Thank you to the African Think Tank, Haileluel, and all the conference organisers for having me this evening.
I’ll start by acknowledging that we are on the land of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, and I pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging.
Can I ask that you stand with me for a moment of silence as a mark of respect and reflection on the loss of an innocent life and for those injured and traumatised by the hideous attack in Bourke Street, last Friday.
It is a real honour to be the guest speaker at this Conference Dinner. It’s been a little over a month since I began my role as Race Discrimination Commissioner. It has gone quickly! As many of you would know, before I was Commissioner, I was Director of Multicultural Engagement at Swinburne University. Prior to that, I was Chairperson of the Victorian Multicultural Commission, and I can see many familiar faces and friends here tonight from my time in that role, in particular. Supporting and building our multicultural society has been the focus of my work and advocacy for many years. My new post as Race Discrimination Commissioner is the next stage in this journey.
I’d like to reflect briefly, tonight, on the state of play for racism and racial discrimination in Australia, in a broad sense, but also with respect to African Australian communities. And then, of course, over dinner I am looking forward to chatting with many of you, and hearing from you about your views on the current situation, and how we can work together.
Racial discrimination in Australia
We live in challenging times for our race relations. In the areas of diversity and anti-racism, it seems, for many of us, that almost every day, we are confronted with another piece of news that unsettles us about the resilience of our multicultural society. In this age of disruption and polarisation, it is difficult to step back, sometimes, and assess the state of affairs of our race relations with clear eyes and a healthy amount of perspective. But we must attempt to do this. We simply will not be able to combat racial discrimination and support our diverse communities if we do not accurately and fully understand racial discrimination and how race is perceived in Australia over time.
The evidence available to us appears to suggest that our multiculturalism, in a general sense, remains reasonably strong and healthy. Anywhere between 83 and 85 per cent of Australians agree, year on year, that multiculturalism has been good for the country. Australians have also, according to most polling, maintained clear majority support for immigration. We should be heartened by this.
Yet there seem to be signs that our racial harmony and inclusion may be under a certain degree of challenge and threat that may not have appeared to exist even a couple of years ago. Polling this year has suggested that support for immigration has waned, as Australians report more concern about population growth.
And of course, reported experiences of discrimination continue to tell a sombre story about the impacts of racism in Australia. Scanlon Foundation surveys have found that during the last two years, 20 per cent of surveyed Australians have said they have experienced discrimination on the basis of their race or religion in the previous 12 months. This is the highest level seen since the Scanlon surveys began in 2007. If we look at the community level, the numbers are even more concerning. Scanlon’s Australians Today report, released in 2016, found that African Australian respondents experienced particularly high levels of discrimination and racial profiling. 77 per cent of those born in South Sudan, and 75 per cent of those born in Zimbabwe, reported experiencing discrimination, for instance. These numbers may not be a surprise to many people in this room. But they should be a cause for alarm, and a call to attention and action, to our broader Australian community.
The African Australian experience
We often speak about Australia’s multicultural success. And it is true that, by and large, Australia is a multicultural success story. But, it is far too easy to assume that this is equally true with respect to every community, particularly in relation to those across our racial and culturally diverse communities, or that challenges of belonging and identity do not exist. The sad reality is that some groups in our community experience racism and discrimination on a day-to-day basis far more than others, and for many, in systemic and subtle ways. This is a reality that we must not shy away from or that we can afford to ignore, if we are to meaningfully address inequality, injustice and intolerance in our country.
Many of you would know and perhaps remember that about a decade ago, the Australian Human Rights Commission carried out extensive consultation with over 2,500 members of African Australian communities, and published a report called In our own words. This report gave voice to the experiences of many African Australians and also referred to the barriers and challenges they faced with respect to housing, employment, health, education and the justice system. It drew attention to the pervasive and systemic way that African Australians often encounter racism.
The Commission is committed to ongoing engagement with and support for African communities in Australia. It is worth noting that over the last decade, African communities in Australia have grown in both size and diversity. Much has changed, and reasonably quickly. But some things do appear to remain relatively unchanged.
African Australian communities continue to face racism in ways that other communities may not. Over the last couple of years there has, of course, been ongoing public and media attention – some would say undue and unfair attention – on young African Australians living in Melbourne, and what has been commonly framed as a gang or crime crisis.
