Race commissioner calls for more tolerance within Australian society

Dr Tim Soutphommasane Source: AAP

Australia's Race Discrimination Commissioner, Dr Tim Soutphommasane, has called for more tolerance within Australian society during a speech at The Crescent Institute on Thursday. His speech, below, looked at race relations within the media and in leadership.

Many of us have good reason for thinking that the state of our race relations and community harmony is under some challenge.

With frequent regularly, we see stories about people being racially vilified or threatened with racist violence on public transport. Far-right wing extremist groups have been vocal in protesting against Islam, including the building of mosques.

It is also no exaggeration to say our recent public debates are punctuated by controversies about race and so-called political correctness.

During the past week or so, we have seen media outlets outraged by terminological guides used in universities, which suggest that it is inappropriate to refer to Australia being ‘discovered’ by Captain James Cook.

The managers of one of our most celebrated musicians, the Aboriginal singer Gurrumul Yunupingu, have alleged he was subjected to racial profiling in a Darwin hospital. The Australian television industry seems divided by the nomination of The Project host Waleed Aly for a Gold Logie.

How are we to make sense of all this? And what does it say about the state of racism in Australian society? What does it say about the way we talk about racism as a social issue?

Race and multiculturalism

We should resist one frequent diagnosis: the idea that all this confirms that Australia is a racist country. Too often, discussions about racism are reduced to this point.

People can be quick to find in any episode or incident confirmation of some moral flaw in the national character. Others meanwhile are all too eager to deny that racism exists in Australian society, or assert that any racism that does exist here pales in comparison to what exists overseas.

Either way, there is something wholly unsatisfactory in thinking in these terms.

To declare a country racist implies either that each and every member of that country is racist, or that a country’s institutions embody racist principles in some fundamental way.

To say that a country is not racist, on the other hand, ignores the fact that no country is free of racial prejudice – the fact that every country will have racism in some form and to some degree.

If we are to judge the Australian record and take a long view, there is of course racism in much of Australian history.

The arrival of British colonists was based on a certain understanding of the world that had a racial character. The idea of terra nullius presumed that civilised humanity was achievable only by Europeans.

What the British believed was settlement, was for Indigenous peoples invasion and dispossession.

When the colonies federated as a Commonwealth in 1901, the organising principle was that of racial unity in the form of a White Australia.

The first legislation passed by the Commonwealth Parliament was the Pacific Island Labourers Act 1901, which expelled all Pacific Islanders working in Australia.

The deportation of the approximately 10 000 Pacific Islanders working in Australia (mostly in sugar plantations in Queensland) was aimed to ensure the living standards of white Australian workers wouldn’t be undermined by cheap coloured labour.

This was soon followed by the enactment of the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, perhaps the best known legislative instrument of the White Australia Policy. The Act would introduce the infamous dictation test used to exclude non-European arrivals.

There would be other notable public expressions about race in the early life of the Federation. The first Commonwealth Parliament also passed the Post and Telegraph Act 1901, which stipulated that the Commonwealth government could issue mail contracts only to ships that employed white labour exclusively.

The Australian Labor Party enshrined in its early policy platform an overarching principle: ‘The cultivation of an Australian sentiment based upon the maintenance of racial purity.’

Racism in contemporary Australian society is not embodied in the same way. From a country defined by the ideal of a White Australia, ours is now defined as a multicultural one.

Since the 1970s, multiculturalism has become part of our official expression of nationhood. Our immigration program is now one that makes no discrimination on racial grounds. The status of citizenship is open to all members of Australian society, regardless of their ethnic background or national origin.

This does make it hard to sustain the view that Australian society is irredeemably racist. It is hard to square that assessment with our reality and celebration of cultural diversity. About 28 per cent of our population was born overseas; another 20 per cent are the children of migrants.

Public acceptance of diversity and multiculturalism is also strong and robust. The Scanlon Foundation’s social cohesion survey in 2015 found that 86 per cent of Australians believe that multiculturalism is good for the country – a level that has been consistent the past three years.

