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Talking about racism: Equality and social cohesion in Australia (2012)

Race Race Discrimination

Talking about racism: Equality and social cohesion in Australia

Dr Helen Szoke
Race Discrimination Commissioner
Australian Human Rights Commission

Centre for Public Policy
University of Melbourne
2 April 2012, Melbourne

Good evening. I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nations and to pay my respect to elders past and present.

We live in interesting times, as the old Chinese proverb says!  We wonder about the next wave of economic challenges, we look at the two speed economy in Australia, the labour market shortages in some areas and the pockets of high unemployment in others.  When the going gets tough, the tough get going and this means that we must be vigilant in monitoring the social cohesion indicators of our country.

One of the big elephants in the room is the question of population, and how this impacts on the future prosperity of Australia. It also impacts on how we maintain and protect social cohesion. We are fortunate that we do not face the same level of social unrest as in many other parts of the world. It is a characteristic of Australian society that should be cherished.

I touch on this not because I want to explore this in great detail today, but because I think it raises the spectre of many issues that I will have to face either directly or indirectly in rolling out a National Anti-Racism Strategy. The development of this Strategy is not just about how we are currently travelling, but about anticipating the likely opportunities and obstacles we will face and charting the best course through them.  

Tonight I want to explore a number of issues.  Let us start with the macro, and the future – and what we want to be considered in the future when we look at the economic and social prosperity of Australia in relation to population.

Then I would like to explore some aspects of social cohesion and equality, and look at what it takes to achieve those ends.

Inevitably I will share with you some stories along the way!

Let us look first at Multiculturalism and what this means for Australia?

Multiculturalism is no longer a social experiment - it is the norm. We live in a world in which physical distance is less and less of a barrier to connecting with people across the world. We can no longer consider ourselves the isolated island we once were. Figures suggest that Australia is reliant on immigration for our continued growth and prosperity.[1] If we look at just one sector that is familiar to this audience it gives us an indication – tertiary education is Australia’s third largest export income; in 2009 it generated $18.6 billion and sustained around 125 000 jobs.[2]

If we are prepared to accept the benefits of a migrant economy; we must ensure that we meet the basic human rights of all who partake in it. We already have the guidelines for what we need to do. They are clearly set out in a number of conventions and declarations that Australia has ratified, not the least of which is the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

They include:

  • the right to security of person and protection by the State against violence or bodily harm;

  • the right to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work, to protection against unemployment, to equal pay for equal work, to just and favourable remuneration;

  • the right to housing;

  • and the right to public health, medical care, social security and social services.[3]

Unfortunately Australia’s policies and infrastructure are not always equipped to meet these rights for culturally diverse communities. For example:

  • anecdotal evidence suggests that a number of real estate agencies now have policies that automatically reject rental applications from people who have obtained bond loans. The rationale for doing this is that people who require financial assistance to pay a bond are more likely to default on rent repayments. However, the practical effect this policy is that those with the greatest socio-economic barriers, such as Indigenous Australians and refugee families, are virtually being blacklisted from obtaining decent housing.
  • employer sponsored visa holders are vulnerable to work exploitation precisely because of their reliance on their employer’s support to remain in Australia. You may recall the Federal court case last year of a Perth employer who was found to have paid five Chinese construction workers $3 per hour to work 10-11 hour shifts at least six days a week. Four of the men were not paid at all for the first three months of their employment.

These are the kinds of issues that we will continue to grapple with unless there are effective strategies put in place to cope with the growing population.

The Sustainable Population Strategy is an important tool for addressing these challenges. I sincerely hope that activities aimed at improving the delivery of social services and housing, which have been funded under this strategy, will continue beyond the 2011-12 budget.[4]

In whatever future form the strategy does take, we need to continue to consider how this work can feed into other developing policies, such as the social inclusion agenda and National Anti-Racism Strategy. Our work will only be strengthened by better cross-government collaboration.  

Racism exists in Australia

It is true to say that our time since white settlement has quite obviously racist overtones.  It is also true to say that prior to white settlement, the continent that we now call Australia was in fact multicultural, with many different First Nations peoples living across the vast expanse of land.  

In order to work towards equality and social cohesion, I contend that we have to admit that racism acts as a barrier to achieving these goals.

What is racism?

