Race Discrimination Commissioner delivers address

September 22, 2013 Agencies
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Australian Race Discrimination Commissioner Dr Tim Soutphommasane has delivered this year’s Peace and Understanding Lecture mentioning videos in which viewers are encouraged to kill Jews.

Dr Soutphommasane spoke at the University of Queensland…

The text of his address:

“International House is certainly a friend of the Australian Human Rights Commission, not least as a supporter of the ‘Racism. It Stops with Me’ campaign. As many of you know, that public awareness campaign is a central part of the National Anti-Racism Strategy that the Commission leads. So I can’t think of a better place to deliver my first speech in Queensland as Race Discrimination Commissioner.


Dr Tim Soutphommasane

I know that you run a Home Away From Home workshop for your residents, as part of your support for ‘Racism. It Stops with Me’ – a workshop which teaches young people practical skills in combating racism and enhancing cultural exchange. It is work like this – in the realm of the everyday interactions – that the most important progress can be made in educating communities about racism.

It is only natural that International House should be taking the lead, because cultural vision has always been a hallmark of this institution. I’ve looked back, for instance, through past Peace and Understanding Lectures. What is striking about them is how bold and progressive the lectures have been. In the late 1960s, those delivering the lectures were already anticipating the importance of Australia’s relationships with Asia – anticipating what we have in recent times been calling the Asian Century.

The period in which this Lecture was inaugurated, the late 1960s, was an important time in the history of racism. It was only a few weeks ago, as many of you will remember, that we marked the 50th anniversary of Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s speech in Washington DC – that immortal speech in which he declared, “I have a dream”.

It may sound an odd to say ‘we’ about what was a defining moment in the American civil rights movement’s fight to end racial segregation and discrimination. And, yet, as anyone who has ever seen or heard those soaring words of Dr King will know, it is only natural to use the word ‘we’. For how could anyone deny the universal power of Dr King’s dream – of a society in which people weren’t judged by the colour of their skin, but the content of their character?

If our moral sympathies are piqued by what was ultimately an American moment, it was also because it had global import. The American Civil Rights movement was, of course, part of a larger international struggle to end racial discrimination. A struggle that culminated with the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination coming into force in 1969.

It was Australia’s signature to this convention that preceded the introduction of the Racial Discrimination Act in our Commonwealth parliament in 1975. This piece of law was, in turn, an expression of a new sensibility in Australian political culture; a recognition that Australia was a country that was multicultural.

It was forty years ago that the word multicultural was introduced to our national vocabulary. Though the word was borrowed from Canada, it nonetheless had an unmistakable Australian accent when the then immigration minister Al Grassby used it for the first time. As Grassby put it, multiculturalism was about expanding the family of the nation. It wasn’t about repudiating an Australian national identity. It was about ensuring that our national identity could adapt to the new diversity brought about by waves of mass immigration from Europe.


If one takes a long view of Australian multiculturalism, it is hard to argue against its success. Australian society performs admirably when placed alongside other countries in the West which have had to contend with mass immigration. The Australian model works, and works well.

As political historian Robert Manne has described it, there is near universal acknowledgement that “the painless acceptance of millions of non-Anglo-Celtic migrants from the four corners of the Earth represents one of Australia’s great political and social achievements”. Indeed, this is something even many critics of multiculturalism readily concede.

The effectiveness of the Australian model of multiculturalism can be judged against three standards: social mobility, social cohesion and civic integration.

Let’s start with social mobility. It is most telling that the children of immigrants outperform children of native-born Australians, namely, occupying a larger proportion of people in highly skilled occupations than the latter. Australia is one of the very few OECD countries – Canada and the United States are other notable countries – where this is the case.

On measures of social cohesion, the results are also impressive. At the end of the Second World War, well over ninety per cent of Australia’s population was of Anglo-Celtic stock. Today, over twenty-five per cent of Australians were born overseas, while another twenty per cent are the children of immigrants. It is no mean feat that dramatic changes in the cultural composition of Australia have taken place without widespread social rancour or disruption. Consider, by contrast, Europe, where an influx of immigrants over the decades has been accompanied by considerable tensions – including periodic race riots.

Perhaps most importantly, Australian multiculturalism has involved an expression of citizenship. There has been a clear path for immigrants to follow in order to become full members of an Australian national community. It is a demonstration of success that, among OECD countries, Australia has a high take-up rate of citizenship from immigrants: an estimated eighty per cent of immigrants with more than ten years of residence have chosen to adopt Australian citizenship.

What has been crucial is that Australia has got the balance right between diversity and solidarity. We have avoided the rigidity of the French model of assimilation – which demands that all expressions of cultural difference be effectively quarantined to the private sphere. We have avoided the pitfalls of the traditional German approach, in which immigrants were consigned to being guest workers and perpetual foreigners in the country they came to call their home. And we have avoided the excessively relaxed approach of countries such as the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. In such countries, celebrating cultural diversity has fostered what the economist Amartya Sen has labelled plural monoculturalism – in which communities live side by side, but without mixing or interacting with each other.


There is a historical connection between multiculturalism and anti-racism in Australia. A multicultural Australia coincided with the demise of White Australia – an ideal that was given practical force through an immigration policy that discriminated on the basis of race via that most notorious dictation test.

Admittedly, this connection is sometimes unhelpful in one sense. Because if multiculturalism does mean a rejection of racism, what happens if you don’t necessarily endorse multiculturalism? What if you then conclude that rejecting racism is simply ideological?

It is troubling that claims about racism are sometimes dismissed as exaggerated. There are times when some will downplay racism as a marginal social concern.

It is helpful to take a look at the facts. The facts tell us this: racism does exist in Australian society. According to the Challenging Racism Project, led by researchers at the University of Western Sydney, about 20 per cent of Australians have experienced forms of race hate talk (for instance, racial slurs or verbal abuse). About 11 per cent of Australians report that they have experienced exclusion from their workplaces or social activities based on their racial background. More than one in 20 Australians say they have been physically attacked because of their race. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians continue to experience much higher rates of racism than the rest of our population.

From the perspective of the Australian Human Rights Commission, our statistics reveal a significant increase in the number of complaints made by members of the Australian public about racial discrimination in the year 2012-13. There has been a noticeable increase of 59 per cent in the number of complaints about racial hatred compared to 2011-12.

But facts and figures don’t tell the full story. For those who experience racial hatred and vilification it’s not a numbers game. Let me give some examples. Now, I am about to report to you what has been said to some of the people who have made complaints to us. I am going to use the actual language used in the complaints; I need to warn you that this may be confronting. If anybody has a problem with this please let me know now.

In one case, a man of Jewish ethnic origin alleged that video clips on a video sharing site incited hatred towards Jewish people and included content such as offering money to kill Jewish people.

Take another case. A man of Asian background, complained about a website which he said advocated violence against Asians. The comments on the website included: “Asian People Flood our city with their Asian shops with their language all over them, having their own dedicated “china town” and their own suburb …”; “… we understand everyone has different levels of hate for Asians and so we have … Yellers. Their job is to Yell at the Asians with passion i.e. YOU GOOK F**K OFF TO CHINA and do whatever they can to show Asians they are not welcome in Australia … Fighters … are there to express their anger physically by laying the Gooks out.”

And in another case, a man of Aboriginal descent, claimed that a colleague at work subjected him to a barrage of racial abuse over a number of months which ultimately led to him leaving his employment. The alleged comments included “nigger”, “nigger c**t”, “abo”, “boong”, “f**king nigger”, “I’ve never worked with a nigger before”, “spear catcher”, “why don’t you go and sit with your black bastard family and get drunk” and “get f**ked you nigger dog”.  Following the cessation of his employment, the complainant was assessed by a psychiatrist and subsequently the company’s insurer accepted liability for the psychological injury the complainant had sustained arising from the alleged events.

I reiterate: these are not hypotheticals. They are actual complaints that were brought to, and resolved by the Australian Human Rights Commission.

And this is how the law under the Racial Discrimination Act works. If you believe that there has been a breach in the law, you can bring forward a complaint to the Australian Human Rights Commission. The Commission, if it deems that the complaint has some substance, will then attempt to conciliate between the complainant and the respondent. Only if conciliation fails does a matter then potentially end up in the courts in a civil action. I explain this only because many are not familiar with the work of the Commission in handling complaints and conducting conciliation.

The impact of racism

It’s often said that racism is just a part of life: that racism will always exist; that those who experience should ultimately have to accept it with stoicism. I don’t think that’s it’s good enough to leave it at this.

There are significant harms that racism causes. Prejudice and discrimination are barriers to fair treatment and equal opportunity. They harm an individual’s freedom to participate as a citizen in the community. Where it exists in sufficient doses, racism can impair social cohesion.

It can also affect people’s physical health and life expectancy. A growing body of evidence suggests that discrimination and racism are linked to a range of adverse health conditions among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, such as smoking, substance use, psychological distress and poor self-assessed health status. Similarly, other research suggests a link between ethnic and racial discrimination and poor mental health and wellbeing.

We also have economic reasons for believing that racism matters. When racism occurs, it can get in the way of participation and productivity. Our economy can suffer.

But we shouldn’t forget the very human cost of racism. As part of consultations the Commission conducted as part of the National Anti-Racism Strategy, we asked respondents to tell us how racism made them feel.

Here’s what some of the respondents said:

·         “It makes me feel less connected to Australia and the Australian community to the point where I find it difficult to identify as Australian.”

·         “It makes me feel like I have made the wrong decision to enter this country.”

·         “Intimidated, unequal as an Australian, unable to give my best to my adopted country Australia which I now call home.”

·         “I experience racism on an all too regular basis … It is a tremendous psychological blow because it is something that I experienced from age 5 to now and I am often left feeling helpless and vulnerable for days afterwards.”

·         “It makes me feel like I am lower than everyone else, an intruder who is not part of this society.”

Those who have been on the receiving end of racism will tell you: no matter how much perspective you may bring to bear on your experience, it can hurt your sense of worth; it can reduce to you feeling like a second-class citizen.

Free speech

The conclusion that is sometimes drawn from all this is to believe that racism is all about hurt feelings. Clearly, I don’t believe that this is true. The harm of racism is a civic one, as well as personal: it wounds our values of fairness and equality, and it wounds people’s ability to contribute as members of our society.

There is, however, some debate at the moment about whether our existing laws against racial vilification may skew too far into protecting hurt feelings at the expense of free speech. At least, that is how much of the debate is framed.

It would be helpful, though, to be exactly clear about just how our racial vilification laws operate. Our current laws send a clear message to the community that freedom of speech must be exercised responsibly, and does not extend to promoting hatred and vilification on the basis of race. Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act makes unlawful an act that is reasonably likely to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” others on the basis of their race, colour or national or ethnic origin.

This provision was introduced because there is a connection between racial hatred and racial violence. Where people can degrade others freely, the effect may well be to encourage the physical escalation of prejudice. In this sense, laws against racial discrimination have never been about protecting people from having their feelings hurt. Indeed, Section 18C has always contained an objective test: for speech to be considered unlawful, it must be proven reasonably likely to have caused harm. This has been the way that courts have interpreted federal vilification laws since they were introduced in 1995.

The current provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act aren’t well understood. Thus it is only rarely mentioned that section 18D of the Act provides exemptions to unlawful speech based on free speech. It’s not against the law simply to have caused offence or insult to somebody on the basis of their race. You are entitled to a defence, provided that what you’ve said can be shown to have been made in the public interest and made in good faith. This was what brought Herald-Sun columnist Andrew Bolt undone in in 2011: the judge in his case found he didn’t get his facts right, he didn’t try to check his facts, he didn’t demonstrate good faith.

If there is to be a debate about racial discrimination laws and their impact on free speech, let’s by all means have it. That is how it should be. As citizens in a liberal democracy, we should be able to conduct robust debates. If there are to be limitations of what we can say, they should have good justifications.

But if there is to be a change to the existing law, we should raise a number of questions. Would a change leave people with adequate protections against racial hatred? Would a change have the possible effect of encouraging people to think that they have greater scope to harass and vilify others on the grounds of race? What would be the overall impact on our human rights and freedoms?

Let me be clear about one thing. Any change in our laws must not send the message that it is acceptable to vilify others on the basis of their race, and to justify it in the name of free speech.

Free speech has never been an absolute value. Even the liberal philosophical case for free speech has had its limits. John Stuart Mill, for instance, didn’t believe that free speech justified the incitement of violence or the causing of harm to others. Or as the American Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr famously put it, free speech doesn’t mean that you should be entitled to yell “Fire” in a crowded theatre.

In practice, free speech in a modern society has never been entirely unrestricted. We have many laws that limit our freedom of speech: laws concerning defamation, laws concerning advertising, laws concerning obscenity, laws concerning fraud, laws concerning national security – to name a few. Racial discrimination laws aren’t the only ones that prevent people from saying some things, without there being some consequences.

Talking about racism

If we are honest with ourselves, we would concede that we still find it difficult as a country to talk about racism. We see regularly from our public debates that levelling the charge of racism in Australia isn’t something to be done lightly. It tends to provoke strong, vehement responses.

The pattern goes like this. Before long in the debate, the denial begins. What caused the controversy in the first place wasn’t really racism – because that term should be reserved for only the worst categories of hate and violence. And then comes the indignation that someone would dare to call someone racist. If there’s anything offensive, it might be that someone could even contemplate charging a fellow Australian with racism – that most irredeemable sin. The implication is that a real Aussie doesn’t cry racism; sometimes you’ve just got to harden up and cop bad behaviour on the chin, however hurtful.

In his recent book The Lucky Culture, journalist Nick Cater mounts an argument along these lines. He suggests that while we may say that someone is racially prejudiced, we should refrain from calling someone a racist. Whereas the former involves ”accusations of frailty or ignorance”, the latter involves ”condemnations of moral character.”

Mr Cater has written a book that has generated a good deal of public attention and debate. But the logic at work here is questionable. Do we go to the trouble of making such fine distinctions between hooligan behaviour and hooligans? Or between criminal behaviour and criminals? Why must we take such extraordinary care to avoid offending those who engage in racist behaviour?

It is important – vitally important – that we not be sheepish about calling out racism. Any vigilance on racism must extend into our everyday lives, not least our public spaces.  During the past 12 months, we have seen many episodes of ugly racism on buses and trains, and on the sporting fields.

But civic harms require civic remedies. By this I mean that combating racism involves a test of citizenship. Too often, otherwise good citizens fail to do their part. Faced with the intimidating prospect of having to stand up to verbal or physical violence, we find it easier to shrink away – to rationalise that the safest option is to mind our own business and not speak up.

Now, I don’t believe that there is an absolute obligation to put ourselves in harm’s way in solidarity with a fellow citizen or person in need. Insisting on this is easier said than done; insisting on this may in fact be foolhardy, if a confrontation may escalate into a potential bloodbath. But sometimes it can be enough for us to show support for a victim, to report an incident, or to bear witness. What matters, though, is that we assume some responsibility – that we do something.

This has certainly been the message of the ‘Racism. It Stops with Me’ campaign that the Commission has been leading. It’s a campaign that aims to empower Australians to take practical action against racism. I’m delighted that International House is a supporter of the campaign – one of the 170 or so organisations that have committed to undertaking anti-racism activities. It is heartening to know that communities and organisations across the country have answered the call to action on racism that was made a year ago when the National Anti-Racism Strategy was launched.

I want to leave you this evening, however, with a challenge for how each of us, as individuals, can confront racism. And it concerns a particular variety of racism, what others have termed ‘casual racism’.

Today, racism doesn’t need to be violent or malicious to count as racism. In its contemporary form, racial prejudice and discrimination are often more subtle than this. It is often something that people often dismiss or don’t notice.  It may be a joke, an off-handed comment, or even who gets included in chats in the work kitchen or water cooler. And it concerns not so much a belief in the superiority of races – an idea that only an extreme fringe would these days endorse – but prejudice born of stereotypes rehearsed about someone’s skin colour or ancestral background.

But while acts of racism may be unintentional or the result of ignorance, but they still have consequences.  That is what is most important in any conversation that we now have about racism: it is as much about impact as it is about intention.

In those situations of casual racism, I want to ask: Is there something that we can do to start a conversation with a family member, a friend, a neighbour, a teammate, or a colleague? Can we quietly pull someone aside at the right moment and ask exactly what they mean when they said something?

Doing things of these kinds isn’t about lecturing others about their failings: it’s about getting others to see things from a different perspective. How would they like it if they were subjected to the same belittling treatment? Or how would they like it if someone were to say similar things about their son or daughter or husband or wife?

That is the challenge I want to ask you to consider. Because it is at the level of everyday life, in our families, our schools, our universities, our neighbourhoods, our clubs, our workplaces – everyday – that all of us have the capacity to change attitudes about racism. But then that is how it should be. If we are interested in building peace and understanding in our world, we can only begin with those closest to us.”



2 Responses to “Race Discrimination Commissioner delivers address”
  1. Lynne Newington says:

    By the way, congratulations in the role you played in rescuing the terrorist hostages in Kenya.

  2. Lynne Newington says:

    All the Conventions mentioned and more are slow to take off even with all the gooddwill in the world, even for Australia.
    At the moment, not that it’s being publicly acknowledged, The Holy See is being brought to account by Geneva for breaches to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, for the handling of the horrors committed worldwide against their own children, even the the treatment of illigitimate children, where in Argentina which is of particular interest, considering the role of their previous Cardinal, President of the Bishops Conference and superior of the Jesuits is now pope who would have been fully aware of the discrimination, had been refused Baptisim Rites of the Catholic church, in fact the Holy See, who is under the juristriction of the pope past and present, has threatened to withdraw from the Convention altogether, if further pressure is placed on them to present all required files/dossiers etc, by the timeline given, January 2014.
    Australia included.
    In the meantime no action has been taken here by any Human Rights affilated groups until then Prime Minister Julia Gillard called for the Royal Commission last year, now in progress, where all religious organisations are under scrutiny, deflecting what has been in progress by the United Nations in relation to the above mentioned church.
    I doubt it very much, more like a well planned strategy.

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