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Battling Race Hatred, Discrimination and Conflict: A Personal Journey

Diversity Week Lecture by Prof the Hon Gareth Evans, University of Melbourne, 9 August 2010

In my valedictory speech in the Australian Parliament some years ago, I said that of all the obsessions that have accompanied my public life – and I have to acknowledge that I have had quite a few, on everything from anti-hanging, censorship and abortion law reform to freedom of information and constitutional reform, and from UN reform to nuclear disarmament – my really big obsession has been total hostility, intellectual and emotional, to racism in any shape or form. And that remains the case today.

I don’t know whether the personal story of one individual’s coming of age in understanding the horrors of racial intolerance and violence, and trying to do at least something about them, will really be of much interest to you. Maybe to talk about one’s own role is just an indulgence, of a kind which is well known to often afflict men of a certain age.

But in a week when we are celebrating diversity, relishing and delighting in the differences between us, and the wonderful human richness that Australian society now enjoys, it seemed to me that there might be some use in reflecting, through at least one set of experiences, the times we have been through, acknowledging how much has been achieved over the last four or five decades both here and worldwide – and reminding ourselves how much we have to lose, as a national society and a global society, if we allow any room at all, in the context of debates about asylum seekers, immigration numbers, population ceilings or anything else, for the populist pressures and prejudices of the past to regain traction.

Looking back, it’s a matter of some mystery as to where my anti-racist passion actually came from. I grew up in the ‘50s in a working class family where all the routine prejudices of the day – and the vocabulary that went with them – were alive and well. I heard about wogs, wops, balts, chinks, boongs and nig-nogs, and interracial marriage being like cats mating with dogs, long before TV’s Alf Garnett turned that kind of language into comfortably distant caricature. But what was intriguing about my father, and I suspect a great many of his contemporaries, was that his fundamental decency kept on getting in the way of his prejudices.

He was a tram driver whose job required him to train over the years scores of new immigrant arrivals, and I remember him coming home one day early on saying to my mother: ‘I had this fella Angelo today, bloody Eye-tie, practically just off the ship – but y’know, he’s a really nice little bloke”. And then it was Spyrou the Greek, and Bobby who had a lot of blackfella in him, and Freddie the Sri Lankan burgher, and a dozen or so others. All, as individuals, bloody good blokes. As was one of my best friends before high school, a Latvian kid named Karlis Bremanis, who dad called ‘Charley Bananas’ and treated as affectionately as his own. My father died a long time ago, back in the mid-60s, without ever really getting over his prejudices in the abstract. But when you’ve never met a wop or a wog or a boong or a balt you didn’t actually like, you go a long way towards instilling in your kids a sense of difference between stereotype and individual reality.

Whatever the origins of my anti-racist juices, they really started to stir when I became a student here at Melbourne University in the 1960s. Campus political activism well and truly burst into life in the late ‘60s around Vietnam and conscription, but earlier in the decade the torpor of the 50s had, for whatever reason, started rapidly giving way to active commitment on a bunch of inter-related anti-racism issues: Aboriginal advancement, bringing an end to the ugly and intolerable White Australia Policy, and opposing apartheid. Great strides did start to be made at that time on Aboriginal rights, with the successful passage in 1967 – with cross-party support – of the referendum removing the extraordinary constitutional prohibition on indigenous Australians being counted in the national census. And the first cracks appeared in the White Australia policy, finally dismantled in 1973.

But apartheid was harder. When the South African Springbok rugby team arrived at the old Essendon airport in 1965 I led a demonstration against them with a team of us in blackface, dressed in football gear and holding up signs saying “Why Won’t You Play With Us?” – and experienced for my trouble my first police headlock as I was thrown back over the tarmac fence ( I am pleased to say it was also my last headlock: even rats in a maze learn from experience) .

My growing sense of deep unhappiness about the casual racism that permeated so much of Western society, and not just our own, around that time, was dramatically reinforced by several weeks I spent in the US in the mid-60s courtesy of a State Department sponsored program for Asian-region student leaders (which had, incidentally, the unintended consequence of turning this particular student leader from being a lukewarm supporter of the Vietnam War to a wholly convinced opponentt!). As I travelled with my colleagues from Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore around the South and MidWest – at a time when the civil rights revolution under Martin Luther King’s leadership was just gaining real momentum – the stark reality of the black experience at the time, the kind of absolutely reflex prejudices decent people had to endure, made a deep impression. I remember, for example, a doctor in Texas telling us over a family dinner, “If God had meant marriages between Negroes and Caucasians to take place he would not have made them black and us white.” What about us and Asians I asked, in deference to the interests of my travelling companions. “Well, that’s not so bad”, he said, “For a start, the kids are cuter.”

By 1970, with my education at Melbourne and Oxford about what was wrong with the world complete, and my hunger to do something about righting it starting to look for more practical expression, I published, as my first-ever article in a mainstream, non-student magazine, a piece called “The Browning of Australia”, arguing for a totally multicultural society to evolve, what I called a khaki-coloured country. I had my colours a bit mixed up – meaning as I did to talk about a yellowy-brown nation rather than a greeny-brown one (some have been unkind enough to suggest this was the closest I ever came to being a Green) – but the thought was certainly there.

And in the years that followed, from a new base as a law lecturer at this University, I started to get much more intimately involved in policymaking, first as a consultant to the Aboriginal Affairs Minister Gordon Bryant, trying to make sense on the ground, and in legal terms, of the first land rights claim to really take public wing, that of the Kulaluk people in the Larrakia area of greater Darwin; then to Lionel Murphy as Attorney-General, working intensely on the drafting of both a Bill of Rights (which then, as subsequently, hit the fence) and, much more successfully, on what became the Racial Discrimination Act – a path-breaking and behaviour-changing piece of legislation making it unlawful to discriminate against anyone on the basis of race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin.

With Bryant’s moral, and the Labor government’s financial, support I also worked around the country on consolidating or building new Aboriginal legal services, including the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service which I and other academic and practising lawyers, like Louis Waller and Ron Castan, established with strong support from community elders in what was then a very non-trendy Gertrude Street. These were designed to provide a variety of services but in particular to ensure decent representation in criminal cases to try to break the cycle of conviction, incarceration and recidivism into which generations of Aboriginal youngsters had been drawn. I’m not sure in retrospect that our results came close to matching our hopes and expectations, but again we tried.

It was around this time that I developed lasting friendships with innumerable Aboriginal leaders and activists, which stood me in good stead many years later – in 1993 – when I found myself as Senate leader, in a chamber we did not control, negotiating, cajoling and shepherding the Native Title Bill, through some 50 hours and 238 amendments worth of intense debate, to its final adoption close to midnight to the cheers of a packed gallery of indigenous Australians and their supporters. I said when I left Parliament that this was the single most exhilarating moment of my twenty-one year parliamentary career, and I can still feel that tingle now.

But my involvement with the Aboriginal legal services also led to one of the most heartbreaking experience that I – and my family – have ever had. It involved a young man called Brian Kamara Willis, born early in the 1950s somewhere in the Northern Territory – he never quite knew where – of an Aboriginal mother and a white father. He was, as the full bloods called him, and he called himself, a ‘yella fella’. And he was one of the stolen generation, snatched from his mother as a very young child, taken to Adelaide to a childhood of institutions and foster homes where he never settled.

But he was a bright kid, who wanted to change things: he went back to the NT, eventually won a job as a field officer for the new Alice Springs Aboriginal Legal Service, where he did so well he was picked for an Aboriginal study grant, came to a Melbourne school to prepare for University and was admitted the following year to the Law School here. It was in this context that I and my family came to know him well as a friend, and he often stayed or visited – with his partner and two young kids – at our home.

But Brian felt hemmed in by the big city, with a constant sense that he just didn’t belong. So he deferred his degree and went back to the Territory, where he blossomed again - becoming not much later Director of the Legal Service, and an outspoken champion of his people speaking and writing in fierce and moving terms about, in particular, the plight of the stolen generation.

So far so good, but the story does not have a happy ending. I’ll keep the last part short for fear of losing it, as I did when I first told the story in the Senate Chamber. Brian just couldn’t fight the pressures, shrug off the prejudices and sustain the struggle for long enough. One night in 1980, he went to a political gathering, drank too much as he often now did, and became very distressed, bursting out at one stage ‘The urban black, the part-Aboriginal, is the man in between. He has nothing’. Then he went home, took out a shotgun, and at the age of 26 or 27, in front of his horrified wife and children, blew out his brains. The memory of that brilliant young man, and his family, and what happened to them, in a society which just couldn’t cope with the kind of diversity he represented, haunts me still.

And it should haunt any of us who think that the task – of making believe that they are genuinely wanted those in our society who feel racially or culturally different – is easily or readily completed. Earlier generations of Australians failed their indigenous neighbours, and in many ways we are failing them still. And – unless we constantly remind ourselves of what needs to be done as a community and at an individual level – we are at risk of failing the new generations of more recently arrived Australians who desperately need our support.

There is another memory from my earlier years which continues to haunt me, and perhaps helps to explain why, as I became immersed in international relations rather than domestic issues as Foreign Minister from 1988-96 and in subsequent years, I became particularly preoccupied with the issue of mass atrocity crimes – genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other major war crimes and crimes against humanity – and with the country, Cambodia, which for my generation was the horror story to end them all in this respect.