As a country, we have a strong commitment to equality.  But we also have to understand that to be vigilant about equality we have to identify the barriers to inequality. In the areas of gender, we have done this quite positively. The institutional, systemic and overt barriers to women achieving equality are now well understood. To some extent we have done this with disability and age.  We can name the discrimination when it occurs and by naming it we know how to address it.

Race however, is a different kettle of fish.  We are often frightened to call racism when we see it and there are disputes about what constitutes racism.  Look at the recent media debate about the Bolt case in relation to fair skinned Aboriginal people.  Look at how people shy away from talking about racism.  The exception to this is sport. Many major sporting bodies understand the benefits of naming a barrier to equality. They understand that to keep recruitment open, spectators safe and players interesting and diverse they need to create an environment that is not only culturally competent but that tackles racism when it raises its head.

Racism takes many forms. In general, it is a belief that a particular race or ethnicity is inferior or superior to others. Racial discrimination involves any act where a person is treated unfairly or vilified because of their race, colour, descent, national or ethnic origin. Racism impacts directly on the full enjoyment of an individual’s human rights, and in particular the right to equality.  

Racism is experienced across a spectrum. It may occur in a passive way by excluding people socially or by being indifferent to their views and experiences.  

Racism may take the form of prejudice and stereotyping of different groups in our community; in name calling, taunting or insults; or in actively and directly excluding or discriminating against people from services on opportunities on the basis of their race, colour, descent, national or ethnic origin; for example, in relation to employment opportunities, access to education, or participation in sport.

It can manifest through commentary or drawings in the media, speeches at public rallies or assemblies and abuse on the internet – including in e-forums, blogs and on social networking sites.

In its most serious manifestation, racism is demonstrated in behaviours and activities that embody hate, abuse and violence – particularly experienced by groups who are visibly different as a result of their cultural or religious dress, their skin colour or their physical appearance.  

On occasions, racism can occur more systemically, as when people with overseas skills and work experience are overlooked for employment,[5]  or when job applicants without Anglo-Saxon names have difficulty being offered job interviews.[6]

And it often is linked to poverty and lower social and economic status, as is the experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples generally.

Racism does exist in Australia.  We know this is a fact.  Our own complaints at the Australian Human Rights Commission tell us that.  

It is also identified in research. National data from the Challenging Racism Project[7] was released in 2011 and gave us information about the prevalence of racism and attitudes about racism.  

We know from this research that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples continue to experience high levels of racism across multiple settings. The research found that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander respondents returned much higher rates of experiences of racism: in relation to contact with police and in seeking housing, their experiences of racism were four times that of non-Aboriginal Australians.[8]

Similarly, in 2008, other research found that 27% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples over the age of 15 reported experiencing discrimination in the preceding 12 months; in particular by the general public, in law and justice settings and in employment.[9]  Further recent research has found that three out of four Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples regularly experienced race discrimination when accessing primary health care, and that racism and cultural barriers led to some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to not being diagnosed and treated for diseases in their early stages, when treatment is most effective.[10]

More generally, the Challenging Racism research resulted in the following findings:

  • around 85% of respondents believe that racism is a current issue in Australia
  • around 20% of respondents had experienced forms of race-hate talk (verbal abuse, name-calling, racial slurs, offensive gestures etc)
  • around 11% of respondents identified as having experienced race-based exclusion from their workplaces and/or social activities
  • 7% of respondents identified as having experienced unfair treatment based on their race
  • 6% of respondents reported that they had experienced physical attacks based on their race.[11]

This research also found that people born overseas experienced higher rates of racism than those born in Australia, and were twice as likely to experience racism in the workplace.[12]

Culturally and linguistically diverse communities in Australia are themselves diverse, each community and generation having quite different experiences of migration and settlement. As a result, their experiences of racism vary considerably, and have also varied over time. For example, research suggests that ‘settled’ immigrants tend to experience lower levels of racism or racist attitudes than more recent arrivals to Australia.[13]

The Australian Human Rights Commission’s recent work with Arab[14] and Muslim Australians and African Australians[15] suggests that these communities are at a higher risk of experiencing discrimination and prejudice.  This supports previous research undertaken by the Commission that found “visible" ethnic and religious minorities such as Arabs, Muslims, Africans, Jews, Palestinians and Turkish people, are groups more likely to be regularly subjected to racism. Members of these communities identified that their "difference" in terms of skin colour, dress or cultural/religious practices.[16]

There are also particular groups within culturally and linguistically diverse communities which appear to particularly experience racism. For example, so-called shock jock radio presenter’s frequently veer into racial stereotyping and demeaning of asylum seekers and refugees.

