Australian Identity.

Dr Helen Szoke
Race Discrimination Commissioner
Australian Human Rights Commission

University of Melbourne Public Policy Dinner
Melbourne, Victoria
26 January 2012

Thank you for the opportunity to speak tonight at your dinner and also on Australia Day.

I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land, the people of the Kulin Nation, and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

I would also like to congratulate the Public Policy Network on turning 20 this year and to acknowledge the initial work of Ainsley Kello who was a founding member. Twentieth birthday? So according to The Book of Ages[1], 20 is the age of the young bride? It is also the start of adult life after ‘the giddy self-explorations and romances of adolescence.’ But it is also a time when the human mind is at its greatest![2] I am not sure what all of that means for you today, but I suspect that it augers well for your discussions and deliberations!

As this is Australia Day I would like to reflect tonight on the issue of Identity, and also to explore with you how Identity intersects with what my day to day work is – human rights. Whilst my own background is in public policy and I have had the benefit of Emeritus Professor John Power as one of my lecturers, and Professor Mark Considine as my PhD supervisor (and I wish to acknowledge them both), I don’t pretend to be up-to-date with the current public policy debates. What I do know, however, is that human rights don’t feature comfortably in the public policy dialogue, notwithstanding that the outcomes that you might seek through public policy interventions are similar – although they may be named differently – social cohesion, or diversity or capability. In choosing to focus on identity today, I hope to build a bridge across the worlds in which we work.

As Race Discrimination Commissioner, I have an interesting and challenging role. It is an expansive mandate – race, colour or national or ethnic origin. It is controversial at times, perhaps not surprising when you consider that our own founding fathers, (and of course they were all men!) enshrined racism in the Constitution that defines us as a country. And it is challenging as we think about how this Constitutional construct impacts today on the good and bad practice in race relations across the country.

What is important for our identity as a country at this time? This is a time when we begin a campaign promoting constitutional recognition of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, we have the latest iteration of a multicultural policy for Australia, and as we explore what it means to be a global citizen – through trade, through international education and through a world that is immediately connected by technologies that were unimagined a decade ago.

Identity is a tricky concept.

It is often linked to perceptions of ourselves, observations of others and also in many cases, stereotyping which may not reflect fairly or accurately what identity might be. The identity of a country is even trickier.

I have chosen three milestones in the recent history of our country that have had a significant impact on what constitutes our identity. These are not conclusive milestones, as there are others, but these suit my reflections.

The first was white settlement, which commenced in 1788 with the arrival of Captain Arthur Phillip on the shores of Australia. The 26th January was the date in this year when the first fleet arrived in Sydney Cove and the period of colonised history began.

The second milestone is 1901, with the passage of the constitution that brought Australia together as a federated country rather than separate states.

The third milestone is 1973, when we first heard talk of Australia being a multicultural country, the early signs of what might constitute the Australian understanding of multiculturalism started to take shape, and the final nail was put in the coffin of the White Australia policy.


The 26th January is the date that we now celebrate as Australia Day, and I think it is entirely appropriate that this should be a celebration. But we should also remember that this date was a turning point for our own Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who had previously inhabited the expansive lands of Australia for tens of thousands of years. This point is to be particularly remembered in order to understand why the current debate about Constitutional and legal recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are so important.

There has been much said of the dispossession and past treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders following the white settlement of Australia, since 1788. One of the most eloquent reminders of the tragedy of that treatment was captured by the passionate address by former Prime Minister, Paul Keating, in his now famous Redfern Park speech in 1992. He said:

We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practiced discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice. And our failure to imagine these things being done to us.[3]

You all know the history of struggle and dispossession. The question I pose is what is missing to rectify this? What does this say about our identity as a nation, and what more do we have to do to make up for over 200 years of dispossession?[4]

There have been some important steps – often too slow – but steps that frame the public policy context for our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The 1967 referendum was critical. Most recently we have seen Australia agree to the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People.[5] We of course have participated in that wonderful day in the Federal Parliament, when the Apology was given to the Stolen Generation.[6] We have many legal cases that build our understanding of the systemic racism experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and where remedies have been found. What is clear is that the policy context that defines how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are treated still needs to be modernized, and hence the importance of the Constitutional reform process. The Australian Human Rights Commission, the body that I work with, supports the Expert Panel’s recommendations and believes that coupling recognition with the removal of provisions in the Constitution that permit discrimination based on race will signal a national commitment to racial equality for all peoples in Australia.[7]

Public policy can only be set within the parameters of the legal framework for this country. We need to recalibrate that framework. We need to ensure that there is a requirement to be proactive about the right to equality for our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, as there is for all members of the Australian community


Let us now go to the birth of the Australian Constitution.

