I’ll start by acknowledging that we are gathered this evening on Dharawal country, and I pay my respects to the First Peoples of this land, and elders past, present and emerging.
May I thank the Multicultural Communities Council of Illawarra for the kind invitation to address you tonight, and in particular your Chairman Ken Habak, the MCCI board and CEO Chris Lacey.
I also acknowledge Mr Paul Scully, the Member for Wollongong, Mr Gordon Bradbery, the Lord Mayor of Wollongong, Mr Ross Hawkey, the acting CEO of Multicultural NSW, Uncle Richard Davis, and all dignitaries and guests with us today.
I wish to take this opportunity to commend and thank the MCCI for the wonderful work and services that you have performed in the service of your community for more than 40 years. You should be very proud of yourselves as we are of you.
It is an honour to be here at your Annual General Meeting for 2018, during what is only my second month as Race Discrimination Commissioner.
As some 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. 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.
It is timely for me to be here today because as many of you would agree and appreciate that we live in challenging times for our race relations and as a nation and community where cultural diversity is our hall mark. We, no doubt, face difficult terrain in our work to combat racism and racial discrimination, which, unavoidably, remains a challenge for us all.
I have not met anyone, since my appointment to this role, who did not think that I have a difficult job. I now have a better appreciation of the question posed to me by friends and others, when I first applied for this role: ‘Do you really want this job?’
And, my wife seems to think that my hair has grown perceptibly greyer since she last saw me only a few days ago.
As I commence my role as Race Discrimination Commissioner, it is incumbent on me to undertake two initial tasks: first, to frankly assess the current state of race relations, community harmony and efforts made to date to challenge racism; and second, to consider and plan for the future in order to give effect to and to fulfil my statutory function. It is my role and responsibility to combat racial discrimination, to educate and engage with the community on racial discrimination, and also to bring our community together in the spirit of friendship, tolerance and mutual respect.
Essentially, my role is to protect and educate Australians against racism and racial discrimination.
This evening I hope to have a conversation with you on some of my initial reflections on these issues.
The state of play
For many of us here, a day does not appear to go by when we are not confronted with a message or a piece of news that seems to challenge and undermine the resilience of our multicultural society, or that displays or promotes varying degrees of overt or subtle expressions of racial, cultural and religious hostility or bigotry.
I believe that a national focus on our recommitment to anti-racism and multicultural diversity is needed now more than ever. In recent years, the widely regarded Mapping Social Cohesion surveys have seen a spike in reported experiences of racial or religious discrimination.
This year’s Scanlon Foundation survey report was released yesterday, and found, in line with previous years, 85 per cent of respondents said they believe multiculturalism has been good for Australia. A strong majority also support Australia's non-discriminatory immigration policy. Additionally, despite widespread public debate and political anxiety, a majority also continue to believe that immigration levels are either 'about right' or in fact 'too low'. These are heartening findings, and a good place to start.
But concern about the level of immigration appears to be increasing - up to 43 per cent considering immigration levels to be 'too high', up from 34 per cent just two years ago. The survey found that this appears to be driven, in part, by anxieties about population growth, congestion and access to services.
On discrimination, 19 per cent of respondents reported they had experienced discrimination on the basis of their race or religion in the previous year. This is about in line with responses in 2017 and 2016, and up from the 15 per cent response in 2015. Certain groups in our community face particular challenges, too. When asked directly, a substantial minority of people report holding negative feelings towards Muslims, for instance.
The findings - which also vary for respondents across capital cities and outside of the capitals - reflect the complexity of the task we are dealing with. We have a strong basis, but every reason to remain vigilant in our work to combat discrimination and promote inter-racial tolerance, understanding and friendship. We cannot sit back and assume that our multicultural harmony and our multicultural consensus will take care of itself. It requires an active endorsement - an active recommitment - from all of us.
We must be conscious of and be prepared for the prospect of an increased re-emergence of racial discrimination and racial extremism in Australia. They represent forces that have a real outcome of disrupting and harming our harmonious cultural diversity. We must also not just defend against but also seek to defeat the intent, design and manifestation of any emboldened racial supremacy movement and agitation; the language and messaging of which has, from time to time, spilled over even into mainstream public and political debates.
As a successful multicultural society, we should be clear on this: there is no place for racial prejudice, discrimination, or intimidation in our society. As Australians, we should consistently stand together to oppose racism and racial supremacy in any form or representation. And, I thank you and the MCCI for the work that you do in supporting and bringing communities together, including but not limited to your advocacy and representation work and the work you do with youth. I am impressed that your community engagement initiatives have reached more than 3,000 young people and that your social groups have provided more than 62,000 hours of support.
Racial antipathy and hatred is, of course, not a trend unique to Australia. In recent years, we have seen a global resurgence in far-right and extreme racist activity. Last month, the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation released its hate crime data for the calendar year 2017. While there was a general increase, there was a particular up-surge in anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim incidents. Of the reported incidents spurred by hatred of a religion, approximately 55 per cent were caused by anti-Semitism.
We must be vigilant against threats to our multicultural harmony. We must oppose racial extremism and violence in all forms, and we must be on guard to ensure threats to our community are appropriately dealt with.
Indeed, racist and racially divisive movements that emerge in other countries can spill over into Australian debates, and worsen racism and intolerance in this country. Often, this can be transmitted over the Internet, through social media platforms such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. But it can also involve organised events and campaigning.
Many of you would be aware of recent speaking tours from representatives of the so-called ‘alt-right’ in the United States and Canada. These tours have attracted huge amounts of controversy, and speakers have been given significant platforms, including on mainstream television and even at federal parliament. They have influenced public debate with racially charged and divisive rhetoric.
A widely publicised upcoming tour has been advertising as featuring a number of men, including the founder of a group called the ‘Proud Boys’. United States civil rights organisation Southern Poverty Law Center lists the Proud Boys as a hate group.
Last month, it was also prominently reported that the United States FBI now considers the Proud Boys as an ‘extremist group with ties to white nationalism’.
Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes intends to speak in Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, the Gold Coast and Sydney. Mr McInnes is on record as having openly advocated violence against those who he perceives to be his political or ideological enemies. He has repeatedly expressed anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic and extreme anti-Muslim views, not to mention sexist and anti-LGBTI remarks. And he has led a group that has repeatedly engaged in violent conduct at rallies and events in the United States.
That’s why last week I wrote to the Immigration Minister expressing my serious concerns about this upcoming tour. I have urged the Minister to consider the appropriateness of allowing Mr McInnes to enter Australia, in light of his ministerial discretion to refuse visas on character grounds under section 501 of the Migration Act. There is a serious risk the tour will vilify part of our community, incite discord in our community, and represent a danger to our community.
I am pleased to note that a decision has been made to refuse Mr McInnes entry into Australia.
Let us be clear on this. Freedom of speech is a human right. But people also have a right to live their lives free of racial vilification and harassment. Our society’s task is to balance these rights. And our racial discrimination laws, including the Racial Discrimination Act, set a clear benchmark for what our society tolerates, and does not tolerate. Part of my job involves promoting an understanding and acceptance of, and compliance with, the Act.
The way forward
How do we chart a course forward from here? How do we preserve our multicultural harmony, and eliminate the racism that does exist?
There is no easy answer and no quick fix. There is no one solution.
The Australian Human Rights Commission and my office of Race Discrimination Commissioner represents an important and, to an extent, a powerful instrument in framing and setting the agenda and direction in combating race discrimination. Our task, in working with the Racial Discrimination Act, in combating racial discrimination includes promoting public education and community engagement as well as through projects and policy advocacy. I am also tasked with promoting an understanding and acceptance of, and compliance with, the Racial Discrimination Act.
I also have the responsibility under the Act to develop research and educational programs to promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among racial and ethnic groups.
The Act was Australia’s first federal human rights or anti-discrimination legislation, and has served our community well since its passage into law in 1975. It doesn’t just make racial discrimination unlawful. It also represents our values. It has symbolic and moral meaning as well as legal effect.
