Thank you for the warm welcome.
I’ll start by acknowledging that we are on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and I pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging.
It is an honour to be here at the International Metropolis conference today. This is only my fourth week as Race Discrimination Commissioner. Before my appointment, I was Director of Multicultural Engagement at Swinburne University, and prior to that, I was Chair of the Victorian Multicultural Commission and a practicing commercial lawyer. It is very timely to come to this event and speak with you about some of the challenges we face. I look forward to working with many of you over the coming years to tackle these common challenges.
The next session is themed, ‘Visible and Powerful – Migrant voices in a Connected World’. I hope I am able to represent a visible and powerful voice. I was born in Malaysia, of Chinese heritage, where my late father and mother were themselves migrants. I came to Australia as a student and subsequently migrated to Australia, with my wife, where we now call home and raised a family of now two adult children. I am one of the voices of many migrants in this country.
The theme of this week’s conference is ‘Global migration in turbulent times’. And indeed, on race relations, times have rarely been more turbulent in recent memory. Just in the last few days and weeks, we have seen the most blatant forms of racism with resulting devastating consequences. In the United States, for instance, we have witnessed what the Anti-Defamation League has called the deadliest attack on Jewish people in American history, with eleven innocent people gunned down in a place of worship. According to FBI data, hate crimes continue to be perpetrated, with increasing frequency, against minority groups including African-Americans, Jews and Muslims.
We must, if we are to be honest, also reflect on the increasing re-emergence of racial extremism in Australia, too. We have seen, far too often, the manifestations of emboldened racial supremacy movements and agitation, the language and messaging of which has spilled over even into mainstream public and political debate. As a successful multicultural society, we should be clear on this: there is no place for racial prejudice, discrimination, or intimidation in our society. As Australians, we should consistently stand together to oppose racism and racial supremacy in any form or representation.
As the Race Discrimination Commissioner, my role does not simply involve calling out and drawing public attention to these explicit forms of racism. It’s also about looking at more systemic or subtle forms of discrimination and how these intersect with other issues such as cultural diversity and social cohesion.
For their voices to be heard, we must ensure that migrants have the opportunity to access and succeed at all levels and strata in our society in terms of making a contribution and to have a rightful place in the decision making process.
Many here would be aware of the Human Rights Commission’s research on the lack of cultural diversity in Australian business and corporate leadership. The reports suggest that individuals from non-European background and Indigenous cultural backgrounds are consistently underrepresented among the senior leadership of our society, across business, government, politics and elsewhere in the higher echelon of our society. Concerted efforts to improve representation of culturally diverse groups in decision-making positions and processes and to give them an effective voice is one way of tackling discrimination. This is an issue that we need to give further serious consideration and attention.
The success of Australia’s multiculturalism and immigration program should be acknowledged, celebrated and fostered. But our multicultural society is always evolving, as our country grows more diverse and welcomes migrants from many corners of the world. Our challenge is to make our multiculturalism resilient, so that no one is excluded or left behind.
But how do we do this? It should go without saying that many of the solutions we seek will have to come from the grassroots. People ‘on the ground’ are often those best placed to devise and implement ways of solving the problems that affect them and their communities. And events such as the International Metropolis conference provide an excellent forum for people to come together to discuss this.
And the Human Rights Commission, including my function, will continue to have a role in providing leadership in these matters. If we are to succeed the Commission must be fully engaged with its stakeholders and the community and represent the human face of human rights in this country.
In the coming months, I will be travelling across the country, talking to people about what matters to them, as I establish my priorities as Commissioner. As part of this, I’m looking forward to working with my colleague, June Oscar AO, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, and meeting with Indigenous communities. At the outset, of certain interest to me is community engagement, promoting community understanding, and public education. This includes public education about the Racial Discrimination Act. Today is, in fact, the 43rd anniversary of the Racial Discrimination Act coming into force in 1975. We should take this opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate that in Australia, racial discrimination isn’t just against our values; it’s also against the law. And we must continue to work to give life and meaning to the Act by consistently challenging racism.
I am also interested in looking at the relationship between race, racism and economic and social opportunity and inequality. The unfortunate truth is there are conspicuous economic and social disparities between racial groups in Australia. We should acknowledge this, look at possible related issues and work on finding some solutions together, as one of the ways to tackle racism.
We live in challenging times for our racial harmony. Australia is not immune from a global rise in racism and anti-immigration sentiment.
I appreciate and recognise that my role is fundamentally to protect and educate Australians against racism and racial discrimination in all form and to advocate for equality of all Australians regardless of their race. In practical terms, I have a responsibility to help make sure that Australians are not abused, denigrated or are deprived or denied equal and fair opportunities and rights, as Australians, because of their race.
I do not take my new job as Race Discrimination Commissioner lightly, and I am aware that many Australians are putting their faith in me, and in this role, to do the job with passion and independence. I hope I will serve the Australian community well over the next five years by challenging racism, promoting our multicultural diversity, and strengthening our community and social cohesion.
Thank you very much, again, for having me this afternoon.