of the human rights and cultural diversity e-forum
Graeme Innes AM
Australian Human Rights Commission
Customs House, Sydney
16 October 2009
I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet
- the Gadigal people of the Eora nation.
For those of us passionate about multiculturalism, and who are concerned
about racism and related forms of discrimination, we don't need persuading about
the urgent need to protect human rights, and to understand cultural
However, for many Australians, and that includes key people responsible for
public policy, persuasion is still necessary.
I'm going to spend a bit of time giving you some background as to why the
time for head-burying, or procrastination, should really be over.
On the first of this month, Australia's population hit 22 million.1 According
to the 2008 report on population flows, natural increase (that is, births and
deaths) accounted for only 41% of this population growth.
Migration, on the other hand, made up most of this growth (59%).1 In fact,
it's predicted that, “within four years, as we in the baby boom generation
start to retire, net overseas migration will become the only source of net
labour force growth."1 Well-known demographer Bernard Salt graphically
illustrated this in the Australian just last week.
This is something we cannot ignore.
The population growth we're experiencing from overseas is not just from the
old source countries of the post-second world war era: the English-speaking
British, or the northern Mediterranean rim, virtually all of whom were Christian
and, if we must use the old racist descriptors, ‘Caucasian'.
In the 2006 census, while the UK was the largest overseas born group (23.5%),
this is declining. The second largest birthplace-group are the New Zealand born.
However, this data doesn't show that the ethnicity of many New Zealanders are
Samoan, Tongan, or other Pacific Islander origins.
What is changing dramatically is the enormous growth patterns from Africa.
For example, the number of people from Liberia increased by 1,239% since the
last census, Sierra Leone is up 437%, and Sudan up by 288%.1
This data clearly demonstrates that global demographics cannot just be
ignored. Let me illustrate how.
In 1900 approximately 25% of the world's
population lived in Europe. At the same time, 8% lived in Africa, and 57.4%
lived in Asia. A century later, Europe's share of the world's population had
reduced to just over 12%, Africa had increased to nearly 13%, and Asia to 61%.
By 2050, it's estimated, Europe's share will be down to 7%, Asia will be
relatively stable at 59.1%, and Africa will rapidly expand to 19.8%.1
Australia, since the late 1940s, has been drawn incrementally into this
maelstrom of global population change.
In speeches such as this one, we like to quote that Australians speak over
200 languages. That is, 3.2 million Australians speak a second language to
English. Over 500,000 Australians speak Cantonese, Mandarin or another Chinese
language, and languages such as Shona (up 530%) and Swahili (up 120%), are
However, when we also consider that Indigenous Australians alone have over
145 languages, its clear the figure of 200 is a low estimate. In fact, as a
total population, it's more likely that Australians speak closer to 350
Our diversity, of course, does not end there.
In the same way that our Great Britain-born migrants are declining, as a
percentage of the population, so too is Christianity.
While Australia is predominately Christian, and will remain predominantly so
for the foreseeable future, the number of Australians who reported themselves as
Christian is down 7% from 1996. Looking, however, at the smaller faith
communities: the number of Australian Hindus increased by 700%, Buddhism has
increased by over 400%, and Islam by 250% in the last 20 years.
Our world is also increasingly interconnected through information
technologies. An estimated quarter of earth’s population uses the services
of the internet. The internet has made possible entirely new forms of social
interaction, activities and organisation.
New tools such as the iPhone now mean that we have the internet literally in
our hands no matter (almost) wherever we are. Depending, of course, on coverage
by our favourite telcos. And Who knows what else the 21st century will bring in
terms of technology!
So what does this all mean?
Firstly, that while Australia is already diverse now, it will be increasingly
so in the future. As members of a culturally diverse society, we already
interact with people from different backgrounds - this will drastically escalate
in the future.
Secondly, that the relevance of these facts are largely ignored in political
and policy debates on - amongst other critical topics - human development,
freedom, community harmony, environmental protection, public safety, economic
sustainability and social inclusion.
Thirdly, the potential that human rights has to play in informing these
debates. In short: many of the issues about culture are issues about human
And so I come to why we are here today.
The Australian Human Rights Commission has funded - through the National Plan
for Action - to Build on Social Cohesion, Harmony and Security - a partnership
with the Institute for Cultural Diversity. This partnership will create a new
human rights and cultural diversity e-forum.
The Commission and the Institute agree: there is an urgent and worrying gap
in the discussion on human rights and cultural diversity. This is a discussion
about the future that is already here. a discussion that, if we fail to have, we
fail in our debt to the next generation of Australians to enjoy a civil and
The new e-forum that we launch today will enable us to keep open
communication with communities of diverse backgrounds, whether they are of
different race, ethnicity or faith, and will directly assist the work of the
Harnessing the benefits of the internet, the human rights and cultural
diversity e-forum provides a new platform for conversations about those
dimensions of our lives in which cultural diversity plays a part, and raises
awareness of Australia's richness of diversity.
I want to end by encouraging you all to become registered users, if you are
not among the over 200 who have already done so. I encourage you to contribute
your views. I encourage you to spread the word, and advocate for the rich
cultural diversity that is Australia.