Speech: Megan Sassi lecture: “How we can work together to combat Racism”

Megan Sassi lecture: “How we can work together to combat Racism”

Speech by Graeme Innes AM
Race and Disability Discrimination Commissioner

State Library Theatre, Perth Cultural Precinct, Northbridge, Perth

Thursday, 4 November 2010


Thank you, and good evening everyone.

I begin by acknowledging the Nyoongar people, traditional owners of the land on which we meet, and pay my respects to their elders, both past and present.

It’s great to be back in WA. As some of you may know, I worked here for almost ten years, married a West Australian woman, and have family who I dearly love spread thoroughout the State. So I visit regularly, and plan to retire here if my wife and daughter let me.

I worked here as a conciliator with the WA Equal Opportunity Commission, and heard cases as a Hearing Commissioner with the Australian Human Rights Commission.

I want to start with a story about one of my proud moments in that role.

I was walking down a North Perth street, on a hot January day, during a family holiday here. A well-known Aboriginal elder put his hand on my arm, introduced himself, and asked me if he could have a word. Of course I agreed. He told me his name, and I recognised it as that of a witness who had appeared before me in a racial vilification matter. I had found in favour of the complainants, but my decision had been overturned on appeal.

“I am sorry,” I said to him, “That action was ultimately unsuccessful.”

“Yes, that was a shame” he said “but I wanted to thank you.”

“Why” I asked, a little puzzled.

“Because you and the Commission, by providing us with a place to speak, and respectfully listening to us, showed us that there were some white fellas who treated us as equals, and recognised our rights.”

I felt proud, humble and sad. Proud that the Australian Human Rights Commission had played such a role, humble that I could be an instrument of that process, and sad that it was necessary at all.

Thank you to West Australians for Racial Equality for inviting me to give the Megan Sassi lecture this year. I’ll talk tonight about what we can do together to combat racism. The invitation gives me hope – because it acknowledges both the existence of racism, and the willingness to challenge it.

And thank you all for being here this evening. Your presence indicates your concern about this issue, your willingness to listen, and to contribute to the national discussion on race and racism.

Talking about race and racism in my role as Race Discrimination Commissioner is a privilege and a responsibility. It allows me to give a national perspective to the issue, and try to keep it in the forefront of the national conversation.

For those who doubt that race matters in Australia, or believe that racism is a matter of political correctness and ‘oversensitivity’ (and there wouldn’t be many of you here) I’ll begin with the recognition that Australia is founded on an act of racism – in the words of former Aboriginal Social Justice Commissioner, Tom Calma – “the appropriation, without consent, of Indigenous land in the establishment of what was then the colony of NSW.”

Some people still doubt the devastating, intergenerational and ongoing damage caused by this founding act of racism, and by the subsequent acts that have shored up Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander disadvantage and discrimination. So let me tell you of some recent events.

In August this year, I travelled to Geneva, to appear before the expert Committee on the Convention for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Australia, like every other ratifying country, reports to this body every few years.

In Geneva, I met Dr Djiniyini Gondarra, from East Arnhem Land, and Rosie Kunoth Monks, from Utopia. They are two Aboriginal elders who travelled from Central Australia to deliver an urgent message to the Committee about the survival of their Aboriginal brothers and sisters, and sons and daughters.

These people are living under the Northern Territory Intervention, which resulted in the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act in 73 communities.

This is what I said to the committee—

‘Rosie and Djiniyini travelled to Geneva because they hoped it could ease their own, and their communities, despair. Both told me they have felt a need to step back from developments with the Northern Territory Intervention, to see and I quote “what is left of us mob”.’

Rosie and Djiniyini do not need me, or the Australian Government, to speak on their behalf. But as I repeat their messages, I again call for the full reinstatement of the RDA in the Northern Territory:

  • They did not consent to the Intervention.
  • They said that the Intervention is not a special measure.
  • They said that it is not a positive or concrete measure to strengthen communities, culture or customary practice. It has had the opposite effect.

    It has removed people from their lands, and their own distinct practices and world values. And Rosie and Djiniyini said that without land and community as their spiritual centre, every Aboriginal person in Australia will be lost.

