville, Councillor Jenny Hill, and
  • Dr Farvardin Daliri, Director of the Townsville Intercultural Centre and the conference convenor.

Thank you for the invitation to speak with you today.

The theme of this conference, ‘transition for change’ is indeed a timely theme to explore. The 19th Century British Prime Minister and Prime Minister for the United Kingdom, Benjamin Disraeli said that “change is inevitable. Change is constant.” We know this to be true. And yet, we as a nation have not always ensured that unity in diversity prevails when change occurs.

Half a century after Disraeli’s time, the world was in turmoil as we moved into a period of massive unrest in Europe, a period of vehement and insistent anti-Jewish sentiment, and the horrors that came with the World Wars.

Commentators are concerned about what is happening in this European modern day parallel, with anti-immigrant sentiment and research conducted by Demos through Facebook revealing polarising opinions that cite concern about immigration and immigrants – allegations of failure to assimilate, no respect for local traditions, seeking to impose their own customs and values and taking domestic jobs.[1]

Do we have that problem here? I don’t think we have this problem and I would use the words of Martin Flanagan who writes for The Age, “Multi-culturalism in this country is no longer a social aspiration of certain political groups - it's a reality.”[2]

This is in fact the key message of the People of Australia, Australia’s Multicultural Policy that was released in 2011.

But I do think we still have a job to do to keep Australia developing as the vibrant and enviable democracy that I suspect it is. And in doing this job we need to understand that we have a history of not always getting things right.

We know that the diversity of our Aboriginal peoples was not embraced in the early settlement of Europeans in Australia. Our early history reminds us of a time when massacres of Aboriginal peoples occurred, attempts were made to remove them from their land, and a number of Aboriginal children were removed from their families, communities and their culture.

Our cultural diversity continued to increase through the arrival of refugees from Germany and Hungary and over 38 000 Chinese people who arrived during the first gold rush in the mid 1800s for example,[3] through the South Pacific Islander labourers who were brought, some forcibly, to Queensland, in the mid to late 1800s,[4] and through cameleers from Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, India and Turkey came to Australia to work between 1870 and 1900.[5]

But we cannot say we embraced diversity during that time either. For example, in 1855, Victorian laws required the Chinese arrivals to live in designated ‘Chinese Protectorates’ and other states soon followed with similar laws. The federal Immigration Restriction Act 1901 was aimed at excluding non-European migrants in Australia and enabled Government to exclude a person who failed a dictation test in a European language directed by a customs officer, during an immigrant’s first year of residence. It was an Act that symbolised what became known as the ‘White Australia Policy’.

Our own Constitution was passed by our founding fathers with a particular intent to disenfranchise Pacific and Chinese workers. Our First Nations Peoples did not even get a look in as terra nullius was declared.[6]

The Pacific Islander Labourers Act 1901 authorised the removal of most of the Pacific Islanders who were working in Queensland cane fields. And the Post and Telegraph Act 1901 prohibited non-white carriers from transporting mail to and from Australia.

They are just some examples that are found in our early history.

Since then we have continued to build on the more positive aspects of becoming a country which has many cultures and many different perspectives. Many times during this conference, we will hear the statistics of what that diversity looks like:

We know that our diversity can been seen through the variety of our languages, ancestries, birthplaces and religions.

The 2011 Census data tells us that 26% of Australia’s population was born overseas and a further 20% had at least one overseas-born parent.[7] While initially, most migrants were born in Europe, in more recent times, migration from Asia has increased and in 2011, the proportion of migrants born in Asia was 33%, which is a 9% increase from 2001. We also know that there has been an increase in the proportion of the overseas-born population arriving from outside both Europe and Asia.[8]

Our top ten ancestries in 2011 were: English, Australian, Irish, Scottish, Italian, German, Chinese, Indian, Greek and Dutch.

The 2011 Census tells us that the top 10 countries of birth for the overseas-born population were: the United Kingdom, New Zealand, China, India, Italy, Vietnam, the Philippines, South Africa, Malaysia and Germany. That is a diverse collection of countries!

61% of people identified having an affiliation to a Christian religion, 22% with no religion, 3% with Buddhism, 2% with Islam, 1% with Hinduism and 1% with Judaism.[9]

And the top 10 languages spoken at home in 2011 were: English only, Mandarin, Italian, Arabic, Cantonese, Greek, Vietnamese, Spanish, Hindi and Tagalog.

In 2011, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were 2.5% of the Australian population, also speaking a diverse but disappearing range of languages and dialects.

