Remarks at the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination Morning Tea
20 March 2018
Australian Human Rights Commission, Sydney

Edited transcript

Tomorrow, the 21st of March, is the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. It is important that we reflect on the history of this day, which dates back to 1960 and a township called Sharpeville in South Africa. There, outside a police station in Sharpeville, protestors gathered to voice their concern about Apartheid laws, in particular the pass laws that had been introduced.

Police began firing on those protestors and some 69 people were killed during that protest. A number of people were found with bullet wounds in their backs. The international community condemned that incident and established a commemorative day on the 21st of March to remember what happened in South Africa and to galvanise people’s commitment to fighting prejudice and discrimination.

Here in Australia we know the 21st of March more frequently as Harmony Day, at least for the last two decades or so. In one respect, Harmony Day and the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination are two sides of the same coin. If you believe in combatting racism, you should also believe in celebrating our diversity and harmony. And vice versa: if you believe in diversity and harmony you should believe in combatting racism. But if we’re honest about things, the juxtaposition of those two commemorations may also signify something else. It might signify a discomfort that some of us may have in talking about race and racism.

We are an immensely successful multicultural society. We have incorporated many different backgrounds into the national family with success. Often, however, we are more content and more comfortable talking about diversity without necessarily talking about the need to combat prejudice and discrimination based on race. There can be a desire to have softer messages around diversity rather than more bracing conversations about racial difference.

That is one of the challenges I want to underline today: to make sure that we take the opportunity to have challenging conversations, some of which might cause a degree of discomfort. Because it is essential today that we are firm and unambiguous in taking a stance of anti-racism. They say that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, but there is a great deal of vigilance required right now; not just vigilance but renewed action. Looking internationally, we see racial prejudice and intolerance on the rise – particularly through the resurgence of far-right political movements and white supremacist movements in many liberal democracies.

Here in Australia, we see racism persisting in many forms. We know that institutional racism exists and that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples – First Peoples – experience institutional racism in the most profound way, as reflected in incarceration rates, in disparities in health and education. We know as well that people of certain backgrounds experience racism at significantly higher levels than the national average: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, but also African background people. We know too that anti-Semitism appears to be on the rise, at least based on the research that has been done by the Australian Jewish community. Since September 11, anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiments have undermined community harmony. And, as recent debate has demonstrated, there has also been a noticeable focus on foreign influence in ways that may direct suspicion at those with Chinese backgrounds.

All of this is why, in my job as Race Discrimination Commissioner, I see it as my duty to stand with those who experience racial discrimination and to encourage everyone in our society to show solidarity with those who experience it. It is my job and the job of the Commission to combat racism, prejudice and discrimination – and to do it independently, without fear or favour.

Over the past four and a half years, we have had a lot of debates about race. For the communities who are represented here today, we have certainly had to do a lot of work in defending the integrity of the Racial Discrimination Act. We have had two debates about legislative amendment to the Act; two attempts that ultimately led to no change. Indeed, it was on the 21st of March last year that an announcement was made to introduce a bill aimed at amending the Racial Discrimination Act.

Through it all, however, a few things stand out. One is that there remains immense public support for the Racial Discrimination Act and its role in our society. Last year, research found that 78% of Australians believe it should remain unlawful to offend, insult or humiliate someone because of their race. In 2014, that figure was 88%.

That is a very strong endorsement of the role of legislation in combatting racial vilification. And it’s only right that the law sets a standard for our society; it’s important we are able to hold others to account if we experience discrimination or racial hatred. I think of what Australia would have been like before 1975 when, if you had experienced racial discrimination, there was no law at the Commonwealth level that would allow you to hold someone to account for it. The Racial Discrimination Act is, of course, the oldest and first Commonwealth human rights and anti-discrimination legislation. It has withstood the test of time and has withstood some fierce challenges.

Let me just mention very quickly some of the communities that are here today, and pay tribute to their work in combatting racism. We have representatives from the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, from the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, from the Chinese Australian Forum, and from the Armenian Community in Australia. It has been a great source of pride for me to stand with you in countering racism.

I also want to acknowledge some of our partners in our anti-racism work who are here today. From our National Anti-Racism Partnership, we have present the Department of Home Affairs and Department of Human Services. To the anti-racism advocates and supporters here – All Together Now, NSW Teachers Federation, Relationships Australia, Western Sydney University – thank you for your support. To our diversity advocates who are telling stories about multicultural Australia which otherwise may not be heard, thank you: Media Diversity Australia, the Asian Leadership Project, SBS and the ABC. Finally, I acknowledge our friends who work on diversity and inclusion in our workplaces and organisations: Clayton Utz, KPMG, PwC. This, I hope, shows the broad coalition of individuals and organisations who are committed to stamping out prejudice and to promoting diversity.

Late last year, as part of our ‘Racism. It Stops with Me’ campaign, we created four videos, some of which were community service announcements. They were the most successful videos we created for the campaign and for the Commission, with 1.5 million cumulative views on social media and on television. We hope that these videos have challenged people to consider what they can do to respond to racism when they see it in everyday scenarios. Our message is one about how racism is as much about the impact as it is about the intention. Not to mention, a call to action for everyone to consider what they can do to give comfort or support to a target of racism.

As you know, in August, I will conclude my term as Race Discrimination Commissioner. But I assure you there remains a lot to be done in these last five months of my term. We have our research on cultural diversity and leadership that is going to be released in a few weeks’ time. We have anti-racism projects on institutional racism and government officials. We have our national forum on racial tolerance and community harmony in June. And I am delighted to announce today that Professor Marcia Langton will be delivering this year’s Kep Enderby Memorial Lecture on 12 June.

As well, we will be doing some work in promoting anti-racism advocacy among young people. Because we want to invest in the next generation of anti-racism leaders and advocates. We will be doing this in partnership with Multicultural Youth Advocacy Network. We are excited about creating newer voices in anti-racism.

This leads me to my very happy duty today to introduce to you three students who are going to share their reflections on racism. As I mentioned at the outset, we have students from Holroyd High School, Sydney Boys High School and Pymble Ladies College. Lisa Togba from Holroyd High, Lincoln Hui from Sydney Boys and Melissa Li from Pymble Ladies will now share their reflections on racism.