In 1968, making my first trip to Europe to take up a scholarship in Oxford and inexhaustibly curious and hungry for experience like so many Australians before and since, I spent six months wending my way by plane and overland through a dozen countries in Asia, and a few more in Africa and the Middle East as well. And in every one of them I spent many hours and days on student campuses and in student hangouts, and in hard-class cross-country trains and ramshackle rural buses, getting to know in the process – usually fleetingly, but quite often enduringly, in friendships that have lasted to this day – scores of some of the liveliest and brightest people of their generation.

In the years that followed I have kept running into Indonesians, Singaporeans, Malaysians, Thais, Burmese, Vietnamese, Indians, Pakistanis, Nepalese and Afghans who I either met on the road on that trip, or who were there at the time and had a store of common experiences to exchange. But among all the countries in Asia I visited then, there is just one, Cambodia, from which I never again, in later years, saw any of those students whom I had met and befriended, or anyone exactly like them.

The reason, I am sadly certain, is that every last one of them died a few years later in Pol Pot’s Cambodian genocide – either targeted for execution in the killing fields as a middle-class intellectual enemy of the state, or dying, as more than a million did, from starvation and disease following forced displacement to labour in the countryside. The knowledge, and the memory, of what must have happened to those vivacious and engaging young men and women with whom I drank beer, ate noodles and careered up and down the road from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap in child, chicken and pig-scattering share-taxis, is something that, as I’ve said, haunts me to this day.

That memory certainly was a core motivation during the long and gruelling years that I worked in the late 1980s and early 1990s as Australian Foreign Minister, with my South East Asian and Chinese and American and UN colleagues, to find and implement a sustainable basis for peace in Cambodia. It was a recurring motif as I watched, impotently and from a distance, the horrific events in Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo work themselves out through the mid to late 1990s. And it sustained my focus, in my life after Australian politics, based in Brussels for nearly a decade, leading the International Crisis Group, the global conflict prevention and resolution organization, which by the time left was doing field-based research, analysis and advocacy in some 60 fragile countries and situations around the world, in environments where the most common drivers of violence are ethnocentric arrogance or grievance, and where the risks of deterioration into catastrophe are forever real.

Above all, it was the memory of Cambodia that made me accept with alacrity the offer of the Canadian government in 2000 to jointly lead a distinguished international commission charged with the task of trying to find, once and for all, new international agreement on how to deal with mass atrocity crimes. It is easy now, more than a decade later, to forget how much of a consensus-free zone this issue was: for centuries there was no generally accepted principle in law, morality or state practice to challenge the core notion that it was no-one’s business but their own if states murdered or forcibly displaced large numbers of their own citizens, or allowed atrocity crimes to be committed by one group against another on their soil.

Even after World War II, with the awful experience of Hitler's Holocaust encouraging the embrace of new legal norms – the recognition of individual and group human rights in the UN Charter and, more grandly, in the Universal Declaration; the recognition by the Nuremberg Tribunal Charter in 1945 of the concept of “crimes against humanity”, and the signing of the Genocide Convention in 1948 – things did not fundamentally change.

It was not until the 1990s that anything resembling a serious international debate really took off about these issues, in the context of successive tragedies unfolding in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Balkans. But it was an essentially one-dimensional debate, about the rights and wrongs of “humanitarian intervention”, i.e. the use of coercive military force, for human protection purposes, against the will of the government of the country in question. And essentially for that reason there was a conspicuous lack of international consensus. Those in the global North tended to rally behind the rallying cry of the “right to intervene”, but in the global South the prevailing mood was, not surprisingly given so many countries’ unhappy colonial history, defence of state sovereignty at almost any price.

So those of us who cared still found ourselves looking back – after each new catastrophe erupted – saying ‘Never Again’, and asking ourselves, with a mix of anger, shame and incomprehension, how we could possibly have let it happen again.

The good news is that the international community is much closer to consensus now than it ever has been on the proper response to the questions in issue. The divisive discourse of the 1990s about “humanitarian intervention” has almost completely given way to a wholly new conceptualization. The issue – since the 2005 UN World Summit of heads of state and government unanimously adopted this new conceptual approach – is no longer about anyone’s “right to intervene” but rather everyone’s “responsibility to protect”.

The idea, framed this way by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty I co-chaired, is that while the primary responsibility for protecting its citizens from man-made catastrophe certainly remains with each sovereign state itself, and while there is a secondary responsibility for other states to assist them to so act, in the event of a state failing to discharge that responsibility, as a result of either incapacity or ill-will, then the responsibility shifts to the wider international community, which is obliged to act, as persuasively or as coercively as ultimately proves necessary, to halt or avert the harm in question.