We have one of the highest proportions of overseas born residents in the world[10] and I believe that is something to be celebrated, fostered and protected.

In ensuring that unity in diversity prevails, regardless of the changes we as a nation experience, I believe that one of the ways this can be achieved is through continuously striving for racial equality.

Since becoming the federal Race Discrimination Commissioner, part of my work in leading the development of the National Anti-Racism Strategy has provided me with the opportunity to travel to every state and territory and to speak with a range of people about racism in Australia. And it has been made very clear that while there is a lot of great work being done across Australia to promote racial equality, it is also clear that racism exists, is poorly understood and that those who experience it often feel like their experience is either discounted or diminished in some way.

Achieving racial equality is really about addressing two sides to the coin – looking at how we promote equality and understand what equality looks like, and also how we combat racism to prevent it or reduce its occurrence.

Many, if not all of you in this room know that certain groups such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, migrants and refugees, experience significant barriers to economic and social success. Too often, disadvantage and discrimination are linked.

I believe that there are many ways we can collectively, continue to strive towards promoting racial equality.

Doing so, I believe, requires remembering the comprehensive body of international human rights instruments that Australia is party or signatory to, and which contain important obligations and standards relating to protecting and promoting diversity.[11]

Article 1 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination defines racial discrimination in a way that ensures that the prohibition on the discrimination extends beyond a limited biological notion of race to include discrimination on the basis of one’s ethnic and national origin. This Convention’s overriding purpose is that governments shall “condemn racial discrimination and undertake to pursue by all appropriate means and without delay a policy of eliminating racial discrimination in all its forms and promoting understanding among all races.”[12]

I am really keen to explore how we can use these instructive human rights instruments in an applied way to help us understand how we can promote racial equality. If we are going to achieve unity in diversity, we have to accept that difference is what builds our strength, and difference is what we have to ensure is not used to work against the interests of people. This is partly the role of anti-discrimination laws, which acknowledge that difference exists but that difference should not be used to disadvantage groups in our community – whether it be on the basis of their age, their disability, their gender or indeed their race.

The reason that Australia signs up to international treaties and conventions, is to build on the collective wisdom and experience that brought the great minds of many countries from across the world to develop them. They form that basis of the construct of our domestic laws and they inform our practice and define our obligations.

At the end of the day, we want to ensure that difference does not disadvantage members of our community. The way that we can promote unity is to make sure that there are no insurmountable barriers which prevent people being able to participate fully in public life.

Let us revisit what is happening in relation to our migration intake.

In 2011-12, Australia granted 184 998 permanent visas, which included 125 755 from the skill stream and 58 604 from the family reunion stream. In addition, 13 759 people were granted visas under Australia’s humanitarian program.[13]

Most of these people come to Australia job ready but what about the ones who don’t? How can we ensure that they have the opportunity to become part of the community and become self-sufficient and contributing to the community as well as to their own wellbeing?

In a couple of weeks there are two major initiatives that I will be launching. The first is the Anti-Racism Strategy and the related campaign, ‘Racism. It Stops with Me’. The second is a broader Agenda for Racial Equality. The National Anti-Racism Strategy will be one tool to achieve Racial Equality. In the Agenda, I am keen to promote both sides of the coin: the aspiration to racial equality and the work to be done to prevent racial discrimination and racism.

As part of this Agenda, I want to look at the link between discrimination and disadvantage, as well as what is needed to ensure positive economic and social outcomes for those people who come from different cultural backgrounds. At the end of the day, we benefit as a country by having all of our peoples fully participating in the economic and social life which includes employment, education and community activities.

We know, for example, that certain groups have difficulty accessing employment.[14]

We know that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples do not have equal access to employment opportunities. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples comprise 2.5% of our overall population.[15] Yet 16% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians are unemployed, compared with a rate of around 5% for the general population, demonstrating that they experience a disproportionately high rate of unemployment.[16]

In relation to our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, we need to ensure that we are creating sustainable and relevant opportunities to build the employment participation rates across Australia.

This means that we need to have public and privates sectors, as well as education providers and communities, working together – through providing job opportunities and mentoring, delivering training – to bring out positive, systemic outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

We also know, through consultations and complaints to the Commission, that there is a need to improve processes related to the recognition of overseas qualifications. The opportunities to experience both sustainable and meaningful employment are limited in situations where overseas qualifications are not able to be recognised, and as a result, people can be at risk of experiencing economic disadvantage. There are therefore, compelling reasons for collaborative work with regulatory bodies, to identify practices that discriminate on the basis of race, so we can work towards ensuring that the skills of those arriving in Australia are used – benefiting them, their families and the community.

