Racism exists in Australia – are we doing enough to address it?

By Helen Szoke

This article is part of our March theme, which focuses on an ongoing challenge to Australian society: Race & Discrimination. Read our Editorial for more on this theme.

Racism exists in Australia

Racism does exist in Australia. We know this is a fact. Our own complaints at the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) tell us that.

It is also identified in research. National data from the Challenging Racism Project was released in 2011 and gave us information about the prevalence of racism and attitudes about racism.

We know from this research that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples continue to experience high levels of racism, across multiple settings: in relation to contact with police and seeking housing their experiences of racism were four times that of non-Aboriginal Australians.

Similarly, in 2008 other research found that 27 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples over the age of 15 reported experiencing discrimination in the preceding 12 months; in particular by the general public, in law and justice settings and in employment. Further recent research has found that three out of four Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples regularly experienced race discrimination when accessing primary health care, and that racism and cultural barriers led to some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples not being diagnosed and treated for disease in its early stages, when treatment is most effective.

More generally, the Challenging Racism research resulted in the following findings:

  • around 85 per cent of respondents believe that racism is a current issue in Australia;
  • around 20 per cent of respondents had experienced forms of race-hate talk (verbal abuse, name-calling, racial slurs, offensive gestures etc);
  • around 11 per cent of respondents identified as having experienced race-based exclusion from their workplaces and/or social activities;
  • 7 per cent of respondents identified as having experienced unfair treatment based on their race;
  • 6 per cent of respondents reported that they had experienced physical attacks based on their race;

Alarmingly, some research indicates a significant increase in racism over recent years: the Scanlon Foundation’s Mapping Social Cohesion 2011 report found that in 2010 there was a marked increase in reported racial discrimination, and that this increased reporting was maintained in the 2011 survey. Disturbingly, this research also highlighted the lack of awareness of most Australians about the issues faced by our First Nations peoples.

What is racism?

So the evidence says that racism exists in Australia.

This should not surprise us as racism is to be found in every society on earth in different forms.

The central issues are what racism is and how it impacts in the Australian context. My concern is that while the data suggests that racism does exist, we do not have much of a community dialogue about how racism manifests and the harm that it causes.

Without such understanding, it is difficult to see how we can move forward to eradicate racism.

Racism takes many forms. In general, it is a belief that a particular race or ethnicity is inferior or superior to others. Racial discrimination involves any act where a person is treated unfairly or vilified because of their race, colour, descent, national or ethnic origin, religion or belief. Racism impacts directly on the full enjoyment of individual’s human rights, in particular the right to equality.

Racism is experienced across a spectrum. It may occur in a passive way by excluding people socially or by being indifferent to their views and experiences.

Racism may take the form of prejudice and stereotyping of different groups in our community; in name calling, taunting or insults; or in actively and directly excluding or discriminating against people from services or opportunities on the basis of their race, colour, descent, national or ethnic origin, religion or belief; for example, in relation to employment opportunities, access to education, or participation in sport.

Ultimately, racism is a denial of human relationship.

It can manifest through commentary or drawings in the media, speeches at public rallies or assemblies and abuse on the internet – including in e-forums, blogs and on social networking sites.

Sometimes racism can be reflected in not telling the history of an event or the experience of a group of people in our country.

In its most serious manifestation, racism is demonstrated in behaviours and activities that embody hate, abuse and violence – particularly experienced by groups who are visibly different as a result of their cultural or religious dress, their skin colour or their physical appearance.

Just as other forms of discrimination may relate to a number of attributes, so will the experience of racism. Racism may compound the experience of discrimination of a woman, who is treated less favourably on the basis of her race and her gender – or an older person, who is discriminated against on the basis of their skin colour and their age.

On occasions, racism can occur more systemically, as when people with overseas skills and work experience are overlooked for employment, or when job applicants without Anglo-Saxon names have difficulty being offered job interviews.

And it often is linked to poverty and social and economic status, as is the experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples generally.

A key feature of racism in Australia is denialism.

Such denial may be a genuine response that suggests a lack of understanding that an act may be racist. However, there are also deliberate falsehoods, misinformation or evasion. Suggestions of racism may also be dismissed as an overreaction, where people think that telling a racist joke, for example, should be taken as just a bit of fun. Too often, stories start with “I’m not racist, but…”

Ultimately, racism is a denial of human relationship. Yet for many people it remains almost invisible, unnoticed except when violence is involved. Those who do not experience it often fail to understand how profoundly offensive it is.

