The work of Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Race Discrimination Commissioner

Whitlam Institute, Western Sydney University.

THE HON MARK DREYFUS QC MP
SHADOW ATTORNEY-GENERAL
SHADOW MINISTER FOR NATIONAL SECURITY
MEMBER FOR ISAACS
 
THE WORK OF DR TIM SOUTPHOMMASANE, RACE DISCRIMINATION COMMISSIONER
 
WHITLAM INSTITUTE
WESTERN SYDNEY UNIVERSITY
 
6 AUGUST 2018
 

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, and pay my respects to their elders, past and present. 
 
Thank you for the opportunity to address you all this evening, and in particular for the opportunity and privilege of thanking Dr Tim Soutphommasane for his five years of excellent service to this country as our nation’s Race Discrimination Commissioner. 
 
There can be no doubt how hard Tim has worked over the last five years, meeting challenge after challenge under conditions that at times could be described, generously, as ‘difficult’. 
 
As Tim mentioned this evening, it was on his watch that Tony Abbott came to power in this country with a promise to repeal section 18C of the Race Discrimination Act. Fortunately, that promise from Tony Abbott was much like the rest of his promises – and it came to nothing when the overwhelming public support for section 18C forced the Abbott Government to back down.  
 
And of course, the campaign to repeal section 18C was hamstrung from the start, given that it was led with such comprehensive incompetence by Senator Brandis, who declared to the Senate that what this was all about was the Liberal Party and its Coalition partners trying to legislate a right to be bigots. And I won’t even begin to remind you of the appallingly drafted amendments to section 18C drafted by Senator Brandis himself.
 
But it was more than just Brandisian incompetence that brought this first attempt to repeal section 18C to an ignominious and welcome end. It was the fact that Tim spoke clearly and eloquently, at event after event and in media interview after media interview, about how section 18C operated to protect Australia from the evils of racial hatred. About how giving a green light to racist hate speech was going to harm rather than help our nation. And Tim also made very clear that those who said section 18C was a threat to freedom of speech had conveniently forgotten to mention that its sister provision, section 18D, already contains extensive protections for freedom of speech.
 
There is no doubt that Tim’s measured explanations of what section 18C has been used for and how it operated to set a standard in our nation opposed to racist hate speech, helped to ensure that the Australian community rose up against the attempt by Abbott and Brandis to repeal those protections, which would have given a green light to racist hate speech.
 
We had thought that the complete failure of this attempt to repeal section 18C would be the end of the matter. But it was always concerning that at no point did Mr Abbott or Mr Brandis concede they may have been wrong in their attempt.
 
And when Mr Turnbull disposed of Tony Abbott to take over as Prime Minister, we assumed that the matter of section 18C was settled. So it was a great disappointment to so many, who expected that Mr Turnbull would bring a different kind of leadership to the Liberal Party, when Mr Turnbull himself revived the attack on section 18C. Fortunately, with Senator Brandis at his side once again, this attempt to greenlight racist hate speech was again soundly defeated.
 
But what both episodes say about the current state of Australian politics is deeply concerning. As many have observed, there has been a return to race as a political issue here in Australia and in many other nations around the world. 
 
I agree with what John Hewson said today, quoted in the media: “playing short-term politics with an issue that is so fundamental to our long term national interest is damaging and dangerous”.
 
And I suspect that those of you who have come expecting disagreement between John Hewson and I are going to be disappointed.
 
While Australia is indeed one of the most successful multicultural nations on Earth, that is in part because generations of Australians have worked hard to make that the case.  Until recently, the value of our multiculturalism was a bipartisan matter of pride, a great success that both Labor and Liberal governments proudly proclaimed their involvement in.
 
Tim referred in his speech to a famous 1988 motion which the Hawke government put forward in the Parliament. One of those that Tim mentioned, without naming him – one of the Liberals who courageously crossed the floor to support that motion was Ian Macphee, who had been Minister for Immigration in the Fraser Government.
 
And I was moved by what I saw Ian Macphee being quoted as saying again in the media at the weekend, where there had been quite a few articles about this need for bipartisanship, partly prompted by speeches and articles that Tim has written. This is what Ian Macphee had to say, just now, about those events in 1988:
 
“When I was minister for immigration and Mick Young was the Labor spokesman, we became dear friends and travelled the whole of Australia with John Menadue,” referring to the-then secretary of the Department of Immigration.
And he went on: “to little towns and to cities, speaking at town hall meetings, explaining why we had a non-discriminatory policy. We worked so carefully together.”
Macphee continued: “Howard’s abandonment of this laboriously constructed bipartisanship – and the continuing efforts of conservative politicians to exploit issues of race for political ends – have been “quite tragic”.
And it does seem that things have been changing in recent times.
 
Regrettably we are seeing not just conservative politicians playing the race card, but media outlets giving a platform to racism.
 
Just last night, Sky News gave a platform to Blair Cottrell, a far-right figure –infamous for wanting to hang a picture of Adolf Hitler in every Australian classroom.
 
He was invited onto the 24-hour news channel as a guest of former Northern Territory Chief Minister Adam Giles for a one-on-one studio interview.
 
And again as Tim noted in his speech, last week we had a senior Newscorp columnist, Andrew Bolt, writing in his column about what he called a “tidal wave of immigrants”.  His piece included the line that “In Melbourne’s North Caulfield, 41% of residents are Jews, including hundreds who have lately fled South Africa. Dandenong now has an official Little Indian Cultural Precinct, with 33 Indian businesses. Such colonising will increasingly be our future as we gain a critical mass of overseas-born migrants.”
 
It is in this context that the claims from some on the conservative side of politics that we have no racism in Australia are particularly offensive. 
 
I would give as an example, something from a recent budget estimates hearing at Parliament in May this year. The Chair of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Senator Ian Macdonald asked Senator Michaelia Cash whether the Government had “considered whether there is a need in Australian society for a racism commissioner”.
 
Senator Macdonald went on: “I might live in a bubble perhaps but I find it very difficult to find any but very rare cases of racism in Australia.” He soon followed up with the line: “There are obviously isolated aspects of racism in Australia but I would think across the board they’re very isolated.”
 
In a recent article, Tim wrote thoughtfully about how in some ways the Australian myth of egalitarianism itself works against facing the problems of racism head on.  Tim wrote that powerful national myths of this kind “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 would say that hard conversations are what we need to have. Now, it seems, we need them more than we have needed them in a long time. 
 
The appointment of a successor to Tim will not be an easy task. But it is my hope that the Turnbull government will, despite some recent suggestions to the contrary, recognise the importance of the role of the Race Discrimination Commissioner and appoint a person with that title. I also hope the Turnbull government is able to appoint someone who has the appropriate mix of courage, integrity and professionalism to carry on where Tim will very soon leave.
 
Thank you very much.
 
ENDS