None of this should be taken to mean that racism is not a problem. Unfortunately, it still is.

I’ve already noted some of the forms in which this takes. It is concerning that a good deal of racism today is expressed so overtly in public – in places such as our trains and buses.

Of course, abuse and harassment on public transport aren’t the only forms that racism takes. Racism can be covert as well as overt, and can be subtle as well as crude. Much of racism reveals itself not in dramatic tirades or threatening violence, but in rather more banal forms.

Indeed, the research on racism suggests that it occurs most commonly in neighbourhoods, shopping centres and in workplaces.  Public transport only features after such locations.

Racism may be more prevalent than we may like to admit. About 20 per cent of Australians say they have experienced racial or religious discrimination of some kind.  About 11 per cent say they have been excluded from social activities or the workplace because of their race.

About 5 per cent say they’ve been physically assaulted because of their racial background. There are some groups that are more susceptible to experiencing discrimination: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, those born overseas, and Muslim Australians. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experience racial discrimination in a way distinctive from other groups.

If Australian multiculturalism is such a success, what explains the persistence of racism? Perhaps the easiest explanation is that any multicultural success remains incomplete.

Our sensibilities are still catching up with the changes that have occurred within the composition of our population.

And it’s more than just social sensibilities that have lagged behind. Our institutions and organisations have failed to change to reflect our multicultural realities.

Another way of saying this is to say that racism exists in structural forms. It resides not only in social interactions, but also in the systems and rules that govern what is normal and what is deviant.

Let me focus on two respects in which we see this.

Diversity in media

First, the media. It is important to focus on media, because the media occupies a special position in filtering our civic sentiments. It is through media, to a large extent, that a society projects its identity. It provides a society with the scripts for dealing with the world.

Yet when it comes to our media, especially our television screens, our multicultural reality comes across as a distant fantasy. Our cultural diversity is not reflected on screen.

On this count, Australia fares somewhat poorly when compared to similar English-speaking societies.

In Britain, for example, journalists from ethnic minority backgrounds have fronted the major news bulletins for decades: figures such as Trevor McDonald, George Alagiah and Krishna Gurumuthy have been senior newsreaders on ITV, BBC and Channel Four.

Here, such equivalent prominence or seniority for journalists of non-Anglo background has arguably been rare. In one interview in 2013, Stan Grant, one of the few Indigenous journalists on commercial television, lamented how during the past 20 years the ABC has not succeeded in sending one Indigenous journalist overseas as a foreign correspondent.

The same criticism could be levelled with respect to non-Anglo journalists more generally. We see few Australians of non-European background reading the news, particularly on commercial channels.

This has been the case in other forms of programming, too. The non-European faces we see on television seem largely to be confined to being exotic adornments – whether as presenters of programs about the delightful sophistication of modern Australian fusion cuisine, or as plucky contestants in cooking shows.

Few non-Anglo faces intrude upon spheres such as sport, that definitive domain of mainstream Australia: think of those commentators of the cricket, AFL, rugby league, rugby union, tennis, or swimming.

The realm of dramatic entertainment is especially egregious. Actors from minority backgrounds periodically emerge with scathing criticisms about a ‘White Australia’ policy in Australian television.

Where minority actors are cast to play roles on television dramas they are often consigned to play stereotypical roles as drug dealers, criminals or otherwise shady characters.

There have been some recent exceptions. The success this year of 'The Family Law' on SBS represented the first time that an Asian family had been depicted on Australian TV in serial form.

Prior to that, it had been the Lim family in 'Neighbours', who lasted only a number of weeks before being written out of the script. The Family Law has been renewed for a second season, as has 'Here Come the Habibs', Channel Nine’s comedy featuring a Lebanese rags-to-riches family.

But when inroads have been made in cultural diversity on TV, it doesn’t take much to reveal how threatened or uncomfortable it can make some people feel. This is the only way we can meaningfully interpret the current controversy concerning Waleed Aly, the co-host of Channel Ten’s The Project.

Aly has been nominated for the Gold Logie, Australian TV’s most prestigious award for the most popular TV personality. Yet he has been subject to some sniping from anonymous members of the TV industry decrying that he is unworthy of the nomination.

One journalist in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph even wrote a much-cited article outlining six reasons why Aly shouldn’t win. Some of the reasons include ‘there’s more worthy talent in his field’, ‘diversity needs to be the norm’, ‘he needs to be truly popular’, ‘he’s not on social media’.

As others have already noted, it is odd that very few nominees for the Gold Logie in the past have been subjected to such personal criticism. This is to say nothing of the nonsensical nature of some of the criticisms directed at Aly.

Some of the responses from media personalities have prompted questions about whether race may have something to do with the industry’s apparent lack of support for Aly.

For example, the presenters of Channel Nine’s Today show earlier this week joked about being ‘too white’ for a Gold Logie nomination. While those from Channel Nine deny that anything racial was involved, it is understandable that people would draw such conclusions. It is all of a pattern with the casual racism that can pass for banter on Australian commercial TV.

Diversity in leadership

A second area where we fall short on cultural diversity is in leadership. We celebrate the idea of being a mobile, egalitarian and meritocratic society. But there are some signs that a cultural ceiling may exist.

Our cultural diversity is not yet remotely close to being represented in the leadership of Australian society. Whether it is the chief executives of the ASX 200, our Federal Parliament, or our public service, we do not see leadership that reflects our multicultural character.

Leadership remains a domain of privilege, one where the boundaries appear to exclude certain others – in particular, those of non-European backgrounds.

This is one issue I will be investigating in some more detail later this year. In July, a blueprint will be released to help Australian organisations do better on cultural diversity and inclusive leadership.

This reflects the work of a taskforce that I convened last year. The group comprises University of Sydney Business School, Westpac, PwC and Telstra. Bringing together the experience of these taskforce members, the blueprint will outline why organisations must embrace diversity – and how they can do so.

The case for cultural diversity is a strong one. We know from a large body of research that diversity is an advantage for business. For example, McKinsey found that companies with higher levels of racial diversity in their workforce outperform others in financial terms.

This is because diversity contributes to better thinking – it helps us to make better decisions. In the business setting, diversity can mean creativity, innovation, productivity.

One reason we don’t do as well as we should is that bias and discrimination still persist in the workplace. Consider some of the evidence. In 2010, economists at the Australian National University found substantial racial discrimination in hiring by Australian employers.

The researchers sent more than 4000 fake job applications for entry-level jobs. The applications contained the same qualifications but with different names, distinguished by their ethnic origin. The researchers found that in order to get as many interviews as an applicant with an Anglo-Saxon name, someone with a Chinese name needed to submit 68 per cent more applications.

Those with a Middle Eastern name would need 64 per cent more. By comparison, those with an Italian name needed to put in 12 per cent more applications.

Could it be that bias may contribute in some way to the pattern of representation for Australians of non-European backgrounds in the ranks of leadership? It may be that unconscious – and conscious – bias shapes perceptions of Australians of certain cultural backgrounds, in particular their suitability for positions of leadership.

To draw upon one encounter I had, someone newly introduced to me asked what I did for work. When I responded that I worked at the Australian Human Rights Commission, my new friend then asked: ‘So, do you work in the Finance section or IT section at the Commission?’

It was an innocent question, to which I responded by explaining my responsibility for matters concerning racial discrimination. But the question, asked with every good intention, was one that revealed some of the assumptions my new acquaintance had about what someone who looked like me was likely to have as an occupation.

Unfortunately, there can remain a cultural image that people associate with leadership. Based on their recent research study on ‘Asian talent’ in the corporate world, Diversity Council Australia found that only 18 per cent of Asian background workers surveyed felt their workplaces were free of biases and stereotypes about culture.

