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Social cohesion in a multicultural Australia: The importance of human rights

Rights Rights and Freedoms

Professor Gillian Triggs
Australian Human Rights Commission


Affinity Friendship and Dialogue Iftar Dinner

Thursday 3 July 2014

Address: NSW Parliament House

What is Iftar?

Iftar is one of the religious observances of Ramadan and is often done as a community, with people gathering to break their fast together. Iftar is taken right after Maghrib time, which is around sunset. Traditionally but not mandatory, three dates are eaten to break the fast in emulation of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad, who broke his fast in this manner.

Thank you for the warm welcome. Before I begin I would like to acknowledge the Gadigal People of the Eora Nation, the Traditional Owners of the land upon which we gather today. I pay my respects to your elders, past and present.

I would also like to highlight that apart from our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, all of us came to this country as immigrants or are the descendants of immigrants

Thank you to the Affinity Foundation for the invitation to be here tonight for the 2014 Iftar dinner and to celebrate Ramadan. The Affinity Foundation is just one example of the important and vital work being undertaken in the community to foster social cohesion and harmony in Australia.

I commend the bipartisan support for this dinner and the commitment from both political parties in ensuring that this features on the annual calendar of Parliament House. It is through these dinners that we are able to come together to celebrate diversity, foster awareness and increase understanding of the magnitude of cultures that exist in modern Australia, and the value that this diversity brings.

This evening I would like to discuss the:

  1. The concept of social cohesion, and its relationship to human rights in particular racial discrimination
  2. The role of the Australian Human Rights Commission and how we contribute to social cohesion by addressing racial discrimination and vilification in Australia
  3. The Government’s proposal to amend the Racial Discrimination Act and the importance of the race hate laws to social cohesion.

Before I go any further I would like to show a quick clip – this is part of our Racism. It stops with me campaign and is a good example of the educational and advocacy work of the Commission. Hip-hop artist Brothablack deals with racism and bullying in schools; script and actors by students at the James Mitchell School in Sydney.

What you say matters. Racism. It Stops With Me. Feat. Brothablack


Social cohesion, multiculturalism and racism

Desmond Tutu once stated; “Differences are not intended to separate, to alienate. We are different precisely in order to realise our need of one another.” I’m sure you will all agree with me when I say, that is this diversity that is one of Australia’s greatest strengths and assets.

We should all be proud of our multicultural history. Since post-war migration began, Australia has been taking in a million immigrants each decade from all regions of the world.

Multiculturalism has been an important element in the making of modern Australia, and has been critical to fostering social cohesion and inclusion. Our culturally diverse society is now made up of people with origins in over 200 nations. While other nations have faced racial tensions and riots, we have experienced long-term social stability.

People of all cultures, background and faith have contributed to the development of the cultural and religious landscape of Australia. As a nation we embraced this diversity and recognised the economic and social benefits that come this brings. As a nation we recognise that the expansion of labour markets, skills and capital gives us the necessary competitive edge to compete in an increasingly globalised world.

My colleague, Race Discrimination Tim Soutphommasane outlines that the notion of multiculturalism can refer respectively to our ethnic composition as a society, to our policies concerning citizenship and the integration of immigrants, and to the values that shape our everyday cultural interactions. He argues that the strength of Australia's multicultural experience has been its nation-building character. Importantly there is strong level of support for multiculturalism from Australians themselves.

Through multiculturalism, the Australian experience has shown has that diversity can go hand in hand with a stronger social cohesion

In recent years the Australian Multicultural Council has played an important leadership role in this regard. Under the leadership of Judge Rauf Soulio the AMC has acted as an important adviser to the Government on multicultural affairs and has been a champion in advancing multiculturalism.

However the term of the Australian Multicultural Council came to an end on 30 June 2014, and the Government has not articulated what the future of the Australian Multicultural Council will be.

It is critical that we have a source of leadership and guidance at the national level on multicultural issues and I encourage the Government to outline what it plans to do moving into the future.

So why do we talk about social cohesion? To answer that I think we need to define what it is.

While interest in Australia grew in the 1990’s “amid concerns prompted by the impact of globalisation, economic change and fears fuelled by the ‘war on terror’”[1], the concept has been examined by socialist dating all the way back to 19th century with Émile Durkheim and Gustave Le Bon.

Despite the extensive examination by socialists and theorists there is no universally agreed definition of social cohesion. Most definitions involve notions of solidarity, willingness to participate and togetherness.[2] The United Nations defines a socially cohesive society where all groups have a sense of belonging, participation, inclusion, recognition and legitimacy.[3]

The most significant piece of work in Australia on social cohesion is conducted by the Scanlon Foundation. The Scanlon Foundation utilises five indicators for social cohesion:

  1. Belonging: Shared values, identification with Australia, trust.
  2. Social justice and equity: Evaluation of national policies.
  3. Participation: Voluntary work, political and cooperative involvement.
  4. Acceptance and rejection, legitimacy: Experience of discrimination, attitudes towards minorities and newcomers.
  5. Worth: Life satisfaction and happiness, future expectations.


I think you will all agree that in general Australia is a cohesive society, this backed by the research. According to the Australian Multicultural Council social cohesion at the national level is strong; however there is not a trickle-down’ effect to the community level.

For the first time, the 2013 Scanlon Foundation report asked respondents about multiculturalism’s impact on the ‘Australian way of life’ and whether it ‘has been good for Australia’. 84% of respondents agreed that multiculturalism has been good for Australia, while 75% agreed that it benefits the economic development of Australia.

The other positive outcomes the survey revealed is that 92% of people surveyed said they feel they belong to Australian society. Demonstrating that as a nation we have made important gains in making Australia more inclusive and respectful.

While we must celebrate these important achievements this survey reminds us that racism is a pervasive issue in Australia, and is a significant impediment to social cohesion and low levels of social cohesion can have long term implication on a nations productivity and prosperity. When everyone can actively take part in work life, we will immediately increase the number of productive workers contributing to our economy.

In 2013 Scanlon Foundation found a marked increase in reported experience of racial discrimination. When asked: ‘Have you experienced discrimination because of your skin colour, ethnic origin or religion?’ 19% of respondents answered ‘yes’ to the question; an increase of 7% on the previous year.

Although discrimination varied within sub-groups; Malaysian-born respondents reported the highest level of race discrimination (45%), followed by respondents who were born in India and Sri Lanka (42%), Singapore (41%), Indonesia (39%), and China and Hong Kong (39%).

The link between social cohesion and racism has been established by a report that was prepared by independent researchers for the Joint Commonwealth, State and Territory Research Advisory Committee. The report emphasises that racism and discrimination disrupt all social cohesion dimensions – this was evident from national and international literature and also the community case studies that were conducted as part of their research.[4] The report highlighted that “experiences of racism and/or discrimination denote a lack of recognition in the community and can disrupt belonging, inclusion and participation.” The study developed six key recommendations to enhance social cohesion in Australia– one of the six focussed on addressing racism and discrimination.

We should never underestimate the impact and effect of racial discrimination. The effects are major deepen and expansive then merely hurt feelings. Research shows that there is a clear correlation between discrimination and inequality. Racial discrimination contributes to social and economic disadvantage;[5] likewise, social and economic exclusion can exacerbate experiences of racial discrimination.[6]

Experiencing discrimination can lead to poor health both physically and mentally, taking years of life expectancy.[7] We know that racism can directly or indirectly exclude people from accessing services or participating in employment, education, sport and social activities.

The Commission conducted consultations as part of the National Anti-Racism Strategy, we asked respondents to tell us how racism made them feel.

Here’s what some of the respondents said:

  • “It makes me feel less connected to Australia and the Australian community to the point where I find it difficult to identify as Australian.”
  • “It makes me feel like I have made the wrong decision to enter this country.”
  • “Intimidated, unequal as an Australian, unable to give my best to my adopted country Australia which I now call home.”
  • “I experience racism on an all too regular basis ... It is a tremendous psychological blow because it is something that I experienced from age 5 to now and I am often left feeling helpless and vulnerable for days afterwards.”
  • “It makes me feel like I am lower than everyone else, an intruder who is not part of this society.”

The ability to participate in society and to be free from discrimination is not only an ideal. It is a basic human right – one that we all share in common; a right enshrined in the Universal Declaration and a number of other treaties that make up the body of international law.

Before I move on to the issue of racism in Australia, I’d like to provide you with a brief overview of the Australian Human Rights Commission.

The Australian Human Rights Commission

These notions of equality, participation and empowerment are values that underpin our work at the Australian Human Rights Commission, including anti-discrimination laws in respect of disability, age, social justice and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, race, and gender. Recent Commission priorities lie in responding to racial vilification, especially online and also bullying in schools and the workplace. .

The Commission is Australia’s national human rights institution accredited with an ‘A status’ under the Paris Principles. The Paris Principles set out the international minimum standards for the status and functioning of national human rights institutions. They provide that national institutions should have a broad mandate based on universal human rights standards, be autonomous and independent from government, have a pluralistic structure and operate in a pluralistic manner, have adequate resources, and have adequate powers of investigation.

The Australian Human Rights Commission was established as an independent statutory authority in 1986 through legislation that is now called the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986 (Cth). The legislation provides for a Commission constituted by a President, and seven Commissioners that broadly reflect those human rights that have been the subject of federal legislation. We have Commissioners in the areas of race, sex, disability, childrens rights, Indigenous rights and also a Human Rights Commissioner is focussing on the rights and freedoms found in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Under our statutory mandate we have several functions:

  1. We accept and try to resolve by conciliation individual complaints of discrimination and human rights under the four major pieces of legislation. No complaint under these acts can go to a court, unless and until the matter has been considered by the Commission. We receive over 17,000 inquiries and complaints a year; 65% are conciliated, making a major contribution to the principle of equal access to justice. The process costs nothing to complainant or respondent, and very few cases ever go on to the Federal Courts.
  2. We intervene in court proceedings that involve human rights issues; we examine laws relating to certain rights and often propose improvements to those laws; (eg: Maloney case re Queensland liquor laws on Palm Island).
  3. We conduct research and propose new policy and standards which would promote the enjoyment of human rights (eg: Age discrimination research reports; sexual abuse in the Australian Defence Force).
  4. We conduct national inquiries to bring special attention to issues of concern; (eg: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention).
  5. We provide education about human rights to improve awareness, understanding and respect for rights in our community – and I’ll discuss this with you in the context of racial discrimination a little later.


We also participate in international bilateral programmes with China and Vietnam, and our experience through these technical cooperation programs has been that our regional neighbours often look to us to share learn from our experience. Internationally, multiculturalism in Australia is seen as a success story, and stands as a good example on how to build a cohesive and inclusive society.

Racism in Australia: The current state of play

Although internationally we are often seen as a good example of multicultural society that welcomes diversity, racism does exist in Australian society.

The Australian Human Rights Commission is in a special position to make this observation because we handle over 17,000 inquiries and formal complaints each year.

In 2012-13 we saw a dramatic increase of 59% in complaints based on racial vilification and hatred. For the same reporting year we received 500 complaints under the Racial Discrimination Act, equating to nearly a quarter of all complaints received by the Commission.

Through this complaints service, the Commission is also aware that racial vilification on social media is a significant issue for many Australians. In comparison with the previous reporting year, in 2012-13 we saw:

  • An increase in the proportion of complaints under the RDA that concern racial hatred (increase from 14% – 19%)
  • A significant increase (19%) in the proportion of racial hatred complaints about internet material (from 17% - 41%)

Most complaints under the Racial Discrimination Act are about employment. Indeed, the link between all human rights based complaints and employment is very strong as people know almost instinctively, that if they are denied access to work, they will find it very hard to succeed in building their lives, educating their children and securing their futures.

It has become clear that exclusion, discrimination and vilification on the grounds of race exists as an undeniable element of our otherwise successful multicultural society.[8]

Not only have we witnessed an increase in racial discrimination through our formal complaints mechanism we have also seen a disturbing rise of racial abuse in the public domain, whether it be on public transport or on the sporting field. Such events have been labelled as ‘casual racism.’

You might recall the incident in which a French woman was abused for singing the “Marseilleilles”, and an ABC reporter, Jeremy Fernandez was racially abused while taking his daughter to school by bus.

We are all aware of the incidents involving Australian of the Year, Adam Goodes. Twice he has now been subjected to racist slurs while on the football field. Nearly a year after the infamous comments of a teenage girl, Goodes was again the target of racism at an Essendon game in May.

Following the latest incident, Esseden announced that they had cancelled the membership of one of their supporters who was, after an "extensive investigation", found to have abused Goodes.

Also on the AFL field, Melbourne’s Neville Jetta was subjected to racial abuse during a game against the Western Bulldogs. The perpetrator was never identified however the Western Bulldogs made the following statement:

It has been the club's initiative to make this matter public and to acknowledge the wrongdoing of one of our own supporters. When racist abuse rears its ugly head we will never as a club do what this person has done: disappear into anonymity.

It happened. One of our own supporters did it. We are all diminished as a consequence. But we will not let it pass. Even though we need every supporter we can get, we don't need supporters who behave like this.[9]

While it is disheartening to see the extent to which racism exists in our society, the positive outcome out of these recent events has been the extent to which society has stood up and confirmed that there is no place in sport, public transport or any other aspect of our society, for racism.

As part of our Racism.It stops with me campaign we have tried to build on this bystander approach and have released a community announcement featuring Racism.It stops with me Ambassador, Adam Goodes.

This video reminds us that there are practical things all of us can do to counter prejudice and discrimination.

Play video -

The Racism.It Stops with Me campaign was launched in August 2012 and currently has support from over 250 organisations across Australia.

That public awareness campaign is a central part of the National Anti-Racism Strategy that the Commission leads. In 2012, the Federal Government launched the National Anti-Racism Strategy, an initiative of its multicultural policy, The People of Australia.

The strategy involves a partnership of organisations. This currently includes the Australian Human Rights Commission, a number of government departments, the Australian Multicultural Council, Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils, and National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples. Tim Soutphommasane chairs this partnership in his role as Race Discrimination Commissioner

The Racism.It stops with me campaign aims to empower Australians to take practical action against racism. The campaign now has support from organisations across business, sport, education, local government and civil society. These include the AFL, Cricket Australia, Telstra, ANZ Bank, SBS, Universities Australia to name a few.

I encourage you all to go on to the Racism. It Stops with me website, and if you are part of a sporting organisation, club or business and you think they would be interested in supporting the campaign all the details of how to do so and what is involved is on the website.

As I highlighted earlier prejudice and discrimination are barriers to fair treatment and equal opportunity. They harm an individual’s freedom to participate as a citizen in the community. By excluding people, you are making them more vulnerable to entrenched disadvantage.

Although it is important to have strategies and campaigns in place to build awareness, understanding and facilitate cultural change, we also need legislation that protects our human rights and fundamental freedoms.

It is the position of the Commission that we need legislative protection across all human rights – not just racial discrimination.

The Racial Discrimination Act

Over the last few months we have seen a passionate public debate as to whether our 1995 Federal racial vilification laws place a fair restriction on the right to freedom of speech in a 21st century multicultural and democratic society.

The public discourse has been commonly labelled as ‘the freedoms debate.’ In an address to the National Press Club earlier this year I described the ‘freedoms debate’ as divisive and unproductive, in that it has polarised views and increased anxiety, particularly among minority groups.

During the election campaign, the Coalition promised to repeal or wind back Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, to prevent any repetition of the Bolt case. S18C makes it unlawful for a person to do a public act that is reasonably likely to ‘offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate’ a person if done because of the race or national origin of the person.

The Attorney-General has talked of a “multi-front war” being waged against freedom of speech and proposes new provisions to strengthen this freedom. The consequence is that, for the first time in decades, an Australian government is seeking to water down legislation protecting human rights, and to reverse a trend towards increased protection for of the rights of minorities and vulnerable Australians.

To understand the place of these laws in our society it is important to consider why they were introduced in the first place.

Sections 18C and D of the Racial Hatred Bill 1995 were introduced at the request of the Australian Institute of Jewish affairs, and leaders of the Italian, Greek, Vietnamese and Chinese communities, following a National inquiry into Racist Violence conducted by Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (now the AHRC), the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Report in 1991 and the Report of the Law Reform Commission on Multiculturalism and the Law, the following year.

The words ‘offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate’ were drawn from the much earlier Sex Discrimination Act of 1984.

In the second reading speech for the Bill the Attorney-General, Michael Lavarch, stated that:

It needs to be recognised that racial hatred does not exist in a provides a climate in which people of a particular race or ethnic origin live in fear and in which discrimination can thrive. It provides the climate in which violence may take place. It is itself a threat to the well-being of the whole community as well as to the individual or groups in the community...the bill strikes a balance between the right of free speech and other rights ... of Australians.. it provides a safety net for racial harmony in Australia... sends a clear warming to those who might attack the principle of tolerance.. and provides Australians who are the victims of racial hatred or violence with protection.

Through an exposure draft the Government has outlined its intent to lift the ban on offending, insulting and humiliating someone over their race, colour or ethnicity. Submissions closed on 30 April 2014, and approximately 5,300 submissions were received.

One of those submissions was from the Australian Human Rights Commission. The Commission’s position is that in the current form, the exposure Bill as drafted should not proceed.

The reasons is that the words 'intimidate' and ‘vilify’, have been so narrowly defined that is highly unlikely that anything will fall under these definitions. In addition to the narrow definition the Commission has expressed its concern about the breadth of the exemption in subsection (4) of the exposure draft.

This provision is so broad it is difficult to see any circumstances in public to which the protections would apply. Of particular significance is the removal of the requirement that acts be done reasonably and in good faith. The Commission considers that, at the very least, a requirement of good faith should be included. This would prevent racist abuse offered up in the course of public discussion being permitted.

One answer to the need for S18C lies in the facts – as I mentioned earlier we have seen dramatic increase of 59% in complaints based on racial vilification and hatred. I think it is also important to highlight that the Racial Discrimination Act as applied by the courts and administered by the Australian Human Rights Commission has successfully resolved hundreds of complaints about racial hatred over the past two decades. Those that come to the Commission are conciliated at no cost to those involved.

Race hatred laws have been one of the vital foundations for our enviable multicultural society. The laws provide accountability for acts that offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate on racial grounds, and provide a remedy to those that have been the subject of racial abuse.

I’m often asked ‘what are the types of situations that will be covered if the Exposure Draft is adopted in its current form?’ It’s difficult to consider situations that would fall under the revisions;

  • Racial abuse of an athlete at a football match would be permitted, because it would be unlikely to intimidate that person or incite others to hate him or her on racial grounds.
  • Holocaust deniers might be free to air their views, on the grounds that those views were part of public discussion of a political, social or academic matter.
  • A Muslim woman wearing the hijab in the local park with her children could be abused on the basis of her religion, quite legally, because she was not physically intimidated and no one was incited to hate her.


People of all religions, ethnic backgrounds, age and gender have so much to contribute, but this can only happen when there is a sense of inclusion and belonging, when people feel part of this country.

Racism prevents fellow Australians from being able to participate in our society. From an economic perspective this can be very detrimental, as we need all Australians to be able to fully contribute to the growth of the nation, drive innovation and productivity.

The research highlights that social cohesion in Australia is relatively strong; however racial discrimination is a barrier to and destroys social cohesion, peace and harmony. We therefore cannot talk about a truly cohesive and inclusive Australia without addressing racism, and the Racial Discrimination Act is vital tool within the Australian Human Rights framework to address and respond to racial vilification. It gives effect to Australia’s international human rights commitments and promotes equality between people of different backgrounds.

I caution the Government to consult widely and extensively before making any changes, as any amendments to the legislation have the capacity to affect the human rights of all Australians.

I acknowledge that legislation alone is not a panacea for racism. For attitudes and behaviour to change we need a multifaceted response – one that incorporates education, policy and legislation.

Not only do we need a national response but we must have systems and programs in place at the community level. Strong community engagement provides opportunity, builds wealth, promotes social harmony, and ensures greater equality and justice for all citizens.

I applaud organisations such as the Affinity Foundation who are doing fantastic work at the local level to empower individuals and facilitate positive dialogues and relationships between all cultures and faiths.

Legislation and policies can only go so far. As individuals we all have the capacity to combat racial discrimination and change attitudes about racism. I encourage you all to take a stand against racism - to borrow the words of Adam Goods: if you say nothing or do nothing, nothing changes.


[1] Markus, P. (2013). Mapping Social Cohesion 2013. The Scanlon Foundation Surveys National Report. AT (viewed 23 June 2014), page 13.
[2] Markus, P. (2013). Mapping Social Cohesion 2013. The Scanlon Foundation Surveys National Report. AT (viewed 23 June 2014).
Demireva, N. (2014). Briefing: Immigration, Diversity and Social Cohesion. The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford. At: (viewed 23 June 2014).
[3] UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA). Social Integration. At (viewed 23 June 2014).
[4] Dandy and Pe-Pua. Research into the Current and Emerging Drivers for Social Cohesion, Social Division and Conflict in Multicultural Australia. Report prepared for: Joint Commonwealth, State and Territory Research Advisory Committee (RAC) March 2013. At (viewed 23 June 2014).
[5] Y Paradies, L Chandrakumar, N Klocker, M Frere, K Webster, M Burrell, & P McLean, Building on our strengths: a framework to reduce race-based discrimination and support diversity in Victoria: Full report (2009).
[6] M Ruteere, Report of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance (2012) UN Doc. HRC/20/33.
[7] Zierscha, A.M., Gallahera, G., Bauma, F., Bentleya, M., (2011).Responding to racism: Insights on how racism can damage health from an urban study of Australian Aboriginal people. Social Science & Medicine, 73 (7): 1045–1053.
[8] A study conducted by Dunn and colleagues in 2008 found that around one in five Australians say they have experienced race-hate talk, such as verbal abuse, racial slurs or name-calling, and more than one in 20 say they have been physically attacked because of their race. See K Dunn, Challenging Racism: The Anti-Racism Research Project. At: http:// (viewed 15 August 2013).

Professor Gillian Triggs, President