I’ll return to the Intervention later; but let me turn to how we can work together to challenge racism, and the denial of racism, its insidious corollary.

As my colleague Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda powerfully emphasised in his address to the National Press Club yesterday, reconciliation and anti-racism are nation building exercises. Challenging racism must be a national, community activity, achieved through policies and legislation, but also through our individual relationships, and through community partnerships.

With Mick, I argue that this nation building cannot be achieved without true reconciliation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and without formal, constitutional recognition of their special and unique status. Fixing Aboriginal disadvantage will also require the intergenerational commitment of the whole nation, and constitutional protection against racial discrimination. These must form the foundations of any discussion on anti-racism in Australia.

Another foundation must be the recognition of migration as a positive, essential and inevitable part of Australian life. It is not a problem, despite it being framed as such in some public discourse about asylum seekers, international students, and population growth. Cultural diversity is, irreversibly, both our demographic norm, and our strength.

We know that Australia has pockets of persistent racism. We know that racism has increased over the last 10 years, at least.

The Commission’s complaints under the RDA have nearly doubled since 2005 – from 259 to 550 in 2010. A 2008 report documents an increase in attacks against Muslims, particularly women, in the post September 11th period.

Surveys conducted as part of the Challenging Racism project found that, about 80 percent of Australians consider that racial prejudice is still a problem. Three thousand respondents expressed some sort of prejudice against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in particular.

Other national research reveals that about 20 percent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults report regular experiences of racism.

We know that racism has long-term and serious impacts and human consequences. Research by Dr. Yin Paradies, from the University of Melbourne, provides compelling evidence that discrimination is a cause of poor health outcomes, and lower quality of life.

Racism restricts people’s access to health, employment and housing services. Compared to Australian born people, those from countries where English is not the main language are:

  • twice as likely to experience discrimination in a shop, restaurant or sporting or large public event;
  • three times as likely to experience discrimination in the workplace;
  • twice as likely to experience discrimination in education;
  • four times as likely to experience discrimination in policing and housing.

For Indigenous Australians, the impacts of discrimination include:

  • an unemployment rate of 13% compared to 4% for non-Indigenous Australians
  • lower high-school completion rates – 40% compared with 75%
  • low rates of home ownership (25%)
  • lower income – $340 a week, compared with $618 a week.

Indigenous patients with the same medical needs are one-third less likely to receive appropriate medical care.

Indigenous young people are two to three times more likely to be arrested and charged than non-Indigenous youth. Western Australia has the highest rate in Australia of Aboriginal imprisonment. The rate of Aboriginal imprisonment has trebled in the last twenty years. Aboriginal people comprise 40% of the adult prison population, and between 70–80% of juvenile detainees.

The effects of racism also include depression, psychological distress, stress and anxiety. A West Australian study found that 40% of indigenous respondents reported recent experiences of race based discrimination so severe it produced a strong physical or emotional response.

So we know that racism exists. We know it has long term, destructive intergenerational consequences. Insidiously, these can become so entrenched as community beliefs, attitudes and perceptions, that they are normalised.

We need to move the discussion into an area that enables people to act, to challenge, and not feel overwhelmed by, years of government, political and social denial and inaction.

So, how do we combat racism – what works, what doesn’t, what might work? If I had the blueprint to that, I’d be (happily) out of a job. I don’t. But here are some things we can start with:

  • acknowledging racism in its current forms in Australia
  • developing good human rights education
  • ensuring that legal tools, such as the Racial Discrimination Act, are working for the community
  • recognising that legalistic approaches must operate in partnership with strong policy approaches
  • and finally, that while combating racism must be a whole of nation approach – it also depends on individuals knowing, and exercising, their human rights and responsibilities.

To work, anti-racist strategies must be informed by an understanding of human rights and responsibilities. We must challenge the acceptance and levels of indifference that have fostered the normalisation of racism.

The Government’s Australian Human Rights Framework, released this year, is a welcome start. It commits to—

  • human rights education for the community and public sector;
  • developing a National Action Plan on Human Rights;
  • establishing a federal parliamentary scrutiny committee to test all new federal legislation against Australia’s human rights obligations; and
  • developing a consolidated federal anti-discrimination law.

Human rights education is critical because it’s proactive, protective, and preventative. It is how we can build a human rights literacy that creates understanding and respect, and that strengthens communities.

During the recent Human Rights Consultations, the number of community members who insisted that our rights are protected in Australia’s Bill of Rights, made it abundantly clear that human rights education needs greater attention and investment.

Human rights are for everyone, everywhere, every day. This recognition needs to become as common place as Slip-Slop-Slap, swim between the flags, or the Aussie barbeque.

For this reason, the Commission prioritises human rights education. It is at the heart of our work, and informs everything we do, from resolving individual complaints to holding national inquiries. We know that human rights are best protected when they are embedded in the way we think, and therefore in the way we act – and that education is the best way to ensure this.

Some of our human rights education resources include:

  • rightsEd, a range of new, interactive human rights education resources for teachers, which have been mailed to schools in Australia from K–12), as well as libraries, TAFEs and universities.
  • Our online education resource Information, designed to help secondary school pupils gain awareness and understanding of human rights issues.
  • StepOne, a website that provides guidance and practical resources to councils and community groups interested in community cohesion initiatives. The site aims to get communities working together, to build positive and sustainable relationships.

To be sustainable, relationships must be respectful. Around one-in-five respondents to a survey in Sydney, Melbourne, and Perth indicated that they had experienced forms of race hate talk such as verbal abuse, name-calling, racist slurs, or ridicule based on a person’s cultural background. And in some cases, this went further.

Everyone has the basic human right to a life free from violence and from cruel, degrading and inhumane treatment. Violence can be one of the most extreme manifestations of discrimination, on bases such as race or ethnicity, religion, etc. Discrimination is often a key factor behind violence, harassment and bullying, and addressing this root cause is critical to building a safer, more inclusive Australia. Addressing these issues is one of the Commission’s priorities.

I’ve discussed some of the issues affecting Indigenous communities, and want to now turn to other groups that are particularly vulnerable. As part of our work, we have undertaken consultations to highlight the need, and develop specific strategies to overcome, these inequities:

There has been considerable evidence that Muslim communities have been targeted by perpetrators of racism and racist violence. Some research suggests that acts of discrimination, verbal abuse and violence were so commonplace for Australian Muslims that it has come to be seen as an ‘ordinary experience’ of Australian life: “it happens so often and goes unnoticed, therefore we have learnt to accept this sort of bad behaviour” they say.

Muslim communities

The Commission’s goal has been to increase social inclusion, and counter discrimination and intolerance, towards Australia’s Muslim communities by:

  • increasing awareness of human rights and responsibilities, in both the broader community and in Muslim communities
  • increasing awareness in Muslim communities of different ways of responding to discrimination and vilification
  • raising awareness in the broader Australian community of the moderate profile of Islam, and the human rights issues Muslim communities face
  • increasing skills, and facilitating opportunities for groups and individuals, to help reduce the impact of marginalisation
  • facilitating relationships and opportunities to build trust between Muslim communities and law enforcement agencies
  • increasing social connectedness to build social capital, and empower Muslim communities.

International Students

The number of international students in Australia has grown rapidly in recent years. At over half a million people, international students now represent a significant group of Australian residents. Up to 40 percent are engaged in the workforce, and around 20 percent go on to become permanent residents.

The Commission has done work on the safety and well being of international students. They tell us that, while student safety has received the most attention, it is a symptom of other issues, including racism and discrimination, lack of accessible and affordable accommodation, poor employment conditions, transport costs, lack of student support services, variable quality of education, and social isolation and exclusion. Some international students, particularly from Non-English Speaking Backgrounds, routinely experience:

  • personal, social and cultural loneliness and isolation
  • having an outsider status
  • workplace exploitation
  • discrimination in the private rental market
  • violence and street abuse (in particular racist verbal abuse);
  • female international students experiencing race-based violence, sexual exploitation and rape;
  • and barriers to accessing justice.

