Confronting the Return of Race Politics
Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Race Discrimination Commissioner
Lecture to the Whitlam Institute, Western Sydney University
6 August 2018 (6.30pm)
Check against delivery
I join in acknowledging the Darug people as the traditional owners of the land, and paying my respects to their elders past and present.
I am honoured to be with you this evening, and can think of no more fitting place to give what is my final address before I conclude my term as Race Discrimination Commissioner. Because, as I reflect on the state of our race relations and our society’s efforts to combat racism, it is clear that so much of that bears the imprint of the Whitlam Government. It is equally clear that much of the future chapters of Australian multiculturalism and racial equality will be written here in Western Sydney.
I am a proud son of Sydney’s west. When my family moved here from France in 1985, it was in the southwest suburbs of Sydney where we settled. My childhood was spent growing up in Canley Vale and Bonnyrigg Heights. I went to school in Canley Vale and Glenfield.
And the western Sydney I grew up in was the land of Whitlam. I studied at the E.G. Whitlam Library in Cabramatta. My local swimming pool was at the Whitlam Leisure Centre in Liverpool. My junior Mt Pritchard cricket team played at Whitlam Park in Heckenberg. In a part of Sydney that was, and remains, the heartland of multicultural Australia, it was only appropriate that the children of migrants would grow up familiar with the prime minister whose government laid the foundations for racial equality.
The 1980s were an interesting time for a family from an Asian background to arrive in this country. That decade saw the first challenges to Australia’s official multiculturalism and non-discriminatory immigration policy. A national debate about Asian immigration had erupted. Prominent historian Geoffrey Blainey warned that migrants were conducting a colonisation of the country, which would result in us fracturing into a ‘nation of tribes’. Following Blainey, then federal opposition leader John Howard argued that the levels of Asian immigration could not be absorbed by Australian society.
Then came the 1990s. Pauline Hanson was elected to the federal parliament as the Member for Oxley. Her message: Australia was in danger of being swamped by Asians. In Hanson’s words, these were people who ‘have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate’.
I recall my family speaking about those debates. These were debates that cut to the core of who we were. As migrants, my family and I came to this country with a desire to be part of Australia – not to colonise it. Within three years of arriving here, we had all naturalised as citizens. We were proud to be Australians. But clearly there were times when we were made to feel we may not belong, when we were told by some that they would never accept us as truly Australian.
Our society got through those debates of the 1980s and 1990s. Twenty years ago, in 1988, the Asian immigration debate was resolved when the Commonwealth Parliament affirmed Australia’s commitment to a racially non-discriminatory immigration program – with a number of Liberal members crossing the floor to support it. As for Hansonism, the threat it posed seemed to disappear when Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party famously imploded.
Australia today has good reason to boast that it is one of the most successful multicultural societies in the world. And yet, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Our public discourse rehearses many of those concerns that we seemed to have dealt with two and three decades ago. We are again grappling with questions about race, immigration and multiculturalism.
Tonight, I would like to reflect on these public debates and the resurgent threats posed by racism. The story of our multiculturalism is one of success. But while we can be proud of our multiculturalism, the success is not yet complete. As citizens, we have every reason to remain vigilant.
The return of race politics
We must remain vigilant because race politics is back. I take no pleasure in saying this but, right now, it feels like there has never been a more exciting time to be a dog-whistling politician or race-baiting commentator in Australia. Five years ago, I wouldn’t have said it was likely that we would see the resurgence of far-right politics. I wouldn’t have expected that the biggest threats to racial harmony would come from within our parliaments and from sections of our media. Yet here we are.
In one sense, race and racism have never gone away. This is the paradox of our multiculturalism: for all we have been transformed into a diverse and vibrant nation, racism remains alive in our society, and not only as a vestige of an old bigotry and chauvinism.
Maybe it’s too much to expect that racism could ever be purged. Prejudice and discrimination are like the permanent stains of our humanity, inconvenient reminders of our incurable imperfection.
