Settlement Council of Australia conference
Developing an Australia for all through a human rights model
Dr Helen Szoke
Race Discrimination Commissioner
Australian Human Rights Commission
June 2012, Adelaide
Good morning. I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners
of the land, the Kaurna people, and your elders past and present.
I would also like to thank the Settlement Council for inviting me to speak to
This conference comes at yet another critical time, with yet another public
debate about what is happening with refugees and asylum seekers.
The primary focus of my role is on racism and more broadly the work of the
Australian Human Rights Commission is to focus on human rights promotion and
protections. I want to make clear that the process of settlement engages a
range of human rights beyond the right to equality, and that whilst my focus
today is on racism, it is against the backdrop of those broader rights.
I commend the work of the people in this room and in the organisations that
they represent in promoting and protecting those rights during the important
settlement process. Many of you will have heard Richard Towle, the regional
United Nations representative talk, and I had the opportunity to do so recently
at the Foundation House Oration, where, in addition the important and
significant work of John Gibson, President of the Refugee Council of Australia
was recognised. He is concerned about the direction of the public discourse
around refugee and quoted Rabbi Jonathan Magonet in saying:
‘We are defined as a society by how we treat the ones who
don’t belong to us.’
This is something that we should keep in mind, because so many of us have
histories where we didn’t belong and then became a part of this
One of our joint challenges is how we translate human rights principles into
practical actions. This requires vigilance and perseverance as this is an issue
for all Australians, not just those of us who work in the human rights field. We
have to continue to strive to do a number of things:
- To develop a national conversation about human rights and the realities of
living in a global community
- Work with all parts of the community to find solutions
- Engage with international instruments as benchmarks for change
- Ensure we have robust and well-utilised domestic legislation that reflect
- Advocate for better leadership
- And education, education, education.
We cannot afford to let the
Australian Community drop their support and understanding for humanitarian
resettlement programs. A research report commissioned by SBS found that found
that only 39 percent of the nearly 1400 survey participants agreed that
Australia has a responsibility to accept refugees.
But let me now focus on equality and racism in particular.
The human rights principles of non-discrimination and inclusion are the
foundations of any true democracy.
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
We need to talk about racism.
We need to talk about it in our schools and workplaces, with our friends, and
with our leaders. It is a problem and one that we should not be silent about.
We need to find a way to move the conversation from a place of denial and
apathy, to recognition and engagement.
This is the only way we can ever begin to address its multiple and complex
forms. Racism is not always in-your-face verbal or physical abuse; crass jokes
or being denied access to a shop based on the colour of your skin. When we talk
about systemic racism we are talking about the ways systems act on people from
particular ethnicities or cultures with the effect of limiting their
opportunities or rights.
Systemic racism is much harder to identify, and much harder to change. It is
both overt and systemic racism that should be addressed when we look at the
total suite of human rights protections for our resettlement process.
Research tells us that it is a real problem in Australia. People with Chinese
and Middle Eastern names have to submit over 50% more job applications to
receive the same number of call backs as Anglo-Australian
candidates. In 2009, the Western
Australia Equal Opportunity Commission conducted an inquiry into the housing
sector, and found that there were multiple barriers for Aboriginal and
Culturally and Linguistically Diverse
communities. Despite this, very few
formal discrimination complaints are ever lodged at a state or federal level.
The Australian Human Rights Commission’s own research with African
Australian communities documented stories of the multigenerational effects of
“We came here for our children, and we want them to feel that they
are part of this society. But when they see us working in cleaning jobs or
retail jobs, when some of us have been teachers, doctors... and they then think
that there is no hope for
Racism is a major barrier to the economic and social wellbeing of migrants.
New arrivals are particularly vulnerable to systemic discrimination, as it is
easier for employers and service providers to exploit their fears of deportation
and their limited English skills. A report by the Australian Institute of
Criminology in 2010 recognised that there are a “significant numbers of
cases involving unlawful conduct perpetrated against migrant workers in
Australia”. For example, you
may recall the federal court case last year of an employer who paid five Chinese
construction workers $3 per hour to work 10-11 hour shifts at least six days a
The role of migrant workers in the Australian economy continues to sit
uncomfortably in collective consciousness, most recently demonstrated in the
controversy around the Roy Hill mining project in Western Australia. On the one
hand, significant skills shortages in some sectors are reducing the productivity
of Australian businesses; on the other there are many who fear increased
domestic unemployment due to imported labour and the additional strains on our
infrastructure. It is a complex space to be operating in, particularly given
the current worldwide economic instability. We have to think more creatively
and probably more aggressively about how settlement services can work in this
environment. We have to join the dots for the broader Australian community so
that they cannot easily to default to a ‘fear of the foreign worker’
There is some good work being done in various jurisdictions to address
systemic racism. The WA Commission convened a working group of relevant agencies
to progress the recommendations in its housing report. They have also developed
a policy framework for substantive equality. Its aim is to address systemic
racism issues within the WA public service.
In Victoria, a place very close to my heart, VicHealth and the VEOHRC are
doing great work on a four year pilot program known as the LEAD project. It
works across sectors within two local communities to support the development of
anti-racism resources and opportunities to improve cultural harmony.
Queensland has also been working to improve the accessibility of local
government services in 13 councils through the Local Area Multicultural
Two of the things that programs like these have in common are that they rely
on strong supporting frameworks, and they are based on a partnership approach.
I know very little about mechanics. To me, an engine is just a labyrinth of
differently moving parts. However, I do know that you need a pretty good
understanding of how all the parts work, or trying to fix one is probably going
to end up doing more damage.
The same is true of human systems. That is why we need to engage experts
from a range of fields, including settlement services, to help us build on the
good work already being done, and to help solve the challenges that continue to
There are many benefits for Australia to have new and emerging communities
productively engaged in education and employment. For this to happen
successfully there must be front end investment in culturally competent
processes. We have to do two things – we have to identify the
opportunities to build culturally competent bridges to allow success in
employment and education and we have to identify the systemic
racism that exists that creates barriers to the full enjoyment of these
activities. To fix one part of the engine we need to understand how it works
with other parts – cultural competency means identifying both overt and
Cultural diversity is not a deficit to be overcome, it is an opportunity to
Migrants and refugees have the right to be treated with the same level of
dignity and respect as all human beings. It is unrealistic to suggest that their
history and culture, everything that has defined who they are should be left at
the arrival gate. The settlement process is one of massive upheaval. The
cultural understandings that people have forged throughout their lives are the
anchors that can help to ground them during this process.
As another participant in our work with African Australian communities told
“In your own country, you feel strong and you are confident. You
know what is expected of you and where your place is. Here everything is just
different and I feel so unsure about
The importance of maintaining one’s culture has been recognised in a
number of international declarations such as the International Covenant on
Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Declaration on the Rights of
Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities.
Human rights instruments are often criticised for being overly legalistic and
inaccessible to the practical realities of those most in need of their
However, international conventions also provide a set of clearly articulated
standards that all people are entitled to access, as well as a tool for advocacy
where these standards are lacking.
Australia ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial
Discrimination, or ICERD, in 1975. In essence, it commits the Australian
Government to pursue “a policy of eliminating racial discrimination in all
its forms and promoting understanding among all races”.
Australia last appeared before the Committee in 2011. It was an opportunity
to highlight some of the race issues that Australia still needs to progress on
an international stage. Soon we will be gearing up to start the process again.
We will be seeking feedback from our stakeholders in developing the shadow
report, so I encourage those of you who are interested to be involved to keep an
eye on our mailing list or my Twitter account for further updates.
The Australian Government gave domestic effect to their commitment to ICERD
in the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA), which also passed in 1975. The RDA makes
it unlawful to discriminate against people on the basis of their race, colour,
or national or ethnic origin.
The general prohibition of discrimination in section 9 of the RDA is
accompanied by specific prohibitions of discrimination in a number of areas of
public life, such as:
- access to places and facilities;
- land, housing and other accommodation;
- provision of goods and services;
- the right to join trade unions; and
In practice, most the complaints made to the
Australian Human Rights Commission have been made in relation to these more
specific provisions. But the general prohibition of racial discrimination
affecting any human right remains both an important legal safety net and an
immensely important statement of principle, reflecting the indivisibility of all
The Government is currently undertaking a consolidation of all federal
discrimination laws, to fix the inconsistencies in the levels of protections
between the race, disability, sex and age discrimination acts. It has committed
to maintain the current level of protections in all of these acts. We expect
that the outcome of this process will be one law that is more consistent,
simpler and easier for communities and their advocates to access.
We need commitments like these from our Government. We need leadership in
saying that racism is not okay, and committing to concrete actions to address
it. Lodging complaints has brought about some organisational changes, but we
cannot expect that the people most vulnerable to racism should be the standard
bearers by which others follow.
There are some promising signs of change.
As you may be aware, the Government has committed to implementing a National
Anti-Racism Strategy. The Strategy draws on the expertise of three government
departments – the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, the
Attorney-General’s Department and the Department of Families, Housing,
Community Services and Indigenous Affairs – together with the Australian
Multicultural Council and the Australian Human Rights Commission. The National
Congress of Australia’s First Peoples and the Federation of Ethnic
Communities’ Councils of Australia (FECCA) also participate in the
Partnership as non-government representatives.
We plan to launch the Strategy next month, and implement it over the next
A consistent theme that we heard throughout the five week consultation
process is the importance of leadership. It has been absent for many years,
which has allowed misinformation about our multicultural communities to
flourish. Instead we see headlines like “Close borders and stop all
migrants”. SBS’s report
found that Australians continue to be fearful about immigration: 22 percent of
respondents did not support it under any circumstances and 23% support its
economic benefits but were highly concerned about its cultural
We need a chorus of strong voices from a range of sectors to counteract the
media stories that demonise new and temporary migrants and refugees. For
example, corporate Australia has a big leadership role to play in promoting the
benefits of skilled migration, and creating opportunities for those without
local qualifications or experience to find a foothold in the Australian job
However, we must also be careful that our messaging does not create classes
of migrants. We must not for example talk about so called
“high-value” migrants, namely skilled migrants and international
students. The benefits of
migration cannot solely be measured in economic terms. Australia has been
enriched by the contributions of migrants from all visa categories, both
socially and culturally. Furthermore, if we treat skilled migrants purely as
economic assets, then there is a real danger that we will end up neglecting or
restricting their social rights.
It is my hope there is also capacity for the media to support these
objectives. SBS’ report found that there is little trust in the
information provided by the media about migrants and refugees: 45% only trust
the media ‘slightly’, 28% trust it ‘to a moderate
extent’ and 23% ‘not at
all’. This will be one of the
sectors we try to engage with in the Strategy in advocating for greater
It will take much more education.
Two of the key areas of effort for the Strategy are the development of
educational resources, and increased public awareness.
Education is a vital component of any attempt to create a society free from
discrimination. By education, I do not just mean formal anti-racism programs in
our schools and workplaces. Education is also about experience and engaging
We can learn as much from our peers as we can from our leaders and teachers.
There are creative people within many of our multicultural communities with
stories to share that give texture to the messages that we will be promoting
through the Strategy. Without giving too much away prior to the launch, I can
tell you that we will be calling on you to work with us in developing these.
I do not pretend that I have all the answers. For the past ten months that I
have been in this role, I have listened to the voices of communities,
organisations, academics and governments, and I can tell you that there are as
many opinions on how to eliminate discrimination as there are threads in a
However, I do believe that the people who experience racism and their
advocates are a good place to start. I suspect that many of you do not think of
yourselves as human rights workers, but in effect that is what you are. Your
work assists new migrants and refugees in accessing their rights. You hear their
stories; share in their success and failures and connect them with the
communities that will carry them forward into their new lives.
I started my speech today with suggestions for some actions that can help to
create a more robust human rights culture.
Each of them relies on engaged and interested people. Rights cannot exist in
a vacuum; they are only as strong as the people who believe in them.
A truly inclusive society can only be built when people are willing to open
their eyes and ears to their fellow human beings, in all of their colours and
In the words of the great Mahatma Gandhi:
“I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows
to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house
as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any. I refuse to
live in other people's houses as an interloper, a beggar or a
It is time for Australia to open the windows and let some light in. Perhaps
we will find that the monsters lurking in the dark are not as frightening as
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Groups? Evidence From a Field Experiment’, (September 2011) Oxford
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“Close borders and stop all migrants”, The Daily Telegraph,
22 May 2012.
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Nation (2010), p19-21. At http://www.sbs.com.au/aboutus/corporate/view/id/556/h/SBS-Ipsos-Immigration-Nation-Research-Full-Report
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