Social Inclusion for New and Emerging Communities
Commissioner Tom Calma
Opening speech to the “Making a
Social Inclusion for New and Emerging Communities
Adelaide, 26 June 2008
Good Morning distinguished guest, friends and supporters of a fair and just
I would like to begin by paying my respects to the Kaurna people, past and
present, the traditional owners of these lands, thank you also to Aunty Josie
for your warm welcome.
I would also like to acknowledge
- His Excellency Hieu Van Le, the Lieutenant Governor of SA
- the convening organisation of this conference, the Migrant Resource Centre
of South Australia, in particular
- Judge Rauf Soulio (Chair) and
- Eugenia Tsoulis (Executive Director)
- and my fellow panelist, Justice Robyn Layton.
Thank you for inviting me here to address you today on the theme of
‘Social inclusion’ - these are the words that anybody and
everybody who is interested, or involved, in social policy are talking about
I’ve worked in the public service for 35 years and I’ve seen
social policy fads come and go. I’ve seen the fashionable language get
used, abused, and then dropped, or more frustrating, paid lip service.
As you will appreciate it is easy to get a bit jaded and a bit cynical about
these bureaucratic trends!
However, with the new emphasis on social inclusion, I am somewhat less
sceptical than in the past. In this speech I’ll try and explain why.
Our immediate past Prime Minister gravely warned the electorate that
“... if you change a government, you change the nation”.
Voters seemed to think that was well observed, and at the last election a
majority voted for that very change.
While there were claims (and counter-claims) of a lot of
‘me-too-ing’ in the 2007 election campaign, and a sense that the
then opposition was not going to be much different, subsequent history has shown
that the new government is, indeed, taking an alternative approach to governing.
While this new approach is reflected in both style and rhetoric, much of this
is derived from values. And the value of social inclusion is clearly one of the
genuine drivers of the new government.
Traditionally, governments of the left or centre left (in Australia, the
Labor Party when both in office and Opposition) have led debates associated with
wealth, employment, or social status.
Certainly, the now defunct Work Choices laws clearly went against the
previous government among many voters.
However, in more recent history both sides of politics have found common
ground around economic management.
‘Economic conservatism’ was also a pre-election credential with
which both sides labelled themselves, and it is one that seems to be largely
adhered to by the new government.
Given this broad, political, economic consensus, social inclusion seems to
have now become an all-encompassing term that captures many of the new
government’s policy platforms about social equity and fairness.
It is also helping to clearly distinguish it from the former government.
Social inclusion, then, is a tag – with an associated set of values
– that, in simple terms, describes how a civil society provides
opportunity, builds wealth, is sustainable, promotes social harmony, and ensures
greater equality and justice for its citizens.
It is, I would like to add, a set of values that should also apply to those
for whom we have a moral responsibility, but who are not Australian citizens,
although they seek our protection. People such as refugees, asylum seekers and
temporary visa workers.
Putting on, for a moment, my hat as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
Social Justice Commissioner, I would like to note that the government’s
commitment to social inclusion has been significant for indigenous
It was through social inclusion values that the government apologised to the
It was these same values that have driven the government to make many
commitments to achieve significant and practical improvements in the lives of
Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in coming years.
I don’t agree with everything the government is doing in indigenous
affairs - but I do acknowledge that it is through its strong commitment to
social inclusion that it is making real efforts to close the gap in life
expectancy between Indigenous Australians and the rest of the population.
It is investing in better education for Indigenous children, and it is
working to end the cycle of violence and despair that has hurt so many
However, what I particularly want to explore in this speech is the
relationship between social inclusion and human rights.
As you know, I am one of the Commonwealth Commissioners responsible for human
rights in Australia so it is my business to be particularly interested in this
As an optimist, I can say that I hope Australia is at the dawning of a new
age of human rights and that history will illustrate this as one of the major
legacies of the new government.
The Prime Minister has been doing a lot of talking this year about human
rights – although much of this talk has related to human rights abuses in
other countries, such as the treatment of the people of Tibet by the Chinese
The government has also said that it will consult about the establishment of
a Bill of Rights.
