From The Conversation
Guest post from Dameyon Bonson
The founder of LGBTI Indigenous Australian social network Black Rainbow, Dameyon Bonson, pens his thoughts on the lack of solid mental health data available among LGBTI Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people
QUITE tragically, as you are reading these first few words there is a high probability somebody will attempt to end their life by suicide. There is even a higher probability that that somebody is part of the LGBTI community, particularly if they are at the point of self-realisation and disclosure. If that person is an Indigenous Australian, the probability amplifies yet again.
How do I know this? Because that’s what the evidence suggests. LGBTI people are said to have the highest rates of self-harm and suicide of any population in Australia. Same-sex attracted Australians are said to exhibit up to 14-times-higher rates of suicide attempts than their heterosexual peers. Yet, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there were 996 suicides reported across Australia between 2001 and 2010 among Indigenous peoples. We are told that 1.6 per cent of all Australians die by suicide but for Indigenous peoples, this rate is more than 4.2 per cent, or one in every 24.
As mentioned, the evidence only suggests this because we are coalescing the data from two different groups and hypothesising the maths. In other words we aren’t really sure.
However, when we aggregate the data for the Kimberley region and take one particular town during 2012, there were 40 young people who died by suicide. That’s nearly 100 times the national average. Now, I’m not suggesting that these young people were members of the LGBTI community. However, when the social determinants affecting Aboriginal people are seen as a causation of suicidality, the question does have to be asked, what is the amplified risk if they are LGBTI?
To explore what happens when the Indigenous and LGBTI world comes together, intersectionality theory is a way of understanding and uncovering any potential health inequalities. It is also a great way to highlight those previously unknown, caused by a kaleidoscope of social inequalities, whether it be race, gender, class, and/or sexuality.
For the LGBTI community, homophobia, either perceived or actual, is a precursor to one’s level of psychological distress. And if, as suggested, same-sex attracted Australians are up to 14 times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers, then homophobia, transphobia, cisgenderism, biphobia, sexism, and hetereosexist behaviours play a big part in how well someone lives, and someone dying.
For Indigenous Australians, other factors are at play and overlaid. These include racism, social location, socioeconomic disparities and intergenerational trauma. The psychological distress caused by these determinants can lead to complex mental health and drug and alcohol issues, such as manifestations of violence toward oneself (self-harm) or others: domestic, family and lateral violence.
So I have raised and discussed the issues and attempted to converse about the tragedy of suicide in the least sensational or emotive way. So where to from here? I’d like to know, because I don’t have the answers. However, I do have some starting points. First, I’m going go start by sharing with you a quote. A quote that is often referred to as the Lila Watson quote: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting our time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
Participating with the view of being part of the liberation of Indigenous people is the single most overlooked and fundamental principle of genuinely inclusive work. Being part of the liberation is also knowing when you are required and a good indication of that is when you have been asked. Don’t let an over-zealous sense of entitlement to charity or benevolence be your motivation. Also pay attention to the research. Cultural continuity is a protective factor to suicide.
The great Writing Themselves In series, Growing Up Queer report and the current research by Dr Delaney Skerritt provides opportunity for us, as Indigenous researchers and members of the Indigenous LGBTI community, to come up with strengthening solutions. The time is ripe for those who are willing to come on this journey with us, to support us and share your resources with us. I personally believe that the issues facing the Indigenous LGBTI community, once identified and workshopped to discover actions to respond, can be added as an amendment or appendant to national strategies and health plans. Structures already exist for us to coexist within. And if the collaborative work is underpinned by liberation, an enhanced sense of reconciliation can truly happen within the LGBTI community.
Dameyon Bonson is an Indigenous researcher and consultant, mental health researcher and convenor of Black Rainbow Australia. Follow him on Twitter: @db_1974
Support is available for anyone who may need it. Phone Qlife 1800 184 527, Lifeline 13 11 14 or beyondblue 1300 22 4636.
**This article first appeared in the August issue of the Star Observer.
Stand-up comedian (Fear of a Brown Planet)
This is my response (originally published in Crikey) to Mark Sawyer’s article ‘How Racist Are You’ published in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald last week (http://www.smh.com.au/comment/how-racist-are-you-20140611-zs43h.html)
As a comedian I very much appreciated your satirical piece ‘How Racist Are You?’ published in The Age last week. I think you captured the attitude and tone of Overly Defensive And Clueless White Man perfectly. It’s actually inspired me to write my own piece called “Hey Ladies, Pipe Down About Sexism.”Of course, I’m being silly. You didn’t write it as a parody piece. The truth is much more embarrassing. This is what you, and plenty of others, actually think: apparently racism is totes not a thing any more.Being told by white people that racism is a figment of our imagination is nothing new. I know well enough that when looking for some quality racism, the best place to start is with the guy screaming “I’m not racist!” You did not disappoint.
Thank you for the awkward list of times you didn’t challenge people’s casual racist comments. As the kids say nowadays, cool story bro. And maybe you’re right – there is nothing that justifies calling Australia uniquely racist. Not the specific genocide of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, cultures and languages, an unparalleled migration history that banned non-white immigration here until the early 70s, or our one-of-a-kind anti-asylum regime. These are things that happened pretty much everywhere, right? But seriously, why let history and facts get in the way of a white guy’s Feelings About Stuff.
You’re correct, far right parties like One Nation are a thing of the past. But only because their rampant xenophobia was quickly co-opted, re-branded and shared between Labor and Liberal, making Hanson totally redundant. In an era where our Attorney General openly defends the art of bigotry, Pauline’s services are no longer required.
You ask how many people alive are truly racist. I don’t know the exact figures, Mark. But ask yourself if the life expectancy statistics that apply to Aboriginal people – well below the national average – would be tolerated if they applied to any other group in this country . Ask yourself if our system of militarised border protection and detention – recognised as exceptional the world over – would be acceptable to the Australian public if it was designed to intercept, round up and indefinitely incarcerate white people.
These things cannot exist without a sizeable population of what you refer to as ‘true racists.’ The fact that, as a nation, we accept and allow such things to happen is not an accident or the result of simple misunderstandings. They are the calculated outcomes of generations of programming. Maybe racism is less about white people making unfortunate comments and more about systemic inequalities that have become the permanent and invisible background noise of Australian culture. To quote you, it may pay to look at the bigger picture.
It’s 2014, champ. Racism isn’t about segregated lunch counters and people refusing to shake hands any more. Racism is about this country’s obsession with defining boundaries of inclusion and exclusion, and the pervasive and violent ways in which those boundaries are maintained. Racism is about two major parties collaborating for years to convince a white majority, through various codes, that they are perpetually at risk of losing out to lazy Aborigines, ghettoised migrants, dishonest asylum seekers and suspicious Muslims. Racism is a government using free speech rhetoric to facilitate racial vilification. Racism is, in a climate of perpetual fear and hostility, The Age choosing to publish some childish nonsense about how there’s no such thing as racism.
You’re convinced things have changed. I’m pretty confident they haven’t.
by Jeff McMullen
July 10th, 2013
Imagine a country where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are recognised as the sovereign owners of lands they have lived on for sixty thousand years or more.
Imagine the freedom to be yourself, culturally, spiritually, linguistically, regardless of your age, gender, colour or ethnic origin.
Imagine a Constitution that enshrines these human rights and upholds all of our international legal obligations. Imagine a constitutional prohibition on discrimination on the basis of race, colour, religion, ethnic or national origin. Imagine a positive mandate in that Constitution to ensure laws are made and programs enacted to end the impoverishment of so many of the First Australians as well as others.
Imagine an Australia where the Indigenous value of custodianship binds all of us to a shared responsibility to care for this land and for one another. In this Constitution there would be power and poetry. It would inspire us, expressing our true sense of place, acknowledging the longer timelines of history, deﬁning us and unifying us as Australians.
This is my dream and I hope you have one too. It is a dream of a new democracy and a constitution that is inclusive of all Australians.
If you can’t see that far into the future to a brighter day that some day will come, then you risk settling for the status quo. Maybe you know some of those Australians who don’t know the Constitution exists, don’t know what’s in it or that we have the power to change it for the better?
Even a glance at the Constitution reveals the deep stain of racism and discrimination. It is one of the few constitutions in the world today with negative race powers allowing government to make laws and policy that pointedly trample the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In contrast to the constitutions of most Western democracies Australia’s says very little at all about human rights.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have long been denied many of the most fundamental human rights including those Australia is obligated to uphold under many international covenants.
