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Talking diversity amid racial hysteria

Race Race Discrimination

Talking diversity amid racial hysteria
Dr Tim Soutphommasane

Speech to University of Sydney behavioural economics and applied policy forum on addressing diversity

University of Sydney, Sydney, 27 July 2018

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Thank you to Professor Robert Slonim and Associate Professor Shyamal Chowdhury for convening today’s workshop. I am delighted, on behalf of the Australian Human Rights Commission, to be involved in this workshop on addressing diversity – and bringing together the insights of behavioural economics and the expertise of people who are working to harness the wealth of Australia’s cultural diversity in our organisations in government, the professions and business.

Over the last five years, we have been proud partners with the University of Sydney on cultural diversity and leadership.

In 2016, the Australian Human Rights Commission partnered with the University of Sydney Business School (along with Westpac, PwC and Telstra) to produce the Leading for Change report on cultural diversity and inclusive leadership. The report put together, for the first time, data on the representation of cultural diversity among chief executives across Australian business, government, politics, and higher education.

Earlier this year, we again partnered with the Business School to produce a second Leading for Change report, which looked at a cohort of 2,500 senior leaders. And next Monday, the Business School will release Beyond the Pale, a qualitative study of cultural diversity on ASX100 boards, in which the Commission has been involved.

Let me pay a special tribute to Bob and Shyamal’s own research on these issues. Their correspondence studies on racial discrimination and the labour market have highlighted the persistence of discrimination in Australia. It’s compelling work; it’s powerful research. We have had the pleasure of having Bob and Shyamal present on it to the Commission, including at a national forum on institutional racism which we held in Canberra last month.

Diversity and public debates

Today gives us an occasion to reflect on how we can do better in getting the most out of our multicultural talents. Australia is a proud multicultural society, but we have yet to fulfil our potential. We don’t yet see our diversity even remotely represented among those in senior leadership positions in our major institutions. I know we will be talking in this forum about how we can do better, but I want to help put some of this conversation into context.

Our conversation today may sound a little out of sync with some of our current public debates. Unfortunately, we are seeing the return of race politics. We are seeing heated debates about multiculturalism, integration and crime. We are seeing a sustained fuelling of racial fear and anxiety.

In recent weeks, we have seen federal Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs Alan Tudge claim that Australia is veering towards a ‘European separatist multicultural model’. He has warned Australia is facing challenges such as ‘ethnic segregation’ and a challenge by migrants to ‘liberal values’. Other ministers have spoken about an allegedly growing phenomenon of ‘ghettoisation’ of Australian suburbs.

There is the debate, as well, about a so-called African or Sudanese gang crisis in Melbourne. According to some, Melburnians are now afraid to go out for dinner because of rampant African youth crime. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull declared there was ‘real concern’ about ‘Sudanese gangs’. The Liberal opposition in Victoria has distributed pamphlets claiming it would ‘stop gangs hunting in packs’, featuring a shadowy photograph of hooded dark-skinned youths. Earlier this week, former prime minister Tony Abbott has questioned whether we should be taking in any migrants from Africa at all, suggesting ‘we store up trouble for ourselves’ by letting in people who are ‘difficult to integrate’.

We are heading into some dangerous territory. The public discourse on multiculturalism, immigration and race has deteriorated. And there is a clear and urgent risk that our racial harmony will suffer.

I know, for example, that there is a lot of hurt and dismay being felt by African-Australians – in particular, Sudanese-Australians. Some Sudanese-Australian community leaders have spoken about how they are living feeling a sense of shame and rejection.

In one recent article in the Guardian Australia, Father Daniel Gai Aleu, an Anglican minister in Sunshine, in Melbourne’s west, said, ‘I can say I’m an Australian but my colour only betrays me.’ Pastor Nathan Kuku, who leads a congregation in nearby Albion said, ‘we feel like we don’t have any back-up in this country’. Well, it would feel that way when you have even the prime minister singling out your community.