Similarly, the Commission’s work with international students[17] makes clear that these temporary residents are often taken advantage of – or discriminated against – by health providers, migration agents, employers and real estate agents because of their race or colour or their ethnicity, their sex or their age, and sometimes because of a combination of these factors.

Alarmingly, some research indicates a significant increase in racism over recent years: the Scanlon Foundation’s Mapping Social Cohesion 2011[18] report found that in 2010 there was a marked increase in reported racial discrimination, and that this increased reporting was maintained in the 2011 survey.  Disturbingly, this research also highlighted the lack of awareness of most Australians about the issues faced by our First Nations peoples.

A key feature of racism in Australia is denialism.

Such denial may be a genuine lack of understanding that an act may be racist.  However, there are also deliberate falsehoods, misinformation or evasion. Suggestions of racism may also be dismissed as an overreaction, where people think that telling a racist joke, for example, should be taken as just a bit of fun.  Too often, stories start with “I’m not racist, but...”

Ultimately, racism:

is a denial of human relationship. Yet for many people it remains almost invisible, unnoticed except when violence is involved. Those who do not experience it often fail to understand how profoundly offensive it is.[19]

Racism is bad for us

There is also significant research that demonstrates the damage that racism causes to individuals and society as a whole.  I don’t intend to explore this tonight, as I want to focus on what we can do about it. But some of the research is referenced for your further information.[20] This research clearly demonstrates – among other things – that racism, literally, makes you sick.

More broadly, racism undermines social cohesion within the community. To ensure social inclusion, individuals need the opportunity to ‘secure a job; access services; connect with family, friends, work, personal interests and local community; deal with personal crisis; and have their voices heard’.[21]  Racism towards any individual or community undermines the achievement of each of these goals.

Racism also impacts adversely on the development of Australia as a multicultural society.  If we conceive multiculturalism as a set of norms or principles in which the human rights of all are respected, protected and promoted, then the adverse impacts on groups in the community who may be treated less favourably on the basis of their race, colour, national or ethnic origin or religious belief is obvious.

Multiculturalism supports the ideals of a democratic society in which every person is free and equal in dignity and rights.  Racism undermines these very foundations.

The existing framework for addressing racism in Australia

In this country, the first national anti-discrimination law to be passed aimed to address racism.

Australia became a signatory to the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) in 1966 and then ratified it in 1975.  The ICERD outlines Australia’s obligations to safeguard human rights in the political, economic, social, cultural and other fields of public life so that human rights are ensured to everyone without racial discrimination.

The Racial Discrimination Act (RDA), was then passed in 1975.  It seeks to promote equality before the law for all persons and implements the principle of prohibiting discrimination against people on the basis of their race, colour, or national or ethnic origin.

The RDA is also distinctive among Australian anti-discrimination and equality laws in its general provision for equality before the law, in section 10. Unlike most other provisions of the RDA, section 10 is enforced directly through the courts rather than through complaints to the Commission. While the number of cases brought under section 10 has been small, I think it’s only necessary to name one of them – Mabo No 1 – to confirm the importance of this provision.[22]

Without this case’s finding - that it was a breach of section 10 of the RDA for the Queensland government to seek to confirm that it had retrospectively and permanently extinguished any remaining native title over the Torres Strait islands - Eddie Mabo and his co-plaintiffs would have lost the right to even bring forward the argument that there was such a thing as native title that could be recognised under Australian law.

Importantly, the RDA was amended in 1995 to incorporate specific provisions that relate to actions which are likely to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate a person or group of people. These provisions are important, although contested, in providing additional protections against, for example, race hate.

How do we build social cohesion by addressing racism

We know that racism has an adverse impact on social cohesion.  We know that we have to promote equality as well as addressing racism.

