Skip to main content

Speech: Shaping the Future

Race Race Discrimination

Shaping the Future

Third Regional Multicultural Conference

Friday 21 September 2007


  • Thank you for the privilege of inviting me to speak at this important conference.  I (Conrad Gershevitch) have known Eugenia Tsoulis for several years and she will remember the time when I worked as Director of the peak body FECCA which promotes cultural rights and social capital under the broad umbrella of multiculturalism.  However, I must emphasise that, in my current position, I am here speaking on behalf of Tom Calma, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice and a/Race Discrimination Commissioner as he is not able to be with us due to a competing commitment.
  • We have been asked to talk to you about cultural rights, human rights, social capital, multiculturalism and how these impact upon settlement services in a regional community – a big ask in a small period of time! In advance, I apologise to those who find that this talk is either too technical, or not technical enough. Its always difficult to get this balance right for a diverse audience.
  • At the outset, I would like to acknowledge the Boandik peoples and their ancestors, the traditional owners and custodians of the lands around Mount Gambier where we are meeting today.
  • This acknowledgement is, I think, a good way of framing the beginning of what I wish to talk about. I attend a lot of conferences and, more often than not, people begin their speeches with a quickly and rather garbled reference to traditional owners. This formality appears to be evolving into one of the niceties of etiquette at such events, but while doing so it runs the risk of loosing its meaning. 
  • From an Indigenous person’s point of view it is an important cultural protocol (be it in a metaphorical sense for the most part in contemporary Australia) because it is respectful to recognise and acknowledge that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are the First Nations People of Australia and the traditional owners and custodians of land. They have lived here for over 60,000 years and are recognised as being the oldest-living, continuous culture of all peoples of the world.
  • However, while important symbolically, Indigenous welcome can be used to opposite effect. A sociologist may argue, for example, that this is how dominant groups exert power over the subaltern by promoting a perception they are sharing power but actually use this formality as a covert form of control. 
  • It can also be seen as an example of how humans, generally, appear to have a need for ritual as a means to provide comfort, hope and cultural context.
  • I do think we should try to resist the tendency to be tokenistic in our acknowledgement of traditional ownership and treat it in a different way to most other expressions of ritual.
  • This is certainly possible.  For instance, when I was growing up in the late 1960s and 1970s Anzac Day had (it seemed to me as a child and adolescent) become little more than an irrelevant ordeal; perhaps in the process of slow extinction. But that has changed and Anzac Day is now imbued with near religious reverence for many. It means something to people, forging powerful bonds between the pain of the past, current circumstances, and hope for the future.
  • But let me return to the theme of Indigenous welcome, and through that, come to some of the themes of this conference.
  • How many of you know that last week was a week of enormous significance to the world’s 270 million indigenous peoples? Last week, after more than two decades of lobbying the General Assembly of the United Nations met to consider the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
  • Only a handful of countries resisted the call to ratify the Declaration and, when it came to the final vote eleven countries abstained and only four countries voted against it. And the four? Those countries that pride themselves as beacons of democracy and a fair go: the USA, Canada, New Zealand… and Australia.
  • Given the Commonwealth government’s sudden enthusiasm to rescue Indigenous people from themselves with the contentious Northern Territory Emergency Response legislation, the dismantling of ATSIC, and their arguing that Indigenous peoples should take greater responsibility for their own welfare, the government’s refusal to support any form of Indigenous self-determination by voting against the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples may seem perplexing to the more quizzical amongst you.
  • So, why is this UN declaration important, more than a symbolic set of claims? Like many UN statements, this document has its genesis in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which was ratified in 1949. This declaration is a bit like, if you are of scientific bent, the source of the genetic material with which all future generations have been born – related to and dependent upon the parent document, but evolved and distinct.
  • The UDHR unequivocally states that human rights are inalienable (they can’t be repudiated or given away to another) and that they are indivisible (you get them all… not just the convenient bits). 
  • Human rights are also (inconveniently for some) the rights of ALL humans – even those who don’t share your political views, your culture, your sexual preferences, your faith, racial group, or any other of the multiple determinants of human difference.
  • The UDHR then goes on to explain what these rights are. They include, for example, the right to life, to safety and security, to leisure and cultural practice, to adhere to and to practice a religious faith, or to hold to a secular belief system, to adequate education, housing and health.
  • Despite the clarity contained within this foundation document, it was later realised (by way of illustration) that it was inadequate to declare that all people have the right to security and safety.  As a result a more comprehensive declaration was prepared 26 years later: the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment to help ensure that human rights relating to these issues were better defined and, therefore, people would be better protected.
