Skip to main content

Speech: Unlocking Doors Project

Race Race Discrimination

Unlocking Doors Project

Good morning, Commissioners, Victoria Police, speakers from Monash University, international colleagues, the Australian Multicultural Foundation, ladies and gentleman. 

I would like to begin by acknowledging and paying my respects to the Wurundjeri people, the traditional owners of the lands on which we meet and pay my respect to the Elders,  past and present.

In the words of Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch “Fighting terrorism while ignoring human rights is not only wrong; it is self-defeating. An effective counter-terrorism policy will see human rights not as an inconvenient impediment, but as an essential ally”

Part of the past and present work of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission or HREOC is to recognise the importance of counteracting intolerance and discrimination, the very factors thought to create the political and social conditions that give rise to terrorism. 

International and local events, such as September 11, the Bali attacks and the Cronulla riots are widely considered to have increased the level of discrimination and vilification experienced by many Muslim Australians. These instances of discrimination alienate the Muslim community from the rest of society, which in turn can further exacerbate the level of discrimination they experience. This spiral of discrimination followed by marginalisation and alienation, often fuels fear and prejudice, and can manifest into hate and retaliation.

Today I will introduce to you the report on the Unlocking Doors project and also point out that a project with Muslim women called ‘Living Spirits’ will be launched in the coming weeks. The Unlocking Doors project was conducted by HREOC to address discrimination and prejudice against Muslim Australians. In particular, the project looked at:

  • the role of police in policing incidents of racial hatred, and
  • how police and communities could work together to improve the effectiveness of current strategies.

The discrimination and abuse aimed at the Muslim community has much in common with discrimination aimed at other racial and religious groups. What is noticeable however, in the case of anti-Muslim prejudice, is the influence of international and national events on how people are perceived at the local level.  

The feedback that HREOC received through consultations indicates that racial and religious discrimination and abuse against Muslims is still occurring. A reaction perhaps to negative sentiments about Muslims in the Australian community. 

A recent report by ‘Issues Deliberation Australia’ revealed that almost half of the respondents in a sample of fourteen hundred and one believe that “Muslims have a negative impact on Australia’s social harmony and national security”. These findings are synonymous with our own and highlight the challenges we face in changing community attitudes.

So what is HREOC’s role in helping to prevent racial and religious discrimination, prejudice and hatred? 

HREOC is a statutory organisation that is independent to state and Federal governments and is responsible for administering a number of federal laws such as the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) of 1975. 

The RDA makes it against the law in Australia to discriminate against someone because of their race. The law applies to individuals, businesses, schools, local governments, state, territory and commonwealth government agencies.

The RDA also makes it against the law to be racially offensive or abusive in public. That is, to offend, insult or humiliate a person or group in public because of their race, colour, national or ethnic origin. This behaviour is sometimes called racial hatred or racial vilification. It can include such things as racist graffiti in a public place or making racist speeches at public rallies.  

However, under the federal RDA it is not against the law to discriminate against someone or vilify them because of their religion, except if it is discrimination in getting a job or at work.  

But, the Victorian Racial and Religious Tolerance Act does protect against discrimination and vilification because OF RACE OR RELIGION.

So how does HREOC’s Unlocking Doors project contribute to the solution?   

Unlocking Doors was a project conducted by HREOC and funded by the then federal Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, now DIAC. The project began in 2005, and the report has just recently been released publicly. 

The project built on some of the recommendations of the Ismaﻉ report, which HREOC produced in 2004. 

The Ismaﻉ report said that we need to build trust between Muslim communities and law enforcement agencies in order to reduce the risk of further marginalisation - particular, with young people and with women.  

The Ismaﻉ report also recommended that police services have the necessary information to refer victims to anti-discrimination agencies when the incident is not a criminal offence.  

The Unlocking Doors Project sought to positively build on these recommendations.  

More specifically the projects aims were: 

  • to help strengthen relationships between Muslim communities and law enforcement agencies,
  • to work with and develop resources for law enforcement agencies, 
  • to identify issues across different Muslim groups in order to help police better meet their particular needs,
  • to help develop strategies so that law enforcement agencies can better deal with acts of racial and religious hatred and abuse,  and
  • to help improve the overall monitoring and response by police. 

The Unlocking Doors project included a number of stages throughout which NSW and Victoria Police were key participants. 

  • first, a comprehensive audit of initiatives related to police and Muslim communities was undertaken.
  • In the second stage, over 100 meetings were held with Muslim community stakeholders and police. 
  • Next, there was a consultation process with Muslim Communities which was open to many people at the grass roots.  This then led to two interactive forums. 

So what were the consultations about?  

The participants were made up of Muslim youth, women, men, and police, not always as combined groups but sometimes segregated based on the wishes of the groups.