At a national level, I believe we are at a crossroad in the direction of public policy. We now have a multicultural policy and a commitment to developing an anti-racism strategy, a social inclusion agenda, a sustainable population strategy, a consolidation of federal anti-discrimination laws and a possible constitutional referendum on race discrimination provisions.

The development and implementation of a National Anti-Racism strategy is a key component of the Australian Government’s multicultural policy, The People of Australia.

The Government’s intention is that the National Anti-Racism Partnership will draw on the existing expertise across three government departments – the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, the Attorney-General’s Department and the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs – together with the Australian Multicultural Council and the Australian Human Rights Commission. The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples and the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia (FECCA) also participate in the Partnership as non-government representatives.

The membership of the Partnership makes clear that while the National Anti-Racism Strategy was born in the multicultural context, we are looking at its development through a broader focus – encapsulating both the experience of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and our culturally, linguistically and religiously diverse communities.

The Partnership has been tasked with designing, developing and implementing the Strategy, with five key areas of effort:
• research and consultation;
• education resources;
• public awareness;
• youth engagement;
• and ongoing evaluation.

It is anticipated that the Strategy will be drafted by July 2012 and implemented over three years, 2012-2015.

On the 29th March 2012, I released a discussion paper, called for submissions and asked people to fill in an online survey to try and gauge people’s reaction to what will work with a campaign and also define an overarching concept. Both the survey and the submissions are open to everyone. I have tonight some business cards that give the address of the website so you can jump on line and also promote this within your own groups and organisations.  If I am right, that we resile from talking about racism, and if we are going to get the country behind this initiative, then we need to build the case and that can be done with volume as well as content.  

So if you have any great ideas, we would love to hear them.


This won’t fix the problem but it will go some way to shining a light on the issues that we are shy to confront in normal circumstances, or we deny exist.


In conclusion, let me say that Australia is made stronger, not weaker, by our diversity.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu said:

Differences are not intended to separate, to alienate. We are different precisely in order to realize our need of one another.”

Often we withdraw from difference rather than embracing it.  We are threatened by difference and so this often leads to people being treated differently by virtue of their race, even when we actively recruit them to come to our country, even when they were here long before us.

However, if we commit to developing sound policies and programs that address the structural barriers to inclusion; if we work in partnership with communities, NGO’s, business, and academics and building on our diverse strengths, I believe that we can create innovative solutions to some of these problems.

Our benchmark for success should not be that we are better than the worst human rights offenders. As a prosperous and thriving multicultural society we should aim to be the world’s leaders in putting human rights principles into practice.

I want to conclude by giving you the opportunity to walk in someone else’s shoes.

One participant in our consultations with African Australian communities told us the following story:

“I got on the bus, and there was one seat left next to a woman at the back. But as I was walking up I noticed that she put her bag on the empty seat. I thought ‘not again’, but I decided that I would this time do something different, so I looked at the bag and said to the bag “Did you pay?” and then I said “What? You didn’t pay!?” The woman quickly snatched her bag and as I went to sit on the seat, she turned her back to me. So I did the same, and then the people on the bus started clapping and I felt very good to know that not all people in Australia are like that.”[23]

When people look back at us 50 years from now, what will they think? Will we been seen as a people complicit in allowing racism and inequality in its various guises to continue? Will we wonder about social cohesion and the impact of race, and wonder if we should have done more? Or will we be the people who learned from the experiences of the past, harnessed the possibilities of the present, and worked to create a different future?

This is the challenge for all of us.

[1] Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, “Immigration paves our way into the Asian Century”, The Australian, 9 March 2012, p14.  
[2] Council of Australian Governments, International Students Strategy for Australia: 2010-2014, p2. At:
[3] UN General Assembly, International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, Article 5, (1965).
[4] Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Sustainable Australia – Sustainable Communities: A Sustainable Population Strategy for Australia (2011). At:
[5] See, for example, Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria, ‘Real Jobs: Employment for Migrants and Refugees in Australia’, ECCV Policy Discussion Paper No 3, 2008.At: (viewed 1 February 2012); Val Colic-Peisker and FaridaTilbury, ‘Refugees and Employment: the effect of visible difference on discrimination’ (Final Report), Centre for Social and Community Research, Murdoch University, January 2007. At:  (viewed 1 February 2012).    
[6] Alison Booth, Andrew Leigh, Elena Varganova, ‘Does Racial and Ethnic Discrimination Vary Across Minority Groups? Evidence From a Field Experiment’. Research School of Economics, Australian National University. Accessed at (viewed 1 February 2012). [7] Challenging Racism Project. At: (viewed 27 November 2011). The project was based on random phone interviews with 12,500 people.
[8] Kevin Dunn et al, Challenging Racism: the anti-racism research project, 2008 Attitudes to cultural diversity, old racisms and recognition of racism, state level comparisons (opens in new window), 4Rs Conference (University of Technology, Sydney) 30 Sept - 3 Oct 2008. Accessed at  (viewed 2 February 2012).
[9] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, The health and welfare of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people:  An overview 2011, note 42.  At: (viewed 23 November 2011).
[10] Yin Paradies, Ricci Harris, Ian Anderson, The impact of racism on Indigenous health in Australia and Aotearoa: towards a research agenda, Cooperative Research Centre for Aboriginal Health: Discussion paper series No. 4, March 2008. Accessed at: (viewed 1 February 2012).
[11] Challenging Racism project, as above.
[12] Kevin Dunn et al, as above.
[13] The 2010 and 2011 Scanlon Foundation surveys indicated a longterm change in Australian opinion, with a large measure of acceptance of groups once stigmatised: “The level of negative feeling towards immigrants from Italy and Greece was found to be less than 3%; it was 7% towards immigrants from Vietnam and 13% from China.”: Markus, A, Mapping Social Cohesion 2011: the Scanlon Foundation Survey, Monash Institute for the Study of Global Movements, Monash University, Victoria. Accessed at (viewed 1 February 2012), Executive Summary, pp1-2. [14] Australian Human Rights Commission (2008) A dialogue on human rights and responsibilities (2008) Report on the Commission's Muslim Women's Project 2006. At:  (viewed 1 February 2012); Australian Human Rights Commission, Ismae – Listen, National Consultations on eliminating prejudice against Arab and Muslim Australians, 2004. At:  (viewed 1 February 2012).
[15] Australian Human Rights Commission, In our own words African Australians: A review of human rights and social inclusion issues, 2010. At: (viewed 1 February 2012).  See also: Australian Human Rights Commission, African Australians: human rights and social inclusion issues project: A compendium detailing the outcomes of the community and stakeholder consultations and interviews and public submissions, 2010. At:  (viewed 1 February 2012); Australian Human Rights Commission, Human rights issues affecting African Australian communities:  Western Sydney and Perth Roundtables, 2012. At: (viewed 1 February 2012).
[16] Australian Human Rights Commission, I want Respect and Equality: A summary of Consultations with Civil Society on Racism in Australia, 2001. At:  (viewed 1 February 2012).
[17] In the past two years, the Australian Human Rights Commission has been developing the Minimum Standards for International Student Safety and Well Being – in close consultation with international students; with stakeholders including Universities Australia, the National Union of Students, the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations, the Council of International Students Australia and international student service providers; and with input from decision makers and regulators. More information about the draft Minimum Standards is available on the Commission’s website. At (viewed 10 February 2012).
[18] Markus, A, as above.
[19] International Council on Human Rights Policy, The persistence and mutation of racism, Policy paper, 2000, Preface. Accessed at  (viewed 12 February 2012).
[20] See, for example: Vic Health, ‘Making the link between cultural discrimination and health’, Vic Health letter, 1 June 2007.  At (viewed  23 November 2011); Dr Yin Paradies, ‘A systematic review of empirical research on self-reported racism and health’, International Journal of Epidemiology, August (2006) 35(4): 888-901, p 1.  At: (viewed 23 November 2011); Vic Health, Research Summary 3 Ethnic and race-based discrimination as a determinant of mental health and wellbeing,2009. At (viewed 23 November 2011).
[21] Australian Social Inclusion Board, ‘Principles for Social Inclusion - everyone’s job’, 2008. Accessed at (viewed 1 February 2012).
[22] Mabo v Queensland [1986] HCA 8; (1986) 64 ALR 1; (1986) 60 ALJR 255 (27 February 1986). Accessed at (viewed 12 February 2012).
[23] Australian Human Rights Commission, African Australians: human rights and social inclusion issues project compendium (2010), p215. At