  • Similarly, and as another example, the need to protect the rights of those people seeking refuge was outlined in the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees in 1951.
  • Now, 58 years after adoption of the UDHR, the world has come to recognise that those peoples of the first nations have not been adequately covered by a UNIVERSAL declaration and a special statement about their needs for protection – cultural, economical, social, health and many other protections – demanded expression.
  • The Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples does just that. But while it uniquely articulates the rights and aspirations of the world’s Indigenous peoples it is really expanding, embellishing and enriching the UDHR. For us humans, it seems, the simplicity and clarity of the UDHR is just not enough.
  • Across the world governments, corporations, population groups and individuals selectively find that exploitation, bigotry, laziness, contempt, ignorance and greed is far more profitable and more convenient than fairness, decency, generosity and (more contentiously) morality.
  • Since the Second World War we have lived in a post-colonial era when, generally speaking, the world has avoided using unfettered, or at least blatantly overt, forms of power for national self-interest (although recent proponents of ‘pre-emptive defence’ offer a new and disturbing break with the global status quo between nations).
  • We do however, especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union almost 20 years ago, live in a world where the discourse of economic liberal ideology (particularly, although not exclusively, as promulgated by neo-conservatives in the United States) has been the dominant voice in international economics. This is an economics that embraces political, social and cultural activism.
  • Financial deregulation, changes to world trade, the opening of new markets – these are just some ways in which the inevitable progress of globalisation has become exponential and which have often brought considerable benefits for some societies.
  • Today is not a talk about global geo-politics, economics or political ideology, but these issues must at least get a mention in such a discussion about rights as they are necessarily enmeshed. 
  • I cannot see any other explanation for the continued denuding of our planet’s resources and the exploitation and neglect of Indigenous peoples than as a consequence of a triumphant international discourse of neo-liberalism.
  • This ideology unashamedly promotes economic development over human development and so-called ‘rational’ behaviours of self-interested individuals and profit-maximising companies as the   means through which all human activities must be regulated and determined. 
  • Not only is neo-liberalism, in it most unadulterated form, inhuman, unfair, unsustainable and destructive, it is primitive neo-Darwinism and has for its frame of reference an affluent, western, largely (and selectively interpreted) Protestant perspective. As such, it is a culturally biased economic ideology that excludes all other interpretations of human behaviour and motivation while it claims to be universally applicable in a social context.
  • This leads to a skewing of global affairs that ensures the poor and disadvantaged of the world continue to fuel the unprecedented material growth and wealth of the ‘developed’ nations of the world – it represents a straight transfer of goods away from those in need, to those who have few needs.
  • It is usually at this point that one has to put hand on heart and claim, “don’t get me wrong, its not that I don’t support globalisation and market driven economies…” And it IS true. The reality is that we live in a global market place and that a lot of good has come with market economics – and there could and should be a lot more good to come.
  • But in democracies, as human rights to freedoms of thought, belief and speech, we must be able tell it as we see it and, as many have argued, with the good of globalisation has come the bad… and often this has been very bad for both humans, and the social and environmental ecologies in which they live.
  • There is a human tendency, if not need, to polarise a view: you are either with us, one of the coalition of the willing, ‘good’ – or you are against us, ‘bad’.  So in our plural democracies, as Dr Clive Hamilton (the Australia Institute) has often warned us, dissent is often silenced by accusing the sceptic of being a heretic.
  • But there is nothing wrong with scepticism, scepticism is about asking questions, and all human progress has been driven by sceptics. If we do not dissent, if we say nothing, if we do not argue for human, economic and cultural rights, for fairness, equity, to right the balance, to point out that our unprecedented wealth is built at the cost of planetary survival and the quality of life of other human beings in other countries, then we are ‘black-armbanders’, or worse.
  • This scepticism is well founded and widely held. The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and other UN agencies, such the UN Human Development Program, have been saying as much for a long time.  For years, some of the world’s best thinkers in these areas have looked at culture, economics, human development, human rights and the sustainability of human heritage and ecologies.
  • Report after report have rung alarm bells: globalisation is good, but…
  • Declarations, statements, conventions keep coming out of the UN that attest to this, for example: the Universal Declaration of Cultural Diversity (2001), the Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development (2002), the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage (2006). Despite all this, it is only the UN after all, so what….
  • A moment ago I mentioned the Universal Declaration of Cultural Diversity, a particularly important UN-agency declaration and one which marked a turning point. It captured for the first time the work of the previous decade that located culture in human development, but within a framework of respecting human rights, sustainable economic growth, and a need to deal with environmental threats.  The UDCD claims that respecting and preserving cultural diversity has the capacity to humanise the worst excesses of globalisation.
