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A year of wedges among the multicultural success stories

By Tom Calma - posted Thursday, 13 December 2007

In the weeks since the resounding victory of the Labor Party at the Federal Election, there has been much post-mortem analysis of campaign mistakes, electorate messages and mandates for the incoming government.

However, one thing on which both sides seem to agree, and indeed they need to reflect on, is the political nadir reached when bogus flyers appeared in the Lindsay electorate in NSW which purported ALP sympathy for the Bali bombers and terrorists.

It was indeed a low point, but one that was indicative of an increasingly acceptable and politically licensed practice in which the race card was played to garner political support from segments of the community.


It was such a practice that led to Arabic speaking people being subjected to a different questioning regime when seeking permanent visas.

Then there was the Dr Haneef affair which revealed a government’s haste to capitalise on people’s fears and insecurities. Not long after this unsavoury episode dropped out of the headlines did the news come through that the number of African refugees would be cut under our Immigration program. The reason? They apparently found it too difficult to settle.

What type of polity is reflected in a social and ethical agenda that allows bureaucracies to ask “additional questions” of particular racial groups, identifies a particular ethnic group as unsuitable refugees and scapegoat’s individuals to engender fear and insecurity? What type of society is created when such an agenda is inevitably absorbed into the everyday interactions between groups within our society?

In Australia, we have long accepted that people should not be treated differently on the basis of their race or ethnic origin. Our African communities experience immeasurable hardship when official credence is given to the already existing prejudices against them. The singling out of Muslim Australians in the same way has also provoked an outcry from those of us who see this as damaging to our entire community.

More recently, there has been the revulsion of two pig heads impaled on fence stakes in the outer Sydney suburb of Camden, reportedly as a protest against plans to open an Islamic school in the area.

And we must not forget the Northern Territory Emergency Response legislation which sidesteps Australia’s first law to protect human rights, the Commonwealth Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (RDA).


So, as we look back, we see it was not a good year for our globally praised multiculturalism. As National Race Discrimination Commissioner however, I have hope.

As we move forward with a new government and into a new year, more than ever we have an obligation to ensure that government policy provides a strong and sustainable social framework to fight racism, xenophobia and discrimination, as well as promote social cohesion and community relationships.

Multiculturalism in Australia is the cornerstone for such a program. As a policy of community harmony it has worked well over the past two decades, replacing the failed policy of assimilation. It was and remains our most successful anti-racism strategy; it needs ongoing support and reinvigoration so that it can meet the new challenges that a culturally diverse society continues to present. We must not lose sight of the fact that, for example, between 1996 and 1998, 52 per cent of marriages in Australia were “mixed” in the sense that they involved people from different ethnicities. I am sure that the 2006 Census data will affirm an increase in the statistics and remember that any offspring are indeed multicultural citizens.

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About the Author

Mr Tom Calma is the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner and acting Race Discrimination Commissioner.

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