Keynote speech to the International Unity in Diversity Conference

Commissioner Tom Calma
Race Discrimination Commissioner


14 August 2008

I would like to begin by paying my respects to the Wulguru Kaba and Bindal peoples, past and present, the traditional owners of these lands.

Thank you also to Grace and her cousin for your warm welcome.

I would also like to acknowledge

  • The Hon Mike Reynolds, Speaker of the House

  • Mayor Les Tyrell

  • Professor Grace Smallwood, Advisor to the Vice Chancellor on Indigenous Affairs, James Cook University

  • Dr Farvardin Daliri, Director of the Townsville Migrant Resource Centre and the conference convenor

And I acknowledge all of my Murri brothers and sisters and our non Indigenous friends here today. As minority peoples we share much in common but, as Indigenous peoples, we are the First Peoples of our Nation.

Thank you Farvardin for inviting me to talk today on links between multiculturalism and Indigenous Australia from a human rights perspective.

In this speech I would like to start by reflecting on the two words “unity” and “diversity” from which this conference has taken its names.

At first glance these seem like simple enough ideas:

  • “unity” refers to oneness, of being formed of parts that make a whole - essentially around a consensus of shared values as they relate to the whole state

  • “diversity” refers to variety and difference – as these relate to individuals living within communities, and

  • “unity in diversity” suggests a happy equilibrium, or harmony, between these seeming dichotomies, spanning the community to national levels.

When these ideas are looked at through the prism of social policy, and what the words may imply as representing an ideology, then we are looking at somewhat greater complexity.

In May 2003 the Howard Government released the last published iteration of Australian multi-cultural policy; Multicultural Australia: United in Diversity.

The name of this policy is similar to the name of this conference.

United in Diversity was an ‘update’ of the policy; A New Agenda for Multi-cultural Australia that was released in December 1999.

It is a scant document that emphasises that a major purpose of multi-cultural policy is to help maintain community harmony at a time when international terrorism events threaten to destabilise society and threaten national security.

It is interesting to review this policy with a critical and historical eye.

Like so many statements of the previous government, especially statements that relate to race, diversity or culture, they are often Janus-like.

My reference to Janus is to the two-faced Roman deity. It is used when considering how the same idea, object or statement may have more than one “face” that it presents to the world, and may be understood, or interpreted differently, by different people.

When it came to multiculturalism the previous government had a checked record. Where many of its statements may seem reasonable at first glance, they seem less so on greater scrutiny or when seen through an analytic lens.

For example, the idea that Australia is One Nation of many people brought together through a shared commitment to “Australian values”.

On a close assessment such a statement could be seen as a call for homogeneity, enforced commitments or (more sinister), as a way to wedge populations in an era of deliberately escalated fears associated with terrorism, racial, cultural and religious difference.

In my role as Race Discrimination Commissioner I had become increasingly concerned about the threat to multi-cultural policy and to social harmony that was linked to this sophisticated wedging and dog whistling.

In reaction to this concern, I released a discussion paper supporting multiculturalism on human rights grounds in the middle of 2007.

This apprehension was well founded.

In the final weeks of the previous government, the then Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs suggested that the policy had run its course in Australia and that it had effectively ended.

The incoming Rudd government, on the other hand, stated that it would continue multicultural policy.

However, nine months after the election what this policy is, and what it might look like, is still unknown.

I remain concerned that despite the commitment by the new Government, there are indications that multiculturalism is not a top priority and, as such, a rigorous intellectual investment into what multiculturalism both is, and what it could aspire to be, is not yet being made.

That means, at this very moment, all of us interested in and committed to the values of multiculturalism, and its associated values of human rights and race discrimination, have an opportunity to voice our concerns and our aspirations.

Not only is NOW the time to call upon the government to strongly recommit to multiculturalism and human rights, NOW is the time to remind government about what multiculturalism can aspire to be, and NOW is the time to remind government how multiculturalism is linked with other pressing social, cultural, economic and environmental issues.

NOW is the time to promote how multiculturalism and human rights can work as a framework to build a fairer, more productive Australia.

The government is investing much energy into its principle of “social inclusion”. Unfortunately, There is insufficient time today to analyse fully what this means.

However, what is important to note is that, to date, the government has interpreted social inclusion as a means to alleviate poverty and disadvantage through economic and political participation.

My main concern, and a concern also expressed by a number of other commentators on this new Australian social inclusion approach, is that culture is not recognised as an important contributor to social inclusion.

And, although I don’t think there is anything premeditated about this, I am concerned there is a risk, over time, that social inclusion principles will override the importance of culture, and government policies and programs will instinctively follow the path of “unified diversity” in the months and years ahead.

Under these circumstances, powerful words and concepts can be misused, old symbolism may graft itself onto new symbolism, and it may transpire that they end up meaning things that we, as a sector, don’t want them to mean!

This is therefore the time to build a new symbolism, refine and develop definitions, and imagine a better world that is more properly described by a meaningful language.

By saying all this I am not attempting to undermine the principles that inform this conference – I appreciate these and agree with them.

But I cannot but help observe that the words chosen to describe the conference echo the language of the previous government and that these echoes carry inferences that may not be those you want.

Multiculturalism, like Indigenous reconciliation, still implies to some commentators and members of the community; separatism and favouritism.

These are attitudes that are, perversely, a form of envy by the privileged towards the disadvantaged.

But multiculturalism and Indigenous reconciliation are not, or should not be, about separatism and favouritism – they should be about decency, about equity, about respect and about participation.

They should also be about substantive equality.

Not a false equality where the excluded are forced to compete in a “level playing field”, but an equality that is “handicapped” so that those who are disadvantaged from the outset have genuine opportunities for advancement or participation.

While the issues for Australia’s culturally and linguistically diverse communities (those generally seen as targeted by multicultural policy) and the issues for Indigenous Australians are often very different, they also share important issues in common.

Perhaps foremost amongst these issues is the discrimination and exclusion that Indigenous Australians, and people of non Anglo-Celtic origins, often experience.

By saying this I recognise that not all forms of discrimination are experienced or applied with the same vigour,

nor that the experience is universal,

nor that discrimination is always blatant,

nor that it can, itself, be ‘discriminating’,

nor am I glossing over the challenges faced by inter-ethnic or racial conflicts within or across Australian communities.

Nevertheless, those principles that inform multiculturalism and reconciliation, should set the environment for decency, equity, respect and participation for all members of culturally diverse communities, including Indigenous peoples.

They should also help ensure that this environment works to the benefit of all Australians.

We live in uncertain times. When have we not? However, I think the argument can be mounted that these times are uniquely uncertain.

In the immediate post-war era our world was threatened by obliteration through nuclear holocaust.

While this was a dreadful threat hanging over the world, nevertheless, members of the various power-blocks had the certainties of ideology, the role of their respective states, and an expectation of how the world functioned and what they could reasonably believe in.

The world of the 21st century has a different fear for the future for our planet – although the fear of nuclear weapons has not entirely vanished.

The extent of radical climate change is not as great as that of nuclear war in the 1960s, but it is equally real and may be almost as catastrophic – even if it would unfold with less immediate impact.

Unlike our parents of the 1950s to 1970s, who at least enjoyed other certainties, we do not.

While the trends and the capacities were evolving during these decades, we are now living in an era where the privileges of economic, social and ideological certainties have been taken from many of us.

Globalisation, technology and geo-politics have transformed our world.

More than ever before people of different “races”, cultural heritage, faiths, and languages mix ... whether this is in a shopping mall, by living and working side-by-side, through other forms of face-to-face interaction, or through media exposure.

Often this experience is positive but it can also engender fear or suspicion.

The rapidity of change, the transformative nature of technology, media and trans-national movements of people, pose challenges to societies across the globe that have seldom been faced in human history.

But they are certainly far more widespread, swift and extensive than ever before.

While conventional media has often become more divisive and sensationalist in its responses to this complexity, alternative forms of communication are growing, especially among the youth population.

In this age of transformation and uncertainty, of counter-intuitive developments, and of cross-currents of change, mass markets are eroding and we see, instead, the fractionalisation of the old markets into sub-groups, or into individual preference.

In the later half of the 20th century the neo-liberal agenda was to liberate the individual – in the anticipation that the rational, self-maximising person will do so with conformity to certain values – values often linked to the conservative views of neo-liberalism.

Ironically, the triumph of neo-liberalism has highlighted its limitations and has created societies across the world that are more complex, more conflicted, more uncontrolled, and more likely to reject the neo-liberal political, social and economic mission, than the status quo that existed previously.

The consequences of globalisation are that in a world of change where there is an increasing risk of violence, the framework of human rights, applied to multicultural policy and Indigenous reconciliation, continues to offer the world’s communities the most promising “civil path to peace”.