This is important. After all, Australia is the only democracy in the world
that does not have specific legislated protections for the human rights of its
Other human rights-related achievements of 7 months of the new government
- amendments to the industrial relations laws enacted by the previous
- amendments to a wide range of laws to end discrimination against people in
- ending the ‘Pacific solution’ for the detention of asylum
- ending the system of temporary protection visas
These are important human rights issues which should have been
addressed under domestic legislation that meets Australia’s commitments
under the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights – which Australia supported back in 1975 – as well as other binding
United Nations covenants, conventions, protocols and declarations, but have been
avoided over the last decade.
At HREOC, we are hopeful that this bodes well for a better promotion and
understanding of human rights in Australia, and these actions compliment our
Commission’s new slogan that says human rights are for every one, every
where, every day.
Despite the frequent use of the term ‘human rights’ it is one
that I would like to briefly examine.
Human rights are both an ideal, or set of ethical values. As well, they can
be transformed into specific instruments enshrined in law.
Human rights can mean many things, and can be used in many ways. In the
recent past I would say that HREOC has had a strong focus on the specific
legislative tools available to it.
Laws such the Racial Discrimination Act, the Sex Discrimination
Act, the Disability Discrimination Act and the Age Discrimination
Act all represent, at the national level, an attempt by the Commonwealth
Parliament to pass laws that meet Commonwealth obligations under international
human rights conventions to which Australia has agreed.
HREOC administers these laws, handles complaints that relate to them, and
provides advice to courts on how to interpret the laws.
Human rights, therefore, can be seen as a legal concept that should be
understood and acted upon within that setting.
Because it is linked to the work of the United Nations, and that
organisation’s incredibly complex modus operandi, human rights are
often seen as esoteric, a highly specialist area and only really accessible to
the expert in international law and justice.
On the other hand, human rights are a value system that just happens to be
also documented in various international declarations and conventions, and in
nations’ domestic laws.
Look at the foundation document: the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights, which celebrates its 60th birthday this year.
The Universal Declaration outlines rights associated with, amongst many
others, rights to life, health, justice, education, housing, leisure, cultural
practice and religious or political belief.
Given this, there are human rights dimensions to most aspects of human
So, if this is the case, how can we manage a human rights approach to living?
Is it too difficult since human rights weave their way into all our
activities, and the ways in which we live our lives?
Ironically, some critics of a Bill of Rights for Australia have said that
because human rights are so important, and so infused through our culture and
our expectations of society and government, that we shouldn’t actually
have these rights protected under specific human rights laws because they are
likely to be abused by unelected interpreters of the law (eg, Judges)!
Human rights are about the inherent dignity that should be accorded to all
humans, and an approach to social affairs that is based on respect,
understanding and communication.
Practicing human rights in our day-to-day activities are a way of living and
working that opens people to a more socially inclusive life.
Social inclusion, on the other hand, is a highly elastic term, partly because
it is vaguely defined.
It can be described as a ‘value’, which is essentially an
intangible quality, as well as a policy principle upon which tangible programs
may be built.
For example, the government is talking about social inclusion principles as a
means to address immediate material issues that also have a social justice
dimension, such as homelessness, workforce participation, education, and costs
However, social inclusion, considered in a broader way, really should also
encompass a strong cultural dimension.
In a genuinely socially inclusive community peoples’ religious,
cultural, ethnic and racial beliefs and backgrounds should, as an absolute
minimum, be respected.
More properly, they should be seen as an asset that enriches civic life.
We are, all of us, individuals with our own unique qualities and preferences.
Our cultural, spiritual, professional, family and social identifying
characteristics make us who we are; this distinctiveness is a necessary and
inevitable biological reality.
I find it remarkable that this obvious fact needs to be promoted over and
To use an old saying: what is good for the goose should be good for the
gander – what we expect for ourselves (respect for who we are and what has
shaped us) should be extended to those whose identity-markers are just more
overtly different from our own.
