Skip to main content

Citizenship, multiculturalism and anti-racism

Race Race Discrimination

Speech to the 2017 conference of the Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia

9 October 2017

Check against delivery


What does it mean to be Australian? What does it mean to say we are multicultural? And how must we respond to racism, bigotry and intolerance?

These are questions that remain asked in our debates. They remain central to our national conversations. But the voice of Australia’s ethnic and multicultural communities remains more important than ever. FECCA must continue to play its role in defending and strengthening Australian multiculturalism, and to contribute to that perennial project of Australian nation-building.

To your outgoing chair, Joe Caputo, thank you for leadership and service. I had the opportunity to work with Joe at close quarters on the National Anti-Racism Partnership of which FECCA is part, and also through the Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria. Joe is a leader who always has his heart in the right place, and I’m glad to know that his departure from the FECCA chair won’t mean his departure from multicultural affairs. I also would like to acknowledge Emma Campbell, FECCA’s director, and the members of FECCA’s board for their efforts this past year or so.

It has been a busy period in policy and legislative developments. Those of us who follow these things appreciate how FECCA has been tireless in advocating on behalf of multicultural communities. This includes FECCA’s contribution to the inquiry into freedom of speech and the Racial Discrimination Act conducted by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, which reported earlier this year. And, of course, it includes your contribution to parliament’s deliberations on proposed changes to citizenship laws, including the citizenship test administered to those applying to naturalise as Australians.

This morning I’d like to reflect on citizenship, multiculturalism and anti-racism. Since your last conference in 2015, we have debated changes to citizenship laws, immigration laws and indeed again the Racial Discrimination Act. In the past two years, we have also seen some changes in the global political climate. Developments in the United States, United Kingdom and Europe point to how intolerance and xenophobia appear to be on the rise, and have found expression through far-right nationalist populism. There are signs of similar trends taking effect here in Australia.

Amid all this, it is vital that advocates for multiculturalism have clarity about what is happening and about how they should respond. And it is vital that there are renewed conversations about how we must work together.

1. Citizenship

The idea of citizenship is foundational to a successful Australian multiculturalism. It has been said that our multiculturalism has involved a citizenship model – or that we have multicultural citizenship. We have practised our multiculturalism not as a way of rejecting or superseding Australian citizenship, but rather as an expression of it.

Let me explain what I mean. In a multicultural country, the common identity can’t defined in ethnic or racial terms. A multicultural Australia is unlike many countries in the world in not defining who we are exclusively by blood or ancestry. How can we? As we remind ourselves frequently, we are a nation of immigrants. Apart from our Indigenous brothers and sisters, either our forebears or ourselves have arrived here as migrants. Even then, many Aboriginal Australians will themselves have within their family history ancestors who have come here as migrants.

The things we share as Australians is not defined by our geography, nor is it even defined by lifestyle. What defines our membership of the Australian community is, rather, our public culture: an Australian liberal democracy and the institutions, history and traditions that come with it.

From the very moment that multiculturalism was introduced to the Australian vocabulary in the 1970s, it has always been made clear that, for all that we may have differences in our racial and ethnic backgrounds, our cultural beliefs and practices, there remain some things that we all have in common. All of us must commit to parliamentary democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, equality of the sexes, freedom of speech, freedom of religion. These tenets of our multiculturalism remain foundational, and they go to the civic rights and responsibilities of our society.

In April this year, the Federal Government proposed some changes to Australian citizenship laws through the Australian Citizenship Legislation (Strengthening the Requirements for Australian Citizenship and Other Measures) Bill 2017. Among the proposed changes: migrants would need to be permanent residents for four years before being eligible for citizenship, they would need to demonstrate English proficiency at a more sophisticated level of ‘competent English’, and they would need to demonstrate they had integrated into the Australian community.

The Australian Human Rights Commission has not supported the passage of the bill in its current form.

