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Moral solidarity on race and recognition

Race Race Discrimination

I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land, the Wurunjderi people of the Kulin nation, and pay my respects to elders past and present. I am honoured to be with you this morning. It was certainly an honour last night at dinner to sit next to the great Australian, after whom this congress is named, and whose leadership and example continue to inspire all of us who work in the field of human rights and social justice.

I’m particularly delighted to have received the invitation to come to this Congress in my first year as Commissioner. The leadership of the Lowitja Institute is important to the Commission’s efforts to combat racial discrimination. The work of the Institute has been especially effective in creating widespread acknowledgement of the damage that racism causes to the health of individuals and communities, and dealing with the intergenerational effects that discriminatory policies generate.

Two years ago at the last Congress, my colleague at the Commission, Mick Gooda -friend and colleague to many of you - spoke about the importance of taking a human rights based approach to health. I share his view. The right to health is, after all, a human right. It is enshrined in instruments such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

In practice, any human rights approach must be guided by the value of non-discrimination. Too often, as we all know, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people do not enjoy equal access to services. It is, of course, only appropriate to be reflecting on health equality today, on national Close the Gap day, a day when 150,000 people across the country will be participating in more than 1200 events.[1]  And it is imperative that government efforts do not waiver on this matter. There needs to be absolute commitment to goal of health equality of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

In my remarks today, I would like to say a little about the state of racism in Australian society and address some of the challenges that exist in combatting racism. Not least, we should be concerned about the civic health of Australian society. If we are not careful, we may run the risk of undermining civility and racial tolerance – something that would open up many dangers, not only for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but for all Australians. Because the cost of racism is not only about how it diminishes those who are its victims, but also about how it diminishes all of us, and diminishes our social cohesion and cultural harmony as a nation.

Racism in Australian society

So what is the state of racism in Australian society today? If we take the national view, according to the recent Challenging Racism project led by researchers at the University of Western Sydney, about 20 per cent of Australians have experienced forms of race hate talk (verbal abuse or racial slurs). About 11 per cent report that they’ve experienced exclusion from their workplaces or social activities based on their racial background. More than one in 20 Australians, more than 5 per cent, say that they have been physically assaulted because of their race.[2]

If we look at the experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, we see a very startling disparity. The work of the Lowitja Institute has looked at the experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Victoria. Just bearing in mind those national figures that I just cited, with respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people:

  • 97 per cent say that they’ve experienced racism;
  • 92 per cent say that they’ve been called racist names or subjected to verbal abuse;
  • 85 per cent say that they were ignored, treated with suspicion or treated rudely because of their race;
  • 79 per cent said they were left out or avoided because of their race;
  • 67 per cent say that they’ve been spat at, had an object thrown at them, been hit or been threatened to be hit, because of their race.[3]

Compare that to the overall national figures and you get a very bleak picture.

Recent research conducted by the Scanlon Foundation also sheds new light on developments in racist sentiment today. Last year the Scanlon Foundation found that close to 19 per cent of people say that they have experienced an episode of racial or religious discrimination over the past 12 months. The Foundation has been looking at this annually since 2007, and it’s usually found that only about 10 or 12 per cent of respondents say that they have experienced this.[4]

So last year, we saw a very dramatic increase, one that I think can be attributed to the deteriorating debate that you see around asylum seekers. As I have said on other occasions, the issue with this debate is not confined only to those who are asylum seekers and refugees for the simple reason that not every Australian is going to make a distinction between an asylum seeker, a refugee, a skilled migrant, an international student, a second or third generation Australian, or indeed, an Aboriginal Australian. I have heard anecdotally from people who work in communities that Aboriginal people have said they have been told to go back to where they came from. This is a powerful illustration of the spill over effects that I’m talking about.

Civic health

Now we know that racism is a fundamental driver of poor health. We know that racism can lead to stress, negative emotional reactions and other physiological effects. You know better than I do the dimensions of such damage. What I want to focus on is the impact of racism on our civic health. What I mean by this is the impact racism can have on the civility and cohesion of our society. The civic dimension of racism’s harm is one that is not always emphasised. But when someone is subjected to racism, it can have the effect of undermining their standing as a fellow member or citizen in our community, and can have a fundamental impact on their freedom.

A few years ago in adopting the National Anti-Racism Strategy, the Commission adopted a consultation which involved a survey of Australians’ perceptions and experiences of racism. What was striking about the testimony that we gathered were people’s reflections about how racism impinged on their fundamental freedom. One respondent, for example, of migrant background, said “I came to Australia for freedom, but racism makes me feel that my liberty is incomplete.”[5]  Racism can make people feel that they are not able to speak out in a way that they otherwise might, and also inhibit their ability to go out, or feel safe in public places.

In short, the experience of racism undermines the assurance of security to which every member of a good society is entitled; the sense of confidence that everyone will be treated fairly and justly; that everyone can walk down the street and conduct their business without fear of abuse or assault, or without feeling that they have to keep their heads down. A healthy civic culture must involve this assurance at three levels; at the level of the Constitution, at the level of our laws, and at the level of our everyday interactions in civil society.

With respect to the constitution, I ask: How can we ever have a healthy society, and therefore a society with healthy individuals, if the nation’s constitution allows discrimination on the basis of race, or if it fails to acknowledge its first peoples? We know that there are currently two sections of our Commonwealth Constitution that allow Governments to discriminate on the basis of race: Section 25, which states that the eligibility to vote in state elections can be determined by race; and, of course, the “race power” in Section 51.

With the issue of Constitutional recognition we are talking about something fundamental to a liberal society. The Constitution is the formal document that captures, however imperfectly reflecting our history, something of the spirit in which we conduct our lives together. It is time that we make a definitive statement about racial equality. It is time that we have Constitutional guarantees against racial discrimination. It is time that our Constitution is expunged of ideas about racial superiority and the natural order of the imperial power. It is time that Australia’s first peoples are duly recognised as such, that their special place in Australia is acknowledged.

I see my role as Commissioner as being an advocate for this, particularly with respect to multicultural Australia. I think the relationship between multicultural Australia and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians has perhaps been one point of weakness in our multicultural experience. But moral solidary on matters of justice is important, and we can find in our history, our shared history, some source of inspiration.

Last year at the Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia conference, I drew delegates to the experience of William Cooper, a leading figure in Australian Aboriginal history.[6]  I reminded delegates that it was William Cooper, in the late 1930s, who was the lone voice in Australia in condemning the cruel persecution of Jewish people by the Nazi government following the events of Kristallnacht in 1938. For someone like me, who came to Australia as an immigrant, whose parents are refugees, I can find no more potent example for the kind of solidarity that multicultural Australia should be expressing with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.

Talking about race

Let me turn now to the other two areas. I will say a little more about the legislative realm shortly, but let me say a little know about civil society, and our everyday interactions when it concerns race. How we discuss race in our everyday lives is a reflection of our civic health. There is still a problem with people who deny the problem of racism and get very defensive talking about matters of discrimination.

One common response to an allegation of racism is to frame the charge as a wholesale judgement on the Australian people, as a judgement about each and every single Australian. We’ve all heard it before when someone decides to stand up and call out racism; some will say ‘you’re smearing our population’; ‘you’re suggesting that everyone is racist’; ‘you’re assuming the worst of people’. I think that’s a very dangerous thing to have in the public debate. It is nonsense to believe that calling out racism can be a bigger crime than racism itself.

I think that there’s a problem, too, in believing that racism only really counts as racism if it conforms to its dictionary definition - the idea about a doctrine of racial superiority. Quite simply, you don’t need to subscribe to a doctrine of racial superiority; you don’t need to be a member of an organised racist movement in order to say or do something that has racist implications. This is one of the messages of our work at the Commission: racial discrimination is as much about impact as it is about intention. By focusing so much on motive and intention, we have lost sight of the impact.

At the Commission, for a little over a year now, we’ve been running the ‘Racism. It Stops With Me’ campaign, which seeks to empower Australians to make a stand on racial prejudice and discrimination. The message is one of responsibility: the responsibility that of all of us have to stand up to behaviour that does not reflect well on our society and our national traditions.

People often ask, ‘what can I do when I see an episode of racism?’ Our message is very simple: you can always do something. Whether it is reporting an incident; whether it is recording an incident on your phone; or whether it is something as basic and decent as offering your support and comfort to the victim of racism. The worst thing you can do is to do nothing. The psychological research shows us that when people stand up and decide to abuse or harass others in public, they in fact believe that the majority of those around them endorse or support their actions. So if you do not say something, if you do not stand up, then you send the message that certain actions are indeed supported.

Let me say something very briefly about the Racial Discrimination Act, and the legislative elements of our civic health. As you all know, there is an intense public debate at the moment about the provisions concerning racial hatred and vilification in the Racial Discrimination Act. The Federal Government has made it clear that it wants to repeal, in its current form, section 18C of the Act, which makes it unlawful for there to be an act that’s reasonably likely to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person on the basis of race.

I believe that there has been a great deal of misunderstanding and mischaracterisation in this debate. For example, it is said that this provision unduly restricts freedom of speech. Without getting too much into the substance of the law, people forget that Section 18C is followed by Section 18D, which is one of the few provisions of Australian law which protect freedom of speech. You can say something that might offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate on the basis of race, if it is done in the form of artistic expression, scientific inquiry, or fair reporting or fair comment on a matter of public interest, provided that it’s done reasonably and in good faith.

This week there were media reports speculating that it was not only 18C that was in the sights of legislative amendment, but also Section 18D. It is generally puzzling for me that we would remove or tinker with the one provision that draws a clear and unambiguous line between legitimate public debate and abusive hate speech.

As the debate develops, I would like to see a genuine reflection and contest about that value that has been bandied about so frequently – freedom. Freedom of speech is important, I agree. But this freedom has never been absolute. And when people abuse or vilify others, this can also have an effect on freedom, including the ability of others to exercise their freedom of speech.

I would encourage all of you who work in Aboriginal health to consider the role that you can play in this debate, because lost frequently in discussions of the matter is that very basic point that we started with – the impact of racial vilification on the health of individuals and communities. For those who don’t have to encounter racism in their lives, for those who are fortunate enough to enjoy the privilege of social power, it can be an easy thing to say that others should just develop thicker skin, or shouldn’t make a fuss about hurt feelings. But for those who have felt the wound of racism, we know it’s not about mere hurt feelings, it’s about something that inflicts injury on our civic standard; on the ability of each and every person in this country to stand as an equal, and to participate in the life of the nation.

Thank you for having me at your congress. I look forward to our discussion very shortly. And I look forward to working with all of you to create a healthy future, not only for individuals and communities, but also for our civic culture at large.

[1]Australian Human Rights Commission, ‘Record show of national support for Close the Gap Day’ (Media release 20 May 2014). At (viewed 20 March 2014).
[2]K Dunn, Challenging Racism: The Anti-Racism Research Project. At 20 March 2014).
[3]A Ferdinand, Y Paradies & M Kelaher, Mental Health Impacts of Racial Discrimination in Victorian Aboriginal Communities, The Lowitja Institute (2013). At (viewed 20 March 2014).
[4]A Markus, Mapping Social Cohesion 2013: The Scanlon Foundation Surveys National Report (2013). At (viewed 20 March 2014).
[5]Australian Human Rights Commission, National Anti-Racism Strategy: Consultation Report (July 2012). At (viewed 20 March 2014). A Ferdinand, Y Paradies & M Kelaher, Mental Health Impacts of Racial Discrimination in Victorian Aboriginal Communities, The Lowitja Institute (2013). At (viewed 20 March 2014).
[6]Race Discrimination Commissioner Dr T Soutphommasane, Our Constitution and Our Law: A Stronger Multicultural Australia, (Speech delivered the 2013 Federation of Ethnic Communities Council of Australia Conference, Gold Coast, 8 November 2013). At (viewed 20 March 2014).

Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Race Discrimination Commissioner

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