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Multicultural Australia is mainstream Australia

Race Race Discrimination

Multicultural Australia is mainstream Australia
Speech to Arab Council Australia, Fairfield East, Sydney
31 July 2018

I join in recognising the Darug people and acknowledging them as the traditional owners of the land on which we meet. To Mary Shalhoub and other members of the Arab Council, to Shaoquette Moselmane MLC, Julia Finn MP, the many distinguished guests tonight. To Maha Abdo and Randa Kattan, thank you for your moving words.

What to say? I have the highest respect and affection for Randa and the Arab Council, and together we’ve stood in solidary in the cause of racial equality and multiculturalism these past five years. I’ve been proud to stand alongside Randa and the Arab community and indeed the many other communities that are represented here tonight.

You have all had an important part to play in our society. We are a multicultural nation, and a successful one. But we’ve got to work hard to protect this achievement and this heritage that we have as a modern nation. There are so many challenges that we face at the moment, which reflect what is happening around the world.

I don’t need to go into too much detail: you know what I’m talking about. You need only to look at the debate we’ve had here in Australia the last few weeks – the panic about African gangs and crime in Melbourne. It wasn’t all that long ago that we heard the same panic and hysteria about Lebanese gangs here in Sydney, and before then about Vietnamese gangs in Cabramatta, or Asian triads. And before then, about the Italian mafia.

A theme emerges here. Let’s not ever forget that an attack on any one community is an attack on all of our communities and on all of us. So whenever we see anyone being targeted for hostility because of who they are or where they come from, we’ve got to be prepared to stand up and defend them – and to stand together. When I think of the past five years and what Randa and Arab Council have done, that’s exactly what they’ve done: stood in solidarity with First Peoples, with other ethnic communities, with anyone who has been under attack.

I think it’s to your credit, Randa, Mary and others, that we’ve seen this leadership from the Arab community. I’m very proud to be a friend of this community and the community can be proud of what it has done.

There will be more challenges to come.

I think of the extended debate we’ve had about the Racial Discrimination Act. This was a prime example of what can be achieved when communities stand together.

When I started this role I think most of us believed that there was a very high likelihood that the Racial Discrimination Act would be amended. Let’s not forget the Abbott Government was elected in 2013, and had promised in the election campaign to change the Act. This wasn’t a whim of the Government; this was a declared policy announced before the election. You could say there was an election mandate to change the Racial Discrimination Act. 

But look at what happened, at the enormous backlash that we saw from communities across the country to what was proposed. What was proposed was a weakening of the legislation. It was a dangerous idea. It would have made it easier for people to racially abuse and vilify others without consequences. When you do that, when you propose that, what you are proposing is an assault on our multicultural society – and an assault on our values.

But the Australian community stood up. We should never be fooled into thinking that multiculturalism and racial equality are only minority issues. They’re not. They’re mainstream issues because multicultural Australia is mainstream Australia.

Among friends of diversity and multiculturalism, we often lapse into accepting this story about multiculturalism being only for minorities. But the facts state a diff reality.

We know, for example, that in 2014, during the first attempt to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, that 88 per cent of Australians believed the law should remain the same – 88 per cent. I don’t think there are many issues that can garner support in the range of 88 per cent.

As you’ll know, there was a second attempt at reforming section 18C. But when the survey was done in 2017 by Fairfax it found that 78 per cent of Australians believed 18C should remain the same. Eighty-eight per cent, 78 per cent – those are big numbers. And they speaks volumes about where the Australian community actually lies on issues of race and multiculturalism.

Of course, the debates we hear in media, and what we hear from our politicians, may not reflect that reality. But if it doesn’t reflect that reality, maybe it says more about the media and more about our politicians than it does about us as a society. What we mustn’t do is fool ourselves into thinking that our values as friends of multiculturalism are not supported by the majority of people; because they are.

As I conclude my term as Commissioner, I am quietly confident that we are in a position where we can meet any future challenge to our multiculturalism and racial equality. It’s not going to be easy. There may be more fights, there may be more contests.

One has already been mentioned. It has been suggested that the title of Race Discrimination Commissioner should be changed, maybe to something like Community Relations Commissioner or Racial Harmony Commissioner. To which I say this: we’ve got a piece of legislation called the Racial Discrimination Act. It is there because our society believes in fighting racial discrimination.

If you can’t name something, you can’t fight it. Fighting racism is hard enough at the best of times. But if you can’t even utter the words ‘racial discrimination’, you’ve simply got no chance in fighting it.

If there is to be a change to any title or any function, let’s remember: this can only be done if the Racial Discrimination Act itself is changed. But if there is to be a change, I’ve got a feeling that communities around Australia, including this one, are going to have something to say about it.

So let’s be vigilant – not only about the rise in racism or bigotry, but also of any attempt to weaken our society’s stance against racial discrimination and racism.

If I can conclude with a reflection on two things.

One is the idea of patriotism. Because when I think of the work of fighting racism, and what’s motivating it, for me it’s ultimately about creating a better Australia. Often in my work I hear people say to me and to the Commission about our efforts in calling out prejudice and discrimination, that we hate Australia, or that we want to criticise Australia and make Australians feel bad.

Well, we call out racism and hatred not because we hate Australia but because of the very opposite – because we love this country. When you love something, you want to see it at its very best, you want to improve it. And if we are a society that believes in a fair go and in equality, we should not apologise for a moment about calling out anything which denies equality and dignity because of their race or background.

Secondly, Maha said in her remarks something about having the courage to stand alone. Courage is an important virtue. You need to have courage and conviction. I know I am in a room filled with courage and conviction. But I want to say, never for a moment in my five years as Commissioner did I ever feel alone. Because I knew that in all that we did, we were trying to give voice to people’s experiences and giving voice to people’s values. When we call for racial equality and when we stand up for multiculturalism, we know there are many people standing with us. And together, we can make a difference, we can prevail over some of the darker sides of our nature.

With that, I want to say thank you so much to the Arab Council for tonight. I’m deeply touched and honoured that you would come together and say farewell.

A number of people have already asked me, ‘What happens next?’ A holiday is what happens next. But when I come back, I may no longer be in this role, but be assured I will always be a friend of racial equality and multiculturalism, and if there’s a fight on to defend on to defend the Racial Discrimination Act, or a fight on to take on bigots and enablers of hate, I’ll be there ready to fight.

Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Race Discrimination Commissioner

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