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Strengthening Multiculturalism Inquiry - Opening Statement (2017)

Race Race Discrimination

Opening statement given to the Select Committee on Strengthening Multiculturalism Public Hearing, Melbourne - check against delivery

Thank you to the Committee for the opportunity to give evidence to this important inquiry.

Australia is frequently celebrated as a multicultural society. This success has not been by accident. It has been essential to the Australian experience that our multiculturalism has been conducted as an exercise in nation-building.

The idea of a multicultural Australia says to everyone in our nation that everyone can belong as a citizen, regardless of their background – that everyone can be comfortable in their own skin.

And it says that our nation is strengthened by its diversity, not weakened by it. Our national identity is not defined by race, colour or ancestry. Grounded in our liberal democratic values and institutions, an Australian national identity can accommodate diversity and evolve to reflect the changing nature of our society.

The Australian Human Rights Commission takes an active interest in multiculturalism, particularly in light of our role in countering racial discrimination. In our submission, we have highlighted the impact of racial discrimination on multiculturalism and have made a number of recommendations about how multiculturalism could be strengthened in Australia.

Speaking in a general sense, there are three respects in which this strengthening can happen.

First, we require renewed political and civic leadership on multiculturalism. There can be no question that leaders – as well as media – set the tone for public debate. Inflammatory rhetoric about race, religion and immigration can undermine our multicultural harmony. Unfortunately, such rhetoric is too often indulged in our debates.

Second, multiculturalism requires support through legislation and policy. Since 1975, the Racial Discrimination Act has served effectively as a legislative expression of multiculturalism. As the Commission’s submission makes clear, it is vital that legal protections against racial discrimination and hatred are maintained. In addition, there is scope for the strengthening of the policy machinery of Australian multiculturalism.

Finally, there is a need for multiculturalism to be supported at the level of civil society. There should be continued efforts to improve understanding of cultural diversity and to strengthen community responses to racial prejudice and intolerance.

Senators, I would be pleased to answer any questions you have.


Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Race Discrimination Commissioner

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