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Standing together

Race Race Discrimination

Opening Remarks at the Third National Forum on Racial Tolerance and Community Harmony
12 June 2018

Check against delivery

We meet today on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and I acknowledge their elders past and present.

Welcome to the third National Forum on Racial Tolerance and Community Harmony. This is the Australian Human Rights Commission’s annual forum for communities, advocates, researchers and policymakers to reflect on the state of racial tolerance and community harmony in Australia.

We meet today, not in the usual month of October, but in June. Our timing remains auspicious, because it was on 11 June 1975 that the Racial Discrimination Act received royal assent – becoming Australia’s first Commonwealth legislation on human rights and anti-discrimination. Later today, we will mark this anniversary with the Kep Enderby Memorial Lecture, named after the Attorney-General who introduced the Racial Discrimination Bill in 1975.

The state of the nation

But returning to 2018 and to our question for today’s forum: What is the state of play on race and harmony?

If things feel challenging at the moment, it is because they are. We are living through some turbulent times. Even so, our society can deal with these times from a position of strength.

I say this because the vast majority of Australians support multiculturalism and racial equality. The Scanlon Foundation’s annual survey on social cohesion has consistently shown that between 83-86 per cent of Australians agree that multiculturalism is good for the country. Last year, the survey found that about 80 per cent agree that Australia’s immigration program should not involve discrimination on the basis of race or religion. We know as well that there remains widespread support for the Racial Discrimination Act: last March, a Fairfax-Ipsos poll showed that 78 per cent of Australians believe it should remain unlawful to offend, insult or humiliate someone because of their race, as stipulated by section 18C of the Act.

Yet there are challenges. At times, the voices of a minority hostile to racial equality can drown out those of the majority. At times, our public discourse can seem far removed from our strength as a multicultural society.

For example, since we last convened in October 2017, we have seen panic over African youth crime in Melbourne. The fear and anxiety that has been whipped up has led to members of African-Australian communities being unjustly stereotyped as being prone to criminality. At a Melbourne forum we held in April, I heard from many about the hurt and anger being felt. The seeds of distrust and disharmony have been sown.

We have seen an intensification of debate about foreign influence – in particular, that of the Chinese Communist Party. This is an important issue, and it is vital there is proportionate action taken to eliminate foreign influence aimed at disrupting and undermining our democratic institutions. It is concerning, however, that some of the antagonism towards the Chinese party state is threatening to spill over into a general suspicion of Chinese-Australians. Many Chinese-Australian members of the community have expressed this apprehension to me.

There are signs we are flirting with danger. Just consider how some national security hawks here now suggest that expressing concerns about anti-Chinese racism amounts to aiding the propaganda agenda of the Chinese Communist Party. We are now at the point where some are conditioning us to accept that anti-Chinese sentiment may just be collateral damage we must accept in a new cold war. Given there are 1.2 million Australians who have Chinese ancestry, the scale of such potential damage would be significant.

We are seeing, too, further signs of racism becoming normalised within mainstream media and public discourse. Whether it is far-right nationalism aimed at immigrants and multiculturalism, or old-fashioned bigotry aimed at Indigenous people, intolerance has been emboldened. Given our sometimes excited debates about immigration, population growth and citizenship laws, we must be vigilant about our racial and multicultural harmony.

This is the background for some of our conversations today in the forum. I’m pleased we have joining us today panelists drawn from working journalists, researchers, community representatives and anti-racism advocates. We will be reflecting on questions such as identity politics and media debates, how we can best change behavior and attitudes on race, and the role of civil society in anti-racism advocacy.

The Racial Discrimination Act

When we established this forum in 2015, it was intended to give First Peoples, ethnic communities and civil society advocates a standing forum to share issues of mutual concern. It was our aim to foster dialogue under the anti-racism tent.

Back in 2015, of course, we were marking the 40th anniversary of the Racial Discrimination Act. It was just a year after the federal Government abandoned its attempt to amend section 18C of the Act. There was wide understanding at the time that friends of racial equality and tolerance needed to remain on guard.

Sure enough, there was a second attempt to change section 18C in 2016-17. This ended in the defeat of a Government bill in the Senate in March 2017.

I’ve said this many times before; let me say it again. There is no compelling case for changing the Racial Discrimination Act. We must not weaken legal protections against racial discrimination and hatred. We must not make it easier for people to vent hostility or inflict discrimination.

Let us also be clear about the importance of the Racial Discrimination Act. It exists to set a public standard about racism in Australia. It is there to help educate people about racial tolerance and equality.

The Act is also a powerful instrument of justice, giving all Australians a means of holding racial discrimination to account. Those who dismiss the Act as being merely symbolic should look at a recent example of the law in action. In May this year, the Queensland Government agreed to apologise and deliver a $30 million settlement to 447 Palm Island residents for racial discrimination linked to riots in 2004.

But, friends, the attempts in recent years to repeal and amend parts of the Racial Discrimination Act have been nothing less than assaults on the legislation. They have been assaults on racial equality and tolerance.

These assaults may have been defeated, but we must not assume they are the last. There will continue to be the usual noise from the regular quarters about abolishing section 18C of the Act. There is renewed energy among those who wish to make it easier to discriminate against others, or to make it harder to fight back against racism. And the next attack might come from a new direction.

The naming of racism and the office of Race Discrimination Commissioner

During the past month, there has been some commentary about the office of Race Discrimination Commissioner.

As many of you know, I will conclude my five-year term on 19 August. The Government has embarked on a process to appoint a new Commissioner. It is good that the Government will not leave the position vacant. I hope that the next Commissioner will be a forthright and independent advocate for racial equality, and will do their work without fear or favour.

There are some, though, who question the need for a Race Discrimination Commissioner. Some say that racism is so ‘very rare’ in today’s Australia that it doesn’t merit our society having a Commissioner.

Clearly, not everyone has experienced racism. For those privileged to be in this position, it is easy to declare we don’t need public offices and efforts dedicated to combating racism. It is convenient to declare that racism doesn’t exist in any significant measure.

But there are no alternative facts for racism’s existence and persistence. In 2017, 20 per cent of Australians said they experienced discrimination during the past 12 months. Groups such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and those from non-English speaking backgrounds experience rates much higher.

Racism exists and it diminishes our society. It is frustrating to see so much energy being spent on denying and deflecting racism. We should be spending that energy fighting prejudice and promoting equality.

Being direct about fighting racism doesn’t sit well with some people. That’s perhaps one reason why some have suggested that the office of Race Discrimination Commissioner be renamed or redefined – that it should be called the Community Relations Commissioner, or something similar. It has been suggested that the work of a Race Discrimination Commissioner is divisive.

Again, let us return to first principles. We have a Racial Discrimination Act for a simple reason. It’s because our society rejects racism. The legislation isn’t called the Living in Harmony Act; it isn’t called the Treading Gently On Racism Act. It’s called the Racial Discrimination Act – because it is concerned with racial discrimination.

It is only right and fitting that we name racial discrimination. And it is only right and fitting that the statutory officer under the Racial Discrimination Act is called the Race Discrimination Commissioner. It wouldn’t be good enough if racial discrimination were to become a social evil that shall not be named. Fighting racism is hard work at the best of times. We’ve got little chance of fighting racism, if we can’t even name it.

At a time when extremist nationalism is on the march, we should be ramping up our efforts to fight racism – not retreating from them. The last thing we should be doing is giving any kind of tacit endorsement to the idea that, on racial matters, social division is generated by the naming of racism. There is no moral equivalence here. Division is caused not by our response to racism; the real division is caused by racism itself.

Friends, we must be on guard – not only to the risk of our public discourse deteriorating, but also to the risk, yet again, of legislative change. Because if there is a serious desire to rename the office of Race Discrimination Commissioner or to redefine the functions of the office, this can only be done through a change to the legislation that sets these terms. If people want to change the name or the role of the Race Discrimination Commissioner, they will have to change the Racial Discrimination Act.

If there is such another attempt, fair-minded Australians, and ethnic and Indigenous communities, must be ready to stand up – to stand up as they did in 2013 and 2014, to stand up as they did again in 2016 and 2017. Those who desire amending the Racial Discrimination Act must know this: the multicultural mainstream of Australian society will not accept any weakening of our laws, or our public stance, against racial discrimination.

Concluding reflections

I’d like to conclude with a brief reflection. It’s been my privilege these past five years to serve in this office.

I’m proud of what we’ve achieved under the National Anti-Racism Strategy, which I lead here at the Commission. The centrepiece of this Strategy, our ‘Racism. It Stops with Me’ campaign, continues to have more than 360 organisational supporters from business, sport, government, education and civil society. In late 2017, we released a series of public awareness videos, which have received more than 1.5 million views on television and social media.

We’ve also developed anti-racism resources and initiatives in employment, primary and secondary education, local government, early childhood, sport and youth. Last week, we delivered the National Anti-Racism Youth Initiative, which brought together 20 young anti-racism advocates from across Australia for leadership training. And later this week, we will bring together public servants and professional bodies to identify how we can strengthen our response to institutional racism in law and justice, health, education and human services.

We have made some advances on cultural diversity and leadership. In late 2016 I established the Leadership Council on Cultural Diversity, bringing together a group of chief executives from business, government, media and universities to advocate for greater cultural diversity in leadership. Last week, the Council held a wide-ranging forum to super-charge our thinking on this issue.

We’ve also pursued this issue at the Commission through our two Leading for Change reports in 2016 and 2018. In providing a snapshot of the representation of cultural diversity in the senior leadership of Australian organisations, these reports have started many new conversations about whether we are making the most of our society’s multicultural talents. Backing up our research, last year we piloted a cultural diversity and leadership fellowship, in which 18 organisations from the private and public sectors participated.

Most of all, I’m proud of working with communities and advocates in fighting racism and promoting equality: from Bankstown to Bendigo, from Logan to Liverpool, from Hobart to Hervey Bay. I’ve been honoured to stand alongside First Peoples and countless ethnic communities.

This is the work that has been most important to me, and I’d like to thank all those who strive with dedication and determination to make Australia a better place. I consider it the greatest duty of this office to give voice to community support for racial equality, multiculturalism and the Racial Discrimination Act – to speak out on such issues together with communities and advocates.

And over the past five years, we have spoken out together. Together we have spoken out against far-right nationalist extremism. Together we have spoken out against racism, whether casual or institutional. Together we have spoken out to defend the Racial Discrimination Act – and together, we succeeded. Twice.

As I’ve said, there may be a need to do this again. If there is, I know we can be confident about winning again. This is the most powerful lesson of these past five years for me. Fighting racism is not easy. But when we do it together, in solidarity, we can succeed. We can prevail.


Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Race Discrimination Commissioner