So any discussion of a new attempt to belatedly recognise their legal rights as well as the rightful central place of Indigenous Australians as the most ancient founding peoples of the many nations that were here for tens of thousands of years surely must begin with an honest statement of certain facts.
Despite the lie of terra nullius Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people occupied these lands longer than anyone really knows. Their lands were invaded and many of the settlers used brutal force to take what was never theirs.
To deny the invasion, the massacres and the theft of lands, and I say this with grim irony, would undermine any claim that the Australian Constitution has legitimacy. The nation constituted by the Australia Constitution Act of 1900, a British Act of Parliament, is founded on the misguided notion of white supremacy and the equal folly of that tragic concept of conquest. As some Australia judges have noted conquest is a facet of international use to justify claims by other nations to sovereignty. But having witnessed many of the worst conﬂicts over the past 45 years I am convinced this ancient belief in conquest is a vestige of our most predatory and barbaric traits as a species.
Yet conquest, of a sort, and extraordinary denial or reality is what has landed us all in this constitutional mess. Despite the fact that the original English invader, James Cook, ignored his orders to “consult with the natives”, despite the truth that Aboriginal resistance did occur, that there was no surrender of sovereignty and no negotiation of a treaty, the colonies established a constitution that looked right through Aboriginal people as if they were not there.
There were just two references to “natives” in the 1901 Constitution Act and they both tragically excluded Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. They were not even to be counted in the census because given the prevailing racism it was assumed that out among the ﬂora and fauna they were doomed to extinction.
The Parliament was prohibited from making laws for the “natives” but this exclusion did not prevent shameful policies aimed at assimilation and at times acts of genocide. It was not until the 1967 Referendum that a 92 percent majority of Australians voted emphatically to allow Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be counted along with all other citizens and yes the Commonwealth could make laws for them too along with other races.
You see the anachronistic, racist and scientiﬁcally false notion of a White Australia was built into the Australian Constitution. The race powers are still there today.
Section 25 allows the states if they wish to disenfranchise people on the basis of race. Section 51 (xxvi) allows the federal parliament to pass special laws relating to “the people of any race for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws”.
You can see what this means for Aboriginal people when you look closely at the crushing humiliation of the Northern Territory Intervention, as the Racial Discrimination Act was suspended again to allow ofﬁcial discrimination, sanctioned by a Prime Minister, an Opposition Leader and almost all members of the federal parliament.
An Aboriginal child born in one of those remote communities will spend the ﬁrst 15 years of life controlled by the new Chief Protectors who dictate fundamental aspects of family life, cultural life, work, welfare and education from thousands of kilometres away in Canberra. Their genuine right to an equal opportunity for health, education, housing and a decent standard of living has never been honoured in this hollow Constitution.
At the time the Northern Territory Intervention was launched then Prime Minister John Howard declared that he was not concerned with constitutional niceties when the safety of children was at stake. What extraordinary hypocrisy.
The intervention was a very dangerous government big lie and it shows the tragic ﬂaws in our current democracy that allows a government to discriminate. Gormless politicians playing to the applause of neo-liberals who want to assimilate Indigenous people pass many laws that clearly do not beneﬁt the First Australians.
When I have consulted Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people privately and publicly in many places and many forums around the country, overwhelmingly they speak of their land, the land that owns them, the sovereignty they believe is the essence of their being.
Sovereignty may mean many different things to different people but to most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people clearly it means the legal right to control their destiny on their land and waters. Polling by the National Congress of First Peoples tell us that this deep and abiding sovereignty is clearly foremost on the minds of Indigenous people, along with health and the education of their children.
Here then is the ﬁrst great dilemma in the current approach to constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The consensus paper prepared by the government-appointed panel of experts makes it perfectly clear that sovereignty is not going to be included in any referendum proposal for constitutional recognition and change.
One of the members of the expert panel, Noel Pearson, is quoted as saying that apart from being unachievable, “full-blown sovereignty” may not be necessary and that “local indigenous sovereignty” could exist internally within a nation state “provided that the fullest rights of self-determination are accorded”.