It is important to affirm a number of things about our citizenship laws. One is that Australia is a remarkable success story as an immigration nation. It is a multicultural society and it has a model for integrating immigrants that many countries in the world with large-scale immigration would look to as an exemplar or paragon. In that sense, Australia starts from a position of strength and from a position of success. If there are to be departures from current citizenship laws and practices, then it should be justified by a compelling rationale.

The Commission does have concerns about extending the general residency requirement, as it would create significant disparities between different groups of migrants in relation to citizenship. We also believe raising the English language requirement to equivalent to the IELTS Level 6 raises the bar too high, given that many Australian-born citizens would not possess a written or spoken command of English equivalent to this standard. The impact of such a change would likely be considerable. 

As for integration, we must recognise that the path of integration can traverse more than one generation. It would be misplaced to measure integration only by the contribution that migrants currently make to Australian society, without recognising the future contribution they and their children will make. The task of civic integration also isn’t confined to aspiring citizens. There is considerable scope, for example, for improving the civic literacy of Australian-born citizens. It would be anomalous to hold naturalised citizens to a standard that is significantly more stringent than the standard expected of Australian-born members of our society.

No one here would dispute that our citizenship laws must help serve the interest of creating a strong and well-integrated Australian national community. But care must be taken to ensure that the wrong signal isn’t sent, if there is to be a change to the status quo. It has been a characteristic of Australia's success as a nation of immigration that those who arrive in Australia have been able to become Australian citizens within a reasonable amount of time. We have always said to migrants that the most important criterion of citizenship is not command of a tongue, but commitment of the heart.

2. Multiculturalism

There is a sense, though, that liberal democracies around the world – namely, in the West – are undergoing something of a shift. In those democracies with which we often compare ourselves, liberal democratic norms are coming under some challenge.

In Europe, we have seen the resurgence of many far-right, anti-immigration political movements, in France, Austria, Germany, Scandinavia and elsewhere. In the United Kingdom, we had Brexit – a result many regard as reflecting, to a significant degree, discontent with British immigration policy.

Across the Atlantic, we have seen President Donald Trump regularly use muscular anti-immigration rhetoric – as crystallised in his calls for immigration bans, mass deportations and proposals for a wall to be built along the US-Mexico border. On race, he appears to have sympathy with white nationalist movements that have coalesced under the banner of the ‘alt-right’.

There is clearly cultural anxiety about race, diversity and immigration. In many western liberal democracies, there are some who are anxious about cultural and racial differences: who are feeling as though they are losing their country, or at least their place in it. Such anxieties exist here as well.

There have been signs that prejudice and intolerance have been on the rise. Last year’s Scanlon Foundation social cohesion survey found a statistically significant rise in the proportion of people who reported they had experienced racial or religious discrimination: the figure was 20 per cent, up from 14 per cent the previous year. Throughout this year, we have seen numerous incidents of neo-Nazi propaganda being distributed in schools and universities.

But we must be careful not to overstate any trend, at least if we’re talking about the state of public support for multiculturalism. The annual Scanlon Foundation survey into social cohesion has found largely stable and strong support for multiculturalism. Well above 80 per cent of Australians believe multiculturalism is good for the country. To put things into some global context, last month, an international survey across 25 countries involving 18,000 people found that 48 per cent of Australians agree that migrants make the country a ‘more interesting place to live’ – well above the international average of 31 per cent. About 40 per cent agreed immigration has ‘generally had a positive impact’ on the country – well above the 20 per cent internationally.

This isn’t to say that multiculturalism in Australia can’t be strengthened. It can. Often, our support for multiculturalism isn’t translated into muscular practice. There remain many domains of Australian life which appear relatively untouched by our multicultural character.

For example, even in 2017, the media representation of multicultural voices and faces remains lacking. We are yet to see our diverse society reflected on our television screens, or heard on our radios, or even in our print media – at least, not in the way you would expect in a society frequently feted as the most successful in the world.