We need to develop the tools that not only audit where there may be systemic racism but also that identify how we can promote diversity in our workplaces.[17] Diversity in the workplace has many positive benefits, ranging from strong economic contributions,[18] addressing critical labour shortages, [19] and providing a greater ability to cater for new national and international markets.[20] The tyranny of recognition of overseas experience, the challenge of building a bridge to understand how Australian workplaces operate, the building of an understanding of how we can contribute from all walks of life – these are the things that need to be addressed.

To some extent the new model of the Migration Council Australia, which was launched at Government House in August 2012, is one mechanism to advocate for this. This initiative builds an important coalition between the corporate and settlement sectors, and through its work in identifying and promoting best practice and discussions on migration and settlement, it has the potential to help promote employment participation among new arrivals.[21]

The important and internationally recognised work of our settlement services is another example of how better employment outcomes can be facilitated. But there is still much more work to be done in these areas.

Education is also a critical avenue to achieve equal access to employment, social engagement and social inclusion.

Education is a critical pathway towards ensuring that young people have the skills and capacity to shape their futures and make a strong and positive contribution to the community. It is important that schools are inclusive of, and responsive to, children and young people from all racial and ethnic backgrounds and that the school curriculum adequately reflects Australia’s history.

There are two areas of the educational journey that relate to significantly different outcomes on the basis of race. The first relates to the educational outcomes of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. The second relates to the challenges facing young people who arrive in Australia as refugees or humanitarian entrants.

Schools have many demands arising from our increasingly diverse student population. Many schools have adopted diversity policies, curriculum tools which support multicultural classrooms and specific anti-racism strategies which complement their approach to dealing with bullying and harassment.[22] These initiatives are to be supported and shared. This will also be a focus of the Agenda for Racial Equality, given how critical these resources can be.

Another area that impacts directly on economic and social outcomes and indeed on active participation in public life is access to interpreter and translation services.

Proficiency in English is a key requirement for access to education and employment opportunities, as well as for building social cohesion.

There must be access to sufficient levels of English language education and training to enable social and economic participation by those people whose first language is not English. However, it is also important that we protect against the loss of culture and identity which can arise when people, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, lose the language of their origin.

For many migrants and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in more remote parts of Australia, access to effective and accessible translation and interpreter services is critical to ensuring that they are able to participate, in an informed manner, in decisions that affect their lives including their health and well-being.

We need to ensure sufficient access to accredited interpreting and translation services by those who need them, in order to build the capacity of individuals, communities and services.

And finally, when we look at improving economic and social outcomes related to the provision of services, we need to identify the requirements of cultural competency in providing appropriate and quality service provision.

Government and non-government agencies provide important services to vulnerable and disadvantaged communities, many of whom are from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander or culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

Cultural competency is a concept which is often poorly understood and applied. While many aspects of service delivery are subject to cultural awareness training, the principles underlying cultural competency can be challenging in application.

Cultural competency goes beyond simply having an awareness of the beliefs and practices of people from diverse cultural backgrounds. It involves acknowledging and valuing diversity, adapting policies and practices to reflect an understanding of the diversity within and between cultures, and enabling agencies and professions to work effectively in cross-cultural situations.[23] Effectively, it is about taking a human rights-based approach to service provision for people from diverse cultural backgrounds.

Such an approach ensures that services and supports delivered by government, non-government and private organisations are appropriate and accessible. It is particularly important where there is a risk of significant breaches of human rights – such as in delivery of health services or engagement with the law and justice system.

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples provides importance guidance about how service delivery may be informed and enhanced through the application of human rights principles.

For culturally and linguistically diverse communities, we must continue to develop culturally competent service delivery that is informed by a human rights-based approach.

In conclusion, there are many opportunities for all of us to address racial inequality. This morning, I’ve shared with you my thoughts on how this may be achieved through ensuring social and economic outcomes. To achieve racial equality in Australia, we all need to commit to this goal and be involved. And I believe the best outcomes will be achieved when we bring together our passion, experience and expertise, and work in partnership.

When we conducted the consultations for the National Anti-Racism Strategy, we ran an online survey as a means of capturing additional information. One of the questions we asked people to answer was – How does racism affect the Australian community?