I have already outlined above the implications of the construct of the Constitution for our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and the possibility for further recognition through Constitutional recognition.

It is noteworthy that one of the first substantive acts of the new Commonwealth in 1901 was to pass the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, which provided the framework for the White Australia policy, a policy that was not completely dismantled until 1973.[8] Of course we know that the right to equality is not enshrined in our Constitution.[9]

Notwithstanding, the Australian Constitution has served us well in many respects and arguably has withstood the passage of time. The provisions which addressed race were not of course specifically targeting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, as Australia was already deemed to be an unoccupied land, Terra Nullius, a fact of law and history that was not rectified until the Mabo decision of 1992.[10]

The birth of our Constitution also notably excluded our early migrants, workers who had come to Australia – the Chinese gold miners, the Afghan camel drivers – I mention this because, from our 2011 perspective, it’s easy to forget how much of our colonial history comprised multicultural elements.

To some extent, we have since righted this omission with the passage of the discrimination and human rights legislation that has guided our country since the 1970’s and by becoming signatories to international treaties and conventions.

This means that the current process of consolidating all of the Commonwealth ‘equality and human rights Acts’, including the Racial Discrimination Act, is such an important process. A process that I would encourage you to be aware of, and have input into.[11]
This process seeks to gather community views on consolidating existing Commonwealth anti-discrimination law into a single Act. It is an opportunity to ensure that we have the best level of protection against discrimination – on all grounds – that is possible.

Public policy considerations do not always lend themselves to a rights perspective. We as a country have not always seen the benefits of enshrining protections of human rights. As Tim Costello has noted:

In our pragmatic, democratic and evolving tradition, we understand two things, among others, that relate directly to how we see rights, argue about rights and put rights into practice.  First, we know that a political or ethical proposition has to be argued for, not assumed.  And second, we realise that any instrument we form, legislative or institutional, will be subject to test, judgement and review.[12]

I think the unique perspective of public policy practitioners to this process is important, because what you see are the systems and trends, the organizational cultural impacts and the politics of the process. The future equality laws must equip us to look at the systemic as well as the individual experience of discrimination. They should provide an opportunity to proactively seek equality as well as provide redress where discrimination occurs. These basic human rights protections will go some way to further developing our identity as a country – in terms of what we will tolerate and the lengths we will go to ensure human rights protections for our citizens.

Social cohesion, diversity, capability – we want Australian identity to work – to recognize the sum of the parts that make us who we are. And we want to ensure that there are not barriers to people being able to equally participate in all aspects of life in Australia. Discrimination laws are one important component of this.


In addition to laws, we need policy frameworks that help us identify who we are as a country. 1973 was the first time that the term ‘multicultural’ was used in an official Australia Government policy statement by the flamboyant and exciting Minister for Immigration in the Whitlam Government, Al Grassby.[13] During the 1960’s and 1970’s we saw our policy context move from the dismantling of the White Australia policy, to assimilation, then integration and then multiculturalism.[14]

The most recent iteration of this, the People of Australia[15] policy, establishes multiculturalism as Australia’s norm, and implicitly recognises that multiculturalism benefits us all. It makes the connection between our investment in excellent settlement services, our recognition of cultural diversity and country origins, and our multi-faith commitments, as well as the benefits of that investment and commitment to social cohesion, the development of citizenship and the future economic and social success of our pluralistic society.

As part of this policy context, I have the honour and the challenge to lead a Partnership to develop an Anti-Racism Strategy for Australia. At the end of February I will release a discussion paper seeking community views on how this Strategy should be approached. There is any number of challenges: when we think about who an Anti-Racism Strategy should target, how might it impact on grass roots Australia, whether we should ask government to direct existing funding to focus on prevention, should we raise community awareness of the economic cost of racism, thus making a more pragmatic appeal? Social media, partnerships with business and corporate Australia and partnerships with the sports and arts sectors may also be contemplated.

Multiculturalism is an important part of how we view ourselves, irrespective of the terminology that we use to describe this. This again is a further development for us as a nation that forms our identity. Again the views of practitioners such as you who scrutinize and analyze the public sector so closely will be invaluable to inform this process. Is Australia a racist country? Is this part of our identity? The Anti-Racism Strategy campaign should go some way to saying the answer to that question is no!

Concluding Comments

So what does all of this mean for the question of identity? There are three main points that I would want to make in conclusion.

First, our identity as a country is inevitably tied to our history and the treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, and the Constitutional campaign that will unfold this year is another important opportunity to redress a historical wrong.