Given that the present policy towards Indigenous Australians is that crushing assimilation described euphemistically as modernisation or renovation of culture, and given the astonishing undermining of Aboriginal authority through the Intervention and the ten-year extension known as the STRONGER FUTURES legislation, the “fullest rights of self-determination” sadly seem lifetimes away.
This is where Australia lags behind the rest of the world. The United States government has more than 350 treaties with Native Americans. American courts have upheld Indigenous sovereignty repeatedly and afﬁrmed the right of the First Nations to self-government. Importantly, evidence gathered by many decades of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development led by Professors Stephen Cornell and Joe Kalt shows emphatically that sovereignty, control of their destiny, is the real key to development.
The only Indigenous people in the world who have equal life expectancy with the rest of their fellow citizens are the Sami spread across Norway, Finland and Sweden. All three of these countries have Sami parliaments and Norway’s constitution recognises the country as bi-cultural, a guarantee that the government will consult and negotiate with Sami to maintain their distinct language and culture.
Such positive recognition and progress by other First Nations shows up the limitations of the Australian approach and the negative restraints imposed by a political reality, a grudging willingness to make symbolic change perhaps but real doubt about how far the politicians or the people will go.
Whatever happened to the belief in a treaty or legal compact with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to address their sovereignty and so much of this nation’s unﬁnished business?
The expert panel clearly states that it saw its brief as coming up with recommendations that contribute to a more “uniﬁed and reconciled nation, and be capable of being supported by an overwhelming majority of Australians from across the political and social spectrums. In addition they had to beneﬁt and accord with the wishes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and be technically and legally sound”. Speciﬁcally, the experts wanted a clear expression of support from a majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for any statement of recognition.
But in truth, the panel of experts has inadvertently or intentionally reinforced the political reality that recognising Aboriginal sovereignty is not going to happen and nor is any legal compact or treaty that would in a meaningful way encapsulate land rights.
The panel notes that these are issues of great concern for future discussion.
What the panel is offering all Australians now are ﬁve strong recommendations that nonetheless clearly do not meet the priorities for action by the very people the changes are intended to beneﬁt. I believe this presents a grave threat to any chance of unity on constitutional change.
Australia has only ever held 44 referendums and just eight have been carried. Here is the measure of our constitutional conservatism and of just how our nation has been held back by the timidity and lack of leadership by our elected politicians.
It is 36 years since Australians made any change to our Constitution. The last time we could ever ﬁnd the two thirds majority of voters in a majority of states was for a referendum in 1977 that required federal judges to retire at 70.
A retired judge I hugely respect, former High Court Justice Michael Kirby, has summed up the situation we are now facing, understanding the record and noting the importance of recognising the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
“Constitutionally speaking,” Michael Kirby said, “we are still basically White Australia, however much we boast that we have changed”.
Well, you have had months to mull over the expert panel’s ﬁve recommendations, what are the prospects that they will change the racism and the discrimination?
The ﬁrst recommendation to erase forever section 25 of the Constitution would prevent the states from ever taking away the right to vote based on race.
The second recommendation to remove section 51 (xxvi) would eliminate the negative race power that has been used to make laws that harm the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
The third recommendation is for a new power that would give the federal parliament power to pass laws that beneﬁt Indigenous Australians. This new section would also set out a clear statement of recognition of the prior occupancy of the continent and the ongoing relationship with land and waters. Echoing the Sami Constitutional recognition, there is also a proposal in this section to require the government to secure the advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
This may or may not give more of the right kind of support to programs that could bring equality in health, education, employment and life expectancy.
The fourth recommendation is the one that I believe is the most urgently needed because it addresses so many burning injustices right now. It would prohibit the Commonwealth, States and Territories from discriminating on the basis of race, colour, ethnic or national origin.
Disappointingly, gender has not been included in this list. Why not emphasise that important human right while we are engaged in this effort to improve our Constitution?
Finally, in their ﬁfth recommendation, the expert panel seeks a language provision that states that English is the national language but also afﬁrms Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders languages as part of our national heritage.
It is up to you, my brothers and sisters, to raise your voice wherever and whenever you can to let the Aboriginal voice ring out loud and clear.
I have shared my dreams with you and I will walk with you.
I am certain that more than words in any document what this nation needs most is a change of heart.
