Race and representation

Challenging the myth of the mainstream

LIKE THE MEMBERS of every nation, Australians have fairly stable ideas about the kind of people we are, to the point of there being a clichéd sense of national identity. It goes something like this: we are fair and egalitarian; we are friendly and generous; we entertain a larrikin, irreverent streak.

We frequently draw upon this national self-image to explain our success as a multicultural society. Australia has only been able to absorb waves of immigrants from around the world because its people are fair, egalitarian, friendly and generous. And that irreverence towards authority, the story goes, helps make Australian society open and dynamic in ways that others could only dream of emulating.

All national identities involve myths. These are widely held ideals, often derived from historical experience, which point to some defining qualities of the nation. Any failure of national ideals to be reflected in reality does little to diminish their power. No nation will ever fully, or even adequately, live up to its self-image. That is how national myths and identities work: they do not require constant proof or validation; they persist because people see in them something they like to believe.

During the past five years as Race Discrimination Commissioner, I have often reflected on how we, as Australians, like to think of ourselves. Does the state of our multicultural nation reflect a fair, egalitarian and open society? And how do our national myths enable or stifle public debates about race?

Race is one issue that poses constant challenges to our national self-image and myth-making. This is why controversies about race can touch such a raw nerve and spark such prolonged cultural battles. Whether we like to admit it or not, race continues to say much about how we like to think of ourselves as a people and as a nation.

For all our boasts about multiculturalism, Australia has difficulty talking about race and racism. The mere mention of racism’s existence can be enough to trigger some commentators into paroxysms of outrage. There are the predictable recitals about how ‘political correctness’ has led to a rampant identity politics that obsesses about racism and cultural self-loathing. Or about how public debates have been suffocated by a fear that speaking frankly will lead to protagonists being branded by ‘virtue signallers’ as ‘racist’.

Such complaints are nothing new. They echo what then Prime Minister John Howard said in the late 1990s about national debates being weighed down by a ‘pall of political correctness’, and taking the form of a ‘long, seemingly perpetual symposium’ on the national identity. What we have seen in recent years, though, is a coarsening of such sentiments. What may once have been subtext in statements against a so-called ‘black armband’ view of Australia is now being made crudely explicit.

So, when racism emerges as the subject of controversy, it can seem that the real offence committed is not an act of discrimination occurred, but rather that someone was subjected to being called racist. Anything resembling special treatment of disadvantaged groups, such as Aboriginal Australians, is criticised as involving a form of racial segregation. Indeed, there is the commonly aired charge that anti-racism has become the real racism in society today. The most dangerous racism, it is argued, is that which is now directed towards white Australians, the source of which is an ideology of multiculturalism aligned with ‘cultural Marxism’.

It is tempting to understand this as a symptom of a global political shift to the right. The influence of the ‘alt-right’ movement – drawing upon far-right politics and white supremacist doctrines – is undeniable. The Trump presidency in the United States has emboldened right-of-centre commentators here to be more aggressive in asserting claims about ‘reverse racism’, and in expressing grievances on behalf of a white majority.

Yet much of it also reflects the zeal behind our recent debates about race and free speech – namely, over section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which makes it unlawful to do an act that is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate someone on the grounds of their race. Section 18C has grown in public prominence since the Federal Court case in 2011, which involved Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt (who was found to have breached section 18C because of a series of articles he had written about fair-skinned Aboriginal people).
The cause of changing the Racial Discrimination Act has galvanised conservatives and libertarians. In the election campaign of 2013, Tony Abbott promised to repeal section 18C. On two occasions in 2014 and 2017, the federal government – under both Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull – moved to amend the Act, cheered on by prominent sections of the media and the Institute of Public Affairs. On both occasions, the push failed. The Abbott government in August 2014 abandoned its attempt to repeal section 18C after a widespread backlash to then Attorney-General George Brandis’s suggestion that ‘people have a right to be bigots’. In March 2017, a government Bill to amend section 18C was defeated in the Senate.


THE DEBATES ABOUT the Racial Discrimination Act have been difficult for people who experience racism. They have opened the door to prejudice, intolerance and hatred. When I took on my role in 2013, I never imagined the Attorney-General of Australia would, on the Senate floor, defend a right to bigotry. Nor did I imagine that the cause of free speech would become defined by a desire to inflict racial vilification on others.

