home       biography       publications       speeches       organisations       images       @contact

The changing face of Australian racism

Keynote Address to 20th Anniversary of the Herbert & Valmae Freilich Project for the Study of Bigotry, University House, Canberra, 19 September 2019

It is with great pleasure and pride that, on this 20th anniversary of the original establishment of the Frielich Foundation, I offer the ANU’s warmest congratulations and thanks to the Freilich Project and all who have sailed with it – Valmae and her family for their wonderful generosity and vision, but also board members, researchers, students, participants and other supporters, past and present.

The Project is a model of what we want to achieve in our public policy engagement, dealing as it has for the past two decades with an issue of huge continuing public importance, both domestically and internationally - the history, causes and effects of bigotry and intolerance – and carried out as it has been through a research and education program that has engaged multiple scholarly disciplines, and the broader community beyond the ANU.

The Project, particularly insofar has it has worked on the issue of racial prejudice and discrimination, has also been a particularly significant one for me personally. It dovetails completely with the preoccupation with issues of race and racial discrimination – and total hostility, intellectual and emotional, to racism in any shape or form – that has run through my whole public life, as I documented a couple of years ago in my rather heroically titled political memoir, Incorrigible Optimist.

I’ve had the pleasure of addressing Freilich Project-sponsored events on two previous occasions as Chancellor, in the Alice Tay Lecture in 2011 and the Africa Day Lecture earlier this year, both of them on the subject of the international Responsibility to Protect populations against genocide and other hate-driven mass atrocity crimes, with the birth of which new international norm I had a little to do. This evening I want to focus on a more domestic theme, the way in which the face of racism in Australia has changed dramatically over the course of my public life. And while it’s maybe just my incorrigible optimism once again clouding my judgment, I do think that, overwhelmingly, the story has been a good one.

Of course there remains some seriously unfinished business – not least formal constitutional recognition of our Indigenous peoples and their heritage; closing the massive gap which still exists between aspiration and reality in redressing the social and economic disadvantage of still too many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians; and removing the stain left by our recent treatment of asylum seekers on our reputation as a tolerant and welcoming immigration country.

And I fear some new business as well, in countering the slurs currently being directed at our Chinese-Australian community, born of new hyper-anxiety about national security – and I’ll come back to this issue later But, overall, there have been some remarkably positive changes occurring over the last few decades in social and institutional attitudes and behaviour, and I do think there is much in that for us to celebrate -- not least when we are celebrating the contribution that the Freilich Foundation has itself made to challenging bigotry.

A number of factors combine to mould community attitudes. Strong political leadership, for good or ill, can have a big cultural impact, helping determine whether it is the better angels of our nature, or the worse, who are recognised and given free rein. Other community leaders and role models – religious, sporting, from the arts and popular culture – help define what is acceptable and unacceptable by what they say and do. University voices, like those of the Freilich Project, matter in researching, documenting and explaining trends and in educational outreach, and sensitive school classroom education is obviously important.

Media and social media voices can be a force for good as well as ill, particularly when they tell individual stories that emotionally resonate. Legislative prohibitions – although they can be counterproductive if poorly crafted – can give reasons for people to change their behaviour which they might not otherwise have, and become habit forming. But most important of all can be simple exposure in one’s daily life to people of other races and cultures, and the recognition that comes with it that ‘the other’ are maybe not so different after all.

All these factors have been visibly at work in the Australia of my adult memory – with early examples the strong bipartisan, community-leader and media support for removing the most overtly racist language from the Constitution in the 1967 referendum; the abandonment of the White Australia policy in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with direct community exposure to ever more diverse and unfamiliar migrant groups ever since; and the passage of the Racial Discrimination Act in 1975. But it is really over just the last three decades, since the early 1990s, that the momentum for change has really accelerated.

Politically, the biggest milestones have been two prime ministerial speeches of unprecedented gravity, majesty and impact, with the leaders in each case speaking not for themselves, or their party, but for their office and the country. First, Paul Keating’s Redfern speech in 1992, with its memorable recognition:

… that it was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice. And our failure to imagine these things being done to us.

Kevin Rudd took that recognition a memorable step further forward in delivering, as his first act on the first day of the newly elected parliament in 2008, a deeply moving apology to Australia’s Indigenous peoples, which resonated not only around this country but the whole world:

For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants, and for their families left behind, we say sorry. To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of communities, we say sorry. And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.

Bipartisan consensus on all this did not come easily, but it can probably be now assumed that political consensus is here to stay on the appropriateness of national apology for the wrongs of the past, and the need for some further appropriate acknowledgement of the first Australians in our foundational document, the Australian Constitution. However, it is clear that a long and difficult debate still lies ahead as to precisely how this further recognition should be formally accomplished, in a way that it is practically meaningful and not merely symbolic.

I find it almost inconceivable that the present Coalition Government should have dug its toes in to the extent it has against the very modest proposal in the very moving Uluru Statement from the Heart, the product of a long nationwide consultative process, that there be an institutional Indigenous ‘Voice’ embodied in the Constitution – an advisory body aimed at influencing, but in no way determining, future legislative and executive policy.