Racism is bad for us

There is also significant research that demonstrates the damage that racism causes to individuals and society as a whole. Racism undermines social cohesion within the community. To ensure social inclusion, individuals need the opportunity to “secure a job; access services; connect with family, friends, work, personal interests and local community; deal with personal crisis; and have their voices heard.”  Racism towards any individual or community undermines the achievement of each of these goals.

Racism also impacts adversely on the development of Australia as a multicultural society. If we conceive multiculturalism as a set of norms or principles in which the human rights of all are respected, protected and promoted, then the adverse impacts on groups in the community who may be treated less favourably on the basis of their race, colour, national or ethnic origin or religious belief is obvious.

Multiculturalism supports the ideals of a democratic society in which every person is free and equal in dignity and rights. Racism undermines these very foundations.

We have a unique opportunity at the moment to get our settings as a country right – Constitutional reform, legislative reform and a national campaign to address racism.

Current opportunities to strengthen our response to racism

Right now, we are at an interesting juncture.

There are three key initiatives playing out at a national level which address racism – the consolidation of Commonwealth Anti-Discrimination Laws, the development of a National Anti-Racism Strategy and the discussion about whether or not we need Constitutional reform to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in our Constitution.

The possibility of Constitutional reform, legislative reform and awareness raising: a powerful trifecta that we need to harness in order to continue to promote and support the cultural diversity and social cohesion of Australia as a country.

Constitutional Reform

It is interesting how little most Australians know about our Constitution. This is in contrast with countries like South Africa, where every person was given a copy of the Constitution when it was adopted in 1996.

In late 2010 the Prime Minister established an Expert Panel to look at possible Constitutional reform to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people formally in the constitution. The report and recommendations arising from the Expert Panel’s extensive consultative process was handed to the Prime Minister on 19 January this year. The question of when a referendum will be held on this important issue is yet to be determined by the Government.

The Panel’s report reminds us that two sections of the Constitution still enable the Commonwealth Government to make laws that discriminate on the basis of race: section 25 and the ‘race power’ in section 51 (xxvi).

Section 25 allows State laws to disqualify people of a particular race from voting at State elections. Such a provision has no place in a modern democracy like Australia.

Section 51 (xxvi) allows the Commonwealth Parliament to make special laws for people of a particular race. There are examples where this has been relied upon in order to introduce laws that negatively discriminate against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The Expert Panel has recommended that these two provisions be repealed.

The Panel has recommended that a new section 51A be inserted in the Constitution that explicitly respects and acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and promotes the advancement of those peoples.

The Expert Panel has also recommended the insertion of a new section 116A, prohibiting the Commonwealth, and States and Territories, from making laws that discriminate on the basis of race, colour or ethnic or national origin, but permitting laws or measures which aim to overcome disadvantage, ameliorate the effects of past discrimination, or protect the cultures, languages or heritage of any group.

A further new section 127A proposes the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages as the ‘original Australian languages’, whilst acknowledging that English is the national language of Australia.

My Commission has supported these recommendations. Obviously, we have a long way to go before we come to a referendum on these issues. But it is incumbent on us all to think about these issues, to know what they really mean, to raise them in our dinner party discussions, in our sporting activities, at our work, to dispel the myths that will inevitably fly around in the media and be promoted by people who do not understand or accept how important it is to ensure racial equality and recognition of our First Nations peoples.

Even the best anti-discrimination law will in itself only be part of an effective and comprehensive strategy to eliminate racial discrimination and promote equality.

Consolidation of Commonwealth Anti-Discrimination Laws

The project to consolidate Australia’s anti-discrimination laws into a single Act was announced by the Australian Government in April 2010 as a key component of Australia’s Human Rights framework.

The Commission has welcomed this project, as we consider that discrimination law can be made easier to understand, comply with, and where necessary to enforce.

The consolidation process offers an opportunity to not only embrace the stronger features of the RDA (including its broad human rights based approach to the areas of public life it covers in section 9 and its general equality before the law provision in section 10), but also address some of its deficiencies. If we were to ask what would improve the current legislative regime, there are two key responses: reviewing who can act and how people or organisations can act to enhance racial equality under the Act and enhancing the current compliance framework.