That it unfolded this way reflects certain ideological passions, and a certain form of identity politics. For those who have railed against section 18C, the law has been an icon of leftist restriction on free speech. As observed by the federal West Australian Liberal MP Ian Goodenough, chair of the joint parliamentary committee charged with conducting an inquiry into the Racial Discrimination Act in 2016–17:

Many mainstream Australians are resentful of the emerging culture of political correctness, which prevents them from expressing their opinions on certain sensitive cultural issues in workplace and social settings where minorities are involved… Anecdotally, there is a perception that certain ethnic minorities are afforded greater protections from constructive criticism than mainstream Australians through political correctness.

There is no reason to doubt Goodenough has come across such people. However, what does it mean to describe them as ‘representative’ of ‘mainstream Australia’? What does it say when the ‘mainstream’ is counterpoised with ‘ethnic minorities’? How can we speak of a ‘multicultural Australia’ when it can be so blithely asserted that some are more Australian than others because of their race or ethnicity?

If there is a mainstream Australia, surely it is defined more by values and attitudes, and less by ancestry and ethnicity. As it concerns section 18C, the weight of opinion is firmly on one side. People recognise that the Racial Discrimination Act exists as an expression of our society’s values and aspirations on race. If, as a society, we are committed to non-discrimination, civility and tolerance, then it is only right that we have laws that express that commitment. As for freedom of speech, there is a safeguard in section 18D of the Act, which exempts any public discussion that is done reasonably and in good faith. Most understand that taking away protections against racial hatred gives licence to people to vent their hatred.

The evidence suggests a large majority of Australians see things this way. When in March 2014 Fairfax Media and Nielsen polled people about section 18C, a whopping 88 per cent said they believed it should remain unlawful to offend, insult or humiliate people on the basis of their race or ethnicity. In March 2017, at the time a Bill was being debated in parliament, a Fairfax-Ipsos poll asking the same question found a resounding response of 78 per cent. Academic research has found similar numbers. For all the clamour about changing section 18C, there has consistently been an overwhelming majority of Australians who believe the Racial Discrimination Act should stay in its current form.

This is no minor detail. There are very few pieces of political legislation that manage to win the support of almost 80 per cent of Australians. The Racial Discrimination Act is one of them. Another is non-discrimination in immigration: according research carried by the Scanlon Foundation, 80 per cent of Australians disagree that our immigration program should involve discrimination on the grounds of race or ethnicity. Yet another issue: multiculturalism. For many years, the Scanlon Foundation’s research has shown that about 85 per cent of Australians believe multiculturalism is good for the country. Not that you would guess any of this from our public commentary on free speech, immigration and multiculturalism, characterised as it has been by unfounded panics about political correctness and section 18C, and migrants forming ‘ethnic colonies’ and not integrating into society.

The true middle ground of our society on such issues does not resemble much of our media and political debates. Those who rail against 18C and the Racial Discrimination Act frequently call upon an image of an Australian mainstream that has limited tolerance for political correctness on race. Yet it is they and their version of identity politics that are out of step with contemporary Australia.


THE TROUBLE, OF course, is that our political elites and media are so influential in defining what, or whom, constitutes mainstream Australia – even if they or their views might not be representative.

Consider how our media deals with race issues. Few examples encapsulate the problem as vividly as Channel Seven’s Sunrise program, which provides a platform for extreme and provocative commentary on race. The program featured Pauline Hanson as a regular paid contributor prior to her election to the Senate in 2016, lending her a prominence and legitimacy she otherwise would not have enjoyed. It is doubtful there would be a Senator Hanson today had there not been Sunrise’s generous support. Another of the program’s regular commentators, Prue MacSween, has notoriously revelled in the fantasy of running down writer Yassmin Abdel-Magied if she ever saw her on the street. During a Sunrise segment in March 2018, MacSween went so far as to call for another stolen generation of Aboriginal children.

