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Speech: Springvale Community Aid and Advice Bureau AGM (2010)

Race Race Discrimination

Springvale Community Aid and Advice Bureau AGM

Speech by Graeme Innes AM
Race and Disability Discrimination
Commissioner

Springvale Community Aid and Advice Bureau, Springvale, Victoria

Wednesday, 24 November 2010


I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we
meet.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak at this AGM. As a participant in many
community organisations during my life, I've attenden more AGM's than I care to
think about- all of them important, some of them a formality, some of them
examples of the unpredictability of democracy. And you only have to look at our
current federal parliament to know about that. But AGM's sometimes caute me to
reflect on how lucky we are in Australia to have the democratic system, and the
stability of Government, that we have. And its not at all surprising that
people from around the world want to be part of that system.

Its interesting, though, that - even in countries with really good
governmental systems- some people on the margins miss out. When a country
doesn't have some form of guaranteed rights- such as a charter of rights- its
always the most disadvantaged who do not receive their human rights. Australia
does not have a charter or bill of rights- and we only have to look at the
disadvantage faced by Aboriginal Australians, asylum seekers, people with
disabilities, people who are homeless, to see the impact of that. I'm sure, for
instance, that many of you would be surprised to know that- before the last
federal election- people who are blind or have low vision did not receive an
independent secret ballot. We do now, after much lobbying and struggling, but
these individual fights for rights must continue while ever we don't have a
charter to guarantee such rights.

Another disadvantaged group in our cummunity is newly arrived migrants.

I
know that the Springvale Community Aid and Advice Bureau has been doing some
work with Sudanese youth, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to speak
to you today about the Commission's In Our Own Words report. This is the
first national report that addresses human rights issues for African Australian
communities in Australia.

The project was initiated in 2007, to build a national picture of the lives
and experiences of African Australians. The aims of the project were to:

  • identify what can help - and what can hinder - the settlement and
    integration experiences of African Australians

  • suggest practical solutions to inform the development of policies,
    programs and services for African Australians, as well as broader community
    education initiatives.

Over 2,500 African Australians participated in 50 community meetings across
the country, and over 150 representatives of government departments and
non-government organisations participated in consultations. The Commission also
received public submissions from over 100 individuals and organisations.

The report highlights key challenges in relation to policy design, service
delivery and resourcing, largely in the areas of training and employment,
education, health, housing and access to the justice system. Some of the
specific challenges raised in the report were:

  • limited understanding of the English language; and poorly resourced
    and utilised translation services

  • unrecognised skills of African Australians, including lack of
    recognition of overseas qualifications;

  • lack of knowledge about relevant vocational education and training
    programs;

  • social isolation, and absence of family networks;

  • lack of cultural competency in Australian education system;

  • lack of affordable and appropriate housing, especially for larger
    African Australian families;

  • a lack of culturally appropriate health services;

  • limited access to legal services; and

  • tenuous relationships with the police and other law enforcement
    officials.

However, two overarching themes were present across all areas. Firstly, we
discovered that African Australian communities have insufficient knowledge of
their rights. There needs to be more culturally appropriate information provided
about rights in the workplace, Australian laws (including child protection laws)
and tenancy rights. This will help to reduce vulnerability and exploitation, and
ensure that there is greater equality in all aspects of Australian society.
Services such as the Springvale Community Aid and Advice Bureau are well placed
to improve this reality for many African Australians.

The second theme that emerged was African Australian communities' persistent
experiences of discrimination. Many told stories about negative treatment in
the schoolyard, the workplace or the real estate market because of the colour of
their skin. As one participant noted:

"How can you feel Australian when
you are always being told to go back to where you came from? I am where I came
from. I was born here!!"

Despite the political denials, racism does continue to exist in Australia,
and we need a national, coordinated strategy to reduce it.

This fact is supported by a number of independent research projects. For
example, the Challenging Racism Project, which is led by Professor Kevin
Dunn at the University of Western Sydney, maps racist attitudes and experiences
of racism across the country. Research conducted through a national telephone
survey with 20,000 people across Australia found that:

  • around 85 percent of people believed that racism is a current
    issue

  • 20 percent of those surveyed had experienced race-hate talk

  • around 11 percent experienced race-based exclusion, and

  • 6 percent had experienced physical attacks based on their race or
    traditional dress.

At the moment, there are few methods of redress for people who do experience
racial discrimination. One option is to contact the Commission, who provides a
complaints service. This allows the complainant and the respondent a chance to
speak about their concerns in a safe space. 

It's not a formal legal process, but an opportunity to talk about how you
feel, and to be heard.  An independent third party conciliator from the
Commission is always in the room directing the conciliation. 

If you, or any of your clients, ever experience something, but are unsure
whether it is actually a form of discrimination, you can call us and ask for
advice. Details are on our website at www.humanrights.gov.au There's also much
other material about the work of the Commission, and the ability to be put on
email lists, or download podcasts, which deal with various areas of our work. In
fact, one of the podcasts is interviews with representatives of African
Australian cummunities at the launch of the report I have been discussing.

Unfortunately, complaints of racial discrimination to the Australian Human
Rights Commission are under-reported. There are a number of reasons for this,
some of which we heard during the consultations for the In Our Own Words report. As one participant eloquently stated:

"I think the hardest thing
about being discriminated is when you are really not sure that you are being
discriminated against. I go through this talk in my head that says I should
stand up against it, but then I start to feel unsure - maybe it's me and then I
just get angry that I even have to go through this."

Making a complaint can be difficult. However, it can change minds and
behaviours, and it can impact positively to change systems and processes.

But we need more than just a process where people can lodge complaints. I
again today continue my call for a national anti-racism strategy, so that there
is more leadership and resources directed towards preventing discrimination.
More can, and should, be done to support communities in dealing with acts of
racial discrimination.

It is not acceptable that people should be put in a situation where they are
vulnerable to the negative impacts of racism - these include depression,
anxiety, self-harm and isolation. We need to do all we can to reduce the
enormous challenges associated with settlement in a new country. Racism creates
additional and unnecessary barriers to becoming a full participant in Australian
society.

Between 2001 and 2006 the number of Australians born in Sub-Saharan African
grew from 141,696 to 248,699, a 76 percent increase in only a few years. African
Australians now make up about 5.6 percent of Australia's overseas-born
population, and around 1 percent of the country's total population. These
numbers will only continue to grow as Australia's population increases.
Identifying and responding to the needs of African Australians early can help to
minimise common settlement difficulties experienced by migrant communities.
Sadly, Australia does not seem to learn this lesson, so we repeat mistakes with
newly arriving migrant groups.

However, in order to be fully effective, these approaches must be a community
owned and driven process. African Australian community members, and other
stakeholders - including government, non-government and community organisations,
service providers and academics - identified many positive ways forward in the In Our Own Words consultations, including the need to:

  • develop effective and targeted strategies to address discrimination,
    prejudice and racism experienced by African Australians

  • include African Australian communities as genuine partners in the
    development and delivery of services, programs and education initiatives for
    their communities

  • provide information and education programs on the backgrounds,
    culture and diversity of African Australian communities, and the pre-arrival
    experiences of refugees, to assist service providers and other stakeholders;
    and

  • engage and support African Australian communities to develop
    initiatives to address particular areas of concern they have identified,
    including child protection and family violence.

One of the consistent messages that we heard from African Australian
communities was the need for a strengths-based approach to the issues raised in
the report. They do not want to be seen as victims or problems to be solved, but
equal partners in a process, to maximise the potential of Australia's
multicultural society.

Education should be a two way process. There is a lot of information about
Australian systems and rights that African Australians would benefit from
learning about, but there is also a lot that we can still learn about engaging
with culturally diverse communities.

The project identified a number of good practice initiatives across the
country, that are actively engaged in promoting creative and culturally
appropriate opportunities for African Australians. I encourage you to visit the
Commission's website and read about some of these initiatives when you are
looking for new ideas or projects.

Over the past 60 years, Australia has welcomed a large number of migrants
from the far corners of the world. With effective organisation, and persistent
advocacy, these communities have integrated well into society, as active
participants in the socio-economic and political life of the country.

There is no reason why the same could not be said of African Australian
communities. It is organisations like yours that are vital in ensuring this
transition is successful, and I congratulate you on your work. Settlement
services have continued to operate with limited support and resources for many
years, and it is commendable that you continue to deliver such valuable services
under these conditions.

Thank you for your hard work, and for the chance to speak with you this
afternoon.