We have got to the point where, within Sudanese-Australian communities, there are many who are now fearful about leaving their homes, and who are now retreating from society. This affects Australians who have other African backgrounds, too. There are young African-Australians who think twice about congregating as groups, because they fear they will be treated as members of a criminal gang. Young African-Australians in Melbourne have told me of occasions when they have walked to sporting events together as a group, only to be stopped in the street because members of the public have called police fearing they were marauding gang members.

This is what happens when you have racial hysteria being fanned by politicians and sections of the media. This is what happens when communities are singled out.

Speaking up for Australian multiculturalism

Those of us who are committed to diversity and multiculturalism must not be silent in these debates. There is a need for friends of diversity and multiculturalism to speak up.

Let’s be clear: Australia’s model of multiculturalism is a success. We can be proud of our multiculturalism. We should not be talking down Australian multiculturalism, or be sowing the seeds of cultural distrust.

When some warn that our multiculturalism is fraying or failing, we must ask: where is the evidence? Quite simply, there is no compelling evidence to show we are heading down the path of ethnic separatism.

The evidence in fact tells us we are faring remarkably well.

The most authoritative research on social cohesion, conducted by the Scanlon Foundation, tells us that more than 90 per cent of people – including in Sydney and Melbourne – say they have a sense of belonging in Australia. Research from the OECD and the Grattan Institute shows that the children of migrants, on average, outperform the children of Australian-born parents on education and employment.

Indeed, our social mobility remains high by international standards. Many of those areas which people pejoratively label as ethnic ghettoes are dynamic and vibrant communities, where property prices have been on the rise. Hardly signs of ghettoes. Hardly signs of a crisis of integration.

As for the so-called African crime crisis, it is just wrong for some to suggest that we must now consider no longer taking in migrants from Africa because they are ‘difficult to integrate’. It is just wrong to slander all migrants from Africa in that way. Not when African-Australians make valued contributions to our society.

And then there are the facts.

It is the case that, in Victoria, those born in Sudan comprise about 0.1 per cent of the population but commit about 1 per cent of the crimes. Sudanese-Australian community leaders have readily acknowledged the need to deal with a small number of young criminal offenders from within their communities. To say there is denial of some challenges is simply untrue.

It is just that we need to have less panic and more perspective. We know that youth crime within some migrant communities is complex. A lot of it reflects social and economic disadvantage. It shouldn't be reduced to race and ethnicity.

And if we were just to focus on backgrounds, consider this. It is also the case that those born in Australia and in New Zealand are also over-represented in Victorian crime statistics. Those born in Australia, for example, make up almost 65 per cent of the Victorian population but commit about 73 per cent of the crime.

So why, then, all the attention on crimes committed by those from Sudanese backgrounds, but so little on Australian- or New Zealand-born offenders? And if we are to focus on the background of offenders, why was there not uproar about the racial backgrounds of those who caused a violent brawl at a recent AFL match in Geelong? Where was the focus on the racial backgrounds of all those who have committed, in recent years, one-punch attacks? Where was the commentary about the racial backgrounds of murderers such as Adrian Bayley, Roger Rogerson or Carl Williams?

Why is there one standard around race and crime for some groups, but another standard for others?


As friends of diversity and multiculturalism, most of us will hear the alarm bells ringing. If we are not careful, we risk doing some serious damage to our racial harmony and to our multicultural society.

Those in positions of leadership in our society must do better than to play race politics. They must know that appeals to race hurt not just those who are turned into targets of racism, but also diminish our society. Right now, we are seeing racial sentiment threatening to undermine our multicultural achievement.

This, unfortunately, is the backdrop for our conversation today. And if we aren’t able to hold the line on race, it will become impossible for us to have the sort of conversation we should be having about our organisations living up to the promise of Australian multiculturalism. The noise from racial hysteria may drown out any talk about diversity.


Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Race Discrimination Commissioner

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