Date: 
Tuesday 29 November 2016

Author

Mr Edward Santow, Human Rights Commissioner

Speech to SydWest Multicultural Services AGM
Edward Santow – speaking notes – CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY


Acknowledgements:

  • the traditional Aboriginal owners of the land, the Darug people
  • Dr Chandrika Subramaniyan (Chair, SydWest Multicultural Services)
  • Elfa Moraitakis (CEO, SydWest)

Introduction

Australia is a wonderful country: warm, welcoming, open.

It’s the country that my father’s father escaped to as the shadow of the looming Second World War was spreading over Europe. It’s the country that my mother and her family fled to when the injustice of South Africa under apartheid became intolerable.

My family is a big, largely happy, often chaotic mixture of cultures, religions and languages – and I see that reflected in Australia’s own brand of multiculturalism. There is huge diversity in Australia and we should be proud of how well we get along.

There are times when our commitment to embrace difference is tested. In some ways, now might be one of those times. There appears to be increasingly combative rhetoric about the value of multiculturalism in Australia.

Sometimes it helps to keep perspective and a sense of proportion by looking to history. My mother’s family is from South Africa. She grew up in the era of apartheid – a racist ideology that was etched into the fabric of the country.

I was born here in Australia and so it’s hard to imagine what growing up in that country, in that period, was like. Racial segregation was everywhere: your skin colour determined where you could live; how, where and when you could travel; your school; which hospital you could go to; which beach. It even determined which set of bathrooms you had access to.

Segregation governed every aspect of a person’s life. And, needless to say, the justification that life in South Africa was ‘separate but equal’ was a blatant lie. The facilities and services available to non-white people were much, much worse.

At some level, apartheid implicated everyone living in the country. Even if you opposed the regime and the racism on which it was based, your life was so bound up in the apartheid system that you benefited from it or were disadvantaged by it – whether you wanted to be or not.

As an idealistic law student, I travelled to South Africa 15 years ago. The apartheid era was over and I wanted to do whatever small things I could to help in this newly-reborn rainbow nation.

I used to ask people what it was like living in the new South Africa. Many would talk movingly about their hopes to rebuild the country on the foundations of equality, justice and freedom.

A much smaller number of white South Africans felt keenly what they felt they’d lost. They would often begin by saying, “I’m not a racist but…”. What then followed was usually the sort of racist comment that was once common in apartheid-era South Africa.

Apartheid-era South Africa is an interesting counterpoint to modern-day Australia. We should remember that every major Australian political party rejects racism and embraces a more open, multicultural ethos. Our laws are designed to promote equality and prohibit discrimination on the basis of a person’s race, their disability, their gender etc. We should be proud of these things.

Access and equity in service delivery

Access and equity in the context of service delivery is a fancy way of saying that we should make treat people fairly in the work we do.

This is a human rights approach. Human rights are not just about ‘formal equality,’ which means treating everyone the same. It also involves ‘substantive equality,’ which allows for beneficial treatment for some people, especially disadvantaged groups, so they can enjoy their human rights equally with others.[i] 

Let me give an example. Imagine you are running a school. Formal equality would require you to offer the same classes to each child at the school. But what if you have a group of kids who don’t speak English at home, or some children who have a disability and need extra classes to bring them up to speed with their school work? Substantive equality would mean offering those children some extra help – perhaps by making available additional English classes or tutoring.

Access and equity in service delivery also makes a lot of pragmatic sense: maximising the accessibility of a service increases its reach, and in some cases enables it to reach those people who are most in need of assistance or support. 

We know that the sorts of things that can make it harder for people from culturally and linguistically diverse background to access services are:

  • language barriers (eg, English proficiency, lack of interpreter availability, jargon)
  • cultural norms
  • fear of authorities
  • lack of knowledge or understanding of available services
  • lack of cultural diversity and training in the workforce
  • lack of physical accessibility
  • lack of personal support.

Access and equity in the Commission’s work

The Human Rights Commission is mindful of the principles of access and equity in all its work, and especially in how the organisation deals with discrimination and other complaints through our Investigation and Conciliation Service.

The Commission can investigate and conciliate complaints of discrimination, harassment and bullying based on a person’s sex, disability, race and age. The Commission can also investigate and resolve complaints about alleged breaches of human rights against the Commonwealth and its agencies.