Here are the facts on what racism looks like in Australia. According to the Scanlon Foundation’s Mapping Social Cohesion Survey in 2017, about 20 per cent of people have experienced discrimination during the past 12 months.
We know that those from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds experience racism at much higher rates. Reconciliation Australia’s Barometer survey of 2016 found that 46 per cent of Indigenous people experienced racism during the past six months. Moreover, Indigenous people encounter institutional racism in a way very different to other groups – what many would describe as a legacy of colonial racism.
We know that those from non-English speaking backgrounds also experience racial or religious discrimination at higher rates. The Scanlon Foundation’s research highlights that 77 per cent of people from African backgrounds say they have experienced discrimination. About 34 per cent of those from a non-English-speaking background have experienced discrimination.
That racism continues with such prevalence is enough to cause concern. More concerning is the mixing of race and politics. It is clear that politicians are enthusiastically seeking debates about immigration, multiculturalism and crime. This is dangerous territory. When politicians resort to using race in advancing their agendas, they inevitably excite racial anxiety and stir up social division. They end up damaging our racial tolerance and multicultural harmony.
Just as there was in the 1980s and 1990s, there is panic about migrants and minorities. Since the start of this year, media and political concern about a so-called African gangs crisis in Melbourne has grown feverish. According to some, Melburnians are now afraid to go out for dinner because of rampant African youth crime. Last month, the Prime Minister declared there was ‘real concern’ about ‘Sudanese gangs’. The Liberal state opposition in Victoria has distributed pamphlets claiming it would ‘stop gangs hunting in packs’, featuring a shadowy photograph of hooded dark-skinned youths.
There is a return, too, of old debates about multiculturalism. In a speech last month in London, Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs Alan Tudge warned that Australia was veering towards a ‘European separatist multicultural model’. Other ministers have spoken about an allegedly growing phenomenon of ‘ghettoisation’ of Australian suburbs. Against this backdrop of concerns, the Government has indicated it will seek to introduce new English language requirements for permanent residency and citizenship – and possibly also a new ‘values’ test for those seeking permanent residency.
Immigration is indeed back as a subject of political contest. And it’s not just about the number of migrants; it’s also what kind of migrants we are taking in. Earlier this year, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton proposed that white South African farmers deserve ‘special attention’ for fast-tracked humanitarian visas because of their alleged persecution. Last month, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott questioned whether we should accept any migrants at all from Africa, suggesting they are ‘difficult to integrate’. And just last week, News Corp columnist Andrew Bolt argued that we are seeing a ‘tidal wave of immigration’ overwhelming Australia – that Jews, Indians and Chinese were forming ethnic ‘colonies’ across the country. Clearly, we are seeing a challenge to the non-discriminatory immigration program that Australia has conducted since the end of the White Australia policy.
The spectre of history never lurks far away from our public debates. Consider the debate about foreign influence. Notable commentators have suggested there is a ‘silent invasion’ of Australia being conducted by China, with the Chinese party-state planting ‘fifth column’ operatives within our public institutions. It goes without saying that we must protect our democratic institutions from foreign interference. This should give no excuse, though, for some to re-run old fears about the Yellow Peril. Making things worse, some are now charging anyone raising concerns about racism as pushing a ‘weaponised narrative’ about Australian racism that has been ordered by Beijing.
Public debates and everyday lives
Public debates help to set the tone for society. What happens in our politics can shape what we experience in our daily lives. At the moment, some groups in our society stand more vulnerable than ever to racism.
A few weeks ago, I received a letter from a woman in Sydney, who got racially abused in her local cafe. Another customer came around and told her to go back to China, declaring that, ‘all Chinese are Communists’. Last month, while holding a stall in Redfern, Jenny Leong, a Greens MP in the NSW Parliament, was harangued by a woman who said, ‘You are taking over. I know your plan. We are all now second-class citizens because you Chinese are taking over.’
