Thursday 4 September 2014


Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Race Discrimination Commissioner

Speech to UTS Human Rights Awards Night

Vice Chancellor Professor Attila Brungs; Faculty and staff; Students; Friends of human rights

I am delighted to be with you this evening as you celebrate the work of UTS staff and students in advancing human rights and social justice. Such work can often go unnoticed and unacknowledged. Not least because it is work to which many are dedicated, not because they desire plaudits, but because they are moved to do what is right – to highlight injustice, to expose human suffering, to find ways we can make our country and our world a better place. So it is wonderful to have this opportunity to recognise the efforts of scholars and advocates within the UTS community. And I would like tonight to recognise as well the leadership of UTS in my own field of human rights: racial discrimination.

Since 2012, the Australian Human Rights Commission has led the “Racism. It Stops with Me” campaign – a public awareness campaign, which aims to empower all Australians to counter racism, wherever it happens. As part of the campaign, we invite organisations across the country to pledge their support and undertake work in anti-racism. Today, it gives me enormous pleasure to welcome UTS as a formal supporter of this campaign. I am delighted to say that the University recently agreed to come on board. Thank you, Vice-Chancellor, for the University’s support. From this tower here in Broadway, you are broadcasting, “Racism. It Stops with UTS”. You are broadcasting your commitment to human rights.

Freedom from fear

Let me say a little more about what such a commitment means. Dag Hammarskjold, the celebrated Swedish diplomat and the second Secretary-General of the United Nations, said that the whole philosophy of human rights could be summed up by the idea of freedom. In our recent public conversations, we have heard a lot about freedom. But Hammarskjold referred to a very particular freedom: freedom from fear. His point should remind us that human rights, while universal, are things which have particular urgency when they concern the weak, the marginal and the vulnerable.

Most of us in Australia are fortunate enough never to know fear in its most visceral form. Most of us, but not all of us. Earlier this week, we heard the story of one Australian who found in this country a certain freedom from fear.

In Adelaide on Monday afternoon, Hieu Van Le was sworn in as the Governor of South Australia. Mr Le arrived in Australia in 1977, as one of the very first Vietnamese refugees to reach our shores by boat. His story resembles the stuff of an epic. After escaping Vietnam and dodging pirates, Mr Le’s boat would make it to the coast of Malaysia. Leaking heavily, the boat sinks. Mr Le and his fellow refugees are forced to swim ashore. But there would be no sanctuary when they got there. The group was promptly dispatched to a remote island in Malaysia to join a cramped and desperate refugee camp of thousands. With nothing to lose, Mr Le and a group embarked on another journey – this time, to Australia. The journey would take a month. There was monsoonal downpour. The boat would have to navigate around an active volcano in Lombok. But eventually they would make it to the southern tip of Timor, where they then set off for the northern coast of Australia.

On the third day of this last leg, with the boat rapidly deteriorating, Mr Le and his group spotted a flock of seagulls. Land was near. Those white seagulls, Mr Le would say, “were like angels, leading our way to a promised land”. The next morning, they nervously made their way into Darwin harbour. The group was apprehensive. They didn’t know how they would be treated in Australia; they were still bearing the scars of their violent treatment in southeast Asia. As their boat chugged tentatively into the harbour at about four in the morning, they heard the sound of an outboard motor coming toward them. It was a tinnie. On board were two men with shorts and singlets, wearing sunhats, noses dabbed with white zinc, bearing the first beers of the day in hand. As the tinnie came closer, one of them raised up a stubby and shouted out, “G’day mate! Welcome to Australia!” And then they sped off.

Hieu Van Le recalled all this on Monday in his first speech as Governor, shortly after taking his oath of office. He is a humble yet extraordinary man, a man whose story should make all of us proud and patriotic. Indeed, those of us who were there in Adelaide on Monday knew we were witness to a special moment. In Mr Le we have an inspiring embodiment of multicultural Australia’s triumph. Someone who arrived with only “an invisible suitcase filled with dreams”, yet rose to high public office. But also someone who reminds us of the better traditions in the Australian story: that, in our better moments, we can greet new arrivals, including those who come by boat, with a generous welcome.

Casual racism

Any multicultural triumph is by no means total. Sure, we are for the most part supremely relaxed and comfortable about cultural diversity. But this doesn’t mean that our society has eradicated racial prejudice and discrimination. Racism remains. And its prevalence may surprise many of us. About one in five Australians – or close to 20 per cent of Australians – has experienced racial or religious discrimination during the past twelve months. Research also indicates that about 5 per cent of people have been physically assaulted because of their race.

We certainly see enough media reports of racist incidents to know that bigotry, abuse and discrimination continue to be dealt out. Recent weeks have seen reports of schoolchildren here, in the eastern suburbs, being threatened with anti-Semitic violence; of racial vilification by spectators at football matches; of dark-skinned baristas being denied employment because of the colour of their skin. Amid all this, we would be excused for thinking there exists a paradox of Australian multiculturalism. If we are so tolerant and accepting of difference, why does racism appear to persist?

It is a fair question, but we shouldn’t lose our sense of proportion. Too often, some of us – including many who are friends of human rights – can too quickly conclude that Australia is a deeply racist country. Yet, when compared to many other countries, including other liberal democracies, there is low public support for organised racist movements. Ethnic or racial violence is thankfully rare.

And there is overwhelming endorsement of racial tolerance and multiculturalism. Earlier this year, in the heart of the debate about the Federal Government’s proposed repeal of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, Fairfax-Nielsen polled Australians about laws about racial vilification. Asked whether it should remain unlawful to offend, insult or humiliate people on racial grounds, 88 per cent answered yes. Last year, the Scanlon Foundation’s social cohesion survey found that 84 per cent agreed that “multiculturalism is good for Australia”. These are not the results you would expect, were Australia a nation of bigots.

There is, though, something to the idea that racism in Australian society has a particular character. Some commentators have said that Australia’s problem with racism concerns “low level” racism, rather than racism of a more violent kind. If the United States may have to contend with the likes of Ferguson, Missouri, if the United Kingdom may have to contend with street movements such as the English Defence League, Australia contends for the most part with incidents on public transport and at football matches.

Let me say a little more, then, about the existence of so-called casual racism. Such racism isn’t founded upon a subscription to doctrines of racial superiority. It isn’t something that is necessarily born of hate or fear. And it isn’t always accompanied by malice.

Rather, casual racism tends to be more about stereotypes and prejudices. It usually isn’t intended to cause harm or offence. And it is more often than not the product of ignorance or arrogance. Think here of jokes or off-handed remarks that rehearse negative ideas about races or ethnicities. Or of the ways that people may exclude others from different backgrounds – the way some people may avoid others on buses or trains, or omit to invite someone for a drink after work.

One of the difficulties with talking about casual racism is that some may downplay the phenomenon. Some will say that the charge of racism may stifle the Australian larrikin sensibility: that we may be too ready to call things racist when often something is said or done in harmless fun. Some will say that the things I’ve described are not “really” or “truly” racist. Let us spare our moral condemnation, they will say, for systemic or outrageous forms of racism.

If a focus on casual racism may have the effect of diverting our attention from other forms of discrimination, we may have reason for pausing. Yet it would be wrong to dismiss casual racism. Doing so can have the effect of emboldening prejudice. It can also lead us to miss the point of why we must care about racism. You don’t need to subscribe to doctrines of racial superiority or incite racial violence to say or do something with racist implications. Because racism is as much about impact as it is about intention. We shouldn’t forget about those who are on the receiving end of discrimination.

It may not have the same nasty ring as racist violence or systematic discrimination, but casual racism is still racism. It can marginalise, denigrate and humiliate. The harm is essentially the same as any other form of racism: it diminishes another’s enjoyment of freedom. But in a civilised society, everyone should be free to live their lives with a certain assurance – an assurance that they will be treated equally and with respect, that they can be free to lives of decent comfort. All members of our society should be assured that they enjoy freedom from fear.

Countering racism

Let me conclude now with some remarks about how we can best counter racism. We should do so not under any illusions that we can eradicate racism. We would be naïve to believe that racism can be completely eliminated from society. So long as we are human, so long as we are susceptible to pride, greed, envy, fear and ignorance, we will always be liable to social ills of all kinds.

Yet so long as we are human, we will strive for progress. As a society, Australia has come a long way in only a few decades. After all, it was only in the 1970s that we saw the definitive end of the White Australia policy. And it has only been since 1975 that the Australian parliament legislated to make racial discrimination unlawful.

The law plays an essential role in combating racism. This is because the law exists in part to reflect our values and our commitments. It sets a standard for what is acceptable conduct in society. For this reason, it is fundamentally important that the Racial Discrimination Act remains in place, with its spirit and integrity intact. As many of you know, there has been extensive debate about the Act’s provisions on racial vilification during the past 12 months. The Federal Government’s decision not to proceed with a repeal of Section 18C of the Act was a welcome one. The Prime Minister was right to confirm that Australians do not enjoy a right to be a bigot. Those of us who are friends of human rights can only hope that the Prime Minister’s decision is a final one – that a repeal is categorically off the table. But we can take enormous heart from the widespread community consensus that emerged from the debate: Australians do not accept that free speech must mean a licence for bigotry.

One curious feature of our debate has been those, including some libertarians, who suggest that the law should play no role in countering racism. It is suggested that we should leave this job to society alone – that if racism does happen, people can institute voluntary codes, simply speak out against it or vote with their feet. This ignores a number of things. First, the law can aid civil society. For instance, when organisations take a stand against racism, the standards set by the law can often help to guide their response. Second, speaking up on your own against racism isn’t always possible or effective – particularly if you may be taking on someone powerful. The law may not be able to solve the problem of racism on its own, but this is no reason for saying it should play no role whatsoever. A certain phrase about babies and bathwater springs to mind.

The libertarians do have things half-right. They are wrong about the law, but they are right about the importance of civil society. Only when good people and organisations take a stand does the message of racial tolerance get through. This has been the premise of our “Racism. It Stops with Me” campaign. To date, more than 280 organisations across the country have joined as formal supporters. This includes businesses, sporting bodies, community organisations, local governments, state and territory governments – and indeed universities.

There is a role as well for individuals. “Racism. It Stops with Me” has a particular focus on empowering Australians to stand up to racism in everyday situations – to ensure that people do not remain idle or indifferent bystanders. If you see something in a public place, you should consider saying something. You should consider whether it’s appropriate to report it. And you should consider offering your support to someone who may have been on the receiving end of abuse or denigration.

The individual challenge when it comes to race isn’t confined to responding to episodes of racism. You might say that the best antidote to racial prejudice is conversation. Hate, fear and ignorance breed in the shadow of social isolation. But tolerance blossoms with the warmth of contact and familiarity. A quotient of trust can go a long way to breaking down prejudice and suspicion. In our lives, we should all consider extending the offer of civic friendship to those we may regard as strangers in our midst.

When we talk about matters of race and human rights in Australia, many of us can be drawn towards the vice of educated despair. Too often, we bemoan the way things are, we find fault with our fellow countrymen and women, without remembering that change must also be guided by a positive impulse. We should never forget the virtue of patriotism in its truest sense – not the arrogant pride of national superiority, but the humble desire to ensure one’s country lives up to the best of its traditions. If the philosophy of human rights can indeed be summed up as freedom from fear, then its practice is about vigilance. Friends, as supporters and champions of human rights, it is our responsibility to be vigilant. And it is our duty to make sure that, whenever we look at ourselves, we always maintain in our sights the kind of society and country we want ourselves to be.


Sydney NSW