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Agenda for racial equality 2012-2016 - Setting the scene

Agenda for racial equality 2012-2016

1 Setting
the scene

Almost 65 years ago, in the wake of the devastation of the Second World War,
the nations of the world united with common purpose and agreed the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights
. That declaration lays down a clear mandate for
pursuing racial equality.

Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

All human beings are born equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with
reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of

In the years since, a comprehensive body of human rights instruments have
been developed. These include:

  • the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of
    Racial Discrimination;
  • the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights;
  • the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The principles outlined in these instruments have guided the development of
Australian laws - our federal anti-discrimination laws in particular. For
example, Article 2 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of
Racial Discrimination
states that Governments shall ‘condemn racial
discrimination and undertake to pursue by all appropriate means and without
delay a policy of eliminating racial discrimination in all its forms and
promoting understanding among all races.’

The Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) gives effect to Australia’s
commitment under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial
. It was Australia’s first federal anti-discrimination
law, protecting individuals from discrimination on the grounds of race, colour,
descent, national and ethnic origin.

Australia has been a leader in developing human rights standards, and is
committed to these standards under international law. We have long held them to
be integral components of our national ethos and commitment to a fair go for
all. It is time for us to re-focus our attention on the importance of these
foundational principles.

A number of the other ‘building blocks’ for equality are already
in place. We can justly be proud of our robust democratic system, our advanced
legal protections and our multicultural community. These are a solid basis for a
society in which all people have the opportunity to flourish, with full respect
for their rights and dignity.

However, when setting out an agenda for the future, we must we acknowledge
where we have come from.

We are a nation of immigrants and colonised peoples.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples lived on these lands and waters
since time immemorial. They did not consent to the taking of their lands and
were not compensated for their losses.

We have only recently begun to acknowledge, let alone grapple with the
consequences of, this colonisation.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples could not vote until the 1960s;
they were not counted as citizens until 1967; and it was not until the 1970s
that we began to recognise traditional ownership by introducing land rights
legislation. The connection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to
their lands and waters was not recognised by our courts until the Mabo decision
in 1992: just 20 years ago.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples continue to suffer the
consequences of our history of colonisation. Disadvantage passed down through
the generations manifests in over-representation in criminal justice processes,
and care and protection systems. It continues with substantially poorer outcomes
across all areas of life.

We have made great strides in addressing this legacy, but we continue to have
‘unfinished business’ as a nation.

Multiculturalism has been a prominent feature of our society since the early
days of the British colonies. Immigrant populations from across the world have
settled in Australia since the 1800s, with the hope of securing a peaceful and
prosperous life.

Through twentieth century, waves of migrants came to Australia under many
circumstances and from many places. Each wave of migration challenged and
ultimately changed us as a society.

This has not always been an easy journey. We have often regarded those who
look and sound different to us with fear, confusion and hostility.

But the reality is that no culture on earth is static or remains unchanged
over time. Embracing the changes that come with accepting migrants from many
places gives us momentum, and the energy and opportunity to build on our
successes as a nation.

Today, we are a nation drawn from over 300
ancestries.[1] As of 2011, 46 per cent
of people living in Australia were born overseas or had at least one parent born
overseas.[2] We have one of the
highest proportions of overseas born residents in the

Advanced societies strive to progress socially and economically. Accepting
and embracing migrants from across the globe doesn’t just continue our
rich tradition of cultural diversity, it also contributes directly to our
ongoing economic growth and prosperity.

If we are to succeed in achieving racial equality, it is fundamental that

  • recognise the ongoing contribution of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
    peoples to our nation’s prosperity, character and cultural richness;
  • address the historical legacy of treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait
    Islander peoples;
  • strive to empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples by working
    with them to address the issues that they face rather than imposing solutions
    upon them;
  • acknowledge the significant contribution that waves of migrants have made to
    our national character and to our prosperity;
  • recognise that, as a community, we have been highly successful in evolving
    in response to the benefits and challenges presented by different cultures;
  • recognise that along with rights, all those in Australia have
    responsibilities to abide by the laws of this country to help build a cohesive


[1] Australian Bureau of
Statistics, Cultural Diversity in Australia: reflecting a Nation: Stories
from the 2011 Census
, (viewed
1 July 2012)
[2] Australian Bureau
of Statistics, Cultural Diversity in Australia: reflecting a Nation: Stories
from the 2011 Census.

[3] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Migration 2009-10 (16 June 2011), p39.