First published in The Beacon
Article by Helen Szoke | Published March 15, 2012
Racism does exist in Australia. We know this is a fact. Our own complaints at the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) tell us that.
It is also identified in research. National data from the Challenging Racism Project was released in 2011 and gave us information about the prevalence of racism and attitudes about racism.
We know from this research that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples continue to experience high levels of racism, across multiple settings: in relation to contact with police and seeking housing their experiences of racism were four times that of non-Aboriginal Australians.
Similarly, in 2008 other research found that 27 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples over the age of 15 reported experiencing discrimination in the preceding 12 months; in particular by the general public, in law and justice settings and in employment. Further recent research has found that three out of four Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples regularly experienced race discrimination when accessing primary health care, and that racism and cultural barriers led to some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples not being diagnosed and treated for disease in its early stages, when treatment is most effective.
More generally, the Challenging Racism research resulted in the following findings:
around 85 per cent of respondents believe that racism is a current issue in Australia;
around 20 per cent of respondents had experienced forms of race-hate talk (verbal abuse, name-calling, racial slurs, offensive gestures etc);
around 11 per cent of respondents identified as having experienced race-based exclusion from their workplaces and/or social activities;
7 per cent of respondents identified as having experienced unfair treatment based on their race;
6 per cent of respondents reported that they had experienced physical attacks based on their race;
Alarmingly, some research indicates a significant increase in racism over recent years: the Scanlon Foundation’s Mapping Social Cohesion 2011 report found that in 2010 there was a marked increase in reported racial discrimination, and that this increased reporting was maintained in the 2011 survey. Disturbingly, this research also highlighted the lack of awareness of most Australians about the issues faced by our First Nations peoples.
What is racism?
So the evidence says that racism exists in Australia.
This should not surprise us as racism is to be found in every society on earth in different forms.
The central issues are what racism is and how it impacts in the Australian context. My concern is that while the data suggests that racism does exist, we do not have much of a community dialogue about how racism manifests and the harm that it causes.
Without such understanding, it is difficult to see how we can move forward to eradicate racism.
Racism takes many forms. In general, it is a belief that a particular race or ethnicity is inferior or superior to others. Racial discrimination involves any act where a person is treated unfairly or vilified because of their race, colour, descent, national or ethnic origin, religion or belief. Racism impacts directly on the full enjoyment of individual’s human rights, in particular the right to equality.
Racism is experienced across a spectrum. It may occur in a passive way by excluding people socially or by being indifferent to their views and experiences.
Racism may take the form of prejudice and stereotyping of different groups in our community; in name calling, taunting or insults; or in actively and directly excluding or discriminating against people from services or opportunities on the basis of their race, colour, descent, national or ethnic origin, religion or belief; for example, in relation to employment opportunities, access to education, or participation in sport.
Ultimately, racism is a denial of human relationship.
It can manifest through commentary or drawings in the media, speeches at public rallies or assemblies and abuse on the internet – including in e-forums, blogs and on social networking sites.
Sometimes racism can be reflected in not telling the history of an event or the experience of a group of people in our country.
In its most serious manifestation, racism is demonstrated in behaviours and activities that embody hate, abuse and violence – particularly experienced by groups who are visibly different as a result of their cultural or religious dress, their skin colour or their physical appearance.
Just as other forms of discrimination may relate to a number of attributes, so will the experience of racism. Racism may compound the experience of discrimination of a woman, who is treated less favourably on the basis of her race and her gender – or an older person, who is discriminated against on the basis of their skin colour and their age.
On occasions, racism can occur more systemically, as when people with overseas skills and work experience are overlooked for employment, or when job applicants without Anglo-Saxon names have difficulty being offered job interviews.
And it often is linked to poverty and social and economic status, as is the experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples generally.
A key feature of racism in Australia is denialism.
Such denial may be a genuine response that suggests a lack of understanding that an act may be racist. However, there are also deliberate falsehoods, misinformation or evasion. Suggestions of racism may also be dismissed as an overreaction, where people think that telling a racist joke, for example, should be taken as just a bit of fun. Too often, stories start with “I’m not racist, but…”
Ultimately, racism is a denial of human relationship. Yet for many people it remains almost invisible, unnoticed except when violence is involved. Those who do not experience it often fail to understand how profoundly offensive it is.