It is astounding that such views can be so casually entertained, even endorsed, on what has been Australia’s top-rating breakfast television program. (Imagine if a contributor were to say something even mildly provocative about Anzac Day or Australia Day.) But it is not so surprising when you consider who works in Australian media. As one survey conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers in 2016 suggested, the average Australian media worker is ‘a 27-year-old white male who lives in Bondi’. With some notable exceptions, it is rare to see non-white or non-European faces on Australian television, especially on commercial channels. When they do appear, they tend to be as contestants on cooking shows such as MasterChef or My Kitchen Rules.
This is a pattern replicated throughout the power structures of Australian society. In a recent study of close to two thousand five hundred senior leaders in business, politics, government and higher education, the Australian Human Rights Commission found that almost 95 per cent of senior leaders at the ‘c-suite’ levels have an Anglo-Celtic or European background. Of the 372 chief executives and equivalents we identified, 97 per cent have an Anglo-Celtic or European background. In absolute terms, only eleven of the 372 chief executives we examined have a non-European or Indigenous background – a mere cricket team’s worth of diversity.

Among our political representatives in the Commonwealth Parliament, there is certainly limited cultural diversity. Just over 94 per cent of federal parliamentarians have an Anglo-Celtic or European background (with 4 per cent having a non-European background and 1.5 per cent having an Indigenous background). There is even less diversity within the ranks of the federal ministry, where twenty-nine of thirty government ministers have either an Anglo-Celtic or European background. (The other has an Indigenous background, but there is not one who has a non-European background.) It should not be surprising, then, if what some of our political elites regard as mainstream Australia is some way off from the actual mainstream.
Such patterns of representation also raise a broader question. What does it say about Australia that, in spite of our triumphalism, we see so little multicultural diversity in the leadership of our institutions?

The status quo in leadership would not be especially alarming if 95 per cent of Australian society were Anglo-Celtic and European. But they are not. Based on estimates drawn from the 2016 Census data about 58 per cent of Australians have an Anglo-Celtic background and about 18 per cent have a European background. Twenty-one per cent have a non-European background and about 3 per cent have an Indigenous background.

The under-representation of cultural diversity within the leadership positions of our institutions is dismal. It challenges our self-image as a multicultural success, not to mention our egalitarian credentials. Do we seriously believe that what we see genuinely reflects a meritocracy, given that close to a quarter of Australians have a non-European or Indigenous background? And when we see the children of migrants outperforming Australian-born children in education by significant margins?
We need not feel guilt or discomfort about our multiculturalism not being perfect. That is the nature of any national project: it is never complete but always ongoing. Yet any such recognition seems to be stifled by the national myth of egalitarianism.

That is, as I have said, the power of myths. They allow for people to remain impervious to evidence, or to live with cognitive dissonance. On matters of race, our mythical egalitarianism helps us to avoid having hard conversations. I have heard repeatedly from people that having more diversity in the leadership of our institutions will only be a matter of time. How could it not, when we are such a fair, egalitarian and welcoming society? Of course, we conveniently forget people forecasted the same thing ten, fifteen or twenty years ago, too.


AUSTRALIANS STILL STRUGGLE with having open, honest deliberations about racism. There are just too many ways for people to deny, dismiss or deflect any challenge to us to do better on racial equality and multiculturalism.

It is done whenever people define racism only as outbursts of bigotry, and not also as institutional discrimination. It is done whenever someone says they endorse multiculturalism, but in their minds think only of exotic food and festivals. It is done whenever people insist they are entirely blind to colour, but fail to see that colour blindness is a luxury unavailable to those who experience racism. It is done whenever the same people vent outrage at the suggestion that some may benefit from the unearned advantages of racial privilege.
And it is done whenever people respond to racism in Australia by pointing out that racism is worse in other countries – as though that means we must stop talking about the issue. This is perhaps the most potent method of not having to deal with racism. It allows you to say that identifying racism amounts to an act of national disloyalty, to smear anyone who raises racism as an ingrate who does not know the value of living in the best country on Earth.

Yet to be anti-racist is a commitment that reflects the highest form of patriotism. It is the commitment of those who wish to see their country live up to its very best. There have been times during the past five years when I have reflected on my own sense of patriotism. Many times I have questioned whether Australia has gone backwards on race, because of the pandering to prejudice in public debates. But the first principles, at least for me, remain the same. Racism is so offensive because it injures our fellow citizens and because it diminishes our nation – because, in the first place, we think so highly of who we must be as a nation. To paraphrase James Baldwin, one may love Australia more than any other country in the world, but exactly for this reason one insists on the right to criticise her perpetually.

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