In this entire process, the contribution of police was considered of great value. It provided an opportunity for the Muslim community and police to engage in a positive and safe environment. It was clear that learning about police experiences and challenges was just as important to learning about the Muslim communities experience. 

Some important issues that emerged can be categorised into four areas.  

  • firstly, that racial and religious hatred needed to be addressed according to the needs of each community. In other words, we needed to consider issues in the community context.
  • The feedback we received was that experiences of racial and religious hatred varied according to different communities – for example, Arab Muslims seem to be the most affected by global and domestic events. African Muslim communities experienced both racial discrimination as well as religious discrimination, possibly because of the colour of their skin! 
  •  Second, there was a need to help Improve community knowledge about how to report an incident.
  • People explained that they were unsure of how to make a complaint of racial abuse or violence to police, as well as whether the incident was a police matter or not. 
  • we were told that they were unsure of other avenues open to them,  such as reporting the incident to HREOC.
  •  A third issue that emerged was police awareness about the serious impact of racial hatred, and where to refer victims when it is not a crime. 
  • We learned that some police had a basic understanding of state anti-discrimination agencies, but, that many did not know about HREOC or about which cases could be referred to HREOC.
  • We were told by some officers that while there were systems in place to record race-based crimes these were rarely used. 
  • The police also expressed a need for more information about these avenues, including about HREOC.
  •  The fourth area that came out of our consultations was an issue of Trust; more specifically the need for an Increase in trust and confidence in police and their processes. 
  • There were a variety of reasons for the lack of trust and confidence reported by some participants,  for example;
  • Personal or reported negative experiences with police,
  • concerns about police ethnic descriptors and racial profiling,
  • lack of understanding of police roles, and
  • a lack of trust in authorities, such as police, in their countries of origin
  • As a result of these perceptions, some said that they would be unlikely to go to the police if a racist incident occurred and would choose to take matters into their own hands. 
  • However others said they had no issue of trust with police and would go to them in the case of a serious incident.
  •  Finally, the need to improve legal remedies for incidents which aren’t crimes. For example;
  • Some people described incidents that were neither violent or extremely abusive. Because these incidents were not considered a crime, both Muslim and police participants said that it would be a waste of time to go to the police, even though some of the incidents might still be unlawful under the RDA. 

So what about the issues raised by police? 

As I mentioned earlier, police participation at all stages of the process was sought and highly valued. 

Police raised some important issues, and these have been taken into consideration in the recommendations. For example; 

  • Some police told us there was a low incidence of reporting of racist violence and abuse. This made it difficult for police to monitor trends or plan.
  • Some police said they would often bear the brunt of criticisms for things that should be directed towards the media or the government.
  • We were also told that there needs to be more recognition of the difficulty of doing two jobs: crime prevention and maintaining harmonious community relationships.

Having been told what the issues were, participants also had the opportunity to contribute to the solutions.

So what did participants tell us we needed to do?   

More than 20 separate strategies were suggested which can be found on our website. For the purpose of today’s presentation I have summarised them into 5 areas. 

  • Education for police – to increase their knowledge and understanding of Muslims and Islam in Australia.  
  • Education for communities – about police roles and procedures, the law, and their rights;
  • encouraging culturally diverse community members to become police
  • the need to improve police and community relations - through local activities and informal social activities, and lastly
  • developing practical resources and information materialsuch as where to refer someone who has experienced discrimination.

On this point HREOC is already committed to producing practical resources for police and communities. We are working with NSW Police to finalise a poster that provides basic information about the laws and institutions that address racial discrimination and racial hatred. The poster will also have referral information to HREOC and the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board.

So where to from Unlocking Doors?  

At this time HREOC is continuing its work with Muslim communities and police.  The unlocking doors project has given us a foundation for a national project called the community policing partnership program. The project is a partnership between HREOC and the Australian Multicultural Foundation which aims to help improve relationships and trust between Muslim communities’ and police, Australia-wide. 

The goal of HREOC’s work is much the same, I expect, as many of yours. but perhaps our approach is from a different direction. In helping to build social cohesion and increase feelings of belonging and participation, we must first work to counteract discriminatory views, intolerance and discrimination, especially against Muslim Australians. We want everybody to feel safe, and to feel that they belong. 

I thank you for the opportunity to speak at this forum and hope you will join in our commitment to working with Muslim communities and police in the future.  If you want more details, the unlocking doors report is available on the HREOC website. 

I would now like to show you a short DVD we made taken from three of the consultations  –  a woman’s forum in Bankstown, and youth forums in Auburn and Belmore, NSW

We asked some participants their permission to record their responses to some of the questions posed at the consultations. I will show you this short video now, and remind you that it is only a snapshot of some of the views expressed by participants at these consultations and is not intended to represent all the views expressed.

Thank you.