Let us be clear on this. It is not in dispute that some young African Australians are involved in crime. I note the community is working constructively with police on improving and resolving these issues, which is positive and I wish them well and every success. But as members of a tolerant multicultural society, we have a duty and obligation - and it is in our collective interest - that we refrain from racialising this issue as a problem with a particular racial or ethnic group in our community.
It is not helpful, and is in fact highly misleading and counter-productive, to frame Melbourne’s problems with crime as a problem with African Australian communities. Doing so does not resolve the issue, and in fact is likely to exacerbate community tensions and lead to more social isolation and racism within our community.
It is also unhelpful and self-defeating when there are people in positions of power and authority, including some in the media, who are content to tolerate or promote fear and division. Instead, we should be focussing on our common strengths and purpose, our capacity for goodwill and our desire for inclusion.
As the Race Discrimination Commissioner, it’s my role to not only combat racial discrimination but to also help educate the public about racism, and to bring people together in the spirit of friendship, acceptance and common understanding. I will stand with African Australian communities to combat racial discrimination, improve our community harmony and inclusion, and tackle the myths and misapprehensions which make African Australians targets of racism and prejudice.
I recall, back in 2014, when I was the Chairperson of the Victorian Multicultural Commission, how we sat together with a group of more than 30 South Sudanese community groups and leaders, over a weekend retreat at Yellingbo, up in Hoddles Creek, Dandenongs, that led to the formation of the South Sudanese Community Association.
The journey from Yellingbo has been only the first step towards fostering and empowering a community as a full-fledged, equal, confident and contributing member of our multicultural society.
Before I conclude, and let us carry on with the evening, I will say one more thing. Unfortunately, African Australian voices and stories are not often properly portrayed or conveyed in the media. But when they are, sometimes we sadly hear of community members voicing doubt or disenchantment with their Australian identity; expressing a feeling that they do not belong or ‘fit in’ in Australia, or that they will never be accepted as Australians.
The challenge ahead of us does not just involve ending racism and prejudice. It is also about ensuring that people – African Australians and all Australians – have the opportunity to become more engaged, build trust, and have the confidence that they are part of the same community. This is a much bigger question of social inclusion and identity, but it is something of equally urgent consideration. We will not build the inclusive multicultural society we need without all of its members being assured and confident they belong, and have a shared common interest and future as Australians.
Finally, I could not fully conclude my address tonight if I did not also share a thought on the tragic incident of last Friday.
The act of the perpetrator was hideous, heinous, vile and rightly described by our political leaders as “evil”.
We strive to be a society where social cohesion and harmony is fostered and valued. Any views, particularly extremist views or ideologies, whether based on religion, race or culture, that divide Australians and inflame tensions, discord and intolerance, or that result in violence, must always be rejected and repudiated.
At the same time there is no place for racism and racial discrimination in our society, either.
I believe that everyone in this room and all right-thinking, fair-minded and peace-loving Australians share a common commitment to rejecting and repudiating all that the perpetrator stood for.
This message is echoed by the Somali Community of Victoria, whose spokesperson stated in response to the incident that the overwhelming majority of African Australians in Victoria “condemn any acts that threaten our peaceful vibrant and multicultural society”.
Equally, I am convinced that Australians will stand together in rejecting the attempts of those who seek to exploit and perpetuate hate, fear, prejudice and division following Friday’s events, and who may have ignoble intentions to capitalise on this tragedy for their own agendas.
We resolutely reject the views of those who opportunistically seek to promote this vicious cycle for their own purposes.
When we combat racial discrimination – and ‘combat’ is the term used in the Racial Discrimination Act to describe my work – we are engaged in a battle of sorts. But, when we fight against something, we are also seeking to build: either something new, something we believe in, or something that we already have that we want to continue to build on.
Our vision and hope for our society is one that is culturally diverse, open, accepting, socially cohesive and inclusive, and one that values equity, equality, fairness and equal justice and opportunities for all. It is also one where racial discrimination is an aberration and virtually non-existent.
We are all members of this one community, and we will continue to work together to strengthen that reality.
Thank you very much for having me here this evening. I look forward to continuing our work together.