These are some of the effects of debates about a ‘silent invasion’ by the Chinese Communist Party. We shouldn’t be surprised that some people may vent racial hostility at people of Chinese backgrounds, if they are being told there is a threat from Communist China.
There is also the more insidious impact, the powerful chilling effect that debates can have on Chinese-Australian citizens. Many fear speaking out in public debates, lest they get smeared as agents of the Chinese Communist Party. If we’re not more careful, we may end up demanding that Chinese Australians work many times harder than others to demonstrate their loyalty to this country. We may end up with what can only be described as a form of racial discrimination, justified as concern about national sovereignty.
Consider as well the effects of talk about African gangs. I know there is much hurt and dismay being felt by African-Australians – in particular, Sudanese-Australians. Some Sudanese-Australian community leaders have spoken about how they are living with a sense of shame and rejection. In one recent article in the Guardian Australia, Father Daniel Gai Aleu, an Anglican minister in Sunshine, in Melbourne’s west, said, ‘I can say I’m an Australian but my colour only betrays me.’ Pastor Nathan Kuku, who leads a congregation in nearby Albion said, ‘we feel like we don’t have any back-up in this country’. Well, it would feel that way when you have even the Prime Minister singling out your community.
The consequences are all too real. Within Sudanese-Australian communities, there are many people who are fearful about leaving their homes, and who are sheltering from society. And it affects Australians who have other African backgrounds, too. Young African-Australians in Melbourne have told me of occasions when they have walked to sporting events together as a group, only to be stopped in the street because members of the public have called police fearing they were marauding gang members.
Such experiences aren’t new or even unique. The kind of racial profiling I’ve described exists for other groups in our society. In my work, I’ve heard regularly from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people about experiences of being stopped in stores or subjected to searches, or being denied service by businesses or by taxis. Australians from Arab and Middle-Eastern backgrounds, and from Asian backgrounds, have also had to contend with the sting of racial stereotyping. In the time when I was growing up as a teenager, talk about Asian gangs and so-called Asian ghettoes in the suburbs made many young Asian-Australians feel disgraced and humiliated. It made many question their place in this country.
This is how racism works. It creates doubts and divisions, and it drives its targets into retreat. Where the seeds of racism are planted in political speech, they will bear bitter fruit in society.
It’s not just politics that is behind this. Alongside the politicisation of racial fear, we are also seeing the monetisation of racism. Sections of a fracturing media industry, under the strain of technological disruption, seem to be using racism as part of their business model. Faced with competition from a proliferation of news and entertainment sources, some media outlets are using racial controversies to grab attention – as a means of clinging on to their audiences.
You see this, for example, in the way some media outlets regularly fawn upon far-right political commentators from North America. These avatars of white nationalism are typically lauded as ‘alt-right showmen’ or ‘alt-right provocateurs’. They are fawned upon and given sympathetic platforms to spread their messages of hate and division. With this kind of licence, it is no surprise to find far-right groups being emboldened like never before.
It’s got to the point where commentators on national television can tell people to go back to where they came from on air, and not experience any sanction from their network. Commentators can entertain fantasies on radio about running over a Muslim writer, with barely a slap on the wrist. Commentators with histories of inciting racism and of running foul of laws against racial discrimination have the audacity to label anti-racist speech as forms of ‘race-baiting’.
And just last night, we had Sky News – through host Adam Giles – give a platform to the avowed neo-Nazi and convicted violent criminal, Blair Cottrell. This is the same Blair Cottrell who has called for every classroom in Australia to be adorned with a portrait of Adolf Hitler; the same Blair Cottrell who has been convicted of arson, stalking and aggravated burglary; the same Blair Cottrell who has been convicted of breaking the Victorian Racial and Religious Tolerance Act. Even for Sky News, it was a shameful low. Perhaps this is where things are heading: Why bother with importing racist commentators when you can just put a neo-Nazi thug on air?
We need to restore some standards in our public debates. We need to restore some proportion and perspective.
