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Strategies to address discrimination and build a more inclusive country with tolerance and respect for all Australians

Commission Commission – General

Strategies
to address discrimination and build a more inclusive country with tolerance and
respect for all Australians

By
John von Doussa QC

President,
Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission

Australian
Red Cross National Conference 2006

Sydney,
25 November 2006


INTRODUCTION

I
would like to acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora people, the traditional
owners of the land on which we meet today, and pay my respects to their
elders.

The
topic I have been asked to speak about today is strategies to address
discrimination and build a more inclusive country with tolerance and respect for
all Australians.

 

ACKNOWLEDGING
THAT DISCRIMINATION IS A PROBLEM

The
first step in addressing discrimination is to acknowledge the gravity of the
problem. The harsh reality is that despite Australia’s image of itself as
a fair and tolerant society, discriminatory attitudes still infect workplaces,
public attitudes, law and policies.

As
Australia’s national human rights institution, the Human Rights and Equal
Opportunity Commission (HREOC) has a watching brief on the protection of human
rights in Australia. The concept of human rights is based on a common
recognition of the importance of fair treatment for all and the belief that
people should be able to live free of violence, discrimination and abuse.

HREOC
is charged with promoting public understanding and acceptance of human rights.
We also have statutory obligations to investigate and attempt to conciliate
complaints of unlawful discrimination under the federal anti-discrimination
laws.

While
many Australians like to think that the spirit of a ‘fair go’ is
embedded in Australian culture, history tells a different story. The White
Australia policy reflects the deep vein of racism that pervaded public
administration for a large part of the last century. Ten years after
HREOC’s Bringing
them home report (which dealt with the
forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families) only the Tasmanian
Government has had the moral courage to introduce a compensation package for
members of that stolen generation.

It
is true that there are many aspects of Australia’s history that we can be
justifiably proud of. Yet at the same time as we venerate the stability and
success of our democracy, the bravery of our war veterans, and the triumphs of
our sporting heroes we must also acknowledge the shameful blights on
Australia’s human record. Recognising past injustices is vital to
understand the reasons why discrimination persists today, and can help in
preventing it in the future.

Today
the entrenched deprivation and discrimination still facing Indigenous
Australians is a matter of national shame. The existence of significant
disparities between the health status of Indigenous and non-Indigenous
Australians is acknowledged by all governments and recognised as unacceptable. The
United Nations Special Rapporteur on adequate housing has found that
‘Indigenous peoples experience substantial discrimination in Australia in
accessing adequate housing and the private housing
market’.[1] And while the findings and recommendations of the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in
Custody should be old news, the tragic death of Mulrunji on Palm Island
illustrates that there are still systematic problems in the policing of
Indigenous communities.

The
fear of difference and its unknown potential has always had a corrosive effect
on community relations in Australia. Throughout the
19th and
20th century, successive waves of migrants have been viewed in turn with suspicion
and hostility. Today, the threat of terrorism has been accompanied by a rising
tide of suspicion and intolerance directed at Australia’s Arab and Muslim
communities. Indeed, in some pockets of public opinion there is a virulent
strain of anti-Muslim prejudice fuelled by the erroneous belief that all Muslims
are, by their faith, terrorists or terrorist sympathisers. Such prejudices and
stereotypes must be dispelled.

In
Australia feminists have fought many battles: for suffrage, for equal pay, for
freedom from violence. Yet despite the victories, the battles for equality are
not over. Today is both White Ribbon Day and the United Nations International
Day for Elimination of Violence Against Women. The International Violence
Against Women Survey shows that 34 per cent of Australian women who have a
current or former intimate partner reported experiencing at least one form of
violence during their lifetime. 

If
women cannot expect to be safe in their own homes and communities, how can they
expect equality in society? Violence against women is not a women’s issue,
or a men’s issue: it’s everyone’s issue. White Ribbon Day is
an opportunity for men – including White Ribbon Day Ambassadors like
myself – to condemn all violence against women.

Gender
inequality is still a serious issue in the workplace even though the Sex
Discrimination Act has been in force in Australia for 21 years. The average
weekly earnings for full-time women workers are only 84.4% of their male
equivalents. Women are still grossly underrepresented in political life, in
executive management, and on the benches of Australian courts. [2]

Many
of the disparities between the wages and working conditions of men and women
start to open up when women have children. Instead of being a cause for
celebration, for women, pregnancy often comes with financial penalties. Despite
the best efforts of Pru Goward, as Sex Discrimination Commissioner, the battle
for paid maternity leave is still to be won. Pregnancy discrimination in the
workplace remains a frequent cause for complaint to HREOC.

STRATEGIES
TO ADDRESS DISCRIMINATION

I
have taken the time to set out examples of discrimination in contemporary
Australian society because I think too often our desire to look at ourselves
through rose tinted glasses allows us to abrogate our responsibility to address
the situation of those for whom the principles of equal treatment and equal
opportunity are not yet realities.

Once
we have acknowledged the problems, we start talking about how to fix them.
Discriminatory attitudes are often deeply embedded and hard to shake. Overcoming
prejudice requires education, community engagement and dialogue, leadership and,
laws and policies which reflect – and promote – the principle of
non-discrimination.

Education

When
we talk about strategies to address discrimination, we must talk about
education. It must be the essential central plank to every strategy. The
assumption that Australians are inherently fair is as dangerous as the
assumption that children are inherently good. The way we treat others reflects
the way we have been taught to treat others. Misinformation and ignorance are
the staple ingredients of stereotypes and prejudices.

A
vital part of the HREOC’s work is conducting projects that disseminate
information to counter stereotypes and encourage human rights compliant
behaviour. HREOC’s ‘Face the Facts’ publications dispel myths
about refugees and Indigenous people and our ‘Voices of Australia’
resources encourages greater understanding between people of different racial
backgrounds, cultures and religions through the sharing of their experiences.

HREOC
encourages employers to create a discrimination and harassment free environment
through our 'Good practice, good business’ guide, while employees can
obtain information about their rights under discrimination law on our 'Work out
your rights' pamphlets. All these publications are readily available on the
HREOC website at www.humanrights.gov.au .

While
I do not intend to test your good will by detailing all of HREOC’s
educational activities, I do want to touch on two subjects that are currently
concerning HREOC: discrimination against Arab and Muslim Australians and
discrimination against same sex couples.

Muslim
projects

In
today’s tense and sometimes hostile environment, experiences of
discrimination can alienate and isolate members of minority groups, and it has
done in the Muslim community. This marginalisation can lead to
radicalisation

Currently,
fears and stereotypes about Arab and Muslim Australians are having a corrosive
impact on community relations in Australia.

In
2004, after spending a year conducting very extensive consultations with Arab
and Muslim Australians, HREOC published the Isma report. The report revealed a disturbing
level of discrimination, vilification and violence against these groups.
Participants recounted experiences ranging from offensive remarks about race or
religion, to physical violence, including Muslim women having their hijabs
pulled off.

What
the Isma report also found was that in many cases those interviewed did not
report instances of vilification or violence to police or other government
authorities. The report recommended that in order to reduce the risk of further
marginalisation of Arab and Muslim communities strategies should be
developed:

  • to
    build better relationships between communities and law enforcement agencies;
    and
  • to
    educate communities members about the legal remedies for discrimination.

In
response, the Commission has recently undertaken two projects funded by the
Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs (DIMA): the Unlocking Doors:
Muslim communities and police tackling racial and religious discrimination and
abuse Project and the Living Spirit: Muslim
women and human rights Project.

The Unlocking Doors
Project aimed to facilitate dialogue between
Muslim communities and Police in order to build on the capacity of Police to
respond to incidents of racial or religious abuse and the Living Spirit
Project aimed at increasing an
understanding among Muslim women about human rights principles and the domestic
framework for promoting equality in Australia. These projects will be continued
and expanded over the next few years.

Besides
their educational value, these projects assist those who are suffering
discrimination to engage directly with the wider community. Engagement helps
leads to inclusiveness.

There
is an event happening at this moment elsewhere in Sydney which exemplifies the
importance of community engagement in addressing discrimination. It is a one day
conference titled 'All
Eyez on Youth' - part of the solution, not the
problem'. The conference is open to young
people of all backgrounds to give them an opportunity to have their say, and get
involved in issues that directly affect them. Participants , including Muslim,
African, Pacific Island and Indigenous young people, are taking part in
interactive workshops on human rights and responsibilities (with a focus on
racial and religious discrimination), youth and the police, and youth and the
media.

Community
engagement depends on community interaction – in education, in employment
and in sport. Sport is an integral part of Australia’s identity; a kind of
social glue, which binds communities and individuals together. Sport can break
down barriers in ways that other areas of society can struggle to match, by
encouraging participation, integration and diversity.

As
AFL Chief Executive Andrew Demetriou said:

"To
many people football is a fantastic introduction to life in this country. People
may not share the same language, same beliefs or same heritage, but they can
join together and certainly share the same passion for a football
club".

The
broad appeal of sport is obvious. As the AFL 2006
‘Welcome to the
AFL’ Ambassador and former Hawthorn
player Angelo Lekkas, a Greek-Australian who grew up in Melbourne observed:

"What
crystallized for me the broad appeal of Aussie Rules was a beautiful picture in
the paper recently of a group of young Muslim Australian women making their way
to the footy with team scarves over their hijabs – if pictures could tell
a thousand words, well that one conveyed so much more”.

Many
sporting organistions are taking a leadership role in tackling racism and
encouraging participation from a diverse range of communities. The importance
of these actions in helping to build a more inclusive and respectful society is
immeasurable.

Same
Sex Inquiry

One
powerful educational tool that HREOC uses to draw public attention to
discrimination issues is to hold a public inquiry. This year the Commission
launched a National Inquiry into the discrimination faced by same sex couples in
relation to financial and work-related entitlements.

The
Inquiry is conducting an audit of State, Territory and Commonwealth laws that
exclude gay and lesbian couples from financial and work-related benefits
available to heterosexual
couples.[3]

The
right to non-discrimination and the right to equality before the law are
fundamental principles of international human rights law.  

Yet
many Australian laws clearly deny certain rights to gay and lesbian couples and
their children. For example, laws relating to social security, superannuation,
tax, Medicare, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, workplace entitlements, aged
care, immigration and family law treat same-sex couples differently to opposite
sex couples.

The
submissions HREOC has received illustrate how laws treat gay and lesbian couples
as second class citizens, not deserving of the same rights as heterosexual
couples. As one person put it:

“The
inequalities embedded in current legislation are obvious and are inexcusable.
"Understanding, tolerance and inclusion" are said to be values of the Australian
community. Current legislation tells another story”. [4]

One
purpose of the inquiry is to create public awareness and understanding of the
discrimination that faces same-sex couples face in the daily administration of
their affairs. But ultimately we don’t just want people to understand the
discrimination that they face, we want the government to fix it.

In
2007, HREOC will make recommendations to Parliament for amendments to the
discriminatory laws.

Public
Leadership and legislative action

This
brings me to other steps in addressing discrimination – political will and
legislative action. HREOC’s community consultations and monitoring reveal
disturbing levels of discrimination directed at some minority groups in
Australia. In the current climate of fear and insecurity, political and
community leaders have a vital role to play in speaking out against
discrimination and promoting the principles of multiculturalism and social
inclusion.

Positive
public statements can be extraordinarily powerful and send a vital symbolic
message to the community that discrimination is never acceptable.

Yet
political leaders must be careful that initiatives which aim to improve social
cohesion do not inadvertently further marginalise certain groups. In this
context, HREOC questions the utility of the Australian Government’s
proposal to introduce a citizenship test featuring a formal test on language and
‘Australian values’. Although the stated objective of citizenship
test is to promote social cohesion, HREOC is concerned that the proposal will
have exactly the opposite effect.

A
formal test on ‘Australian values’ may send a message to the broader
Australian community that certain migrant groups and refugees do not respect or
understand the Australian way of life. This would have the potential to
reinforce negative stereotypes. The idea of testing ‘Australian
values’ also ignores the fact that values like tolerance, mutual respect
and fairness are not peculiar to Australia but are shared by many people around
the world.

HREOC
believes that the best way to develop a commitment to Australian values and way
of life is through positive, day to day interactions within the community,
through education, community activities, sport and employment.