The Commission receives complaints and enquiries from people from a range of different backgrounds and with varying needs. People may contact the Commission though the Telephone Interpreter Service. The Commission also offers its Making a Complaint fact sheet in 24 languages and information about making a complaint is available in Auslan via video.[ii]

In 2015-16, the Commission received just over 2000 (2,013) complaints about discrimination and breaches of human rights and conducted approximately 1,308 conciliation conferences, of which 989 complaints (76%) were resolved successfully. This is the Commission’s highest success rate on record.[iii]

In addition, the Commission is currently working with Deloitte to produce the first piece of research on customer inclusion and diversity – aimed at helping corporates and businesses improve the way they engage with diverse customers. The research is expected to be published in the first quarter of 2017.

Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) submission to the Inquiry into the responsiveness of Australian Government services to Australia’s Culturally and Linguistically Diverse population

The recent inquiry into the responsiveness of Australian Government services to Australia’s CALD population examined the Australian Government’s approach to access and equity. In particular, it looked at the Australian Government’s Access and Equity Strategy and Framework, and made recommendations for improving the responsiveness of Australian government services to CALD communities.[iv]  It followed concerns expressed by the Australian Multicultural Advisory Council’s report, The People of Australia, about the accessibility of programs and services for people from CALD backgrounds.[v]

The inquiry was conducted by an independent panel chaired by Peter Hughes PSM.

The Commission’s recommendations included that:

  • a human rights-based approach be adopted through the Access and Equity Strategy process that acknowledges the importance of the principles of non-discrimination, equality, participation and inclusion;
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples also be considered as part of a whole-of-government approach to the Access and Equity Strategy;
  • clearer and more measurable performance standards are provided as part of the Access and Equity Strategy and these performance standards are embedded into the reporting template. [vi]

Conclusion

This evening you will hear the stories of Yasir and Soheil.

I was moved to read of the challenges Yasir faced on moving to Australia. He shows that he difficulty in leaving friends and family in Iraq is matched by the difficulty in settling in Australia without those supports. The work that SydWest did to help get Yasir on his feet, learning English and then able to excel at school is wonderful. I understand that Yasir recently received 75% in his maths exam. I never got such a high mark in maths and I’ve been speaking English all my life. Perhaps, if Yasir has some spare time, he might be able to tutor me a little…

Soheil is a photographer. SydWest has helped Soheil and his family settle in Australia after fleeing Iran. Reading Soheil’s story, I was struck by the fact that photography is a universal language. Without uttering a single word, a good photographer can convey not just facts (who or what is in the photograph) but also emotions and atmosphere. English may be important for Soheil in running his business, but he is clearly already fluent in the language of his artform.

Such stories show so much that is good about Australia. The work that SydWest does to help people to integrate and participate in the Australian community is vital and I commend all of you for a year of great achievement.


Footnotes

Return to [i]

  1. Australian Human Rights Commission, Submission to the Access and Equity Inquiry Panel, Access and Equity for a multicultural Australia: Inquiry into the responsiveness of Australian Government services to Australia’s culturally and linguistically diverse population, 24 February 2012, 5. At https://www.humanrights.gov.au/access-and-equity-inquiry-responsiveness-australian-government-services-australia-s-culturally-and (viewed 22 November 2016).
  2. See https://www.humanrights.gov.au/about/translated-information
  3. Australian Human Rights Commission, Annual Report 2015-16 (2016) 26. At https://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/commission-general/publications/... (viewed 23 November 2016).
  4. Access and Equity Inquiry Panel, Access and Equity for a multicultural Australia: Inquiry into the responsiveness of Australian Government services to Australia’s culturally and linguistically diverse population (2012) 6. At https://www.dss.gov.au/our-responsibilities/settlement-and-multicultural-affairs/programs-policy/access-and-equity/access-and-equity-inquiry (viewed 23 November 2016).
  5. Access and Equity Inquiry Panel, Access and Equity for a multicultural Australia: Inquiry into the responsiveness of Australian Government services to Australia’s culturally and linguistically diverse population (2012) 6. At https://www.dss.gov.au/our-responsibilities/settlement-and-multicultural-affairs/programs-policy/access-and-equity/access-and-equity-inquiry (viewed 23 November 2016).
  6. Australian Human Rights Commission, Submission to the Access and Equity Inquiry Panel, Access and Equity for a multicultural Australia: Inquiry into the responsiveness of Australian Government services to Australia’s culturally and linguistically diverse population, 24 February 2012, recommendations 1, 2 and 6. At https://www.humanrights.gov.au/access-and-equity-inquiry-responsiveness-australian-government-services-australia-s-culturally-and (viewed 22 November 2016).

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