Racism is bad for us
There is also significant research that demonstrates the damage that racism causes to individuals and society as a whole. Racism undermines social cohesion within the community. To ensure social inclusion, individuals need the opportunity to “secure a job; access services; connect with family, friends, work, personal interests and local community; deal with personal crisis; and have their voices heard.” Racism towards any individual or community undermines the achievement of each of these goals.
Racism also impacts adversely on the development of Australia as a multicultural society. If we conceive multiculturalism as a set of norms or principles in which the human rights of all are respected, protected and promoted, then the adverse impacts on groups in the community who may be treated less favourably on the basis of their race, colour, national or ethnic origin or religious belief is obvious.
Multiculturalism supports the ideals of a democratic society in which every person is free and equal in dignity and rights. Racism undermines these very foundations.
We have a unique opportunity at the moment to get our settings as a country right – Constitutional reform, legislative reform and a national campaign to address racism.
Current opportunities to strengthen our response to racism
Right now, we are at an interesting juncture.
There are three key initiatives playing out at a national level which address racism – the consolidation of Commonwealth Anti-Discrimination Laws, the development of a National Anti-Racism Strategy and the discussion about whether or not we need Constitutional reform to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in our Constitution.
The possibility of Constitutional reform, legislative reform and awareness raising: a powerful trifecta that we need to harness in order to continue to promote and support the cultural diversity and social cohesion of Australia as a country.
It is interesting how little most Australians know about our Constitution. This is in contrast with countries like South Africa, where every person was given a copy of the Constitution when it was adopted in 1996.
In late 2010 the Prime Minister established an Expert Panel to look at possible Constitutional reform to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people formally in the constitution. The report and recommendations arising from the Expert Panel’s extensive consultative process was handed to the Prime Minister on 19 January this year. The question of when a referendum will be held on this important issue is yet to be determined by the Government.
The Panel’s report reminds us that two sections of the Constitution still enable the Commonwealth Government to make laws that discriminate on the basis of race: section 25 and the ‘race power’ in section 51 (xxvi).
Section 25 allows State laws to disqualify people of a particular race from voting at State elections. Such a provision has no place in a modern democracy like Australia.
Section 51 (xxvi) allows the Commonwealth Parliament to make special laws for people of a particular race. There are examples where this has been relied upon in order to introduce laws that negatively discriminate against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
The Expert Panel has recommended that these two provisions be repealed.
The Panel has recommended that a new section 51A be inserted in the Constitution that explicitly respects and acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and promotes the advancement of those peoples.
The Expert Panel has also recommended the insertion of a new section 116A, prohibiting the Commonwealth, and States and Territories, from making laws that discriminate on the basis of race, colour or ethnic or national origin, but permitting laws or measures which aim to overcome disadvantage, ameliorate the effects of past discrimination, or protect the cultures, languages or heritage of any group.
A further new section 127A proposes the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages as the ‘original Australian languages’, whilst acknowledging that English is the national language of Australia.
My Commission has supported these recommendations. Obviously, we have a long way to go before we come to a referendum on these issues. But it is incumbent on us all to think about these issues, to know what they really mean, to raise them in our dinner party discussions, in our sporting activities, at our work, to dispel the myths that will inevitably fly around in the media and be promoted by people who do not understand or accept how important it is to ensure racial equality and recognition of our First Nations peoples.
Even the best anti-discrimination law will in itself only be part of an effective and comprehensive strategy to eliminate racial discrimination and promote equality.
Consolidation of Commonwealth Anti-Discrimination Laws
The project to consolidate Australia’s anti-discrimination laws into a single Act was announced by the Australian Government in April 2010 as a key component of Australia’s Human Rights framework.
The Commission has welcomed this project, as we consider that discrimination law can be made easier to understand, comply with, and where necessary to enforce.
The consolidation process offers an opportunity to not only embrace the stronger features of the RDA (including its broad human rights based approach to the areas of public life it covers in section 9 and its general equality before the law provision in section 10), but also address some of its deficiencies. If we were to ask what would improve the current legislative regime, there are two key responses: reviewing who can act and how people or organisations can act to enhance racial equality under the Act and enhancing the current compliance framework.
