Elias Tanos: Australia is made stronger, not weaker, by our diversity

Good evening . 
I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of Canterbury-Bankstown land, the Daruk and the Eora  people, and your elders past and present.

Why is it that we celebrate Harmony Day each year? I suspect that if I asked a random sample of people on the street, not many would be able to tell me.

The official name for Harmony Day is actually International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. It’s not the catchiest of names, and in the 1990’s, with the rise of the One Nation Party and concern about racism, it was found that the concept of harmony was more inclusive and less confronting.

This day was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1966, in remembrance of the events that took place in Sharpeville, South Africa, on 21 March 1960. On that day, the police opened fire on a large crowd who were peacefully demonstrating against apartheid pass laws, killing 69 people and injuring 180. The actions rightly received international condemnation. However, it was not until 26 years later, in 1986, that the apartheid laws that prompted the march were repealed.

It is easy to be complacent about eliminating racial discrimination. It is easy to look at the most extreme human rights abuses, such as occurred in South Africa, and consider our own problems with racism comparatively unimportant. But 2019 is an important time to take stock. We have a large multicultural population; in the latest census over 40% of Australians were born overseas or had one or more parents who were born overseas. We live in a country where acts of overt racism are condemned by our leaders. We have federal and state laws that are designed to protect us from discrimination.

And we have an annual day to recognise the many positive aspects of living in a multicultural society. It is important that we celebrate our achievements and reinforce positive messages of welcome. But it is just as vital that we take today to acknowledge that racism does still exist in Australia, and consider how we can address it.

As our H. R.  commissioner stated : “We should see Harmony Day as an opportunity to reflect on how far we have come, and how far we still have to go.”

And if we go back to the naming of Harmony Day, it is worth thinking about what we know of social cohesion. The Mapping Social Cohesion report, sponsored by the Scanlon Foundation, found a decline in all social cohesion indicators, demonstrating, fragility  in our community structure.

The good news is that it is not incurable. There are things that we can do to fight racism: on a personal level, on an organisational level, and on a national level.

But let’s not limit ourselves to engaging with new people one day a year. Many new migrants, refugees and international students experience social isolation when they arrive in Australia. It is much easier to overcome the effects of racism when you have a strong support network to rely on for friendship and support. As the old adage goes, “a problem shared is a problem halved”.

Because the reality is, multiculturalism is no longer a social experiment - it is the norm. We live in a world in which physical distance is less and less of a barrier.

The idea that people from any culture or nationality deserve less of an opportunity to live a safe and dignified life is at odds with the human rights principles.

Australia is made stronger, not weaker, by our diversity.

As anti-apartheid activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu said “Differences are not intended to separate, to alienate. We are different precisely in order to realize our need of one another.”

For a nation known for its tall poppy syndrome and love of the underdog, I believe Australia as a whole are fiercely proud of our premier position in the world. This can make it difficult to convince people that there may be any room for improvement. But the fact is we are not immune from many of the complex social problems faced by nations of all colours and creeds.

However, if we commit to help develop sound policies and programs that address the structural barriers to inclusion; if we work in partnership with communities, NGO’s, business, and academics and building on our diverse strengths, I believe that we can create innovative solutions to some of these problems.

Our benchmark for success should not be that we are better than the worst human rights offenders. As a prosperous and thriving multicultural society we should aim to be the world’s leaders in putting human rights principles into practice.

We started with the history of International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

When people look back at us 50 years from now, what will they think? Will we been seen as a people complicit in allowing racism and inequality in its various guises to continue? Or will we be the people who learned from the experiences of the past, harnessed the possibilities of the present, and worked to create a different future?

It’s up to all of us.
Elias Tanos



Post a Comment