We received many and varied responses, but the ones that resonate the most with the theme of this conference are:

It creates a divide. Australia is one country but it doesn’t feel like it.

And another person commented:

It divides people. It puts up barriers that prevent honest, open communication. We live in a society where we have to rely upon and look after one another, and we can’t do that if we are selective on the basis of appearance.

This conference is yet another opportunity to build our understanding of how we can continue to strive to overcome that divide. Important issues and strategies will be discussed and debated and I look forward to being involved in what will hopefully re-energise us to strengthen how unity in diversity will prevail and be protected in whatever change comes our way.

I love the wisdom of African proverbs because they capture a simplicity of message with enormous profundity. I thought perhaps one for today is:

For tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.

Let us all do our part in ensuring we work towards a positive tomorrow for all of our communities

Thank you.

[1] K Kissane, ‘Far right on rise in Europe’ The Age, 4 August 2012. At (viewed 13 August 2012).
[2] M Flanagan, ‘How do we turn a palette of colours into picture perfect?’ The Age, 4 August 2012. At (viewed 13 August 2012).
[3] Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, Immigration: Federation to Century’s End 1901-2000 (2001), p 48. At (viewed 13 August 2012).
[4] Australian Broadcasting Corporation, “A Form of Slavery”. At (viewed 13 August 2012).
[5] Department of Finance and Deregulation, “Afghan cameleers in Australia”. At (viewed 13 August 2012).
[6] See Australian Human Rights Commission, Face the Facts (2005). At (viewed 13 August 2012).
[7] Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2071.0 - Reflecting a Nation: Stories from the 2011 Census, 2012–2013 (2012). View here (viewed 13 August 2012).
[8] Australian Bureau of Statistics, above.
[9] Rounded to the nearest percentage.
[10] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Migration 2009-10 (16 June 2011) p 39. At (viewed 13 August 2012).
[11] These include: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948; the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination 1965; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 1966; the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966; and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples 2007. These instruments mandate the protection of religious beliefs and cultural identity, including: the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights); the right of self-determination (Article 1(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights); the right to take part in cultural life (Article 15(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights); prohibition by law of any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence (Article 20(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights); equality before the law and entitlement without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law (Article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights); and the non-denial of the right by members belonging to ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities, in community with other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language (Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights).
[12] Article 2(1).
[13] Department of Immigration and Citizenship, 2011–12 Migration Program Report (2012), p 16. At (viewed 13 August 2012).
[14] A study showed that 31% of humanitarian visa holders were employed five years after arrival in Australia, compared to 84% of skilled migrants. A significant proportion of humanitarian entrants were engaged in study. Department of Immigration and Citizenship, Settlement outcomes of new arrivals (2011), p 27. At (viewed 13 August 2012). See also Australian Human Rights Commission, In our own words - African Australians: A review of human rights and social inclusion issues (2010), pp 8, 10-13. At (viewed 13 August 2012).
[15] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples profile, Cat no. 2002.0 (2011).
[16] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Labour Force Characteristics of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, Estimates from the Labour Force Survey (released 26 July 2012). At (viewed 13 August 2012).
[17] See B Trenerry, H Franklin, & Y Paradies, Review of audit and assessment tools, programs and resources in workplace settings to prevent race-based discrimination and support diversity (2010). At (viewed 13 August 2012); Access Economics, Migrants Fiscal Impact Model: 2008 Update (2008). At 9 (viewed 13 August 2012).
[18] Access Economics, Migrants Fiscal Impact Model: 2008 Update (2008), p ii. At (viewed 13 August 2012).
[19] Refugee Council of Australia, Economic, civic and social contributions of refugee and humanitarian entrants (2010), p 15. At (viewed 13 August 2012).
[20] The European Commission, The Business Case for Diversity: Good practices in the
Workplace (2005). At (viewed 13 August 2012).
[21] Migration Council Australia ‘Migration Council Australia launched’ (Media Release 1 August 2012).
[22] Some examples of resources and programs that support anti-racism and diversity in the school context can be found in: T Greco, N Priest, & Y Paradies, Review of strategies and
resources to address race-based discrimination and support diversity in schools (2010), pp 43-54. At (viewed 13 August 2012).
[23] T Cross B Bazron, K Dennis, M Isaacs, Towards a Culturally Competent System of Care: Vol. I (1989); National Center for Cultural Competence, Conceptual Frameworks/Models, Guiding Values and Principles. At (viewed 13 August 2012).