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Reflecting on forty years of race discrimination law

10 November 20150 comments

Racial discrimination is alive and well in Australia forty years after it was officially banned under law, according to Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner Dr Tim Soutphommasane.

In a new report released to mark the 40th anniversary of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, Dr Soutphommasane says the experience of racial discrimination continues to affect many Australians, in spite of the nation’s success as a multicultural society.

Australia's Race Discrimination Commissioner Dr Tim Soutphommasane

Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner Dr Tim Soutphommasane

The report, titled ‘Freedom from Discrimination: Report on the 40th anniversary of the Racial Discrimination Act’ and primarily based on a series of public consultations, identified the persistence of a variety of racial prejudice and discrimination, including: discrimination in employment; racial vilification and bigotry; and, social exclusion.

Unveiling the report at the 2015 Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia (FECCA) conference, in Sydney this month, Dr Soutphommasane said the media’s sensationalising of race issues was also unhelpful.

“Participants highlighted the particular role that media reporting and commentary plays in sensationalising matters concerning race and religion – a role regarded as feeding negative stereotypes about some communities and as counter-productive to racial tolerance,” he said.

The consultations paid special attention to participants’ views about the value of the Act in protecting people against racial discrimination, awareness and understanding of the Act’s operation, and the role of the Race Discrimination Commissioner and the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Dr Soutphommasane said the consultations demonstrated widely shared recognition of the significance of the Act in protecting Australians against racial discrimination and vilification.

But they also revealed a lack of awareness about the Act and its operation among some sections of the Australian community – particularly newly arrived migrants and young people.

“This may explain to some extent why there may be an under-reporting of racism, with many people declining to lodge complaints when they experience racial discrimination or vilification,” Dr Soutphommasane said.

In the report, he identified two other factors affecting the Act’s systemic impact in combating discrimination.

“One concerns the Act’s coverage – namely, the limited ability of the Act to protect Muslim Australians against prejudice and discrimination involving expressions of ‘cultural racism’,” Dr Soutphommasane said.

“While the current interpretation of the Act stops short of considering the Muslim faith as encompassing an ‘ethnic group’, many Muslim Australians regard religious vilification as abuse implicating race and culture.

“The other concerned the institutional discrimination experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – particularly in employment, education and government policy. The consultations indicated a strong community belief that institutional racism against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people highlights the incomplete protection that current legislation offers against racism,” he said.

Based on the findings, Dr Soutphommasane has committed to convening an annual national forum on racial tolerance and community harmony.

He will also advocate for the national school curriculum to ensure adequate education about racism and strategies for embracing diversity and inclusion and explore ways to improve the treatment of cultural diversity in the media.

Dr Soutphommasane said the debate over Section 18C of the Race Discrimination Act had given pause for thought.

“Some critics say this unreasonably restricts freedom of speech. And in a civilised society we value freedom of speech but we also value freedom from discrimination,” he said.

“The Act’s anniversary has presented an opportunity to reflect on how the legislation has fulfilled its purpose. What effect has it had in eliminating racial discrimination? How successful has it been in entrenching ‘new attitudes of tolerance and understanding’? What remains to be done in combating prejudice, bigotry and discrimination?” Dr Soutphommasane said.

“As this report shows, the experience of racial discrimination continues to affect many Australians, in spite of our success as a multicultural society. It is a genuinely complex phenomenon – not born of any one cause, not confined to any one setting and not limited to any one community. It is also something that can be overt as well as covert, revealed in identifiable individual acts but also more insidiously in institutional form,” he said.

“Forty years on Australia’s commitment to multiculturalism and freedom from discrimination remains, but the eternal price of liberty is vigilance,” Dr Soutphommasane said.


Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist