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Speech: Getting back to basics: putting racial equality back on the national agenda

Race Race Discrimination

Getting back to basics: putting racial equality back on the national agenda

Race Discrimination Commissioner

FECCA 2009 Biennial Conference
Eastbank Centre, Shepparton, Victoria
29 October 2009

Keynote speech


Good morning everyone.

May I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet-the people of the Yorta Yorta nation.

Opening this conference is an honour, and also one of my first official duties as the Federal Race Discrimination Commissioner. For those of you that I haven't met before, I look forward to speaking with you today, and working with you in the future.

I've been a human rights practitioner for almost 30 years, and - both as a conciliator and a hearing commissioner- had first-hand experience of race discrimination complaints also have some lived experience of discrimination and exclusion. This relates to my disability. However, I haven't had the same experience of discrimination that many of you have lived with-that is discrimination, exclusion and unfair treatment based on your race, ethnicity, your colour, or your faith. I think that it's important to acknowledge this difference.

So I envisage my role as Race Discrimination Commissioner being based on a partnership with my community stakeholders. A partnership which creates a positive national dialogue around current cultural and intercultural issues, and that genuinely influences national public policy.

Over the last decade, we've seen issues relating to race, culture and religious belief dominating our headlines. We've seen race and faith becoming conflated with discussions about the 'War on terror'. We've seen race as a major factor in the Northern Territory Intervention, and a Parliament which took just 13 minutes to decide to suspend the Race Discrimination Act. Race and belief has been involved in debate about immigration, and our national responsibilities for refugee protection.  Race has been one of the elements in the recent attacks on international students, in Melbourne and outer western suburbs of Sydney. It has even featured in ill-conceived comedy skits on television. The issue of race never seems to be far from the headlines.

Yet there has been little real discussion about what all this means, and how it impacts on racial equality in our country. Indeed, there has been little reiteration of the fact that racial equality is one of the most important hallmarks of a developed and mature democracy.

So the main point I want to make today is that we have an opportunity to put racial equality firmly back on the national agenda, and that we should absolutely strive to do so. In a way, we need to take this opportunity to get back to basics on racial equality.

There are three key ways to get back to basics:

  • Firstly, we need to squarely acknowledge racism in its current forms in Australia,
  • Secondly, we need to ensure that legal tools such as the Racial Discrimination Act, or RDA, are working for the community, and
  • Thirdly, we need to recognise that legalistic approaches alone are only part of the solution. They must operate in partnership with strong policy approaches

So, firstly, why and how should we acknowledge the current forms of racism that exist in Australia today?

Let me begin by talking about international students, and recent episodes of racially motivated violence. This is the topic of the Australia and New Zealand Race Relations Roundtable meeting, which will take place next week. Safety and equity for students will be discussed.

This issue is significant, it has national implications, and it has raised the question-Is Australia racist? In my view, the answer is no. But it's a false question. It stifles any real reflection, or discussion, about our national commitment to racial equality.

We know, based on both our complaints under the Race Discrimination Act, and on current research1, that Australia, like most countries across the world, has pockets of persistent racism which have long term, serious impacts and human consequences. Many have not acknowledged a race element in the series of attacks. They have instead referred to them as "opportunistic".

But the denial of the race aspect of this violence simply invites future violence. We have all witnessed how quickly this issue has escalated over recent months. We cannot repair what we don't acknowledge.  Lack of acknowledgement says, in effect, that victims have misinterpreted the violence directed at them, and that their residual fear-and the fear of the international student populations and their families-is unwarranted.

There is no doubting the element of "opportunism" to some of the attacks. International students are particularly vulnerable to "opportunistic attacks", because there is a lack of parity between their rights and the rights of domestic students. International students can be caught in exploitative work arrangements, may have no access to public transport concessions, may have limited English language skills and limited social networks and support. These issues have been a neglected area of public policy. If we want the problems to be fixed, and importantly to stay fixed, these issues will need to be acknowledged. And importantly, the element of race.

I commend the establishment of multiple taskforces at the federal government level to address some of these issues. But where is our long term community strategy to promote respect and tolerance?

This leads me to the next aspect of renewing our commitment to racial equality-by making sure that legal tools, such as the RDA, are working for the community. As you may know, the Commission can investigate complaints under federal human rights and anti-discrimination law, and attempt to resolve complaints by conciliation. But let's look at a snapshot of complaints received in 2008-09:

  • 43 percent were lodged under the Disability Discrimination Act
  • 24 percent under the Sex Discrimination Act
  • 18 percent under the RDA-which amounts to just under 400 complaints.

The remaining 15 percent are complaints under the Australian Human Rights Commission Act, and the Age Discrimination Act.2

Despite the fact that the RDA has been in place for over 30 years, and was the first federal anti-discrimination law in Australia, in the past five financial years the majority of complaints have been under the Disability and the Sex Discrimination Acts. The RDA is being under-utilised. And we all need to take some shared responsibility for this.

Since becoming Race Discrimination Commissioner, I've quickly realised that the complaints made under the RDA are actually only the tip of an iceberg. There is far more race-based discrimination, and racism, than the stats tell us.

I understand that there are practical and genuine reasons which discourage people from a refugee or migrant background, or those whose first language is not English, from making a complaint. I also accept there are legitimate challenges to the RDA being fully effective for all, so the Commission must work harder to find ways to address these challenges. But we also need help from our stakeholders, such as those in the multicultural sector, to lodge and resource the lodging of complaints.

I am also concerned that many communities are unaware of what the RDA can do. Of added concern is the lack of confidence that some community members have in the RDA as a tool to minimise discrimination.

If these perceptions are true, this is unfortunate, because complaints under the RDA in 2008-09 had the highest conciliation rate-55 percent-of complaints made under all Commission anti-discrimination legislation, as well as a high conciliation success rate of 72 percent.3

The RDA can lead to positive change. And I'd like to share with you two examples of successfully resolved complaints:

In the first example, a respondent credit union would not allow the complainant's wife to open a bank account as she was not an Australian citizen. The complainant alleged discrimination on the basis of immigrant status. The complaint was resolved at a conciliation conference, and the respondent credit union's policy and practice was changed.

In the second example, the complainant was of Indian background.  The complainant was employed by the respondent on a casual basis, and asked for leave to go overseas to see his mother who was ill. The complainant claimed the leave was granted. however, his job was not available when he got back, although other people in similar circumstances were given jobs. The complainant alleged that his race was a factor in the decision to not offer him further casual work. The complaint was resolved at a conciliation conference, and the complainant was offered a job.

Employment, and the provision of goods and services, are the main areas of complaint under the RDA. And the Commission plans to make many more stories such as these available on our website, as a guide to what can be achieved. And as a prompt to encourage more people to achieve it.

These stories illustrate how the RDA can be used to contribute towards renewing our commitment to racial equality. However, legal approaches are only part of the solution. They must operate in partnership with strong policy approaches. And this brings me to the final point--Policy.

Some people's experiences are sometimes too complex and nuanced to be resolved by a legal remedy. Complementary policy responses can work to support people in these situations, as well as bring benefit to the community as a whole. This is where social inclusion comes in.  Social inclusion is about creating an enabling environment. Social inclusion honours the nuances of cultural identity, and cultural diversity, and creates opportunities for people to be included in ways that they value.

The Commission recently wrote a submission to the Australian Government regarding their Compendium of Social Inclusion Indicators. We said that social inclusion policy is another tool that can work to reduce the incidence of race-based discrimination-but this can only be possible if race and cultural dimensions of social inclusion are recognised. In our submission, we also said that race discrimination should be redefined as discrimination that is based on more than the physical attributes of an individual. What is generally deemed to be 'race discrimination' is now often a complex mix of hatreds, based on appearance, ethnicity, culture and faith. I expect the Commission was not alone in raising these issues.

Another policy, a multicultural policy, is also squarely part of a human rights framework. Recently I met with the Australia Multicultural Advisory Committee, or AMAC, to engage with them and their work, including the government's eagerly anticipated multicultural policy. I emphasised that a multicultural policy needs to encompass a human rights element, social inclusion, and cultural and religious diversity. I flagged the Commission's interest in having a high level of involvement with the policy development process. I asked about the coordination of the work of AMAC and the Social Inclusion Board, because of the clear areas of overlap, and the value-adding such coordination would bring. I also informed AMAC about some of the Commission's initiatives that work in these areas.

To summarize,

Firstly, we must re-set the way we view and examine the events that have been taking place in our country, and start to squarely acknowledge the current forms of racism that exist here, as they do in all other countries.

Secondly, we must realize that the legal tools we have to address and prevent racism, such as the RDA, are not working for everyone in our community, and that part of this is a lack of understanding and knowledge of how these tools work.

And thirdly, we must recognise that legal approaches are only part of the solution, and we need to ensure they operate in partnership with strong policy approaches.

So what next?

Over the last month, you would have heard reports about:

  • Australia's population hitting 22 million on 1 October4 and
  • global patterns of population growth, including projections that Australia's population will grow by 65 percent, to reach over 35 million people in 2049.5

Statistics are also telling us that the majority of our population growth will come from net overseas migration. Australia's demographic future will inevitably be more racially, culturally, and religiously diverse.

These projections make the issues I've been talking about today all the more relevant and urgent.

Firstly, in striving to acknowledge racism, our sector has to raise the profile of these issues to the general public. As a sector, we need a long term community strategy to promote respect and tolerance, so that this becomes an issue with which all Australians are engaged.  Communication and education are the key here.

The recent National Human Rights Consultation Report called for better human rights education in Australia. During our preparation for the national consultation, new and emerging communities, and established ethnic communities, raised a number of concerns with the Commission.  Their key messages included:

  •  we want a fair go
  •  what are our rights?
  •  we are scared to make a complaint
  • we don't trust the government, and
  • we don't understand systems of government, or the complaints process.

Education about our human rights is therefore critical, because it is proactive, protective, and preventative. It builds a human rights literacy that creates understanding and respect, and that strengthens communities.

My second point is, what is the use of a tool that hardly leaves the toolbox? Our legal tools, such as the RDA, can change the minds, and sometimes the lives, of complainants, of respondents, and can even contribute to systemic change. But this message is not getting out to communities.  We all need to work together to promote the use of the RDA to combat race-based discrimination.

Again, education is a solution. We need to create an awareness and education strategy, that will address the concerns, misunderstandings and uses of the RDA, and the complaints process. And in recognition of the fact that the RDA may not be working for all, we need to ask how it can be used more effectively. Maybe it's time for the Commission, and other stakeholders such as you, to lobby for self initiation powers for the Commission? If the Commission had the power to initiate complaints on behalf of the individual and the community, perhaps more systemic change could be achieved.

Thirdly and finally, change can only be possible if the race and cultural dimensions of social inclusion are recognised. The Commission has urged government to consider these points when developing the new multicultural policy:

  • including cultural and religious diversity
  • developing race equality indicators and other measures
  • using a policy development process that relies on comprehensive consultation with ethnic communities and relevant stakeholders
  • including systems of auditing, benchmarking and compliance, and
  • considering a national anti-racism plan to complement the policy, and link with the major social policy agendas-such as the social inclusion agenda.

As a sector, we should all be asking loudly for this.

National and world events which shine the spotlight on racial inequality present us all with an opportunity. The opportunity to put racial equality firmly back on the national agenda, and in the minds of all Australians. For all of us here today, working together to renew our commitment to racial equality is critical. By getting back to basics now, we will be preparing ourselves for a future of greater cultural diversity that really is not too far away.

Thank you for the chance to speak with you today.


[1] K Dunn, Constructing Regionally Appropriate Anti-Racism Strategies Project, http://www.dduwsddeduddaustsociallessciencesstsossstresearchstchallengingracismstsurveys(viewed 23 October 2009).

[2] Australian Human Rights Commission, 2008-09 Annual Report, (2009), pdd62.

[3] Australian Human Rights Commission, 2008-09 Annual Report, (2009), pdd63.

[4] McCrindle Research Pty Ltd, Snapshots Australia Hit 22 Million on 1 October 2009

[5] W Swan, The population challenge and Australia's future, (speech delivered at the launch of the Australian Institute for Population Ageing Research, 18 September 2009).  At http://www.treasurer.gov.au/DisplayDocs.aspx?doc=speeches/2009/025.htm&pageID=005&min=wms&Year=&DocType=1