Advancing Community Cohesion Conference
I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, the Dharawal people. I would like to recognise Dharawal elders – past, present and future – and to express my on-going commitment to the protection and promotion of their culture, language and lore. Dharawal people cared for and inhabited land from Botany Bay to the Shoalhaven River and Nowra and inland to Camden and I am privileged to be here on their land and near their waters.
Thank you for the opportunity to participate in today’s conference and to hear the other impressive participants’ insights about the challenges confronting social cohesion and community resilience, and how we can more effectively address them.
Events like these are important opportunities to bring together different spheres of Australian society to investigate and problem solve some of the factors that are impinging on community cohesion in our country.
As Race Discrimination Commissioner, advancing community cohesion is a key function of my role. Section 20 (c) sets out the Commission’s responsibility to:
“develop, conduct and foster research and educational programs and other programs for the purpose of:
- combating racial discrimination and prejudices that lead to racial discrimination;
- promoting understanding, tolerance and friendship among racial and ethnic groups; and
- propagating the purposes and principles of the Convention.”
Many of my fellow Australians have shared their personal experiences of discrimination and exclusion with me, both formally and informally since I have become Race Discrimination Commissioner. A very important way in which this has occurred is through the Sharing the Stories of Australian Muslims project. I have heard many stories of troubling behaviours that are directly impacting individual’s and communities’ lives.
A society’s concerns and preoccupation with the issue of community or social cohesion is largely dictated by the extent of the cultural, racial and religious diversity of its communities. A society that is overwhelmingly mono cultural is unlikely to be particularly concerned by challenges associated with social cohesion based on racial, cultural or religious differences within its community. By the same token there are unlikely to be many nations on this planet that may be properly described as predominantly mono cultural in nature. Countries are increasingly and invariably culturally diverse by comparison.
Some countries have arrived at their culturally diverse status through historical imperatives and have over time found means to adapt to the diversity challenges and impact. And many societies, are still working through those diversity issues, in varying ways. Other countries, particularly in more recent times, have had to deal with new migration patterns and paradigm generated by events around the world, such as the influx of refugees.
Australia, however, became a culturally diverse society, principally through a policy shift towards a non-discriminatory migration process backed by a notion that we would like to be or should be a multicultural society. In essence, Australia largely chose to be a culturally diverse society through an immigration model that opened our society to welcome and embrace the diversity of the world.
Indeed, according to the Scanlon Mapping Australian Social Cohesion Reports, an overwhelming majority of Australians believe that multiculturism has been good for Australia.
Australians, generally accept and subscribe to the ideals around a multicultural and culturally diverse society but not all may fully appreciate or understand the deeper meaning, implications and the workings in achieving an optimal culturally diverse society.
To succeed in being a culturally diverse society is not just a matter of choice it is also about commitment – a commitment to a set of values and beliefs about the society we desire and chose to live in. And commitment, naturally also involve a price that society must consider and outlay in order to secure the goals of having a culturally diverse society. Likewise, we make a commitment and outlay the necessary costs associated with maintaining and protecting our liberal democratic way of life.
This leads me to the point that our multicultural way of life and associated issues around strengthening and advancing community cohesion remains unfinished business and are work in progress.
Hence, the relevance and importance of this conference which seek to assists and guide us to explore ways and means to advance our community cohesion into the future.
Community cohesion is about how we manage and live with our cultural diversity, how we treat and react with each other, and how we integrate all diverse communities to aspire and share common purpose, goals and meaning.
For me the danger of Islamophobia, and other forms of racial and religious discrimination and intolerance, to Australia’s social cohesion and to the ability of all our citizens to fully belong and enjoy their human rights is very real and a deep concern. Muslim advocacy organisations, the Islamophobia Register and Muslim community members have long expressed their concern about the rising trend of Islamophobia in Australia.
I have said this many times previously, that the elimination of racial discrimination, prejudice and hatred and social cohesion are two sides of the same coin.
First-hand accounts of acts of discrimination, vilification and hate are being reported though numerous pieces of research, such as last year’s Second Islamophobia Report from the Islamophobia Register and Charles Sturt University, the ANU’s report on the Speaking Out About Racism Project and Griffith University’s upcoming Islamophobia research report.
