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Speech to FECCA Workshop on Multiculturalism: Dr William Jonas AM (2001)

Race Race Discrimination

Speech to FECCA Workshop on

Speech by Acting Race Discrimination
Commissioner Dr William Jonas AM to the FECCA Workshop on Multiculturalism,
Sydney, 25 October 2001.

I would like to acknowledge
the Eora people, the traditional owners and custodians of the land where
we meet today.

Today's theme, considering
strategies to support multiculturalism in the current climate, is a most
timely one. It is of great interest to me, coming as it does after HREOC's
consultations across Australia looking at experiences of racism and how
to address it.

As you would be aware,
the Commission has taken an active role in preparations for the United
Nations World Conference Against Racism, which was held in Durban South
Africa in August - September this year. The Commission conducted a national
summit and youth summit on racism in Canberra in May 2001, followed by
regional consultations across Australia. These consultations were based
on the discussion paper Combating Racism in Australia, which also
formed the basis of an internet bulletin board. We also conducted specific
consultations with Indigenous women in western NSW and with refugee and
migrant women in Sydney.

The Commission's
strongly held view about these consultations was that for the World Conference
to be meaningful it must relate to the day to day experiences of people
who suffer racism. The consultations sought to engage communities in a
dialogue about racism - the extent to which it exists and measures to
overcome it.

The responses and
comments we received clearly demonstrate an overwhelming sense that racism
is widespread, institutional in nature and practiced at all levels of
society. As one Indigenous woman told us during the consultations:

'We just live
with racism everyday. It's like getting up, washing your face and having
a cup of tea.'

Every community consultation
identified that Australia's Indigenous people are worst affected by racism,
both directly and indirectly. Many people saw that past discrimination
against Indigenous peoples has left them in a disadvantaged position,
for example through limited access to education and consequently lower
educational achievement rates and higher unemployment.

Our consultations
identified people from diverse cultural and linguistic groups as victims
of racism through the lack of tolerance of cultural diversity and inappropriate
service delivery. "Visible" ethnic and religious minorities
were identified as being groups regularly subjected to racism, including
Arabs, Muslims, Africans, Jews, Palestinians and Turkish people. People
expressed significant concern about the stigmatisation and criminalisation
of asylum seekers as 'illegals'. This was seen as leading to an increase
in xenophobia against particular nationalities such as Palestinians and
people from Middle Eastern countries and appearance.

Particular concerns
were raised about the intersection of discrimination on the basis of race
with other forms of discrimination, such as that on the basis of gender,
youth or age, disability and sexuality. In these circumstances, discrimination
was seen to be multi-layered and cumulative. People suffer disadvantage
within and between fundamental aspects of their identities and often feel
forced to 'choose' between different communities and aspects of themselves.

The consultations
sought to identify the sources and causes of racism, to understand how
and why racism arises in order to identify effective strategies with which
to respond to it. What was particularly remarkable about the consultations
was that regardless of the location, educational level or backgrounds
of the people who attended, common themes were identified in relation
to the causes of racism in Australia. There was overwhelming agreement
on three key issues.

Firstly, the legacy
of colonialism was seen as the main cause of racism in contemporary Australia.
The inherently racist process of colonisation provided the basis for continued
and systemic racism against Indigenous Australians. The consequences of
colonialism are evident in the disadvantaged position of Indigenous people
in today's society.

A second source of
racism was seen in the ignorance, fear and lack of understanding of cultural
difference that participants saw in the communities around them. For many,
ignorance and fear have been present throughout Australia's history of
immigration of non-British people after colonisation, primarily given
expression in the White Australia Policy. While policy advances such as
multiculturalism were recognised, there was still an underlying tendency
to define non-British people as "others" and to fear cultural
practices different from those of Australians of British origin.

More recently the
effects of globalisation have generated fear and isolationism among many
Australians. The fear and lack of understanding is also present among
and between culturally and linguistically diverse communities. No one
group in Australia has a monopoly on racial intolerance or xenophobia.

Finally, throughout
the consultations a recurring theme was that the structures and power
relationships in Australian society are a major factor behind racism.
Racism can be used to maintain power and privilege, and the fear of others
can express a fear of having to give up power and influence in society.

We will be releasing
a report of the consultations in the coming months and so I don't intend
to recite the full findings of the report to you. For the remainder of
the time available I want to focus on some of the broader issues that
these main findings raise. In particular, I want to talk about the issue
of recognition of cultural difference and its significance for multiculturalism.

The recognition of
cultural difference was identified in the lead up to the World Conference
as one of the key issues that we face in relation to contemporary forms
of racism. It is, essentially, the flipside of racism and one of the main
ways of combating racism. As the Vision Declaration for the World Conference
Against Racism states:

Racism, racial
discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance have not gone away.
We recognize that they persist in the new century and that their persistence
is rooted in fear: fear of what is different, fear of the other, fear
of the loss of personal security. And while we recognize that human
fear is itself ineradicable, we maintain that its consequences are not…

Instead of allowing
diversity of race and culture to become a limiting factor in human exchange
and development, we must refocus our understanding, discern in such
diversity the potential for mutual enrichment, and realize that it is
the interchange between great traditions of human spirituality that
offers the best prospect for the persistence of the human spirit itself.
For too long such diversity has been treated as threat rather than gift.
And too often that threat has been expressed in racial contempt and
conflict, in exclusion, discrimination and intolerance.

Government policies
and practices must aspire to this vision. And this is the main challenge
that multiculturalism faces today.

As Race Discrimination
Commissioner, I see the necessity for there to be legislative mechanisms
such as the Racial Discrimination Act which prohibit racially discriminatory
forms of behaviour accompanied and reinforced by positive recognition
and celebration of cultural diversity and difference.

Under the Racial
Discrimination Act
, for example, the responsibility for holding someone
accountable for discrimination or racial vilification lies with the victim
of that racism. Multiculturalism and EEO policies, on the other hand,
require government agencies in particular to ensure that their services
and programs are reflective of and responsive to our diverse society.
Put differently, they are required to demonstrate that their programs
are not discriminatory.

It is within this
multilayered context, that I would like us to consider and analyse multicultural
policies and programs. We should constantly ask ourselves how do they
further the enjoyment of civil, political, economic, cultural and social
rights of individuals and communities.

Multiculturalism was initially intended to rectify the lack of recognition
and protection of these rights. But in the last 15 years these rights
have slowly been wound back. I would like to give just a few examples
by looking at some elements of the 'Agenda for a Multicultural Australia'.

The principles of
the Agenda are Civic Duty, Cultural Respect, Social Equity and Productive

On the surface it
would be hard to argue with these principles. I would contend that we
need to closely look at the assumptions which may underpin these principles.

Let us look at Productive
Diversity. It has been part of the multicultural agenda for over 15 years
and it has gained in importance and significance. While no one would doubt
that there are comparative economic advantages that Australia can draw
from its linguistically and culturally diverse make up we have to ask
ourselves why is it an underlying principle of a multicultural policy
and what consequences may it have.

It could be argued
that there are two assumptions underlying the productive diversity principle.
One is that it is there to ensure that individuals from culturally and
linguistically diverse backgrounds have equal access to the economic structures
thus ensuring their economic rights of being able to equally share in
the financial opportunities offered by society. The other assumption could
be that unless there is a net economic benefit to Australia from people
of linguistically and culturally diverse backgrounds then we need to reconsider
not only multiculturalism but also the intake of our immigration program.
I would contend that the second assumption has more sway than the first,
we need to only look at the increase in the skills and business focus
of our immigration program.

Basically, your rights
and place in society could be circumscribed by your capacity to economically

Civic duty is another
one of those terms which is often bandied around but rarely analysed.
In the Agenda it is stated it obliges all Australians to support those
basic structures and principles of Australian society which guarantee
us our freedom and equality and enable diversity in our society to flourish.

The clear assumption
here is that Australia already has in place a civil and legal fabric which
guarantees freedoms and equality. One of the main outcomes of the recent
consultations for the World Conference, and indeed from the scrutiny by
United Nations human rights committees in the last eighteen months, was
to highlight the clear inadequacy of legal structures in Australian society
for guaranteeing rights. We are, for example, the only 'western' country
in the world without a Bill of Rights or entrenched protections against
racial discrimination in our constitution.

Clearly, it is legitimate
for any citizen to challenge the structures and principles of that society.
I would contend that this falls within their 'civic duty'.

We could argue that
civic duty is about guaranteeing the rights of individuals to be equipped
to effectively participate in the political, social and cultural life
of the nation. A notion of 'civic duty' in this sense ensures that the
views and opinions of all citizens - from differing backgrounds and cultures
- can contribute to the broader public discourse that determines the future
direction of the structures and principles of our society. This would
place the responsibility on the political and civil structures within
society to ensure that people's participation rights are actively facilitated.

I would argue that
the difference is not semantic but substantive and provides a useful analytical
tool for questioning and challenging the assumptions that underpin many
policy statements - not only in the area of multiculturalism.

I trust that my comments
are not seen as a criticism of the National Agenda. I merely wanted to
pose some challenges for today's discussion which hopefully will lead
to a debate about the substantive issues confronting multiculturalism
and race discrimination in Australia.

For the Commission,
we will be focused on this task in our follow up to the World Conference.
While the World Conference outcomes were deeply flawed, nonetheless they
do represent a series of commitments by governments to address racism
- commitments to which we can hold them and other sectors of the community

HREOC will be seeking
to inform key sectors and civil society generally about the racism consultations
and the outcomes of the World Conference and, where relevant, to seek
commitments to implementation. Media organisations for example will be
alerted to those paragraphs of particular relevance to them, asked to
make a commitment to comply and challenged even to improve on Durban.
We plan to seek such commitments from local and State governments, police
forces, unions, employer representatives, major businesses, education
authorities, universities and others. In this way we plan to build a national
action plan on racism from the ground up.

We will also undertake
a number of activities over the coming months to further develop work
against racism, including convening a forum on racial hatred and the Internet
in order to identify ways of effectively monitoring and countering Internet
content for racism and race hatred and of utilising the Internet for disseminating
anti-racism campaigns. This process will culminate in March 2002 when
the Commission convenes a National Conference to present the findings
of these consultations and to develop a national plan of action for combating
racism in Australia.

Finally, I could
not address today's forum without commenting on the current issues faced
by Australia in regard to asylum seekers.

Many of you may recall
at last year's FECCA National conference I talked about 'lifeboat ethics'.
In light of recent events, I think that this is worth revisiting.

Developed some years
back, lifeboat ethics asks us to imagine that the countries of the world
are lifeboats floating in a perilous ocean. Some of the lifeboats have
few people in them - they are well - stocked with provisions, and are
in no danger of sinking. Other lifeboats are leaking, they are full of
people and in danger of sinking, and there are very few provisions on

Lifeboat ethics asks,
what should the rich lifeboats do for the poor lifeboats?

Lifeboat ethics suggests
that they can't really do anything because:

  1. if the rich take
    all of the poor people onto their boats then the rich boats too will
    become overcrowded and sink;
  2. they can't take
    just some of the poor people and leave the rest because this will create
    impossible ethical dilemmas about who is taken and who is left behind;
  3. they can't give
    them much in the way of aid because this will deplete their own resources;
  4. the people in
    the poor boats breed like rabbits anyway so giving them resources will
    only increase their numbers and make things even worse.

I used this example
last year to expose the fundamentally wrong assumption underpinning this
model - namely that we are on different lifeboats. The reality is that
we are all on one boat - a few people might be up the front in first class
while the rest of the population cling on precariously down the back of
the boat. But if the back of the boat sinks, the entire boat goes down.

This year I would
like us to think again about life boat ethics, especially in the light
of the current policies of both major political parties towards asylum
seekers who seek to arrive in our waters on over-crowded boats. Apart
from the obscenity of both political parties seeming to use this human
tragedy for domestic political purposes, I think it is very salutary to
remind ourselves of what one very perceptive write said as far back as
1978. At that time Geoffrey Lean wrote,

(what would
be the situation)… if, by some tragedy, the rich nations of the
world were to act upon the lifeboat theory? 'Can we imagine… any
human order surviving so gross a mass of human misery piling up at the
base?' Our precious lifeboats could be overturned by the hands clutching
at them from the water. Big holes could be blown in them by the nuclear
bombs likely to be in the hands of third world countries and terrorist
groups. The engines might stop because they were no longer supplied
with oil, or the greed of the people in the lifeboat might lead to fights
which would imperil the whole enterprise.

When we read this,
almost twenty five years later, and in the light of some recent events,
one of the things it does is to reinforce our knowledge that we live in
uncertain times.

I don't know if lifeboat
ethics are being acted out, but some recent decisions certainly seem to
be in line with them. I don't know if terrorists will ever use nuclear
weapons but when we think of the simultaneous hijacking of three jet planes
and the awful following events, not to mention the likelihood of biological
terrorism, I am forced to stop and think about such a scenario. Equally,
I don't know what dropping bombs on Afghani goat-herders and their families
is supposed to achieve but it is happening as we speak.

One I do know is
this: often when people are confronted with such uncertainty and the problems
associated with it is seem so huge they ask 'but what can I do?' I would
suggest that there is a better question than this and it is 'what can
we do?' And in our current situation where our aim is to combat
racism and to promote multiculturalism, I would suggest that at least
part of the we are HREOC and FECCA. At HREOC, as I've said, we deal with
legislation that applies when victims feel that they have suffered discrimination,
and FECCA is involved in multiculturalism policies where the onus is on
decision makers to show that there practices are not discriminatory. And,
of course, we are involved in raising awareness about these issues and
conducting in various ways education programs about race and diversity.
I hope that we can continue to work together, keeping each other informed
and calling on each other as needed. It is we rather than any individual
who can help us realise that vision of seeing difference as a gift rather
than something to be feared.


updated 1 December 2001