To take the first issue: all Commonwealth discrimination laws include capacity for complaints by or on behalf of persons aggrieved by discrimination, leading to investigation and dispute resolution functions for the Commission.

The Commission views complaints as an important part of a compliance framework directed to achieving the objectives of the legislation, in addition to providing a means of access to justice.

The Commission considers that the consolidation process offers opportunities to consider measures for improved access to justice for people and organisations seeking to assert rights, and for increased certainty for people and organisations seeking to comply with their responsibilities.

One set of issues about access to justice is presented by the fact that capacity to take action at the Federal Court or Federal Magistrates Court stage is more restricted than at the Commission stage. A complaint to the Commission can be made by any person or organisation on behalf of a person aggrieved by discrimination, and the Commission itself has power to launch its own inquiries into human rights and discrimination issues.

But at the court stage, complaints can only be made by a person or persons aggrieved – not by representative or advocacy organisations in their own right or by the Commission or other bodies seeking to enforce the law.

There are of course issues to consider about how and how far a body which provides an impartial complaint handling service could have an advocacy role, and we look forward to further discussion of those issues.

In terms of compliance provisions, there are a range of mechanisms provided (although not consistently across grounds) in various anti-discrimination Acts for achievement of their objects. The present review of these Acts provides an opportunity for consideration of possible improvements in the compliance framework for Commonwealth discrimination law to ensure that it meets, or better meets, the goals of efficiency and effectiveness in promoting the objectives of the legislation.

I want to emphasise that even the best anti-discrimination law will in itself only be part of an effective and comprehensive strategy to eliminate racial discrimination and promote equality. Parties to the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination undertake a much wider range of obligations than simply enacting legislative prohibitions against racial discrimination.

The development of a National Anti-Racism Strategy

Finally, I want to address a key initiative that I have direct responsibility for: the development of a National Anti-Racism Strategy.

This is very much linked to multiculturalism. The need for a strategy had been clearly articulated by the Australian Multicultural Advisory Council to the Government in April 2010. This advice was taken up in February 2011, when the establishment of a national partnership to develop and implement a National Anti-Racism Strategy for Australia was announced as a key component of Australia’s new multicultural policy, The People of Australia.

The Government’s intention is that the National Anti-Racism Partnership will draw on the existing expertise on anti-racism and multicultural matters across three government departments – the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, the Attorney-General’s Department and the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs – together with the Australian Multicultural Council and the Australian Human Rights Commission. The National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples and the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia (FECCA) also participate in the Partnership as non-government representatives.

This membership of the Partnership makes clear that while the National Anti-Racism Strategy was born in the multicultural context, we are looking at its development through a broader focus – encapsulating both the experience of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and our culturally, linguistically and religiously diverse communities.

The Partnership has been tasked with designing, developing and implementing the Strategy, with five key areas of effort:

  • research and consultation;
  • education resources;
  • public awareness;
  • youth engagement;
  • ongoing evaluation.

It is anticipated that the Strategy will be drafted by 30 June 2012 and implemented over three years, 2012-2015.

The aim of the National Anti-Racism Partnership and Strategy is to promote a clear understanding in the Australian community of what racism is, and how it can be prevented and reduced.

We are looking at three broad objectives – to create awareness of racism and its impact, to build on good practice to prevent it and reduce it and to build capacity for people to address it.

If I return to my earlier description of racism, it amounts to a denial of human relationship. The implication of this is that racism is a matter for all of us – not just those who are targeted or suffer directly from it.

A National Anti-Racism Strategy is about making Australia a racism-free zone and articulating what role each of us have in achieving this. So it requires all of us to play a part – by not perpetrating racist actions ourselves, by not passively standing by while others perpetrate such actions and by committing ourselves to the notion that the ‘fair go’ is for everyone in our society and not restricted according to race, national or ethnic or religious background or some historical precedent.


We have a unique opportunity at the moment to get our settings as a country right – Constitutional reform, legislative reform and a national campaign to address racism. This complements our policy as a multicultural country, and other initiatives in play.

But there is a challenge in this for all of us. We share a common humanity, and we all have a role in respecting the right of all to enjoy it equally, with dignity and with the same opportunities to thrive.

This is an edited version of a speech given at Queensland University of Technology,
Brisbane, on 16 February 2012.

Dr Helen Szoke is the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Race Discrimination Commissioner.