  • Unfortunately, the UDCD was adopted at the same time as the 9/11 attacks occurred in the US in 2001 and, unsurprisingly, has been lost in the noise of battle waged in the war on terror ever since. 
  • It is, perhaps, unsurprising that we have a global perception (an important verb) there is a clash of cultures between the West, West look-alikes, and Islam.
  • What are the causes of the current concerns with global terrorism? That question could barely be answered in several conferences, let alone in a quick aside.  But, linking it to the themes of human rights, it has often been argued that the disequilibrium of global advantage, injustice for peoples and nations, exploitation, cultural misappropriation, loss of cultural pride and identity and all the social AND religious dislocation that result, MUST be fuelling global trends in dissent which so often manifest themselves in violence.
  • Globally, our response should be to right many of the wrongs of exploitation, to respect cultural identity, to moderate the cultural and economic colonisation, to return the old fashioned concepts of  ‘justice’ and ‘equity’ into diplomatic circulation. 
  • ‘Shock and awe’ military responses to religion-based radicalised violence, executed in tandem with their neo-liberal economic hand-maidens (as we have seen in recent years in Iraq) are just not proving to be the remedies that will solve these problems.
  • Yes, the threat of terrorism is real and horrible – especially because the targets are, more often than not, you and me. But how immediate is it, and is our global response commensurate with the threat?
  • While nations that perceive they are threatened by terrorism have poured hundreds of billions of dollars into hard security (the latest figure I heard, as of August 2007, was $10.4 billion in Australia alone) they have largely ignored the far more constructive strategy to address domestic terrorism threats: soft security.
  • Soft security is the sort of stuff that builds a respectful, inclusive society so that young people are far less likely to blow themselves up, and their innocent neighbours with them…
  • I would like to try and bring these global issues into some kind of context for this conference: how are cultural and human rights related to social capital, and what relevance does this have a regional human services conference?
  • Well, I think these are critical. Never before has the saying “think globally, act locally” been more relevant. This is about, to use another colloquialism, ‘people power’. Most of our leaders across the world lack either the creativity or the capacity to act – is this a failure of intellect, ethics, authority? Humans, and the planet we live on, cannot really keep waiting for an answer. Leadership is needed so, if there is a shortage around, then citizenry must provide this leadership itself. 
  • Since the disbanding of the Office of Multicultural Affairs and the Bureau of Immigration, relegating their remnants to remote branches of DIaC, multicultural policy has been seen as little more than one of the compliance tools associated with settlement services. And now it is not even seen as that. 
  • Judging by the many speeches delivered by relevant Ministers and their Shadows over the last 10 years or so, it would appear that they, at least, are confused.
  • Now, Ministers and their Shadows can barely bring themselves to utter the ‘M’ word. Not even when they are given a half an hour to discuss multiculturalism at a multicultural conference to a multicultural audience can they say the word – an extraordinary effort in Orwellian self-inflicted censorship and thought control.
  • Effectively, there has been no multicultural policy for two years. No policy on one of the critical, social value systems that promotes community cohesion, stabilises the threat of racism developing, reduces the risk of domestic terrorism, builds cross-cultural respect and communication and delivers vast benefits to the national economy and to the education, cultural and business sectors.
  • Recognising this vacuum, Commissioner Calma launched HREOC’s discussion paper on multiculturalism about one month ago in an attempt to keep the issues alive.
  • Ironically, the only (would-be-if-she-could-be) political figure who is putting multiculturalism on the agenda of public discourse is Pauline Hanson, now standing for the Senate in Queensland in the forthcoming federal election. Thank you Pauline for helping to keep multiculturalism alive as a topic of public debate by calling for it to be scraped!
  • Nevertheless, immigration (which built Australia’s multicultural society), especially skilled migration, is now at the highest level for decades. Immigrants (attracted from poorer countries that need the skills and workforce more than we do) help to solve our workforce problems.   
  • In a media release from Minister Kevin Andrew’s office on 13 September this year, he reports from the latest Longitudinal Survey of Immigrants to Australia (LSIA3) on how well skilled migrants are doing here, in particular in regional Australia where he boasts… “skilled migrants living in regional and low-growth areas do even better (than the average skilled migrant) with 99 percent employed after 18 months and average incomes around $50,000.”
  • But despite this influx; despite the fact that skilled immigrants are a tax revenue milking cow, grow our economy, keep many essential services functioning and help save our tertiary education sector from implosion, they are treated like cultural terra nullius: empty vessels that need to be filled with the right civic attitudes that are then scrutinized with a citizenship test.
