Interview with Helen Szoke

Vince Chadwick in conversation with Helen Szoke
Last month the Gillard government appointed Helen Szoke as Federal Race Discrimination Commissioner. She replaces Graeme Innes who will continue to work as Disability Discrimination Commissioner. Helen Szoke was previously the Commissioner of the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission. Right Now’s Vince Chadwick spoke to her about her new role.

RN: The Race Discrimination Commissioner is now a stand-alone position, why is that?

HS: It’s been recognised that there needs to be a stand-alone Race Discrimination Commissioner, and that’s obviously arisen partly out of the third report on the performance of Australia in relation to race discrimination. So it’s a great opportunity to really get stuck into some of the issues.

Are we doing enough to combat racial discrimination?

The good news is that we now have a commitment at a national level to multiculturalism as a policy framework. And that’s critical because historically there has been confusion over what multiculturalism means; is it a policy that’s right for Australia, is Australia a multicultural country? That’s an interesting debate because I’ve come from Victoria where there has been strong bi-partisan support for multiculturalism.

However, we also have some ongoing challenges in relation to racism. Some of those have been identified by the outgoing Race Discrimination Commissioner, Graeme Innes: African communities, Muslim communities, international students, the Northern Territory Intervention, the impact on Aboriginal people…

Multiculturalism needs leadership and the notion of multiculturalism as a policy needs clarity. That’s going to be the challenge at a national level.

You said upon your appointment as Race Discrimination Commissioner that “equal opportunity and multiculturalism are things that we need to continue to work on and develop – it needs vigilance and continued effort to ensure that misinformation is addressed and misconceptions are challenged.” Who is disseminating the misinformation?

There are multiple sources. At an individual and sometimes community level there really is a poor understanding of the richness that difference brings to our community. Part of perpetrating that disinformation is trying to change attitudes and behaviours at a community level towards people of different race, different religion, and indigenous people.

I think the media has a critical role to play. Sometimes there is over-attention paid to an issue which tends to inflame or incite negative community attitudes. Some examples are women wearing the burqa, the settlement process for African communities and reporting of Aboriginal issues.

If you think about racism in employment, or racism in sport, a lot of that involves confronting certain attitudes and behaviours.

Racism in sport is something we covered recently at Right Now. Justin Sherman of the Western Bulldogs was suspended this season for four games and fined $5,000 for racially abusing an opponent. Under the AFL’s Rule 30, first time offenders must also attend an education program conducted by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission. What kinds of things would Sherman be exposed to in that course?

The first thing is to demonstrate the personal impact and detriment to the individual who receives the abuse. Racial abuse also affects the notion of the team and surrounding community.

Another component that people often forget is that at times racist behaviour is either illegal or in breach of codes of conduct.

The third aspect is asking, “what could you have done differently?” In a high-calibre sporting situation it might involve putting a player off or venting frustration. We look at the other mechanisms to attain what you are trying to achieve.

You said recently that, “Victoria [has] a very strong, long and deep cross-party commitment to multiculturalism, which I’m sure has not been replicated anywhere else in Australia”. Is there a kind of Victorian exceptionalism when it comes to multiculturalism by virtue of the state’s particular migrant history, and how will that effect you in moving to a national role?

I don’t have an answer to why Victoria has done pretty well in this regard, and there might be some historical or sociological reason. But I think the critical thing is that multiculturalism needs leadership and the notion of multiculturalism as a policy needs clarity. That’s going to be the challenge at a national level. What we really want is to ensure that there’s cross-party support for the concept of multiculturalism.

Increasingly what we are seeing is that the benefits are social, cultural and also economic. Organisations like Deloittes have a strong commitment to social diversity and understand the business benefits of that. Given what’s happening to us as a country in terms of labour market shortages and skills shortages, we need to look at how culturally and linguistically diverse workers can best be utilised in the Australian economy. There’s a lot of good evidence now to suggest this is the way to go.

Angela Merkel, Nicholas Sarkozy and David Cameron have all claimed recently that multiculturalism has failed. One of the reasons Angela Merkel cites is that people were brought in for labour purposes but never really integrated with the rest of society. What do you say to those who believe multiculturalism has failed?

Part of the responsibility of ensuring that people can integrate with the rest of society is facilitating that integration. If people can remain connected to their first language, if they can remain connected to their cultural or religious beliefs, then it makes it much easier for them to be more confident members of the community. We see the worst example of this in relation to our own Aboriginal community.

There’s a real challenge regarding foreign workers coming into our workplace. Part of our responsibility is to make sure that it actually works for them.

