Skip to main content

Speech: Macquarie University Diversity Awards (2009)

Race Race Discrimination

Macquarie University Diversity Awards

Graeme Innes AM
Race Discrimination Commissioner

Disability Discrimination Commissioner

Sydney, 3 August 2009

Thank you for asking me to speak with you today. I begin by acknowledging
the traditional owners of the land on which we meet.

Today, as the first day of your diversity week, is clearly a busy occasion,
if the crowd in the courtyard outside is anything to go by. And the range of
activities typifies the diversity theme.

Today is an auspicious day for the opening of diversity week. On this day in
1492 Christopher Columbus set out from Spain to find the new world. His was
perhaps the first voyage towards diversity in our world.

It's also appropriate that I was asked today to speak about diversity and
human rights on the day that I will launch your university's social inclusion
plan. Because recognising and respecting diversity should automatically lead to
inclusion. This however, is not always the case.

For many years, the Australian Human Rights Commission has sought to protect
groups which were identified as being vulnerable to discrimination. This is one
of the rationales for human rights theory. However, human rights are not just
about protectionism from institutions that own and dole out opinions on what
justice is. Human rights should inspire individuals and groups to seek that
protection, even if sometimes they find it difficult to know where or how to
articulate those rights.

The Commission's new vision- is human rights: everyone, everywhere, everyday.
It's a good vision, and not difficult to support. It is not however, as most of
us would know, a simple concept to implement. Your university is making steps
to do so today, with the launch of a social inclusion plan.

These ideas are simple to think about, receive unanimous support, but why are
they so hard to implement? One word: Diversity. It's the key to making life
interesting, but also sometimes leaves human rights in a grey area. This is why
inclusion is such an important concept to understand, as sometimes the method of
exclusion is not always apparent. Gone are the days where laws prevented people
of two different skin colours from marrying. No longer are doctors allowed to
lock someone away, with no recourse for appeal, because they were irredeemably
considered to be "mad". Gone are the legal barriers which prevented women from
inheriting property, owning a business, or being allowed into a pub. These laws
and powers labelled and segregated us by what were seen as our defining
features. They segregated people who were seen to be outside of what was
considered "normal".

Exclusion these days is not usually so obvious. It is still very insidious.
The Commission has been working with the disability sector for 10 years to try
to implement Disability Standards on Access to Premises. These will regulate
accessibility of buildings for people with disabilities. Because whilst if I
called a meeting to discuss a particular issue, and said that women could not
attend, society would be outraged. But we, as a society, regularly exclude
people with disabilities from attending meetings, employment or community
activities by constructing barriers such as steps, or lifts which do not
announce which floors they are on, which exclude us from buildings. We have the
technology and the know-how to make buildings accessible. So why don't we do

I notice, that your new library will be opening next year. I see it has an
established, and annually reviewed, Accessibility Policy for the building, and
the access to its contents. I trust that this means that students with
disabilities will not be excluded from attendance there, or use of the contents.
This library, I hope, will serve all the industrious students of this campus for
many years, inspiring with the knowledge it will contain. Libraries are
significant barometers of the society for which they were built, for they
contain learned knowledge and stories of the community.

But let's think about some of those stories. The stories that inspired us as
we grew up are driven by tales of exclusion, oppression, and the morality of the
just defence of the more vulnerable groups in society. Fairy tales, mythology,
even the epic space opera Star Wars, gives us lessons in inclusion. It sees the
selfish use of power by the dark side of --the Force-- by the Sith in Star Wars
is undone by the actions of a selfless few, liberating others like the Ewoks.
This is a hero story, and admirable, but it doesn't go far enough for me. A
human rights based approach to protection of rights, in this case, the right to
live alongside annoying animated characters, demands that all should be versed
in respect for diversity, and the genocide of an entire planet should be
universally understood as a bad thing, and fought against by all.

Let's move to a more recent phase in our cultural mythology- the world of
Harry Potter. Harry's efforts in saving the world from the oppressive force of
Voldemort is obviously applauded, and metamorphoses him from a celebrity for
survival into a celebrity for being a hero. This experience, however, can be
contrasted with Hermione's quest to save the house elves from their slavery,
admittedly not appearing to be a world threat. However, the reactions of many
of the characters do reflect the attitudes of people when someone wants to
change the status quo. In trying to liberate others from being excluded and
oppressed, Hermione is mocked, and greeted with justifications such as that the
elves are happy as they are, or that she is disrupting the natural order of
things. How different are those arguments to the ones we heard for keeping
people with disabilities in institutions, or Aboriginal Australians in their

Some readers of these novels have been inspired by the word of Dumbledore to
do more than just read the novels and enjoy them. Recent media reports indicate
that activist groups are being formed around Dumbledore's philosophy, let's hope
not his dress sense as well.

Recent media reports have also detailed the far more serious situation of
violence and exploitation of international students. A system appears to have
been created where these students have felt extreme exclusion. Excluded by
violence, by fraud, and by limits to the help that they can seek.

Exploitation of any group is to be condemned. However, there is something
more visceral about exploiting someone's desire to learn. As newly appointed
Race Discrimination Commissioner, these stories concern me greatly. Education
is one of the corner stones for acceptance of diversity. In fact, education and
human rights are both striving for the same thing- betterment through
understanding. Ill-informed prejudices limit a person's possibilities, and
prevent us all from learning.

The distinction must be made between inclusion and assimilation. Inclusion
doesn't mean one-size fits all. On your campus, for example, you have
multi-faith dialogues, and several prayer rooms for different faiths. People
can learn in an environment which supports difference.

Rights should be transformative, to individuals, to organisations and to
society. When each layer of society has a system for inclusion, whether moral
or sometimes - more forcefully - legal, decisions will include forethought for a
diverse range of needs and groups. Human rights principles build much on
diversity. And diversity stops the world being a very boring place. Diversity
is merely one way of describing a world where tolerance is key. Inclusion of
diverse groups and needs isn't just a theoretical idea. It is the only way in
which rights for humans can exist.

I see that your social inclusion plan, which I am launching today, contains -
amongst others - goals of building a more diverse student population, and
ensuring a safe, positive and supportive experience and environment for all
students and staff. Essentially, the plan seeks to reach people involved with
the university- both inside and outside it - and engage them more by identifying
areas of disadvantage, opportunities to diversify, and possibilities of
development. These are the sorts of directions which put the human rights
principles I have been discussing into practical effect.

Decisions about building accessibly, or a dilemma about whether to wipe out a
planet for a super highway, or just because you need to test out your death
star, could, and should, be informed by opinions from those that it will affect.
We should take inspiration from those that accept the responsibility, and
respect the rights of, others. People such as Dumbledore, and the creators of
your social inclusion plan. I'll leave the decision about whether to follow
their fashion style to you.

I am pleased to launch this plan, and thanks for the opportunity to speak
with you today.