With high-level conservative judicial voices now coming out, as they have in recent weeks, in favour of such a voice, its prospects have significantly improved. Community attitudes on this issue seem to be ahead of those currently prevailing in the government – the responsible Minister, Ken Wyatt, an honourable exception – and, while there is a long way still to go, I think this is an area where we can reasonably expect decency to ultimately prevail.

It is community attitudes generally, as they have been evolving, that most reinforce my optimism. Of course one does not have to scratch too deeply to find residual pockets of quite ugly racist sentiment in contemporary Australia, as in every society. But it is hard to deny that there have been significant positive shifts in the prevailing culture over the last few decades, benefiting both Indigenous Australians and those of other races and cultures more generally.

One of the best barometers has been the behaviour of sporting, and in particular football, crowds, which in some ways was the last redoubt of casual racism. Disparaging remarks made about other ethnic and national groups around the workplace, or over the bar or the family dinner table, had become much less prevalent in Australian private life by the 1990s, and certainly almost wholly absent from public life. But sport was somehow different. There, racial abuse was ‘just letting off steam’, no different from cheering, or booing the umpire.

That mood and behaviour began to change in 1993 with the action of the star Aboriginal Australian Rules footballer, St Kilda’s Nicky Winmar, baring his chest to a jeering crowd: that photo, with its unambiguous ‘I’m black, and I’m proud of it’ message, has become one of the most iconic images of modern Australia. The demand for action generated by this incident, and two years later by the highly publicised on-field abuse of another Indigenous star, Essendon’s Michael Long, led the Australian Football League to introduce in 1995 a ‘Racial and Religious Vilification’ code of conduct. This combines a strong educational program with a robust conciliation process and appropriate punitive measures: players can be fined or suspended if they utter racist insults, and spectators removed from the ground and banned from future games.

The model has since been embraced by every football code in Australia, and it is one that has proved influential for other sports. And not only in Australia but worldwide: these reforms are reflected in the anti-racism policies adopted in the last decade by the international football governing bodies, FIFA and UEFA, although in many cases the translation of policy into effective, enforceable action at the national level has left much to be desired.

There is no doubt that these measures have won overwhelmingly public approval, and – with one shocking exception – have been overwhelmingly successful in ridding Australian football of the racism both on and off-field that made life miserable for so long for most Indigenous players, and would in the past have made it almost impossible for those with even more exotic backgrounds, like Nic Naitanui from Fiji or the Sudanese refugee Majak Daw, who are now just as popular and respected football names nationwide as the likes of Buddy Franklin and Eddie Betts.

The shocking exception to this almost completely good news story was the public humiliation of the Sydney Swans’ Adam Goodes, one of the game’s greatest ever players, over a two year period of regular booing from the stands, indefensible social media insults and some sadly misguided mainstream media mockery – all of it manifestly stemming from various proud and defiant assertions of his Aboriginality, and his very public advocacy of Indigenous causes as 2014 Australian of the Year – until he took stress-related time off in mid-2015 and finally retired at the end of that season.

The only consolation it is possible to draw from this whole sad sequence of events is that, when the extent of the hurt that had been done to Goodes finally sank in – as I think it now has, not least with the recent airing of two superb film documentaries, The Final Quarter and Stan Grant’s The Australian Dream – a huge outpouring of support was triggered from other players and clubs, in the parliament and media and from high-profile public figures, and spontaneous standing ovations from fans, hopefully demonstrating that the whole affair was an aberration, rather than reflecting widespread ugly attitudes still uncomfortably close to the surface.

The power of words, as well as deeds, to cause harm has long been understood by those fighting racism in all its forms. Words can incite to violence; they can intimidate, creating a fear of injury or some other adverse consequence; and they can humiliate, causing real psychological damage. And as such it is entirely appropriate that there should be legal sanctions against their public use. But words can also be offensive or insulting without necessarily being harmful in any of these senses. They can be socially or morally unacceptable, to be deplored, and justify educational effort and social pressure to try to get people not to use them in public, but not be so damaging as to justify any kind of formal legal proscription, given competing values like freedom of political and artistic expression.

When involved in the drafting of the original 1975 Racial Discrimination Act I argued in favour of penalties for incitement of race hatred, but against the proscription of language which was abusive or insulting, or which simply promoted racially offensive ideas: in the event the legislation as passed contained neither. Controversy over this issue has periodically resurfaced since the enactment of new section 18C twenty years later, which made it unlawful (and subject as such to civil complaint proceedings, albeit not criminal penalties) to ‘offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate’ persons or groups because of their race, colour or national or ethnic origin.

The argument over section 18C unfortunately has become so politically polarised that a calm parliamentary debate going back to first principles seems forever unlikely. If that does eventually happen, I believe there is certainly a case for looking again at the Act from two perspectives. I would weaken or remove its application to language or behaviour which merely offends or insults without otherwise harming: expression that I personally hate is not the same as expression that incites or provokes race hatred. But, on the other hand, I would retain or strengthen the application of the Act to language or behaviour which is likely to cause harm by way of humiliation, intimidation or incitement.