One of the distinguishing features of humanity is just how vastly different
we all are... but also, how similar.
Negotiating this elementary paradox should not be as complex as history
demonstrates that it clearly is!
For a quarter of a century, the social policy that promoted these realities
was the policy of multiculturalism.
This has been a very important policy that has contributed so much to
Australia’s past and continuing success as a culturally plural, yet
It has been, nevertheless, a policy that was progressively weakened and
neglected by the previous government. So much so, that I felt compelled to
produce a position paper defending multiculturalism in 2007.
It was an important act that I, as Australia’s Race Discrimination
Commissioner, took the lead in producing and releasing this paper.
Multicultural policy has often been discussed and debated without strong
reference to human rights and, in recent years, it has been a policy that has
often been incorrectly and closely affiliated with settlement services and the
integration of immigrants and humanitarian entrants into Australia.
A little tangential to the policy, and certainly more intersecting with human
rights issues, has been the way asylum seekers have been treated by government,
particularly under the policy of mandatory detention.
This issue, however, has tended to be clearly delineated from
multiculturalism – perhaps because it was considered too risky under the
previous regime to closely associate the two, given that it may have spelled the
final death knell of the policy by a government looking for an excuse to do
I would argue that human rights are the missing dimension of multiculturalism
as it has been recently articulated in Australian policy.
For example, the economic participation of skilled immigrants and the
recognition of their qualifications, language retention, and inclusion in
government decision-making - these are issues where there is a clear
intersection of social inclusion, of human and cultural rights, and of
I think the omission of human rights in multicultural policy has weakened the
policy for, without understanding multiculturalism as a supporting arm of human
rights, is to lessen its moral standing as well as its practical
On the other hand, multiculturalism creates a very nurturing environment for
the broader expansion of a civic human rights culture.
I think it is fair to say that no society can truly claim to have a strong
human rights culture and human rights policy and legislative framework if it
fails to support a form of multiculturalism.
On the flip side, multiculturalism without human rights becomes farcical or
Another feature of multiculturalism – a feature shared with the concept
of social inclusion – is that it is about bridging social capital.
So far, during the course of this still very short century, we have heard and
read a lot about social cohesion.
Indeed, social cohesion and social inclusion sometimes appear to be used
interchangeably, as though the two mean the same thing, or at least intend to
have the same outcomes.
I believe this is a mistake. Language is important.
This was recognised in the famous novel by George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty
Four, as well as in his other literary criticism, but it seems to be an
issue that is increasingly forgotten.
- Restrict a language, and you restrict thought.
- Let a language die, and you kill a culture.
- Corrupt meaning, and you corrupt civic values.
- Encourage ambiguity, and you confuse and divide a society.
In recent years Professor Peter Manning, and other commentators on
the media, politics and language, have debated the term “dog
This is a phrase that refers to the use of coded messages within language
that, at one level, may appear neutral, but at alternative levels, sends
meanings to different audiences. These embedded messages are often of hate and
This is another subtle, yet mischievous, use of language that threatens civil
To return to social cohesion and inclusion: lack of clarity between these
terms should be resolved.
The term cohesion refers to bonding, about bringing together, about adhesion.
It is a more centripetal idea, of the disparate being attracted towards a
centre, or a “mainstream”.
Inclusivity, or inclusion, is a term that is about inviting, or helping
others, to join in, to participate, to be part of something on equal terms.
The distinctions between the terms are real... and are really significant.
In terms of social capital theory, it could be said that cohesion is about
bonding social capital, whereas inclusion is about bridging social capital.
In case you are not familiar with these terms, bonding social capital is seen
as a way of building the strength within largely homogenous communities.
It is useful to improve its functioning when the ‘core values’
within a community are already largely shared and understood.
Bridging social capital, on the other hand, is about outward looking –
about bringing diverse communities together to build a shared understanding and
a civic discourse that is mutually respectful.
Given this explanation it helps to identify the ideological distinction
between the past and present national governments.