Second, as issues of immigration, asylum seekers, religious diversity and our cultural composition as a nation continue to swirl and churn in our public debate, we need to continually refresh our view of who we are – which is ultimately the sum of many parts, the combination of many histories and many stories. We need to continue to protect that through policy initiatives as well as legal protections.

Thirdly, our identity as a nation, as we contemplate this on Australia Day, requires our values to be enshrined not only in culture and in practice but also reflected in our laws, in order to give them weight. We have an opportunity to strengthen this with the consolidation process of our equality acts at a Federal level.

You will either love or hate Karl Popper, but let me finish with one of his views:

Philosophers should consider the fact that the greatest happiness principle can easily be made an excuse for a benevolent dictatorship. We should replace it by a more modest and more realistic principle - the principle that the fight against avoidable misery should be a recognized aim of public policy, while the increase of happiness should be left, in the main, to private initiative.[16]

My thesis goes beyond this. We need to ensure that identity is clear, which often means ensuring that people retain contact with their primary culture as well as working with their new. We need to ensure that perceptions of identity are not subject to abuse or to stereotyping and to do this we need laws, frameworks, campaigns and constant diligence. The examples I have outlined today are just those opportunities.

They are opportunities for us to be where we have not been.

Thank you.

[1] Desmond Morris, The Book of Ages, Viking: NY. 1983.
[2] As above.
[3] Paul Keating, Speech at Redfern Park, in M Ryan (ed) Advancing Australia: the speeches of Paul Keating Prime Minister, Sydney: Big Picture Publications, 1995.
[4] ‘One of the most glaring limitations of human rights protections in Australia is that the Australian system of government does not prevent the federal government from making laws that discriminate against Indigenous peoples on the basis of race. Recent examples include the federal government’s 1998 amendments to the Native Title Act and the enactment of the 2007 Northern Territory Emergency Response legislation (which has suspended the application of racial discrimination laws outlined above). The situations which led to these laws being created could have been addressed without resorting to racial discrimination.’ Australian Human Rights Commission, Human Rights and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. At: (viewed 3 January 2012).
[5] For further information see: Australian Human Rights Commission, United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, At: (viewed 3 January 2012).
[6] For further information about the national apology to the Stolen Generations and the Bringing them Home report: Australian Human Rights Commission, Bringing them Home: The ‘Stolen Children’ report (1997). At: (viewed 25 January 2012).
[7] For further information see: Australian Human Rights Commission, Constitutional reform to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Australian Constitution (viewed 25 January 2012)
[8] The Menzies and Holt Governments effectively dismantled the policies between 1949 and 1966 and the Whitlam Government passed laws to ensure that race would be totally disregarded as a component for immigration to Australia in 1973: Department of Immigration and Citizenship, Fact Sheet 8 – Abolition of the 'White Australia' Policy, November 2010. At: (viewed 3 January 2012).
[9] For further information about the ‘race power’ in the Australian Constitution see Australian Human Rights Commission, Constitutional Reform: Frequently Asked Questions. At: (viewed 3 January 2012) and You me unity, Frequently Asked Questions. At: (viewed 25 January 2012). See also David Marr, Belling the Cat, 10th Human Rights Oration, 10 December 2010, audio available at (accessed 25 November 2011).
[10] Dr William Jonas AM, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Native Title and the Treaty Dialogue, Speech delivered at a seminar hosted by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner and the International Law Association, 10 September 2002. At: (viewed 25 January 2012).
[11] See Commonwealth Attorney General’s Department, Consolidation of Commonwealth anti-discrimination laws, At: (viewed 25 November 2011).
[12] Tim Costello, Remarks on the launch of Talking Rights, Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, 19 May 2011. At: (viewed 3 January 2012).
[13] Elsa Koleth, Multiculturalism: a review of Australian policy statements and recent debates in Australia and overseas, Department of Parliamentary Services Research paper No. 6, 2010-11, October 2010, p.4. At:;query=Id%3A%22library%2Fprspub%2F272429%22 (viewed 16 December 2011).
[14] Department of Immigration and Multiculturalism and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA), Report of the Review of Settlement Services for Migrants and Humanitarian Entrants, Chapter 1: The Policy Context, DIMIA, Canberra, 2003, pp. 23-35. At: (viewed 16 December 2011).
[15] Australian Government, The People of Australia: Australia’s Multicultural Policy, launched by Minister for Immigration and Citizenship The Hon Chris Bowen MP, on 16 February 2011. At: (viewed 16 December 2011).
[16] Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1952.