We are currently leading the development of minimum standards for International Students. They will outline the rights and entitlements of international students in Australia, and be based on broad national consultations.

African Australians

Earlier this year, we released In our own words – African Australians: A review of human rights and social inclusion issues. This review was the culmination of three years work, including consultations with over 2500 African Australians. It considered, for the first time, the everyday experiences and urgent challenges that face African Australians – from their viewpoint, from a national perspective and within a human rights context.

Key issues included:

  • the need for an improved understanding of child protection and family law in Australia
  • the over-policing of young men; and
  • pervasive employment discrimination.

Asylum Seekers

During the last four years, we have made around 20 visits to Australian Immigration Detention Centres. We have seen isolation, despair and deterioration of mental health in those who have, for myriad reasons, been compelled to leave their own countries.

While some progress has occurred—

  • people are still being mandatorily detained in isolated remote locations
  • people arriving by boat have reduced rights
  • children and families are still detained- though security is less.

We have recommended compliance with the Race Convention, Refugee Convention, and accession to OPCAT.

Finally, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. We need to give greater practical meaning to reconciliation, and to the National Apology. We need to understand the damage that the Northern Territory Intervention has done to relationships between Aboriginal and white Australians. As Mick Gooda emphasised in his press club speech yesterday, the RDA has been compromised on three separate occasions in its history, always involving Aboriginal people.

The provision of standard services to Aboriginal communities, that are available to ALL other Australian citizens, cannot be properly considered as special measures. It’s wrong thinking, and disregards the rights, and diminishes the citizenship, of Aboriginal Australians.

As a nation, we must acknowledge that the Intervention will have long lasting, intergenerational negative impacts. Recovery, if possible at all, is not achievable until the Australian Constitution guarantees protection against racial discrimination. Otherwise, as Aboriginal Australians have sorely learned from lived experience, the Racial Discrimination Act can be suspended tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.

We have to re-brand Australia. We need a position on racial equality, and intercultural understanding, that positions Australians as people with world views. We need to position Australia as a regional leader that has a sophisticated approach to foreign policy, diplomacy, international aid and trade.

We need a more representative parliament – and our demographic diversity to be reflected through decision making, and public discourse.

We need more demographic information about the victims and perpetrators of racist violence. Unsurprisingly, there are considerable gaps in the collection of data around issues affecting migrant and culturally diverse communities. For example, there is no national data on the prevalence of migrants as victims of crime.

We need a Multicultural Policy.

Since 1996, Australia has lacked a national multicultural policy. Without policy leadership, and a targeted and resourced anti-racism strategy, racial discrimination will continue.

We need to combat the normalisation of racism. We cannot do this without strong policy, underpinned by clear strategies to support communities to live meaningful, safe lives.

A multicultural policy must be based on extensive community consultation. It must be framed by a broad definition of multicultural community, to include people from refugee backgrounds, newly arrived migrants, international students, temporary and seasonal migrant workers, and established ethnic communities, and the First Australians.

We need a national anti racism strategy that addresses the often intersecting discrimination faced by these and other vulnerable groups- women, people with disabilities, people with differing sexual orientations, and who are gender diverse.

Some of these discussions will be happening next week, at the Australia and New Zealand Race Relations Roundtable meeting. This meeting is attended by state and Territory Equal Opportunity Commissioners, and academic and community experts. This year the roundtable will focus on anti-racism strategies, and will make these recommendations to Governments.

Australia’s demographic future will inevitably be more racially, culturally and religiously diverse. Working together to renew our commitment to racial equality is therefore critical.

We – Governments, organisations, and all of us as individuals – must strive for an Australia where your job application is not more likely to be rejected based on the race assumed from your name; where Muslim communities are embraced as part of us rather than viewed as different; where international students, asylum seekers and newly arriving communities are welcomed to our country in the same way we welcome people to our homes; and where the conversation I described earlier with an Aboriginal elder never needs to occur, because the place of our first Australians is marked by equality not disadvantage, and is constitutionally recognised.

Then, we can be proud of the success of our diversity.

Thanks for the chance to speak with you tonight.

Address: 
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Australia