Across our organisations and institutions, there remains a significant under-representation of cultural diversity in positions of leadership. The Leading for Change report, which the Australian Human Rights Commission co-authored in 2016, found that the ranks of CEOs and equivalent in business, government, and universities – as well as our federal parliamentarians – remain disproportionately Anglo-Celtic in background. While at least 14 per cent of the Australian society have a non-European or Indigenous background, only 5 per cent of CEOs in the ASX 200 have either background. This number is even lower among federal parliamentarians, government departmental heads and university vice-chancellors.

Few of us would regard the status quo as reflecting a perfect meritocracy in action – not when you look at the cultural diversity represented within our leading achievers in school and university graduates. Getting progress will require attention not only to the issues of conscious and unconscious bias within organisations, but also to that of professional and leadership development. Recognising this, next month, in partnership with the University of Sydney Business School, the Commission will be piloting a cultural diversity and leadership scheme among some leading Australian corporates, professional services firms and government organisations. To continue our conversation on this and ensure sustained advocacy from senior leaders, I also earlier this year launched a Leadership Council on Cultural Diversity, which brings together leaders from business, government, media and academia as champions for more diversity in leadership.

There also needs to be more attention to strengthening the policy machinery around Australian multiculturalism. FECCA has, of course, for many years argued for a federal Multicultural Act.

Earlier this year, a select committee of parliament conducted an inquiry into this very issue of multicultural policy machinery – and recommended some enhancements, such as the creation of a Commonwealth multicultural commission or agency. Whatever the vehicle, there does appear to be scope for better research on multicultural issues, and better collection and monitoring of data on cultural diversity. On all this, I hope all of us can agree.

3. Anti-racism

Strengthening multiculturalism must be accompanied by continued efforts to counter racial discrimination. In Australia, the Racial Discrimination Act serves not only to prohibit racial discrimination and racial hatred; short of us having a dedicated Multicultural Act, in guaranteeing equality before the law, the RDA is the de facto legislative expression of Australian multiculturalism.

There has, as you all know, been significant debate about the RDA – in particular, section 18C, which makes it unlawful to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate someone because of their race. Last year, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights began an inquiry into freedom of speech and the RDA. The inquiry took hundreds of unique submissions, many from ethnic communities who argued there was no case for changing the provisions of the Act. That Committee reported in March this year, as I mentioned, and there followed the introduction of a bill in the parliament to amend the words of section 18C.

Those proposed changes were voted down by the Senate at the end of March. It is welcome that the Act remains in its current form, that there has been in the end no change to section 18C. It is important that we do nothing to embolden any racial hatred or discrimination. In the public debate about the issue, Australian society sent a clear message that racism is unacceptable.

The Parliament did, however, pass some amendments to the Australian Human Rights Commission Act relating to the Commission’s complaint handling function. The Commission welcomed these changes, given it has long requested legislative changes that would assist it in dealing with vexatious and unmeritorious complaints. It is important that there is public confidence in how the Commission handles complaints made under the RDA (and other anti-discrimination legislation).

Laws such as the RDA only go part of the way, of course, to combating racism. No law on its own can ever eradicate a social ill. Laws set the standard, but changing attitudes takes time. And it requires education.

That’s one reason we run our Racism. It Stops with Me campaign, an awareness campaign aimed at empowering people to speak out and stand up against prejudice and discrimination. Since 2012, more than 400 organisations have been supporters of the campaign. FECCA has been a member of the partnership group that guides the campaign’s work, along with a number of civil society organisations and government departments.

Last week, we released two anti-racism videos as part of the campaign. They deal with scenarios of everyday and casual racism, and highlight how racism needn’t always be overt. They reflect research which finds there are some groups that experience significantly higher rates of racial discrimination, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and those from African backgrounds. They also reflect our own experience at the Commission, which finds that nearly 40 per cent of our racial discrimination complaints last year involved either employment or the provision of goods and services. But they aim to help people find the courage and confidence to respond to racism if they see it occurring.

(The Community Service Announcement videos were shown.)