Multiculturalism and Indigenous reconciliation will, and should, continue to travel along different paths. There are many points (and I believe there should often be many more) where these paths run parallel or cross and become a single path for some of the journey.

They are also both bound together as human rights paths.

On this point I would like to briefly digress to reflect upon human rights – since my role is to represent Australia’s Human Rights Commission.

One way of looking at human rights, which can often be confusing, is by separating them into “generations”.

For example, first generation human rights are civil and political rights that include the rights to such things as the vote, freedom from discrimination, freedom of speech and the like.

Second generation human rights are economic, social and cultural rights, like the right to education, to adequate housing and the right to health.

Third generation human rights are collective rights, for example, the right for self-determination and development.

For Indigenous Australians, migrants and refugees the three generations of human rights are both inspirations and tools in their struggle to achieve equality and recognition.

The International human rights framework on cultural diversity has increasingly become more detailed, clear and strong in endorsing multiculturalism as the best way for civil societies to respond to cultural, linguistic and ethnic diversity.

The starting point for this development is the notion of equality and non-discrimination contained in the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD).

The Convention defines racial discrimination as:

“any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life”.

In Australia, the Racial Discrimination Act (1975) is our national response to our obligations under ICERD.

It confers on Australia’s Human Rights Commission specific responsibilities, one of which is to promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among racial and ethnic groups.

It also makes racial discrimination and racial vilification unlawful.

Understanding multiculturalism within a human rights framework helps us to articulate how the rights of Indigenous peoples and other minority groups in Australia relate to each other and how they are differentiated.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, like other minority groups, risk being excluded from sharing the economic, social and cultural benefits of being a citizen of Australia.

For Indigenous Australians, who are the most disadvantaged of all groups in our society, this only adds further pain and unfairness to experiences of dispossession, the highest levels of morbidity and early mortality, and lack of political representation.

Multiculturalism, as a policy of recognition and equity, can assist Indigenous Australians to gain access to these benefits.

The 1989 National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia clearly states that multiculturalism is:

“...applicable not just to immigrants but to all Australians, including the Indigenous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population.”

The National Agenda also assumes that both groups share the quest for the recognition of their right to cultural identity and the right to social justice.

In the case of multiculturalism, recognition is largely about inclusiveness, it is about inclusive social policies that allow people from different cultures to participate in and contribute to the wider society on an equal footing.

And, in the case of both, ethnic communities, and in particular, Indigenous Australian peoples, it is not ONLY about inclusiveness, it is also about ownership and engagement in decision making and policy development processes.

The Northern Territory Intervention is a classic example of this enduring problem in Australia policy making.

Touted as being done to help Indigenous children, non-Indigenous politicians suspended the Race Discrimination Act and have made massive, expensive policy and service decisions without consultation with those being targeted.

It is not surprising that the Intervention is failing in so many areas given this approach.

Furthermore, in the case of Indigenous peoples, recognition is also about acknowledgement of the central place of Indigenous peoples in Australian society, as the First Peoples of Australia and acknowledgement of the injustice, and the harm that still befalls us.

Acknowledgement of Aboriginal rights is a primary step to put in place the changes needed to restore indigenous dignity and future vitality.

There is also much that the ethnic community sector and Indigenous Australians can teach the other, and learn from each other.

There are important lessons that Indigenous Australians can learn from the civil rights advocacy of ethnic organisations, especially when these groups transcended cultural and political differences and worked collaboratively.

There are just as many lessons that the ethnic community sector can learn from the reconciliation process.

Ethnic community advocacy has often focused solely on economic disequilibria.

On the other hand, the holistic approach to human development, social and emotional well-being, cultural rights and ecological sustainability of Indigenous Australians, is an integrated model that could be pursued much more rigorously by the ethnic community sector.

Whatever the future of multiculturalism and reconciliation, they must be part of Australia’s future.

While I say “must”, that is not to say that they will, so we must all be vigilant.

My concern is, that if they are not, this will be at great personal pain and cost... which will inevitably have social and political consequences for the wider community.

I do not have time today to outline the opportunities that a new multiculturalism and Indigenous reconciliation have to develop, co-exist and cross-reference.

But I hope to have argued that they are necessary to a civil society in the 21st century and that, as processes to negotiate complexity and threats in a transformative and challenging world, they are necessary.

They are necessary not just to the social, emotional and physical wellbeing of all culturally diverse communities, but they carry with them a “diversity dividend” that benefits all Australians. This conference and the festival are great examples of how we, as a society, can advance this process and understanding that diversity should be valued and respected.

Thank you