All
these strategies need to be directed to two audiences: the discriminators and
those suffering the discrimination. The strategies need to be tailored to suit
each group. At the most general level, for those who are discriminating the
strategies should be aimed at dispelling prejudices and changing attitudes. For
those discriminated against the strategies should be aimed at empowerment to
enable them to more fully participate as equals in the wider community.

However,
public statements, education and engagement in some circumstance are not enough.
Sometimes people need legal protection from discrimination.

Federal
anti-discrimination laws go a long way towards providing legal remedies for
discrimination on the basis of sex, race, colour, descent or ethnic origin,
disability, age, marital status, family responsibilities and pregnancy. Yet
there are gaps in the protection.

Under
federal discrimination law there are no binding remedies for discrimination on
the grounds of religion, political opinion, criminal record, nationality, sexual
preference and trade union activity. HREOC continues to advocate that there
should be legal remedies for discrimination on these grounds.

Improving
human rights protection

One
of the important questions that HREOC’s same sex Inquiry raises is how did
laws which have a clearly discriminatory effect on the day to day lives of many
Australians get passed in the first place?  

The
fact that a raft of discriminatory legislation has travelled through
parliamentary processes without any discussion of how it might discriminate
against same-sex couples tells us that we need to find a better way to test the
human rights compatibility of proposed legislation.

While
no one can question the value of parliamentary committees scrutinising new
Bills, this process is subject to fundamental limitations. The parliamentary
committee process occurs after the legislation has been drafted, the policy
objectives formulated and, more often than not, after politicians have publicly
committed to the Bill’s implementation.  There is no explicit
requirement for the committees to investigate the human rights compatibility of
the proposed bill.  Perhaps most importantly, the government is under no
obligation to implement – or even respond to – committees’
recommendations.

Under
the recent Victorian Charter of Rights and
Responsibilities Act 2006 the Victorian
Government must pay attention to the human rights impact of new laws and
policies:

  • submissions
    to Cabinet about new laws or policies must be accompanied by a Human Rights
    Impact Statement;
  • new
    Bills must be accompanied by a human rights compatibility statement;
  • a
    parliamentary scrutiny committee must independently assess the human rights
    compatibility of new Bills; and
  • Parliament
    must justify its actions if it decides to pass laws which are inconsistent with
    human rights principles.

These
provisions represent an important step forward for human rights because they
integrate human rights principles into the daily decision making of the
legislature and the executive. They provide a blue print for a “Guide to
Good Governance” that law makers should follow.

We
hear many arguments against a Bill of Rights in this country: a Bill could
entrench rights that become outdated, like the US right to bear arms; a Bill
would vest law making power in an unelected judiciary. But these types of
arguments offer no reason against a ‘Guide to Good Governance’, and
I suspect that if this was explained to the electors, there would be strong
support for it.

Addressing
Discrimination is everybody’s responsibility

In
the final analysis addressing discrimination is not just the responsibility of
law makers, or indeed human rights organisations. Addressing discrimination is
everyone’s responsibility. All of us must take responsibility for
addressing discrimination.

To
foster a human rights culture we need education, political and community
leadership and legislative action. The final ingredient is community engagement.
We need to engage – through education, though political debate, through
community dialogue – in a national conversation about protecting human
rights.

The
Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission and Australian Red Cross have this
year jointly conducted two very successful projects: the Rights in Perspective Art
Competition and the Human Writes Essay
Competition. These competitions are another way of
encourage young people in Australia to engage with human rights issues. In the
big picture, it’s a small step, but the big picture is full of small
steps.

At
a basic level we all need to have the courage to speak out against
discrimination even when it’s socially unpopular or politically
unpalatable to do so. Because ultimately, it is only by addressing
discrimination than can we create a truly inclusive and respectful society.


[1] United Nations Special Rapporteur on adequate housing, Miloon Kothari
Preliminary observations Canberra 15 August 2006, 7.

[2] The Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace
census in 2004 showed that in the top 200 listed companies women held only 10.2
per cent of executive management positions.

[3] So far we have received over 360 submissions to this inquiry. Still more people
have attended the public forums and hearings HREOC has held across
Australia.

[4] James Duncan, Submission 288.

See Also

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