None of this means that we should not politically and morally resist, whenever we confront it, racist xenophobia – or the fear-driven religious hostility, these days most directed at those from Muslim countries, which sometimes overlaps with it. Fuelled by a combination of economic, security and cultural anxieties, there has been a surge of deeply unattractive populism evident in Western Europe and the United States in recent times, with its most obvious manifestations the closure of borders to asylum seekers by a number of countries in Eastern and Central Europe, the Brexit decision in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump in the United States.

We have so far escaped the worst manifestations of this in Australia. Although the winning of four Senate seats by Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party in 2016 looks like strong counter-evidence, in fact her Senate candidates between them won a significantly lower proportion of the overall national vote than they did in 1998. The Party’s Senate numbers are now back to two, and while her support has had a consistent racist element to it, it has always been at its heart much more generally populist.

It is very easy to overstate the extent of anxiety or hostility towards newcomers to this country. In the major parties’ response in recent years to the issue of asylum seekers, there has been far too much pandering to perceived popular anxiety about floods of arrivals, particularly from Islamic countries. Consciences have been salved, including in my own party, by using as cover legitimate moral concern about drownings of boat people at sea. I have to say in that context that, to me, no argument about the need to deter people-smuggling can begin to justify the prolonged detention in manifestly inhumane conditions on Nauru and Manus Island of so many manifestly genuine asylum seekers who, if credible third-country options cannot be achieved for all of them, should be simply settled in Australia, at least until such time that they can return without risk to their homeland. And despite the very hard line continuing to be taken on this issue by the present Government I do not sense that there would be much if any public resistance at all to that policy change.

There is one troubling current context, however, in which community fears and anxieties have started taking a recognisably racist form, and it is critical that we call this out before the sentiment becomes widely embedded. I am referring, of course, to the current environment of hyper-anxiety in some media, government and academic quarters about baleful Chinese, and particularly Chinese Communist Party, influence. This is making it harder than it has ever been for the 1.2 million Chinese-Australians now in our midst to aspire to leadership positions, or indeed any position at all in fields that are seen as even remotely security sensitive, not least in the public service. And in many ways even more troublingly, it has been deeply wounding psychologically to members of that community to find their loyalty and commitment to Australia being questioned.

It is an environment of anxiety that bears no relationship to the objective evidence we have that such influence as has been sought, in our universities, politics, public administration and elsewhere, has been of a minimal and marginal nature. And it is one which utterly misrepresents the reality of the overriding loyalty which Chinese-Australians have always had to this country and will continue to have. It’s not unreasonable to challenge Gladys Liu as an individual MP for her evident failure to meet the required standards of transparency or accountability, or her manifest limitations as an interviewee. But it is totally unacceptable to paint all Chinese-Australians with the brush of her inadequacy. As I said in my speech to the Asian-Australian Leadership which ANU co-hosted last week, this environment of anxiety and fear being built up around Chinese-Australians has to stop, and stop fast, or we will all be diminished by it.

Although there is some survey evidence that general racial discrimination – based on outright prejudice rather than security or other forms of anxiety – is by no means completely a thing of the past, including against Chinese- and other Asian-Australians, my own instinct, based on representing, as I did for a time in my last years in the Parliament, one of the most multicultural electorates in the country; on living now in a Melbourne inner city suburb in close proximity to large numbers of very dark-skinned recent arrivals from East Africa; and on closely watching over many years the behaviour of Australians abroad – including in highly fraught peacekeeping missions – is that the Australian community is vastly more tolerant of those from other countries and cultures than governments have been willing to acknowledge. Prejudices which people may continue to hold in the abstract tend to melt away when they have direct human contact with these others.

And certainly it is now far more a part of everyday Australian experience to have contact with people of other countries and cultures than was ever the case before. The dream that I articulated in my first ever published article The Browning of Australia’, back in 1972 of an Australia in which the mainstream skin colour would no longer be pinky-white, is coming significantly closer to fruition. Fully 28 per cent of our people were born overseas, and another 20 per cent have at least one overseas-born parent; and within a larger cohort of 21 per cent of Non-Europeans, Asian-Australians now constitute 12 per cent of our people.

To walk through our city streets and suburban shopping malls and markets, and ride on our trams and trains, hearing dozens of different languages being spoken around us, to find now in so many of our primary schools a rainbow carpet of little kids from twenty or more nationalities, is not now the kind of exotic, alien or foreign experience that it would have been for my parents. And to share a university campus, as scores of thousands of Australian students now do, with thousands of Asian youngsters, is anything but the unthinkable experience this would have been not so many decades ago.

These days, these are quintessentially Australian experiences – and ones which the great majority of Australians seem to be not just tolerating but enjoying. They are experiences that I believe we will go on enjoying for the indefinitely foreseeable future, and for which we have cause to be profoundly grateful.

In contributing to this changing culture of acceptance as it has now for over two decades of substantial and well-focused activity, we have particular cause to be profoundly grateful to the Freilich Project, and I congratulate once again Valmae and everyone associated with it on reaching this anniversary milestone.