Anti-racism, anti-hate and anti-Islamophobia human rights initiatives, policy and programs must put at their centre, and be informed by, the experiences and perspectives of communities who are often targeted by or on the receiving end of these human rights breaches.
The great strength of research and analysis like this is its contribution to an evidence-based conversation about Islamophobia in Australia as well as giving voice to the stories and experiences of Australian Muslims to shape a clear picture of the effects of Islamophobia.
The Australian Human Rights Commission has been researching and reporting about Islamophobia and working to alleviate the experiences and effects of it for some time.
The Commission’s Living Spirit - Muslim Women's Project drew on the findings of the Commission’s Isma Report, which found that the impact of racial and religious discrimination against Arab and Muslim Australians is most acutely felt by women, especially women wearing the hijab or other forms of religious dress.
The project aimed to build greater understanding among Muslim women about human rights and avenues for promoting racial, religious, cultural and gender equality in Australia. It highlighted existing legal protections against discrimination and vilification.
A key goal of the Living Spirit Project was identifying strategies to support individuals and communities responding to racial and religious discrimination and vilification.
More recently, my colleague, the Human Rights Commissioner, Ed Santow, has also been undertaking consultations with religious leaders about their concerns about religious discrimination and vilification.
The atrocity in Christchurch also re-ignited debates about the of extent right-wing extremism, Islamophobia and race-hate as social problems in Australia, and the urgent need to re-centre and address these if we are to build strong, socially cohesive communities.
On Harmony Day last year, in the aftermath of the tragedy in Christchurch, I announced that I would hold a series of consultations with Australian Muslim communities across the country about their experiences and concerns of hate speech, intolerance and violence.
The Sharing the Stories of Australian Muslims Project is made up of two research strands - a quantitative online survey that collected a national data set on the incidences of discrimination experienced by Australian Muslims and a qualitative consultation process focusing on how the Australian Human Rights Commission can better support the community and address key challenges.
Nationally, over 1000 Australian Muslim community members completed the project’s online survey which closed on 30 September 2019. The online survey was extended for an additional month due to stakeholder interest.
The survey revealed some high-level findings including, that over three in four Australian Muslims have experienced unfavourable treatment based on their religion, race or ethnicity.
The draft findings also identified that freedom of religion was the single most important issue concerning Australian Muslims. This was followed by education and interfaith relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in Australia.
Between July and September 2019, 19 consultation sessions were held in Canberra, Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney. The project team and I also held consultations in Brisbane and North Queensland in November last year. Later this month, we will visit Western Australia and the Northern Territory. It is anticipated a final report will be transmitted to the Attorney-General by the end of June 2020.
Indeed, the draft findings of the survey and the stories I and my team have heard in the consultations echo many of the findings of the other reports noted above.
Our project’s survey and consultations have revealed:
- Widespread concern among Australian Muslims that the ‘far-right’ is becoming more vocal in Australia.
- The specific vulnerability of women and children, especially women who wear religious dress, in public spaces like shopping centres and on public transport, to acts of Islamophobia.
- The dangers for Australian Muslims of engaging with the online world and the Islamophobia they experience there
- The way public narrative about Australian Muslims in the media and by public figures contributes to Islamophobia and appears to create a licence in the broader community to engage in acts of hate against Muslims.
The draft findings have also identified that the broader Australian community has a crucial role to play in challenging the misinformation and calling out examples of Islamophobia when we see it.
While it is the actions of a small proportion of the Australian community that are harassing and discriminating against Australian Muslims and other minority groups, there are broader divisive narratives and systemic injustices that are emboldening and magnifying these actions and allowing them traction.
I have greatly valued the insights of this morning’s speakers and other speakers at this conference.
It is only through a coordinated community response that we can effectively embed the respectful behaviours that underpin community cohesion. We cannot say that we have a free and equal Australian society while people in our community don’t feel safe in expressing their identities.
I look forward to collaborating with the Muslim community, government, and civil society to ensure that Australian Muslims feel protected and supported to the same extent as all other Australians. Protecting Australian Muslim communities’ right to safely express their cultural and religious beliefs is one of the major priorities for the Australian Human Rights Commission and for me as Race Discrimination Commissioner.