Take multiculturalism. There is simply no compelling evidence that Australian multiculturalism is in danger of veering towards ethnic separatism. The evidence shows that we continue to conduct integration extremely well. The children of migrants, on average, outperform the children of Australian-born parents on education and employment. Our social mobility remains high by international standards. Many of those areas which people slander as ethnic ghettoes are dynamic and vibrant communities, where no one single ethnic or racial group predominates, and where property prices have been on the rise – hardly signs of ghettoes.
On the so-called Sudanese crime crisis in Melbourne, if we turn to the facts, we know that in Victoria Sudanese-born people aren’t the only ones over-represented in crime statistics. It is also the case that those born in Australia and in New Zealand are also over-represented in Victorian crime statistics.
But why, then, all the attention on crimes committed by those from Sudanese backgrounds, but so little on Australian- or New Zealand-born offenders? And if we are to focus on the ethnicity or backgrounds of offenders, why was there not uproar about the backgrounds of those who caused a violent brawl at a recent AFL match in Geelong? Where was the focus on the racial backgrounds of all those who have committed, in recent years, cowardly one-punch attacks? Where was the commentary about the ethnic or racial backgrounds of notorious murderers such as Adrian Bayley, Roger Rogerson and Carl Williams? Why is there one standard around ethnicity and crime being applied to some groups, but not applied to others?
Setting a standard on racism
Some would say a sense of proportion will prove elusive, given we are living in what seems to be a ‘post-truth’ world. It is now a case of choose your own reality.
There must be no relativism, however, when it concerns racism. We must hold the line. We must maintain our standards.
It is the Racial Discrimination Act that has set those standards for more than four decades. The Act would turn out to be the final legislative act of the Whitlam Government, coming into effect of 31 October 1975 – a week or so before the Dismissal.
When the Act was introduced, Whitlam described it as a ‘historic measure’, symbolic of his Government’s philosophy. It was, of course, during the years of his Government that the last remnants of the White Australia policy were abolished. The idea of multiculturalism emerged as official government policy, with Al Grassby’s advocacy for an enlarged ‘family of the nation’. Although Whitlam recognised the difficulty of legislating for social change, he nonetheless made clear that the new Act would serve to ‘set standards for the future, and build a climate of maturity, of goodwill, of cooperation and understanding at all levels of society’.
The idea of a Racial Discrimination Act was not universally welcomed at the time. The second reading speeches on the Racial Discrimination Bill of 1975 saw extended debate about the wisdom of outlawing racial discrimination. Queensland Nationals Senator Glen Sheil argued the bill would have ‘the most dangerous effect’ of creating ‘an official race relations industry with a staff of dedicated anti-racists’ intent on persecuting white Australians. Another Queenslander, Liberal senator Ian Wood, argued ‘it is a lot of utter nonsense and rubbish to bring such a Bill before this Parliament’, since ‘racialism in this country probably is practiced less than it is in the big majority of countries’. Shadow Attorney-General Ivor Greenwood declared, ‘We in Australia have been singularly free of racial discrimination’, and warned there was ‘a tendency for laws of this kind … to be used as a source of provocation, a focal point for professional agitators who wanted to stir trouble’.
The denial of racism’s existence, the charge that anti-racism stirs up division: these strains are still with us, more than 40 years on from those debates. The reactionary ghosts of Sheil, Wood and Greenwood still haunt, for example, our parliamentary chambers. It was only a few months ago that Liberal National Senator Ian MacDonald would echo his Queensland predecessors in declaring it ‘very difficult to find any but very rare cases of racism in Australia’. Others, such as Attorney-General Christian Porter, have indicated a discomfort with efforts against racial discrimination, instead preferring a focus on the happier concern of ‘harmony’.
Fortunately, such views haven’t prevailed. Back in 1975, the Racial Discrimination Bill passed – with notable support from some Opposition senators including Fred Chaney and Neville Bonner. The Liberal Coalition Government of Malcolm Fraser never moved to repeal the new Racial Discrimination Act; its steadfast approach to resettling refugees from southeast Asia spoke volumes about the leadership it was prepared to exercise on race.