Yesterday the government announced it would attempt to continue its Malaysia Solution by legislative amendment. You’ve been quite critical of even onshore processing. What did you make of the government’s announcement yesterday?

The President of the AHRC Cathy Branson yesterday conveyed her concerns about human rights protection should the Malaysia solution proceed and Australia not be in control of the refugees, and I’m happy to stick to those remarks.

The political environment at the moment is quite volatile and we are not quite sure what might evolve in terms of the policy settings.

You spoke about bipartisan support for multiculturalism, yet South Australian Liberal senator Cory Bernardi has been linked with the visit to Australia by far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders. This is a politician known for his anti-Islamic views – at one point suggesting the prophet Mohammed was a paedophile – and he has been banned from Britain. Should he come to Australia at all?

I don’t want to express a specific view about whether or not he should come. One of the issues we face is whether as a country we get the balance right between freedom of expression and where that tips over into vilification and the incitement of hate. That needs to be monitored and that’s the criteria the Australian government would apply in terms of whether or not Wilders is allowed into the country.

Freedom of expression does have some appropriate boundaries when it tips into inciting hatred against a group of people, whether by virtue of their race, sexual orientation or physical attributes of some sort or another.

Australia had the Pauline Hanson experience in the 1990s and perhaps initially it felt as if that couldn’t happen again. With events like the Cronulla Riots in 2005 do you think we are at risk of seeing a One Nation mindset re-emerge?

I would go back to my comments that fighting discrimination and racism is a long process. It’s a marathon not a sprint. And it does require constant vigilance.

I would hope that we wouldn’t revisit those policies. But the political environment at the moment is quite volatile and we are not quite sure what might evolve in terms of the policy settings.

We’ve got a lot of research now that helps us understand how Australia reacts to racism and cultural diversity. I think it’s fair to say that most Australians would think that racism is not appropriate, and they wouldn’t see themselves as racist. But we also know that some individuals experience reasonably high levels of racism.

We need to be asking how to bring those issues to the fore? How do we shine a light on those issues and experiences to demonstrate the economic and social damage it does to us as a community?

It’s an ongoing dialogue and that dialogue may at times have detractors. What’s important is that we keep our eye on the main game – that is, how we get the best benefit out of being a country that is multicultural?

In your view, has the current Victorian State Government kept its eye on the ball? You were very critical in May of this year of the Baillieu government’s attempts to restrict the power of the Victorian Equal Opportunity Commission to investigate cases of discrimination. Did this contribute to your decision to leave to become Race Discrimination Commissioner?

My decision to become Race Discrimination Commissioner was a decision to take up a very exciting opportunity to work at a federal level. I spent six and a half years in the Commissioner’s role in Victoria and I think it’s important that those roles are refreshed and new eyes brought to bear on the really important work done at a state level.

I think that’s all I want to say about that. It’s not really appropriate for me to comment one way or the other on the Victorian government in my current role.

Symbolic recognition of First Nations people at official events is more than token recognition.

This week Indigenous Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda and Noel Pearson called for “the Cape York style solution – voluntary and compulsory income management” in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands in South Australia. Would you support that?

At this stage I don’t have enough information. The position of the Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda is that any intervention should be worked out in conjunction with the community and a human rights-based approach brought to considerations of whether limitations of rights occur. This applies even if the intervention aims to protect vulnerable groups within that community.

I haven’t spoken to Mick about what was behind his comments but I think it would be the idea that work has to be done with the community. Locals must agree on what limitations are required, and what procedures are put in place to look after women, children and the community as a whole.

Should the “welcome to country” at public events be retained?

I have a very strong belief that the symbolic recognition of First Nations people at official events is more than token recognition. It is something that reminds us that Aboriginal people were the original owners and it respectfully acknowledges their culture.

When you think that Aboriginal people were only recognised legally in this country in 1967, we have a long way to go to undo the damage that has been done historically in terms of legal dispossession and lack of recognition.

If part of building that respect and cohesion is recognition of welcome to country then I think that’s a really important thing we should do, and I certainly would continue to do it.

That adage that “a human rights approach is working with people, not doing things for them” is really critical.

Finally, do you think race played any role in the recent London riots?

I don’t have any privileged information but reading news reports it looks as if economic status rather than race was the key determinant.

There is a bigger question about what happens when a community is so disquieted that you can have an incident like that. The policy changes we make within a country need to be grounded in where we are as a community and that’s a complex thing to do. That adage that “a human rights approach is working with people, not doing things for them” is really critical.

If I take anything out of the London riots it is that as we live in times of great economic uncertainty and international unrest, the best thing we can do is to keep in touch with the feelings and aspirations of different parts of Australia. Policy decisions should be consistent with working with and building on those communities.