  • Now, while it is important that all citizens of a country should know something about their home country, the main tragedy of all this is the failure of opportunity. How much richer, safer, happier, creative, engaged, informed, respectful would Australians be if we took full opportunity to work with our population’s diversity?
  • I haven’t directly discussed social capital yet but I have really been talking about it throughout this speech. 
  • Social capital is a contested term that has been defined many ways although I like the simple version that it “...is a set of attitudes and mental dispositions that favour co-operation within society (that)… equals the spirit of community” (Patrick Hunout, Social Capital Foundation).  It is also said to be, broadly, of two types:
  • Bonding social capital is the kind that brings an (homogenous) community together, giving it a sense of its identity, strengthening it and enhancing its distinctive qualities. 
  • Bridging social capital is the kind that closes gaps between communities and that builds communication, respect and understanding, largely by constructing social networks, between socially heterogeneous groups. Both types of social capital are important but require different strategies.
  • Respecting and protecting human rights, understanding the role of culture as a defining quality of what it is to be human, and ensuring that all members of our communities are treated within a human rights framework are perhaps the best, and simplest, things we can do to support social capital. 
  • Building social capital using these approaches and with a sustainable development approach IS the model for optimal human societies. Societies which are fair, wealthy, productive, safe and decent.
  • This has been comprehensively described in the United Nations Development Program’s report Cultural Liberty in Today’s Diverse World (2004) which argues that multicultural democracies are the best form of government that promote human development.
  • At the moment the macro settings are not helping us to achieve the goals of building multicultural democracies as well as they could be.  But this CAN, at least, be achieved at the micro level.
  • So here we are. Mt Gambier. September 2007. What’s happening? How is the big picture stuff relevant to you?
  • Local government in partnership with local business and community leaders, especially in rural contexts where social capital is often stronger than in alienating urban spaces, CAN make a difference.
  • With adequate infrastructure, with local support, with ethical, unequivocal leadership, communities can grow together, treating diversity as an asset, a resource to be enjoyed, an opportunity to learn and a place for friendship although the path is not always easy as human relations can often be complex.
  • In the long run, it is those of us who chose to enquire, to forgive, to understand, and to smile at difference who have more rewarding lives than those who ‘know’, who suspect, who fear and who scowl.
  • Professor Richard Florida has argued that, what he calls ‘creative classes’ make creative cities. While he writes from an American perspective, especially about larger cities in the US, the thesis is entirely applicable for communities such as Mount Gambier that have a solid social and economic base to build upon.
  • Florida argues that post-industrial societies that do not innovate, do not encourage creativity, nurture cultural diversity and plan with flexibility will, in the global age, risk going backwards. Those societies that are most successful at attracting the creative classes will flourish. Creative classes love diversity, freedoms (especially those related to freedoms of expression, thought, belief, speech) and build dynamic, exciting, wealthy, innovative, globally networked, ecologically sustainable communities.
  • The lesson for Mount Gambier, as indeed for any community in a similarly fortuitous situation, is that you can make a choice about the future you want. The world is on the move. For example, more Australians now live and work overseas than live collectively in the Northern Territory, the ACT and Tasmania – more than 1 million people! But not only are we on the move through skilled migration, but through the exchange of ideas, cultures, capital and goods.
  • You, as a community, can either embrace the positive opportunities that come from engaging with cultural diversity, or you can turn your back. If you do so, you may run the risk that you will miss out, not only in wealth creation, but in the joy of being open to the plethora of human creativity, ideas and experience.
  • We were asked to talk today about cultural rights, human rights, social capital, and immigration and settlement services in rural Australia. In 25 minutes. Quite a challenge! Particularly for the uninitiated, these can be complex issues. Inevitably they deal with the universal, with values, with the ebb and flow of global concerns.
  • What I have tried to do is explain how the issues are inter-related and (although this is not much discussed in Australia) how the international community, working through conventions, declarations and multi-lateral agreements, has argued that it is only with a concerted effort and a sustainable development approach that we can protect cultural heritage, the environment, human rights and human development. In so doing we will build freer, richer and more civil societies.
  • These things: heritage, environment and healthy human relations are vital if we are to have a future. They belong to all of us.  Increasingly we are recognising that how we behave locally, as in a regional community with a diverse demographic profile, how we co-operate, how we conserve and live sustainably, have small but global significance.
  • Now, more than ever, we must make the right choices about how we live, how we totally live. If not, there will be far fewer choices left for our children. That is not a legacy any generation wants to leave for the next.