What you consider the best approach depends upon your own value system, and
what you consider to be the best way to promote social values.
Firstly, the previous government placed a priority on cohesion and building
one nation, comfortable and relaxed in its values but which did include
‘tolerance’ for those who were different.
On the other hand, the new government is placing a priority on reconciling
differences, past and present, accepting ambiguity and diversity, and seeking to
bridge differences through dialogue and respect.
It is now time for the reconciliation process that has begun with Indigenous
Australia to be extended to other communities that have experienced
discrimination or marginalisation over recent years.
Like many countries, Australia has experienced a period of national
introversion, driven since 2001, by the fear of terrorism.
Security and exclusion have been the focus as people have felt under threat.
On the one hand the passage of time has seen (as is evident from recent
national polling, for example by Unisys) that fear of terrorism has gradually
been replaced by economic fears, such as the fear of rising interest rates and
There has been recent research released by Monash University, the Australian
Multicultural Foundation, and funded by the Scanlon Foundation: Mapping
Social Cohesion (April 2008).
This research demonstrates that most Australian’s feel socially and
economically included, satisfied and comfortable; although significant pockets
of resentment, exclusion and fear (including fear of ‘the other’)
The issue of security, and how we address the threat of terrorism is, of
course, highly complex and outside the scope of what I can discuss today. But I
do believe that it is, in many ways, a ‘hearts and minds’ issue.
What I mean by this is that safe communities are not built by hard security
While policing and counter-terrorism have their important roles, soft
security, or building social harmony through social inclusion and human rights,
is an effective counter-radicalism approach.
This is not just my opinion, it is the opinion of experts internationally.
For example, the Nobel Prize winner, Professor Amartya Sen, in Civil Paths
to Peace produced for the Commonwealth Secretariat and published in November
2007, as well as the report released in late 2006 by the High-Level Group from
the United Nations’ Alliance of Civilisations, both clearly
advocate that social inclusion measures, pursued under a human rights framework
is the way to build safer, more respectful, civil societies.
Alternatively, one of the most influential commentators on these issues has
been the American neo-conservative academic, Samuel Huntington.
His famous book, published in 1996, The Clash of Civilizations: Remaking
of World Order – has shaped much of the discussion about culture since
Huntington argues that in the future there will be global conflict driven
not, as in the past on ideological or economic grounds, but by cultural
difference and that tensions between the west and Islam will be particularly
I do not believe that the Huntington’s thesis is inevitable.
The universally recognised value system of human rights, as well as
international agreements outlining appropriate codes and roles on how nations
should manage diversity, conflict, and disequilibria of wealth and material
circumstances, will help us avoid this predicted clash.
While doing so, they will also build bridges of understanding across the
I would like to end by observing that I hope that Australia is currently
witnessing the birth of a new era of human rights.
Human rights are more than social inclusion but, like multiculturalism, they
can only flourish where the policies, institutions and civic values that support
a national human rights culture thrive.
For these reasons social inclusion is one of the key pieces in the social
policy jigsaw puzzle of Australia’s future.
This brings me back to my opening remarks about my optimism for the current
faddism associated with ‘social inclusion’ and why I
enthusiastically support it and believe that, while the fad continues, we have a
window of opportunity to use this as a social policy tool to build a more just,
reconciled, respectful, harmonious, prosperous and progressive Australia.
Long may it do so!
With these closing remarks, it is obvious that I whole-heartedly support this
conference, and why I have chosen to spend time visiting communities in Adelaide
and participating today.
I know that the team at the Migrant Resource Centre have a long and solid
history in using the outcomes of conferences and similar events to build an
evidence-base for social knowledge, and as the basis of practical programs where
the MRC has done such good work building community capacity and skills.
This makes this conference an important event that will not only be
significant for communities in South Australia, but will contribute to a
national dialogue around social inclusion.
To close I would like to remind you all that social inclusion is, in fact,
another way of looking at some of the important areas of human rights.
Social inclusion, like human rights are, to again quote to you from
HREOC’s new vision: for every one, every day, every where.