There were perhaps some early lessons from all this about how the Racial Discrimination Act could only work with some measure of bipartisan support. Indeed, on issues of race, we have only been able to achieve progress when there is some recognition that what is at stake – the harmony, stability and justness of Australian society – is too important to be relegated to a matter of partisan contest. While there may always be some philosophical differences about the nuances of what racial equality must mean, the basic principle must remain the same: the law sets a standard, and rightly so.
And for most of the 43 years of the Racial Discrimination Act’s existence, the Act has done its job. It has been, in effect, the legislative expression of Australian multiculturalism. It has given Australians, of all backgrounds, a means of holding racial discrimination to account.
While not perfect, it has proven to be a powerful instrument of justice. It has become an important part of Australia’s human rights architecture. As demonstrated by the Mabo case, the Act underpinned the development of native title. Earlier this year, it helped deliver to the people of Palm Island a landmark settlement with the Queensland Government, including an apology for systemic racial discrimination and a payment of $30 million.
Let it never be said that the Racial Discrimination Act is a toothless tiger.
Free speech, 18C and identity politics
That seems to be a point that opponents and critics of the Act know only too well. Were the legislation so completely impotent and ineffectual, it would not have become such a target of ideological politics in recent years.
These past five years, we have seen heated contests over section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which makes it unlawful to do an act that is reasonably likely to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate someone because of their race. On two occasions in 2014 and 2017, the federal government – under both Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull – moved to amend the Act, cheered on by prominent sections of the media and the Institute of Public Affairs.
On both occasions, the push failed. The Abbott government in August 2014 abandoned its attempt to repeal section 18C after a widespread backlash to then Attorney-General George Brandis’s suggestion that ‘people have a right to be bigots’. The Turnbull government in 2016 moved to have a parliamentary committee inquire into free speech and the Racial Discrimination Act. In March 2017, a government Bill to amend section 18C was introduced in the Senate – and there it was defeated.
In these debates, we have seen an outpouring of support for the Racial Discrimination Act. First Australians, ethnic communities, civil society advocates – all were united in defending the Act. Labor and Greens have been unwavering in their stance, too. And while the Government’s policy has been to change the Act, we have seen a number of Liberal parliamentarians express vocal and important support for keeping the Act as it is. Again, we have seen how the endurance of the Racial Discrimination Act depends on some measure of bipartisan support.
While they have brought out support for racial equality in a way rarely seen, the debates about 18C have nonetheless been difficult for people who experience racism. They have opened the door to prejudice, intolerance and hatred. When I took on my role in 2013, I never imagined that the Attorney-General of Australia would, on the Senate floor, defend a right to bigotry. I never imagined that the cause of free speech would become defined by a desire to inflict racial vilification on others.
I also didn’t anticipate that I would end up being so caught up in a central way in the second political attack on 18C in 2016-17. Some have argued that in my role as Commissioner I improperly touted for, or solicited, complaints under the Racial Discrimination Act against the late cartoonist Bill Leak.
That is simply not true. Yes, I did make it clear that people who were racially offended about material could lodge a complaint. But it is part of my role as Commissioner to promote public understanding and acceptance of the Act. This includes informing people about the option they have to make a complaint under the law, if they believe they have experienced racial hatred. It would be a very odd situation if someone in my position were unable to speak about the complaint process under the Act.
As I’ve said, the debates have been intense. This is because the push to change 18C has been driven by ideological passions, and by a certain form of identity politics. Those who rail against section 18C tend to see things in a certain way: the Racial Discrimination Act is regarded as an example of political correctness gone made, and of a multicultural identity politics aligned with ‘cultural Marxism’. The critics of 18C believe public debates have supposedly been stifled because people fear that speaking frankly will lead them to be branded as racist by progressives intent on ‘virtue signalling’. They believe that certain ethnic and racial minorities are afforded greater protections under anti-discrimination law than members of ‘mainstream Australians’. They believe that the real racism today is something they call ‘reverse racism’.
Let’s, for a moment, consider this idea that political correctness has shut down debates about race. It is hard to see how debates have been shut down when The Australian has devoted hundreds of thousands of words to attacking the Racial Discrimination Act; when there are regular beat-ups on race in the Herald Sun and the Daily Telegraph; when nocturnal panels on Sky News endlessly berate multicultural political correctness; when Pauline Hanson makes regular appearances on Sunrise and Today; and when we are seeing a resurgent race politics in our national debate. From broadsheet to tabloid newspapers, from breakfast to nighttime viewing on television, and from backbenchers to the most senior members of government, there’s plenty of race-baiting happening.
As for identity politics, who is it exactly that is practising identity politics? Isn’t it a form of identity politics, when it’s argued that the cause of repealing section 18C is in the service of a ‘mainstream Australia’ that is being stifled by ethnic and racial minorities? When the language of ‘mainstream Australia’ or ‘middle Australian values’ is used as code for something racial? Doesn’t it reflect a form of identity politics when people argue that ‘cultural Marxism’ is undermining Western civilisation?
Let’s be clear: of course, it does. It reflects an identity politics that is aimed at securing the privileges of some and at keeping others in their place. We’re talking about an identity politics that is about reinforcing a hierarchy of voice and power in Australian society. Complaints about anti-racism stifling free speech are about a resentment of minorities being able to speak up. They’re the complaints of snowflakes who can’t hack it when people challenge racism.
The views of the actual mainstream Australia on race and free speech are different. The vast majority of Australians recognise that the Racial Discrimination Act exists as an expression of our society’s values and aspirations. They understand that one person’s freedom shouldn’t come at the expense of another person’s freedom. They understand that free speech shouldn’t be an excuse to vent racial hatred or hostility.
When in March 2014 Fairfax Media and Nielsen polled people about section 18C, a whopping 88 per cent said they believed it should remain unlawful to offend, insult or humiliate people on the basis of their race or ethnicity. In March 2017, at the time a Bill about changing 18C was being debated in parliament, a Fairfax-Ipsos poll asking the same question found a resounding response of 78 per cent. Academic research has found similar numbers. For all the clamour about changing section 18C, there has consistently been an overwhelming majority of Australians who believe the Racial Discrimination Act should stay in its current form.
This is no minor detail. There are very few propositions that are supported by about 80 per cent of Australians. A similar proportion support a non-discriminatory immigration program, with similar levels of support for multiculturalism. Not that you would guess any of this from our public commentary on free speech, immigration and multiculturalism, characterised as it has been by unfounded panics about political correctness, and migrants forming ‘ethnic colonies’.
Clearly, the true middle ground of our society on such issues doesn’t resemble much of our media and political debates. Those who object to 18C and the Racial Discrimination Act frequently call upon an image of an Australian mainstream that has limited tolerance for political correctness on race. Yet it is they and their version of identity politics that are out of step with contemporary Australia.
Debates about the Racial Discrimination Act and racism are unlikely to disappear. There is just too much ideological zeal, cultural anger and racial resentment for the noise to die down.
In recent months, the Attorney-General has flagged he wishes for the office of Race Discrimination Commissioner to be renamed or redefined – that it should be called the Community Relations Commissioner, or something similar. Such a change can’t happen through ministerial direction or through administrative tweaking. The title and function of the Race Discrimination Commissioner are set by legislation. If they are to change, it will require a change to the Racial Discrimination Act.
There is simply no good reason for such a change. But we must be on guard. We are seeing challenges right now both to diversity and to independent institutions in our public culture. Whether it is the concentration of media outlets, or whether it is the calls to privatise the ABC, Australian democracy is threatened by a reduction in the number of voices that can speak truth to power. On matters of race, there will be some who would prefer there not to be independent advocates for racial equality who are empowered to speak out, without fear or favour.
To those who may be entertaining yet another debate about racial discrimination, I say this: we have a Racial Discrimination Act for a simple reason. It’s because our society rejects racism and racial discrimination. And it’s only right that the statutory officer under the Racial Discrimination Act is called the Race Discrimination Commissioner – as it has been since 1986. We’ve got little chance of fighting racism, if we can’t even name it. You can’t eliminate racism through positive thinking or repetitions of the word ‘harmony’.
But if there is to be another move to change the Act, I know that fair-minded Australians and many communities are ready to defend the Act – as they did in 2013 and 2014, and as they did again in 2016 and 2017. As I reflect on the past five years, I can say there has been no prouder achievement than to have stood alongside so many Australians in fighting off those two attempts to change section 18C. Standing together, we have sent a powerful message that the Australian community believes the RDA must be here to stay.
I’m proud, too, of what we’ve achieved under the National Anti-Racism Strategy. We’ve had more than 400 organisations during the past five years involved as supporters of our Racism. It Stops with Me campaign; our public awareness videos last year received 1.6 million views on social media. We’ve conducted anti-racism work relating to employment, schools, early childhood, local government, and sport. And I’m proud to have started a conversation about the representation of cultural diversity in Australian leadership, through our Leading for Change research reports and the Leadership Council on Cultural Diversity that was established in 2016.
However, it’s the work with our communities that has been most important to me, and I thank all those who strive with dedication and determination to make Australia a better place. I’ve seen it among the community leaders and advocates I’ve met across the suburbs of our capital cities to those in regional towns and centres – from Bankstown to Bendigo, Logan to Liverpool, Hobart to Hervey Bay.
I’ve seen it in communities like Bendigo, which came together in responding to nasty anti-Islam protests. I’ve seen it in places like Eltham, in Melbourne’s northeast, where residents formed a group to help newly resettled Syrian and Iraqi refugees with learning English, driving on Melbourne roads, and finding jobs.
I’ve seen the power of anti-racism among citizens who have courageously stood up against hatred and bigotry, sometimes even putting their own safety on the line. I’ve seen it through those communities that have fought back against systemic racial discrimination – like Palm Island in Queensland. I’ve seen it in the young anti-racism advocates I’ve met who are coming together to build a better Australia. I’ve seen it in people like Alpha Cheng, who lost his father Curtis to an act of terrorism here in Parramatta, but has become an advocate for inclusion and compassion – doing so with a grace and strength, which remind us of what it means to be moved by the better angels of our nature.
We must always appeal to our better angels if we’re to do better on race. The sobering reality is that many in our society struggle with even talking about racism. The real political correctness on this doesn’t come from the Racial Discrimination Act but from a parochial fragility. It’s a fragility that explains why when racism is called out, the real offence in some people’s eyes is not that an act of discrimination occurred, but rather that someone was subjected to being called racist. People should look at it another way: if you don’t want to be called racist, you can start by not doing something racist.
Sadly, social change can’t ever be that simple. There are just too many ways for people to deny, dismiss or deflect any challenge to us to do better on racial equality and multiculturalism. Perhaps most potently, people respond to racism in Australia by pointing out that racism is worse in other countries, as though that means we must stop talking about the issue. This is a powerful way of saying that identifying racism amounts to an act of national disloyalty. It tarnishes anyone who raises racism as an ingrate who doesn’t know the value of living in The Best Country on Earth.
Let me conclude on what it means to be anti-racist. This is a commitment that reflects the highest form of patriotism – the desire to see our country live up to its very best. There have been times during the past five years when I have reflected on my own sense of patriotism. Many times I have questioned whether Australia has gone backwards on race, because of the pandering to prejudice in public debates.
But my patriotism remains, and the first principles remain the same. We reject racism because it is an assault on our values and our fellow citizens. We reject racism because it it diminishes our nation. That is why we fight racism. It’s because we think so highly of our nation in the first place. It’s because we want to see our country do better. It’s because we are committed to equality. And it’s because we have a responsibility to uphold our values.