To take the first issue: all Commonwealth discrimination laws include capacity for complaints by or on behalf of persons aggrieved by discrimination, leading to investigation and dispute resolution functions for the Commission.
The Commission views complaints as an important part of a compliance framework directed to achieving the objectives of the legislation, in addition to providing a means of access to justice.
The Commission considers that the consolidation process offers opportunities to consider measures for improved access to justice for people and organisations seeking to assert rights, and for increased certainty for people and organisations seeking to comply with their responsibilities.
One set of issues about access to justice is presented by the fact that capacity to take action at the Federal Court or Federal Magistrates Court stage is more restricted than at the Commission stage. A complaint to the Commission can be made by any person or organisation on behalf of a person aggrieved by discrimination, and the Commission itself has power to launch its own inquiries into human rights and discrimination issues.
But at the court stage, complaints can only be made by a person or persons aggrieved – not by representative or advocacy organisations in their own right or by the Commission or other bodies seeking to enforce the law.
There are of course issues to consider about how and how far a body which provides an impartial complaint handling service could have an advocacy role, and we look forward to further discussion of those issues.
In terms of compliance provisions, there are a range of mechanisms provided (although not consistently across grounds) in various anti-discrimination Acts for achievement of their objects. The present review of these Acts provides an opportunity for consideration of possible improvements in the compliance framework for Commonwealth discrimination law to ensure that it meets, or better meets, the goals of efficiency and effectiveness in promoting the objectives of the legislation.
I want to emphasise that even the best anti-discrimination law will in itself only be part of an effective and comprehensive strategy to eliminate racial discrimination and promote equality. Parties to the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination undertake a much wider range of obligations than simply enacting legislative prohibitions against racial discrimination.
The development of a National Anti-Racism Strategy
Finally, I want to address a key initiative that I have direct responsibility for: the development of a National Anti-Racism Strategy.
This is very much linked to multiculturalism. The need for a strategy had been clearly articulated by the Australian Multicultural Advisory Council to the Government in April 2010. This advice was taken up in February 2011, when the establishment of a national partnership to develop and implement a National Anti-Racism Strategy for Australia was announced as a key component of Australia’s new multicultural policy, The People of Australia.
The Government’s intention is that the National Anti-Racism Partnership will draw on the existing expertise on anti-racism and multicultural matters across three government departments – the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, the Attorney-General’s Department and the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs – together with the Australian Multicultural Council and the Australian Human Rights Commission. The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples and the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia (FECCA) also participate in the Partnership as non-government representatives.
This membership of the Partnership makes clear that while the National Anti-Racism Strategy was born in the multicultural context, we are looking at its development through a broader focus – encapsulating both the experience of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and our culturally, linguistically and religiously diverse communities.
The Partnership has been tasked with designing, developing and implementing the Strategy, with five key areas of effort:
research and consultation
It is anticipated that the Strategy will be drafted by 30 June 2012 and implemented over three years, 2012-2015.
The aim of the National Anti-Racism Partnership and Strategy is to promote a clear understanding in the Australian community of what racism is, and how it can be prevented and reduced.
We are looking at three broad objectives – to create awareness of racism and its impact, to build on good practice to prevent it and reduce it and to build capacity for people to address it.
If I return to my earlier description of racism, it amounts to a denial of human relationship. The implication of this is that racism is a matter for all of us – not just those who are targeted or suffer directly from it.
A National Anti-Racism Strategy is about making Australia a racism-free zone and articulating what role each of us have in achieving this. So it requires all of us to play a part – by not perpetrating racist actions ourselves, by not passively standing by while others perpetrate such actions and by committing ourselves to the notion that the ‘fair go’ is for everyone in our society and not restricted according to race, national or ethnic or religious background or some historical precedent.
We have a unique opportunity at the moment to get our settings as a country right – Constitutional reform, legislative reform and a national campaign to address racism. This complements our policy as a multicultural country, and other initiatives in play.
But there is a challenge in this for all of us. We share a common humanity, and we all have a role in respecting the right of all to enjoy it equally, with dignity and with the same opportunities to thrive.
This is an edited version of a speech given at Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, on 16 February 2012.
Dr Helen Szoke is the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Race Discrimination Commissioner.