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Responding to Cronulla: Rethinking Multiculturalism

Race Discrimination

Responding to Cronulla: Rethinking Multiculturalism

Speech by Race Discrimination Commissioner Tom Calma at a national symposium Responding to Cronulla: Rethinking Multiculturalism organised by Griffith University and the University of Queensland, Brisbane, 21 February 2006

I would like to begin by acknowledging and paying my respects to the traditional owners of the land on which we stand today.

I would also like to thank the multi-faith centre at Griffith University for inviting me to speak at this very important conference.

As the national Race Discrimination Commissioner, I have the specific role of promoting and monitoring compliance with the Federal Racial Discrimination Act.

As part of this responsibility HREOC, that is, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, launched a publication last year to mark the 30 th Anniversary of the enactment of the Racial Discrimination Act in October 1975. The publication was called Voices of Australia which, in addition to providing some factual information about the legislation and its history, was a collection of real life stories from Indigenous Australians and Australians of different ethnic backgrounds talking about how they have lived together in Australia since the passing of the Racial Discrimination Act in 1975. Not all of these stories were positive but the vast majority were. However, it is hard, after reading these stories, to imagine that at the same time as I and others were celebrating the passing of Australia"s first human rights legislation, race relations in the Cronulla area were festering into the open sore that we all witnessed in the headlines in December last year.

Through the Voices project we nationally collected 500 stories. Not one of these reflected the intensity of hatred and violence that manifested in Cronulla two months ago.

It is important that at forums like the one we are attending today we reflect upon the causes of this eruption of hatred that is taking the form of racism and xenophobia followed by violent revenge and retribution. Only then can we evaluate the adequacy of the legislative and policy frameworks set up to deal with the manifestations of racism and violence in contemporary society.

In investigating the causes underlying the Cronulla riots, the search must take place at the local; state; national and finally international level. Each of these arenas provides a complexity of interrelated factors contributing to Cronulla. In the short time available I will outline what I see as the more important of these factors.

At the local level we must look at the particular demographics operating in Cronulla and how this might be creating tensions. On this point, members of my staff recently attended a number of meetings involving community members from both the Bankstown and Sutherland Shire areas. Community members were reflecting very seriously on what occurred in Cronulla and make some very interesting observations. One councillor commented how within the Sutherland shire there was tremendous investment, through community activities etc, in mechanisms that bond the community together. In this regard members of the Sutherland Shire are relatively homogenous in terms of ethnic background and this contributes to the community"s overall social cohesion. However, it was noted that there was very little investment within Sutherland in mechanisms that bridge the community to other groups outside of their community. At the local level it is important we bring these two forms of social capital, bonding and bridging capital, into balance. Outside communities who inevitably come into a local area, particularly a beach area, must be made to feel welcome. There must be a capacity within local communities to form a bridge to outside communities.

Members of the Lebanese community are also looking closely at the behavior of their young men at the beach and the animosity that this behavior might provoke.

It is clear that at the local level we must look at the beach, in this case Cronulla beach, as a site for conflict, whether it be conflict over use of space (such as for sporting pursuits) on a crowded beach, over waves in a crowded surf, OR over women on a hot day. These conflicts are very real as many of the young men at Cronulla on 11 December testified to. They are conflicts that have been around Cronulla and indeed many beachside suburbs for decades and it is time we confronted them head on to devise strategies to allow all parties to co-exist and enjoy one of Australia"s favorite pastimes.

These local conflicts at Cronulla raise many issues but I will focus on two points. First the question of who has the authority to resolve them and how such authority is being exercised. On this point we must examine the role of lifeguards and police in resolving conflicts that arise within their precincts, ensuring they are capable of dealing with the range of issues involved including issues of harassment, bullying and sexual and racial discrimination. It is important that those with authority on the beach are given strategies and training to ensure these behaviors are dealt with as they arise and certainly before they escalate into mob or gang violence the way they have in Cronulla.

Second we must recognize that while these types of conflicts have been around for many years - taking the form of surfies against rockers, or surfies against westies, etc, there is something new in the nature, intensity and scale of these conflicts as they are manifesting today. That these old fights (one might say primordial fights) between young men around territory and sex, have now taken the form of large scale racial conflict, between Middle Eastern people and non Middle Eastern people, is the second factor we must look at and take very seriously. It requires that we broaden our investigation over the causes of the Cronulla riots beyond just the local factors.

I want now to look at state, national and international factors that have turned local conflicts, like those on Cronulla beach into racial ones directed towards Arab and Muslim Australians. In doing so I want to refer to a Report produced by HREOC in 2004 called Isma (Arabic for Listen). The consultations on which this report is based reveal a disturbing level of discrimination and vilification against Arab and Muslim Australians. In a sense the Report forewarned the government and the Australian people about the potential for riots like Cronulla to take place.

The Report concluded that international factors like September 11 and the Bali bombings, and more recently the London attacks, increase the level of discrimination and vilification experienced by Arab and Muslim Australian. This in turn alienates the community from the rest of society, which in turn exacerbates the level of discrimination that they experience. This spiral of discrimination followed by marginalisation and alienation is fuelled by fear and prejudice and manifests into hate and retaliation.

The Report identified key areas where action needs to be taken in order to halt or slow down this spiraling effect.

  • The first is Community and Political leadership;

It was, and still is, considered essential that political and community leaders at all levels encourage Australians to uphold the principles of multiculturalism including respect for the right of all Australians to express their own culture and beliefs and responsibility to support the basic structures and principles of Australian society that guarantee freedom and equality for all. I see this type of leadership as crucial to overcoming the sense of alienation and isolation identified by so many Arab and Muslim Australians.

While many political and community leaders are acting responsibly in this regard, comments that play the race card for political purposes is not responsible leadership.

  • Second is Education

Confronting negative stereotyping and misinformation about Arabs and Muslims through education is an important long-term solution to overcoming anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice and intolerance. Consultation participants stressed the need for more broad based public education and for more targeted education campaigns aimed at specific groups such as young people, employers and service providers to help dispel myths and negative stereotypes about Arab and Muslim Australians.

  • A third issue is the Media

Participants in the Isma consultations felt that biased and inaccurate reporting of issues relating to Arabs and Muslims is commonplace among some sections of the media and is extremely damaging.

Consultation participants saw the development and implementation of strategies to challenge stereotyping in the media as essential to achieving the broader goal of eliminating prejudice and discrimination against Arab and Muslim Australians.

  • Fourthly in relation to Police........

Many consultation participants felt that a significant cause of heightened prejudice against Arab and Muslim Australians occurred as a result of the description of criminal suspects and offenders by reference to their presumed ethnicity, ethnic appearance or religion.

All state and territory police services, with the exception of NSW Police, use the following four categories to describe alleged criminals, offenders, suspects, victims and missing persons by reference to their race: "Aboriginal appearance", "Caucasian appearance", "Asian appearance" and "Other appearance (to be specified)".

The NSW Police did not adopt the recommended four descriptors. Instead they use the following ethnicity-based descriptors: "Asian appearance", "Aboriginal appearance", "Black/African appearance", "White/European appearance", "Indian/Pakistani appearance", "Pacific Islander appearance", "South American appearance" and "Middle Eastern/Mediterranean appearance" In my view Cronulla is, to some extent, the result of the inflammatory effect of the NSW practice on the middle eastern community"s relations with the broader community and on their relations with police.

The Report recommends a review of this practice. It also notes that even if police in NSW were to follow the approach adopted in other states it is often the media themselves who take the information and present it in a manner that may be offensive.

A further issue in relation to police, was their capacity to deal with issues of harassment, bullying and sexual and racial discrimination.

Consultation participants in the Isma project whose complaints to police were dismissed because they did not meet the threshold for investigation under criminal law often felt unsupported and unsure of where else to turn for assistance. Better communication between police, community organisations and anti-discrimination agencies that may be able to assist when an incident of discrimination or vilification is not a criminal offence, may be a solution. Providing more effective information sharing between these organisations could also help.

The Isma Report makes a number of recommendations to deal with the issues that arose during HREOC"s consultations with Arab and Muslim Australian. The Report can be found on the HREOC"s website:

In response to some of these recommendations the Commission is embarking on two projects: one focusing on Muslim Women and the other on Muslim communities" relationship with Police. These projects are funded by the federal Dept of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs

This latter project aims to facilitate a dialogue between Muslim communities and law enforcement agencies in order to build mutual trust and improve the capacity of the police to respond to racial and religious discrimination, harassment and abuse.

More work needs to be done, particularly in the area of education.

Addressing the key areas identified in Isma will help create an environment where conflicts that are occurring at the local level are able to be addressed and contained rather than escalating into a riot that divides the broader community and brings Australia into international disrepute.