Closing remarks at “Beyond food festivals: Practical actions to build diversity and create inclusive workplaces”
21 March 2018
Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet
Canberra ACT

Edited transcript

The 21st of March is a day of many sides. We all know it as Harmony Day, but it’s also the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. And for me, these two sides of the 21st of March give us a window into how, in Australia, we deal with race and culture.

The International Day has its origins in South Africa in 1960, when a crowd of protesters gathered around a police station in the Sharpeville township, and were fired upon by police. They were protesting against apartheid laws. Sixty-nine people were killed in that protest. Many of those killed were found with bullet wounds in their back. The international community resolved after that to dedicate a day to combatting prejudice and discrimination.

So, while we’re out there today having conversations about Harmony Day, let’s not forget the history of the 21st of March. Sometimes it can be challenging work; sometimes the conversations can be uncomfortable. But discomfort is not always bad. And we should challenge ourselves to do better.

In his opening remarks, Martin Parkinson [Secretary, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet] mentioned the underrepresentation of cultural diversity in leadership in Australian society. We know, from some of the research that we’ve conducted, that about 95 per cent of those in CEO positions in business, in government, and in higher education, have either an Anglo-Celtic or European cultural background. And for all of us who care about diversity, this should raise some serious questions. Does this reflect merit playing out in our organisations? Are we making the most of the talents of our multicultural society?

Now, I for one am an ardent believer in the success of Australian multiculturalism. But we should not be complacent about that success. We should be challenging ourselves to do even better.

From our panel today, I picked up a number of things. We’ve heard from people’s lived experience about how casual racism exists, and about how people are still subjected to racial abuse. We heard, as well, about the exclusions that can happen in the workplace. This is something that we don’t always recognise because it can be easy for us to think of racism as only about abuse and extreme forms of hatred, but not more insidious expressions of prejudice.

We’ve heard about the history of race, and how any conversation about racism needs to grapple with our history and the darker parts of the national story. And we’ve heard about the importance of having a voice, and how important it is that those from diverse backgrounds can be role models as leaders in their organisations.

I wanted to reflect on two things which emerged from today’s conversation. One was that question about resilience. To me, there’s a difference between personal resilience and organisational resilience. All too often, we can fall back into thinking that those who experience prejudice or exclusion need to lift themselves up, and get on with things. But not everyone can do that. If you’re a resilient organisation, however, you can draw the line and you can support those who experience this. If we’re talking about resilience, let’s talk about the organisational resilience we should be cultivating.

As for the conversations we need to have, including with our children, this is another challenge. And the challenge here is to ensure that everyone can develop something of an antenna on race and culture. For those who are from minority backgrounds, you talk about race and difference from a young age. You have long discussions about how to detect bias or prejudice, how to deal with it, how to deflect, how to respond to it. But if you’re from the majority and you haven’t experienced racism yourself, you may not necessarily talk to your child about race or culture.

Here I think about what teachers tell us about their experiences. Very often in the classroom, children today are asked to share some reflection about their cultural background or family history. For those who come from migrant backgrounds, this is very easy. Someone can answer that they’re from a Chinese background or an Italian background or Indian background, or talk about their religious faith and adherence.

But what teachers tell us is that very often, some children will respond either that, ‘I don’t have a culture’, or ‘I’m just normal’. And those, usually, are responses from children from the majority background, who don’t have to talk about lived differences. The task for all of us, including in our families, is to think about the conversations we can all have. All of us have an ethnic or cultural background. We just don’t emerge from nowhere. But we’ve got to get better at talking about it.

There are two challenges I would like to put to you today as we reflect about what we can do and the practical action we can take. One is about lived experience and human experience; that we give more opportunities for people to share their stories, and more importantly, that we hear and listen to those stories. We must get better at dealing with differences and at having the courage to learn.

The second challenge is about leadership. It has already been said that leadership starts from the top, and leaders all set an important tone here. Those who do get cultural diversity do so because they usually have ‘skin in the game’ in some way. They have some personal connection to cultural diversity and difference. But I would challenge people to think about taking on board advocacy for cultural diversity even if they don’t have skin in the game. Because that to me may not really be a mark of leadership; that’s enlightened self-interest. Real leadership is doing something because it’s the right thing to do – not because you’ve got a person or family stake in the issue.

And leadership is something all of us can exercise. This is my last point. It comes down to all the conversations that we can have, the interactions that we have with those in the workplace, in the neighbourhood, in our schools, elsewhere. Think about what you can do to ensure that the standard is maintained, the standard is set, and that we give no licence or no encouragement to those who believe Australia can be something other than a successful, diverse and multicultural society.