What we have seen over the last ten years, following from that Commission report, is the emergence, with astonishing speed as these things go, of a new international norm of really quite fundamental ethical importance. I am proud of what has been achieved so far in this respect, though fully acknowledge that there is a long way to go before the new norm becomes regularly and fully implemented practice. So far the only really clear example we have – though it is a good one – of the responsibility to protect principle being self-consciously and clearly put to work was in the international response to the catastrophic events unfolding in Kenya at the beginning of 2008, where diplomatic, not military, intervention secured an early end to what looked like rapidly deteriorating into a Rwanda-style genocide.
Perhaps the best recent evidence of the tenacity of the new norm is the outcome of last year’s further UN General Assembly debate on the subject , when despite the sustained effort of a number of spoilers over many months to create a climate for tearing apart the 2005 consensus, and a number of states expressing caution about applying the sharper end of the new doctrine, there ended up being only four states opposing outright the whole responsibility to protect principle: Nicaragua, Venezuela, Cuba and Sudan. An instructive combination.

There are other international anti-racism initiatives of which I have been proud to be a close part, not least the successful final campaign against apartheid in the late ‘80s, in which Australia played a very prominent role. I am not entirely convinced by a lot of the history, as distinct from hagiography, in Blanche D’Alpuget’s recent book on Bob Hawke, but one issue on which she is right on the money is the important leadership role that the then Labor Government, and very much Bob personally, played in developing the conceptual framework and international political momentum for the financial sanctions – not trade sanctions or sports boycotts, symbolically important though these were – which ultimately more than anything else brought down the apartheid regime.

Looking back over the decades, I think – being as objective as I can, in this very non-objective election environment – that my own Labor Party has, at least since the 1970s, the proudest and most consistent tradition in dealing with racial issues, both domestically and internationally – a tradition that was very much maintained by Kevin Rudd’s moving apology to indigenous Australians, which won us huge plaudits internationally (I know because I was moving around out there). But it would be churlish not to acknowledge the superb role that has been played over many years by a number of key individuals on the other side, Fred Chaney for one during my time in Parliament on Aboriginal issues, but above all Malcolm Fraser who, for all the other mortal political sins that litter his past, does not – when it comes to anything from apartheid to Aboriginal affairs to the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees – have a racially insensitive bone or fibre in his body, and acted very courageously to hold the line on some issues for which there was not remotely a majority constituency in his own party, or the public at large.

I don’t want to be drawn any further into current political and election issues. There is nothing more tiresome than old political has-been thespians putting on the greasepaint – or fishnet stockings – for one more run around stages on which they have long ceased to be relevant performers. But the passion and commitment of a lifetime means I can’t forbear from making just one last general point.

Hostility to racism in all its forms, from the soft and insidious to the mercilessly violent, home and abroad, is something that should cut completely across party lines, and never be a subject for competitive partisan underbidding. A commitment to maintaining and extending the wonderfully diverse society we now have in this country should be beyond argument or debate, and I hope will remain so. As one political commentator put it a couple of weeks ago, if politicians want to run for office with a dog whistle, then they should apply for dog catcher, not a seat in parliament or cabinet.

I remember the former US Secretary of State James Baker once saying to me in some realpolitik context or other, using his Texan drawl to full effect: “Sometimes, Gareth, you just have to rise above principle.” Well maybe, in some contexts, that is sometimes true. But when it comes to racism in any form, there can never be any context in which it is ever right to begin to compromise on matters of principle. As Billy Hughes once famously said, when asked how it was that of all the political parties from which he came and went during his long and chequered Australian political career, he had never joined the Country Party, “Well, you have to draw the line somewhere.”

Looking back again, I don’t think there is any part of my political career at the grassroots level, or my public life generally, that has given me more sheer pleasure than my interaction, during my last few years in Parliament, after I shifted down to the House of Representatives from the Senate, with the people in my seat of Holt in outer south-east Melbourne of its 130,000 people, just on three-quarters of them were either born outside Australia, or born of one or more immigrant parents, and they came from 120 different countries.

To walk, as I have done umpteen times, through the Dandenong market, hearing dozens of different languages being spoken around you, or to talk to a rainbow carpet of little primary school kids of twenty or more nationalities and almost as many colours, is not the kind of exotic, or alien or foreign experience these days that it would have been for my parents or most of your grandparents – any more than it is to share a university campus with thousands of Asian kids. These are, these days, quintessentially Australian experiences, and ones for which we have cause to be profoundly grateful.