Address on Issues around racism in Australia

Speech by Dr Sev Ozdowski OAM, Australian Human Rights Commissioner to the National Ethnic and Multicultural Broadcasters Council

9 November 2001, Melbourne

Thank you for inviting me to speak today.

Firstly, I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we are now meeting, the Kulin Nation. Recognition of the traditional owners reflects respect for the elders of this land. It also acknowledges that Australia as a nation is at least 40,000 years old.

I would also like to acknowledge Mr George Zangalis - the national treasure of ethnic broadcasting; as well as all delegates and volunteers from interstate and everyone who has the good of community broadcasting at heart.

Multicultural Australia is a reality

Australian society is one of the most, if not the most, culturally diverse in the world. It has an enormous breadth of cultures, attitudes, beliefs and mores. Your recent submission to the Australian Cultural Ministers Council contains all the information necessary to illustrate this point.

Australia has also a range of multicultural policies that were developed over the years, by all levels of government, in a response to our diversity. The National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia - mark 1 and 2 or the Access and Equity Strategy which mandates that government services should be available to everyone who is entitled to them and should be free of any form of discrimination irrespective of a person's country of birth, language, culture and religion - provide good examples of policy responses.

Cultural diversity also protected by a range of human rights legislative measures. We have, both at the Federal and State levels, legislation prohibiting racial discrimination and racial vilification. Also, under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, ratified in 1975, Australia is obliged to ensure that all people here - including those in immigration detention, might I add - receive health and education care, provided in a manner which is culturally appropriate and which respects the inherent dignity of the human person.

Challenges to our culturally diverse society

We are living in difficult and troubling times. Internationally, we have witnessed incomprehensible acts of terror and intolerance that have outraged the conscience of humankind.

Events of September 11 are based upon total disregard for the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. They emerge through racism, xenophobia, and dehumanisation of those who we think are different from us. The US was targeted because its culture is seen as an enemy of fundamentalism and a leader of freedom of thought and religion.

There are also enormous challenges facing Australia at home. Australia has traditionally prided itself on being a multicultural and tolerant society. It has championed and cherished the notion of a "fair go" for everyone.

However, events of the recent past - possibly starting with Pauline Hanson's ill informed bigotry and more recently with emerging prejudice against Islamic communities - have presented us with an opportunity to do some national soul searching about what that actually means. In particular, after more recently listening to talk-back radio on the issue of asylum seekers, it would not be difficult to conclude that our notion of a "fair go" is not as robust as we'd like to believe.

The community reaction to the latest wave of asylum seekers has confirmed that unfortunately Australians are also able to allow their prejudices and bigotry to rise to the surface. This is not a new phenomenon in our history. In the past, for example, the first act of Federal Parliament established the White Australia Policy. The sentiments expressed against Jews in the 1930s and 40s are precisely those being expressed now about Muslim asylum seekers. At present Muslim asylum seekers are also being collectively labelled as terrorists, in spite of the fact that the vast majority are accepted as genuine refugees.

Why it is so? A part of the answer lies certainly in the fact that the enormous complexity of the current situation has not been recognised in our public debate. We deal with at least four separate issues - protection of our borders, refugee intake program, our international obligations towards asylum seekers, and the issue of fear of the unknown by some Australians. Each of these issues is a separate one and may attract separate attitudes and solutions. Unfortunately, lumping all the issues together by media and public commentators does not add to our understanding or development of solutions. It has resulted in ideological attitudes either for or against and added to the development of prejudice and racism.

Possible long lasting impact

Now I would like to focus on the issue of prejudice/racism because of its possible long lasting impact on our society

As you well know, racism is it is like cancer. For members of many ethnic communities, racism is not merely a broad, abstract philosophical construct, but may be part of their everyday experience. A common theme that emerged from Race Commissioner Bill Jonas' community consultations, in the lead-up to the World Conference against Racism, was that racism is an experience many Australians know only too well.

Racism is not a single, understandable thing. It takes many shapes, and affects diverse communities, groups and individuals differently. Just to mention a few examples, which I have learned from some of you:

- I was told that anybody, particularly women who wear culture-specific clothing such as a hijab or a sari, encounter racism on a daily basis.

- Most women who choose to wear the hijab found that they were treated as new immigrants, regardless of how long they had been in Australia.

- Traditional dress also provoked taunts and more subtle insults.

- Women's traditional clothing often prevents them from getting jobs, as being "well dressed" is defined in terms of western standards of dress. Women in cultural dress are therefore virtually invisible in public life. It is extremely rare, for example, to see service providers wearing a hijab at your local Medicare centre.

Also my Brisbane consultations with young people pointed to the fact that children of migrant families frequently see themselves as the subject of stereotyping by police who associate certain ethnic groups with crime.

The need to tackle racism

There is no doubt that we need to deal with terrorism internationally. However, it appears that the combating of prejudice and racism will need to be given priority at the domestic front. Here in Australia, we must build a community in which all are entitled to freedom of religion and belief, and freedom from fear and want. Our fight against intolerance must be one that tackles the attitudes and principles in which it is grounded. We must promote a society that respects the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family

It is vital that we now heed the lessons of 50 years ago, and return to the principles of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

One of the root causes of racism is stereotyping based on misinformation, and fear of difference. This places a particular responsibility on the Australian media.

Role of ethnic community broadcasters

Ethnic community broadcasters have several important roles to play in addressing racism and promoting mutual understanding and a commitment to human rights by all Australians.

Firstly, ethnic community broadcasters need to provide intellectual leadership through provision of information based on facts and solid analysis. Nor should you be afraid if your analysis and facts differ from the information provided by mainstream broadcasters. In terms of combating prejudices and adding clarity into the public arena, it would be a major achievement if ethnic broadcasters could assist with the de-coupling of the issue of border protection from that of asylum seekers.

Secondly, ethnic community broadcasting has a vital role to play in providing a forum for debate and discussion of the different forms and effects of racism experienced by individuals from particular ethnic and cultural backgrounds, or sub-groups within them. It is only through understanding the different specific causes and effects of racism that the Australian community can begin to address the systemic prejudices that have unfortunately taken hold at community and institutional levels. Share with others your individual experiences. Invite refugees to your studios to talk about why they left their countries, how they made the trip to Australia, and so on. Australians want to know the facts first hand.

Thirdly, ethnic community broadcasters play a vital role in community cultural development. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to freely participate in the cultural life of his or her community. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that everyone has the right to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language. It is important to note that participating in and expressing one's culture, religion, language or beliefs are not privileges - they are in fact fundamental human rights, to which every person is entitled simply because they are a member of the human family. Ethnic community broadcasters play a vital role in extending the enjoyment of this right to all members of Australian society, particularly those who because of cultural or linguistic differences would otherwise be isolated from Australian society. This often includes new migrants, asylum seekers, the elderly, the unemployed and people who are less mobile due to physical disabilities.

Fourthly, ethnic community broadcasters play an important role in facilitating mutual understanding and tolerance between ethnically and culturally diverse communities and others in Australian society. One of the root causes of racism is stereotyping based on misinformation, and fear of difference. Ethnic community broadcasters enable communities to develop and embrace their own culture, while exposing the wider Australian community to aspects of the culture with which they would otherwise have been unfamiliar. This is what we call multiculturalism. Similarly, ethnic community broadcasters facilitate the participation in Australian society by new migrants and those with poor English skills, by making community information, news, current events, debates and discussions accessible to ethnic communities in their own languages.

Finally, the World Conference Against Racism in Durban earlier this year, to which my colleague Race Commissioner Bill Jonas was a delegate, highlighted the importance of civil society in combating racism, and the ways and means by which it can do so. The Declaration and Program of Action produced at the Conference are available both on the website of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and HREOC. Perusal of these documents will be instructive for ethnic community broadcasters.

Tribute to Volunteerism

If one agrees that leadership is about doing the right things and management about doing them right - you have shown both solid leadership and good management skills.

Ethnic community broadcasters provided a clear and principle based leadership in fight against prejudice and racism. You also clearly play a very important role in facilitating the participation of members of ethnically and culturally diverse communities in the cultural, social and political life of Australian society. In so doing, you can make a great contribution to creating a more tolerant society based upon mutual understanding, in which the human rights of all are acknowledged and respected. This means you must continue to speak out against injustice, bigotry and laziness of thought.

This contribution would not be possible without the tireless and selfless efforts of the numerous volunteers who devote many hours to providing information, cultural and language services to their communities. They deserve special recognition in this UN International Year for Volunteers, for their contribution to the development of multicultural Australia and their effective promotion of the human rights of every member of Australian society.

Thank you.


Last updated 1 December 2001