I share the thoughts of the former North Carolina State Senator, Malcolm Graham, that we need to have a national conversation about hate, prejudice and racism; and not just a program in calling out racism. It’s uncomfortable and will not please everyone, but I believe we need it if we are to address hate, prejudice and racism in our society. This national conversation will require and call for courage and moral leadership, across our political and civil community, to lead on this issue.
Jonathan Sacks, in his book The Dignity of Difference, reminds us that “society is a conversation scored for many voices. But it is precisely in and through that conversation that we become conjoint authors of our collective future, rather than the dust blown by the wind of economic forces. Conversation – respectful, engaged, reciprocal, calling forth some of our greatest powers of empathy and understanding – is the moral form of a world governed by the dignity of difference”.
The national conversation will be a mission, and perhaps over time, a community movement, that seeks to tackle this problem of racism from the bottom up; from individuals, groups, social-media fraternities, communities, schools, places of worship, our neighbourhoods, our sporting clubs, associations, our workplaces and in our businesses and political arenas.
It will be a community undertaking and commitment to hold ourselves accountable, hold our friends and families accountable, hold our colleagues and community accountable and it will seek to hold our leaders and elected officials accountable: for what they say and for what they do not say; and for what they do and for what they don’t do; in thinking and dealing with prejudice and racism.
Community engagement and regional Australia
Over the coming months I am travelling the country and speaking with communities about their experiences and their views on what can and needs to be done. It is critical that I am fully across and briefed on community experiences and understandings of racism and racial discrimination and the issues that concern and confront them.
This includes ensuring that I am engaging with communities outside of the major cities. While multicultural and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities may be concentrated in the big cities of the eastern states, there are vibrant communities across the country – from Broome to Bundaberg, Wangaratta to Wollongong. There are many similarities in the experiences of multiculturalism and diversity in regional areas and urban areas. But there are also many differences.
Some longitudinal research has found that people living outside of the capital cities have been more likely to show intolerance when surveyed on acceptance or rejection of immigration and cultural diversity. And yet the resilience and spirit of these communities in standing against racism has also been striking. I think of the example of the community of Bendigo, Victoria, who when threatened by ugly protests against the construction of a local mosque, came together fearlessly to give support to its Muslim communities and stand against intolerance and bigotry. Local government and community campaigners united to stand up to racism and support cultural diversity, refusing to let their city be known for intolerance. This was an example of true leadership right across society.
In 2017, the Commission worked in partnership with the Anti-Discrimination Commission Queensland to pilot a series of community conversations across regional Queensland, in Hervey Bay, the Sunshine Coast and Townsville. These sought to support regional communities in strengthening inclusion and community cohesion. I am interested in hearing from you on what else we can do, or how we could further work together, on this vital social cohesion and community building and strengthening work.
Indeed, part of our task involves focussing on community engagement, in promoting community understanding and investing in public education about racial discrimination and racism. We should seek to be proactive and reflective and not just reactive in combating racism. The Commission has played a significant role in fostering and bringing communities together. For the last three years, we have held national forums on racial tolerance and community harmony. Earlier this year, we piloted a national anti-racism youth leadership initiative. We have held workshops and forums on institutional racism, and on race and the media.
I also reflect, at this point, that there is a significant need for multicultural, ethnic and Indigenous communities to stand together and give support to each other, and find ways of working together and finding common solutions to our common problems. We all have a mutual and shared interest in combating racial discrimination.
The next five years will be challenging and in the words of the Chinese proverb (or curse, as some would say), “may we live in interesting times”. But, I am optimistic and encouraged about the commitment of the vast majority of Australians to our multicultural future and in rejecting racism, bigotry and division.
Our shared task and responsibility is to unite our community as a society that is culturally diverse, open, accepting, socially cohesive and inclusive and one that values equity, equality, fairness and equal justice and opportunities for all Australians. It is also one where racial discrimination is an aberration and virtually non-existent. Together, with you, I believe we can achieve this.
Thank you very much, once again, for having me join you today