About 61 per cent reported feeling pressure to conform to ‘Anglo’ styles of leadership, emphasising self-promotion.

Clearly, bias can undermine an ideal of merit. But we must be clear about the meaning of merit, and how it in fact operates. The conditions of a truly level playing field are rarely ever met. Judgments about potential and performance, and decisions about hiring and promotion, are invariably coloured by cultural perceptions of merit.

We must be vigilant of a situation where we create and maintain certain cultural ceilings in Australian organisations.

It would be an indictment of our society if people were to continue presuming that a class of well-educated Australians of non-European background should accept that they remain locked out from the ranks of their society’s leadership.

Community harmony

I would like to conclude by reflecting on one more challenge. I’m talking about the hostility being directed at Muslim Australians. Ostensibly fueled by anxieties about terrorism, we have seen some concerning signs of community disharmony.

Last year, I conducted around the country consultations with communities about their experience of racism. Representatives of Muslim and Arab communities reported that they were experiencing increased animosity.

This is corroborated by research from Western Sydney University, which found that Muslims experience a level of discrimination three times higher than the national average.

We have seen some of this in some graphic form just during the past week. Members of a far-right extremist organisation unfurled an anti-Muslim banner at the Melbourne Cricket Ground last Friday night at an AFL match.

On Sunday, there was a violent clash between anti-Muslim protestors outside a Halal festival in Melbourne. Not to mention the numerous incidents of anti-Muslim attacks in public places – including one on a group of girls wearing hijabs in Geelong, and one on a group of students on a Melbourne train.

Let me say this about such incidents. Where there is any criminal conduct involved in attacks on Muslim Australians, it is important that it is held to account by police and the courts.

People should report any incident involving violence or threats of violence. Where any incidents involve race or ethnicity or national origin, and fall short of criminal conduct, people may also hold others to account by making a complaint under the Racial Discrimination Act.

As for those who choose to confront anti-Muslim elements physically, this is not the answer to racism and bigotry. Such confrontation may only serve to win these elements more public attention than they deserve.

People must not respond to any ugliness with ugliness of their own. The best response is one that ensures hatred is brought to account within the law.

More generally, our society must take care not to indulge in stereotypes or give any licence to those who spread messages of division. Extremism is a problem. We must repudiate anything that seeks to justify extremism. However, we must take care not to judge entire communities by the actions of an unrepresentative few.

At the same time, we must be forthright as a society in confronting prejudice and discrimination. From time to time, some commentators suggest that talking about experiences of racial or religious vilification can encourage communities to adopt a victim mentality.

It is also periodically suggested that conversations about racism or religious bigotry can involve excessive political correctness.

It is a strange logic, though, to suggest that we must censor ourselves when dealing with prejudice. With respect to anti-Muslim bigotry, the danger in not speaking out is that it can, among other things, make it easier for extremists to seduce alienated youths with their messages of violence.

If we are to expect Muslim communities to repudiate extremism perpetrated in the name of Islam – as they have – Australian society must be prepared to repudiate extremism that targets Muslim communities.

More generally, the idea that there’s too much political correctness in our society has some perverse implications. Often said in the name of free speech, those who decry political correctness may ironically chill our debates the most.

Because those who would otherwise speak about against racism or bigotry think twice lest they be called politically correct.

All of which is to say that it is a challenging time for our race relations and community harmony. It is challenging not only because the ugly faces of racism and bigotry are increasingly on display in public, but also because public discussions about race remain fraught with sensitivities.

Sometimes you get the impression that calling out racism can be regarded as a worse moral offence than the perpetration of racism itself.

It has perhaps always been this way but in fighting racism we must be guided by hope. Hope, as the Czech writer Vaclav Havel said, is not the same thing as optimism.

It is not the conviction that things will turn out for the end, but rather the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. It’s the idea that we should do things not because we are guaranteed success, but because they are the right things to do.

Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch