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Launch of the WA Branch of the Asian Australian Lawyers Association

Race Race Discrimination

Speech given at the launch of the WA Branch of the Asian Australian Lawyers Association, Perth

(Edited transcript)

Thank you for the introduction. It's wonderful to be here for the launch of the Western Australian chapter of Asian Australian Lawyers. And I think this organisation can find no better patron and champion than Michael Kirby. 

I am a great supporter and champion of the idea of multiculturalism, as I'm sure all of us are. But sometimes I feel that we value cultural diversity in Australia in a very narrow way.  We are very good at celebrating a diversity of culinary tastes, of food, of lifestyle.

Michael Kirby mentioned that we had a fear of difference historically in this country. I don't think we have that fear of difference anymore, but perhaps we have a fear of talking about difference, a fear of dealing with difference beyond just food. Because while there is enormous comfort while we are relaxed and comfortable about multicultural food –- while we are happy to see diversity in our lunch rooms and in the lobbies of our organisations -- we are still a bit hesitant about seeing diversity in the corridors of power. 

A great lawyer once said, and I heard him say this: 'Power will never be given to you. You have to claim power for yourself'.  That was Michael Kirby when he was launching the NSW chapter of Asian Australian Lawyers. That is the real challenge. You’ve got to be hard-headed and honest about the challenge to ensure that we do have a distribution of power in our society that is fit for a multicultural society. 

The reasons for doing this are various. There is a business case for getting diversity right. We know that there is a pay-off for having diversity around the table when you make decisions. But there’s also a moral reason for doing it and a civic reason for doing it. 

The last thing we should want to have is a society that does not reflect who we are today. The Australia we are today can be broken down in the following terms. About 68% of Australians have an Anglo-Celtic background, about 18% have a European background, well over 10% have a non-European background, and three per cent would have an Indigenous background.  You have already heard about the legal profession and the representation of Asian diversity, but let me talk through very quickly about the representation of diversity in senior positions in business in the ASX200. 

Five per cent have a non-European cultural background, and 75% are Anglo-Celtic; and that's the best performing sector when you compare it to our parliament in Canberra, or to government at the levels of secretary or director-General in federal and state government departments, or to our universities at the level of vice-chancellor.  What is really striking is that if you were to go to any Australian university today and enter a lecture theatre or a tutorial room, any law school, any faculty of medicine, you would have staring at you an overrepresentation of diversity. The question I would have and I do have is ‘where is all this talent going?’ Because if you go to prize nights at our universities there is no question of diversity coming through there. Yet there seems to be a challenge in seeing this diversity reflected in positions of senior leadership. Now there are some encouraging signs, included in the legal profession, having groups like this lead the way is promising.

Earlier this year I was there when 11 of the large law firms signed a pledge on cultural diversity. One of the things that those firms will be doing is collecting data on cultural diversity. This would give us a good start in actually knowing what the state of play is on cultural diversity within the legal profession more broadly. 

But there is a challenge in dealing with some of the biases that we have already touched on today, to make sure that we can have honest and sometimes uncomfortable conversations. Because sometimes the biases we’re talking about aren't simply unconscious in nature, they are very conscious in nature, and we should be prepared to call out those biases. If you have been following some of the media commentary this week and some of the far reaches of the internet, you would have found one commentator even going so far as to say that no Asians want to be lawyers, that Asians are content to be IT professionals and open small businesses. 

But more than tackling bias I believe there is a real challenge incumbent on culturally diverse background Australians to assert themselves: to put their hands up and put themselves forward for positions of leadership. Too often on cultural diversity, people can tread too carefully. We can be too sheepish.  I get the impression sometimes that there is a mentality or attitude that one must not offend or alienate one’s host society. 

I think, though, if you are thinking in terms of a host or a host-society, you have got it all wrong.  When you talk about a host you are talking about guests and visitors perhaps outstaying their welcome, but on this question we are talking about citizens and members of Australian society, and if you are a citizen you should have a seat at the table. And if there is a problem around our institutions not representing who we are, then we’ve got to rectify that. 

Finally, the last challenge is for those of you who are not Asian, and I think the challenge here is about being allies and having solidarity as Michael highlighted, ensuring that you do help those who stand up and that you listen to people's lived experience and that you do so with candour and humility.  It’s powerful having someone like Michael talk and reflect on his experience and perhaps not mentoring someone from a different cultural background, and that's the kind of conversation we need on this issue. To have people who are open enough and big enough sometimes to admit they got things wrong. No one's ever going to get everything right, but it's only with that spirit, with that ethos that progress can be made. 

So, to the Western Australian chapter of Asian Australian Lawyers, you've got my support and I hope you also have the support of the legal community here in Perth and WA. Judging from the turnout this afternoon I’m confident that you do.


Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Race Discrimination Commissioner

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