Australia needs a National Anti-Racism Framework

Speech by the National Race Discrimination Commissioner, Chin Tan, ahead of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

Hello everyone, wherever you are in Australia. I join you from the lands of the Bunurong Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung peoples of the Eastern Kulin Nation. I pay my respect to their Elders past, present and emerging.

Welcome to you and thank you for joining me on the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination – also known in Australia as Harmony Day.

The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is observed annually on the day that police in Sharpeville, South Africa, opened fire and killed 69 people at a peaceful demonstration against apartheid in 1960.

In 1979, the United Nations General Assembly decided that every year, commencing on 21 March, countries around the globe would engage in a week of solidarity with peoples struggling against racism and racial discrimination.

We’ve seen many positive developments since 1966 when the day was first observed and since 1979 when the week was marked – the dismantling of apartheid among them.

But of course, racism remains too prevalent around the globe. And today, we are facing a resurgence in racism.

This has been painfully apparent over the past year.

Today I call for all Australians to redouble our efforts to address racism in all its forms. If we are a country that values human rights and dignity, then we must seek to eliminate racism.

The Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted injustices experienced by people from culturally diverse backgrounds and by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed ugly racism against people of Asian descent here in Australia.

And ASIO and the AFP have repeatedly identified home grown terrorism and extremism as a significant threat to the national security of Australia.

It is also now just over two years since the terrible events in Christchurch, New Zealand, where an Australian man murdered 51 people, and attempted to murder another 40 people. The New Zealand Royal Commission into that event described it as ‘deplorable and incomprehensible’.

The report of that Royal Commission was released in late December 2020. I want to reflect on a key set of findings in the report, to which, as Australians, we must also pay regard.

It said societies that become polarised around difference, are likely to see radicalised ideologies develop and flourish.

It also said that efforts to build social cohesion contribute to preventing or countering extremism.

I will soon be launching a report of national consultations that I convened with Australia’s Muslim communities in the wake of the Christchurch attack.

It will show that these communities, for all their resilience, experience significant unfavourable treatment and hatred.

It is why the findings of the New Zealand inquiry deserve extensive reflection and consideration here in Australia too.

I must also acknowledge that the ongoing impact of racism on our First Nations brothers and sisters has been recognised by Australian governments in ways that are unprecedented.

There are currently treaty processes underway in 3 states and territories, where truth telling will be a central aspect.

The design process for a national indigenous voice is built on recognition by the Australian Government that the absence of full participation of First Nations peoples in decision making that affects them, is a fundamental, systemic barrier that continues in Australia.

This was also made clear in my colleague, June Oscar’s report of consultations with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and girls: Wiyi Yanu U Thangani. That report was released in December 2020 and I commend it to you.

And, perhaps most significantly, a new National Agreement on Closing the Gap commenced last year. It acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their cultures have prevailed and endured despite too many experiencing entrenched disadvantage, political exclusion, intergenerational trauma, and ongoing institutional racism.

The agreement sets out as a priority reform, the transformation of government organisations, which includes identifying and eliminating racism.

Friends and colleagues, these issues I have raised indicate that we stand at an important moment in our nation’s development. The challenges we face to maintain a peaceful, harmonious multicultural society are many.

The opportunities we have before us to transform relations with Indigenous peoples and eliminate racism, for example, are substantial. We must deal with the challenges and grasp the opportunities.

I wholeheartedly agree with Reconciliation Australia, as it states in its latest State of Reconciliation report, that we are at a tipping point, and as a nation we need to move from a space of ‘safe’ to ‘brave’ on issues affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. I would add the need to be ‘brave’ on all issues relating to racism and inclusion in Australia.

Unfortunately, our current efforts are not enough to achieve this.

Government efforts are fragmented, there are inconsistencies in approaches across jurisdictions, and significant gaps. Too many people are regularly the targets and victims of racism.

And so today I am calling on the Australian Government to implement a National Framework on Racism and Social Cohesion. It is time that we looked at the scourge of racism in the same way that we look at the scourge of domestic violence, or the scourge of child abuse.

On those issues we have in place longstanding national frameworks, signed onto by all governments in Australia, with 3-year action plans to target priority issues and make serious headway in addressing them.

Let me be clear: racism is a significant economic, social and national security threat to Australia. It is time we treated it as such.

We need a new approach to combatting racism – one that is more cohesive across government, that builds community partnerships to prevent racism from flourishing, and one that is smarter and more effective:

Smarter because it is informed by evidence of the experiences of communities, by emerging international trends, with a focus on prevention strategies, and because we measure how well our existing approaches are actually doing.

And smarter because it has a place for affected communities in designing anti-racism initiatives, and because it focuses on supporting people to stand up to racism wherever they see it.

In my capacity as Race Discrimination Commissioner, I will shortly commence a series of national conversations about developing this proposed national framework.

The task of envisaging what should be in a framework cannot be left to government alone. Today I have released a concept paper on the key components of this new national approach.

I see eight priority national outcomes that all Australian governments should commit to address. They are as follows:

  1. Understanding the nature, prevalence, and incidence of racism in Australia,
  2. An effective legal framework to protect people from racial discrimination and racial hatred,
  3. Commitment from all governments to eradicating racism and racial discrimination through their actions,
  4. National anti-racism campaigns to build community understanding of racism and how to counter it,
  5. Commitment from all sectors of Australian society to countering racism, and the formation of community partnerships,
  6. Commitment from all sectors of Australian society towards adequate representation and participation of culturally diverse communities in all areas of public life,
  7. Commitment from Australian governments to address racial inequality, with the adoption of specific targets and measures to address it,
  8. Complimentary measures to strengthen multiculturalism, social inclusion, and Indigenous reconciliation.

Ultimately, addressing racism is a responsibility for all of us. It is not exclusively the domain of government, nor of any one sector of the community. My approach will be to build consensus on the need for such a framework and the measures it sets out. The community should embrace the need for change as much as government should.

To that end, in addition to a series of consultations on this draft framework over the coming months, I will also be convening specific activities to focus on significant issues of racial discrimination in the community.

In the coming weeks, I will convene a national roundtable on spectator racism at professional sporting events. Major sporting codes have expressed zero tolerance for racism at their events. The roundtable will look at practical guidance to prevent racism in the stands, and to combat it when it does occur. This is an example of the different types of focus we will need to take if we are to successfully stamp out racism in Australia.

So, on this International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, it is a time for us to recommit ourselves to eliminating the scourge of racism in our community. And that is why I am calling for a significant stepping up by government and others of our efforts.

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