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Race Race Discrimination

A Measure of Justice

Good afternoon Federal and State Senators and MPs, Voula Messimeri and the FECCA Board, ladies and gentleman,

May I begin by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the Lands upon which we meet and pay my respect to the Elders, past and present.

I am happy to join with you today in what is becoming one of Australia’s most important gatherings to discuss the present and future of this nation.

Centuries ago a great many of the inhabitants of this beautiful island were wiped out by colonization and its aftermath. The disappearance of so many is a solemn reminder of the injustice done to the first peoples of this land. Their violent absence is a presence that calls for us to reflect on injustices, suffering and reconciliation in the broadest sense.  To them I pay my respects.

We can say that we are here today to place justice at the heart of our understanding of ourselves so as to avoid repeating the misdeeds that shaped the early encounters between the rightful owners of this land and the early colonisers. How we act today and what will become of us in the future is tied to our understanding of the atrocities and the successes of the past.

Today I would like to reflect on the state of Australian multiculturalism;  a concept that has been under increased scrutiny over the last few years. To me, as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner and national Race Discrimination Commissioner, multiculturalism is a question and a measure of justice. 

In the last few years, multiculturalism has been at the receiving end of what I call ‘the struggle for definition’.

We are all part of this struggle of definition.

Perhaps the struggle to place things in language - to articulate and translate realities, is the most important of all struggles. Those who control peoples’ destinies are those who often have the means and the power to monopolize and manipulate language: the colonial master speaks for the colonized native; the domineering male speaks for the silent female. And In the process, the story of the victor prevails.    

The story of multiculturalism has been told by many unsympathetic speakers and hostile commentators. It all depends on who talks, to what end and in what context.

To retell the story of multiculturalism in this country, and to clear a space for reflection, let me start with some remarks about how I understand multiculturalism.

My soon to be completed position paper on multiculturalism, that will be launched on the 17th August, will provide a deeper analysis of this issue, but today I wish to consider three overlapping and interconnected usages of the term multiculturalism, relying broadly on the work of Christine Inglis.

First, multiculturalism as a social reality and as a way of life.

Australia is one of the most diverse nations on earth. Australians speaks some 364 languages of which 170 are Indigenous languages1. The interaction of our cultures is producing new ways of life and affiliations.  For example, between 1996 and 1998, 52% of marriages in Australia were ‘mixed’ in the sense that they involved people from different ethnicities.  I am sure that the 2006 Census data will affirm an increase in the statistics and remember that any offspring are indeed multicultural citizens.  This does not mean that they are not Australian; it just means that they can recognise and celebrate their heritages.

Second, multiculturalism as a set of norms which affirms diversity over a mono-cultural society. 

In this instance, multiculturalism is a subset of the larger debate about the best way to manage diverse societies and remain true to the ideal of democracy. Often this debate connects with global agendas and conflicts that are not necessarily relevant to the Australian experience.

Third, multiculturalism as a public policy.

In this instance multiculturalism is a general framework that aims to account for the social reality of cultural diversity by insuring equity and access.

Some might say that HREOC’s primary inclination is to support the normative views which favour multiculturalism because it resonates with the ethical imperatives of human rights, such as the right to enjoy one’s culture and religion and not to be discriminated against on the basis of one’s race or ethnic origin.

However where we really stand firm on this issue is behind multiculturalism as part of an access and equity framework. In this instance multiculturalism does not simply resonate with our ethical imperatives. Rather, it coincides with our mandate to ensure that all Australians enjoy their human rights in a non-discriminatory manner through equal access to employment, education, health, housing etc.    In fact, all those rights that enable us to fully integrate and participate in all walks of life.

In this regard I’m in full agreement with the way Malcolm Fraser understands Australian multiculturalism. For Fraser, multiculturalism is about, and I quote:

‘…basic human rights, not benevolence, which the giver bestows or withdraw at will.  No society can long retain the commitment and involvement of groups that are denied these rights. If particular groups feel that they or their children are condemned, whether through legal or other arrangements, to occupy the worst jobs, the worst housing and to suffer the poorest health and education, then the society in which they live will pay a high price for that division’  [end quote]

The current, dominant voices in the global debate about multiculturalism either leave out the affirmative function of multiculturalism as a policy framework or argue that in the current climate, multiculturalism does more harm than good.  I’m not an expert on global matters.  However, I do have a little insight into how Britain manages its diverse population or how the American melting pot really works.  But through our work at HREOC with different communities in Australia I have an understanding of how multiculturalism in our country works to integrate and bring communities together and to fight residual and latent forms of racism.

As an anti-racism strategy, and a source of productivity,   multiculturalism in Australia is by far one of the most successful social investments that a nation, as diverse and complex as Australia, has ever made.  To use the language of economics, multiculturalism is a cost effective program which provides freedom to individuals, enables social cohesion and ensures an economic return on its investment.