These videos are, in essence, about starting a conversation. But as we all know, a conversation about racism isn’t always easy. It can be fraught, it can be met with resistance; it is something that requires tact and nuance. Here are some general principles that can guide us on talking about race and racism.

First, it’s not just about racial superiority. Racism refers to prejudice, discrimination or hatred directed at someone because of their race. It is something that creates disadvantages for some, and confers privilege on to others. Expressions of racism don’t always need to involve a belief in racial supremacy or even racial malice. It can come from ignorance or anxiety.

Second, words can do damage. Something needn’t involve physical harm in order to count as racist. We know that when racial violence does occur, it is often enabled by racist language. As the Holocaust Memorial Museum in the US said in response to the recent surge in white nationalism: ‘The Holocaust did not begin with killing; it began with words.’

Third, let’s not get too defensive. We know that race can be an uncomfortable topic. Often people say we make too much of a fuss about racism in Australia when racism is much worse in many other countries. We shouldn’t divert in this way. Australia is, by international standards, a highly tolerant society. But that doesn’t deny that those who experience racial discrimination experience a real harm to their dignity and equality.

Fourth, we must avoid saying that copping racism must be part of some initiation rite for any immigrant group. Some say that just as the Irish, Italians, Greeks and Asians copped ugliness, so too must newer groups. That racism in the past only served to make migrants more resilient. While we may never eradicate racism and bigotry, it isn’t good enough to say its targets must grin and bear it, or that there’s nothing we can do. That amounts to normalising racism. As for resilience, no doubt there were many who were tough enough to tough it out. But for every story of resilience, I imagine there would be many more stories where racism has broken a migrant. We mustn’t think that our society must repeat old ways.

Finally, racism matters to all of us. It implicates all of us. Racism mustn’t be an issue that matters only to minorities. Those fortunate not to experience racism must understand they have a part to play – that social progress happens only when society is big enough to stand alongside those who are mistreated or experience injustice. We say, ‘Racism. It Stops with Me’, because racism diminishes all of us, and because all of us can help stop it.


This is my third FECCA conference as Race Discrimination Commissioner, and it will also be my final conference in this role, as my term concludes in the second half of 2018. Over the past four years I have enjoyed the privilege of working with FECCA. I would like to thank Australia’s ethnic communities for the support I’ve received in the cause of anti-racism. I thank you for the work that you all do in advancing our cultural diversity. It has been an honour to stand in solidarity with so many of you. 

I would like to conclude, though, with three reflections on what I see as some challenges for Australia’s multicultural communities.

First, advocacy for multiculturalism must constantly update itself for the times. It is essential that as many of our ethnic and multicultural communities are part of a peak body such as FECCA. We know, of course, that our immigration program has evolved over the years. The typical migrant profile in 2017 is very different to what it was in 1967 and 1987. Today, the two largest source countries of migrants to Australia are China and India. Those ethnic communities that have been in Australia longer must work with and support newer ethnic communities. I know this work is already being done, but I believe there must be more of it. Communities speak most effectively when they speak together. We saw a powerful example of this when ethnic communities spoke in unison in defence of the Racial Discrimination Act.

Second, we must build the multicultural leadership of the future. We need to see more of a new generation of leaders who will speak on behalf of ethnic and multicultural communities. On this note, it is encouraging and very timely that FECCA, leading into today, had sessions at this conference dedicated to youth. Again, the work is being done, but more of it must be done.

And third, we must continue having strong voices from within Australian civil society on race and multiculturalism. In particular, there is a need to strike the right balance between having voices from community organisations who deliver services and voices from community advocates who are able to speak truth to power. We need to ensure that advocacy on the issues that matter doesn’t rest on the shoulders of those who also provide services to communities – those who may understandably refrain from speaking out because they fear consequences for their work in delivering services. Perhaps there needs to be a better division of labour within Australian multiculturalism between service provision and policy advocacy.

I am confident, however, that multicultural communities can meet these challenges. Very simply, you must meet these challenges. Because the times ahead are unlikely to be easy.


Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Race Discrimination Commissioner

See Also