Let me give you an example.

Following the Cronulla riots my staff tried to analyse the causes of this ugly incident through understanding the local context.

We found that Cronulla is a predominantly a middle-class, Anglo Australian community with a total population of almost 17,000, with half a percent Indigenous and about 17% born overseas, mostly from English speaking countries such as New Zealand and the UK. It is a beautiful beachside suburb easily accessible by train from the south western suburbs of Sydney where most of Sydney’s Arabic speaking or Muslim Australians live.

Cronulla also forms part of the Sutherland Shire Council, often referred to by the locals as “God’s country.” With a population of over 215,000, Sutherland Shire is the second largest local government area in NSW, and one of the biggest in terms of the number of people it serves in Australia.

Within its boundary is Kurnell, where James Cook first landed on Australian soil, marking the beginning of colonisation in Australia. The Shire and the south western suburbs of Sydney are connected by the Georges River.

In discussions with local councillors and social planners within the Sutherland Shire Council it became clear that within the Cronulla area, there has been extensive investment by the community and the council in what is referred to as bonding capital  That is, mechanisms that bring the community together.

Cronulla is a close knit community. Members of the Sutherland Shire are relatively homogenous in their ethnic background, mainly Anglo Celtic, and this contributes to the community’s overall social cohesion.   This in turn builds on the intimacy and ties that already exist within the community. Over the past ten years or so, Cronulla Shire Council and local community groups have developed mechanisms and projects to sustain the bonds within the community.

In contrast to this investment of bonding capital there has been relatively little investment of what is referred to as bridging capital.  That is, mechanisms that bridge the community to other groups outside of their community. Very little has been done to establish links between communities and individuals on the basis of common interests rather than common identities.

At the local level it is important that we bring these two forms of social capital; that is, bonding and bridging capital, into balance.    

While bonding capital is vital to maintain a sense of local community, bridging capital is also vital to establish overall harmony within the broader community.

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 a local community to value diversity and difference. 

Many of the strategies and initiatives that have taken place within Cronulla in response to the riots can be seen as forms of bridging capital aimed at long-term attitudinal change.

In my view multiculturalism belongs to this second type of investment. It is a multifaceted bridging investment that allows Australians from different backgrounds to come together in their daily life, through school programs, state government projects, service provision and local council initiatives.

As a report on multiculturalism by SBS states:

‘Multiculturalism is valued because it allows people to learn from each other. There is overwhelming appreciation of Australia’s cultural diversity because it broadens horizons and enhances mutual understanding’

The report findings also suggest that:

Many younger Australians of culturally diverse backgrounds still feel an incomplete acceptance by mainstream society. Many of these Australians have experienced or observed instances of prejudice, discrimination and intolerance, first hand. However…interactive cultural diversity is becoming increasingly mainstream.  Younger Australians of culturally diverse backgrounds are more comfortable interacting with others of different cultural backgrounds and feel that multiculturalism in Australia has progressed a lot in the past 30 years.

We cannot let these young people down; they are the future of our country.  What we need to do instead is to further policies of multiculturalism and encourage communities, services and businesses to adopt cultural diversity strategies, particularly in relation to the employment of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Apart from its bridging effect, multiculturalism is of great advantage in an increasingly global economy. Let me give an example, that of an enterprise that connects the history of migration to Australia with the social, cultural and economic reality of the global village. 

Sovereign Hill is a non-profit organisation that runs Sovereign Hill Gold Museum and a pastoral property. The area has strong association with the Chinese gold miners who came to Australia during the gold rush.  After the liberalisation of overseas travel in China, Chinese visitors to the Sovereign Hill and gold museum increased significantly and now accounts for over 30% of international visitors.

The Museum now employs up to 12 casual Mandarin and Cantonese speaking guides to improve their service to visitors from China and South East Asia.

With the University of Ballarat nearby, they can draw on the multi-cultural student population.

The Museum also uses Chinese and Indigenous perspectives in their displays to show the different experiences of the gold miners.   As well, it offers training for staff in Chinese and Indigenous cultural awareness and greetings.

To market this enterprise in China, they have employed a Mandarin speaker as their international marketing director.  Their job is to travel to China and encourage groups to visit Sovereign Hill and stay overnight as well.

This is a great example of a small Australian organisation using multicultural assets of Australia to gain a competitive edge in the global economy at the same time providing employment for people from non-English background.

In conclusion, as we can see from the examples and the points I have just outlined:   one’s right to cultural identity and heritage, including the maintenance of languages and religious practices, underpinned by guarantees of equal rights and respect for the rule of law, are important ingredients for a healthy society and functioning democracy. 

To face the challenge of diversity, multiculturalism should not only be maintained; it should be promoted, respected and reinvigorated.

Thank You