No room for lip service on Harmony Day

“Lady, last year I would have been out the back stealing your car. Now I’m here doing what I love”.

This was the answer given to me by a young man of Pacific Islander background, after he had performed in front of hundreds of people at a community event in Blacktown. He was introduced to the audience as a member of a group of young adults whose lives had been turned around by the innovative intervention of others.

He was on a natural high, the applause still ringing in his ears. His words were in response to my question: “How has your life changed?”

Someone took an interest in him – and acted.

A few years ago, the police at the Blacktown Local Area Command, local NGOs and businesses came together and established a youth engagement strategy to mentor young people in the Blacktown region. They channeled the energy and enthusiasm of these at-risk youth into their fields of passion: sport, singing, dancing, accompanied by access to employment and training programs and work experience placements.

I always think of that young man when I’m asked about the role of government in promoting a harmonious, inclusive society.

Today, we celebrate Harmony Day: a day to embrace our diversity and encourage harmonious communities.

But admirable causes are nothing more than buzz words if they are not backed up by real action and support.

Governments make choices. Few things in public life irk me more than listening to elected officials at community events espouse the benefits of multiculturalism, whilst failing to back up their words with choices that support diverse, inclusive communities.

As Frank Lowy said in the Inaugural Australian Multicultural Council Lecture: “Multiculturalism is precious to Australia, but there are ways we can improve it.” How right he is.

Harmony Day coincides with the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. This year’s theme is, “The Role of Leaders in Combatting Racism and Racial Discrimination”. It was chosen to highlight key role that leaders play in mobilising political will to combat racism and racial discrimination.

And both Harmony Day and the UN Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination highlight important issues currently being abandoned by the Abbott Government, with its hands-off approach to multiculturalism policy, coupled with a commitment to removing safeguards protecting people from hate speech.

The interaction and cohesion that arises from multicultural societies does not just happen by luck. It only occurs when individuals and governments work together to facilitate it. Unfortunately, we have witnessed the exact opposite of such co-operation in some of the decisions made by the Abbott Government over the last six months.

One of the first decisions of the Abbott Government in this policy area was to rip $11.5 million from the Building Multicultural Communities Program.

This funding was awarded to organisations in our community, many who work with those less fortunate, are mainly run by volunteers, and have limited ability to raise their own funds. But the people who comprise these organisations are characterised by a motivation to build and maintain cohesive and socially inclusive neighbourhoods.

I’ve seen Blacktown change over the past 40 years. My most multicultural memories growing up were the Maltese kids in my class and the Chinese takeaway in the main street. As a microcosm of modern Australia, we have experienced dramatic demographic changes over the decades, bringing their own benefits and challenges.

I’ve seen a range of public policy activity, from nothing to everything, as the years and waves of new migrants have washed through. And I’ve come to the conclusion that the best way that governments can help build inclusive, harmonious communities is from the bottom-up, by supporting grass-roots programs initiated by people are working with and for their diverse communities – just like the one that benefited that young Pacific Islander man.

As well as cutting support for programs designed to increase harmony in the community, the Abbott Government has indicated continuously, despite pressure from ethnic communities and its own backbench, that it will repeal protections against hate speech.

When someone referred to a man of Fijian ethnic origin as an ape, saying he has a “thick ape-skull” during a neighbourhood dispute, the complaint was resolved with an agreement that the respondent would provide the complainant with a statement of regret – as should be the case. If not for our race hate protections this kind of abuse will be given the green light.

Acceptance of one’s own cultural identity implies a requirement to respect the identity of others. In Australia, there is simply no room for intolerance. To this end, race hatred laws have served to provide an expression of our tenets as a multicultural society that values racial tolerance and social cohesion.

The Attorney-General’s assertion that the prohibitions against hate speech are “anti-free speech” is disingenuous and misinterprets the law’s meaning. These are not provisions which prohibit free speech, but rather they provide protection from racially motivated hate speech.

It also ignores the effect racial vilification has on an individual’s personal identity and to our cohesion as a multicultural society.

Racial vilification fundamentally damages the notion of an inclusive society. Where society mirrors back to someone a demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves, this can inflict profound harm. It sends a message to its victims that they are not welcome in our community and, as a result, it drives members of targeted groups away from full participation in society.

Like the young man who came to Australia from the Pacific Islands and had his life transformed because someone took an interest, it is incumbent on political leaders to take an interest in improving multiculturalism and fostering social cohesion in our communities.

The Federal Government could begin on this Harmony Day by taking an interest in multicultural policy and abandoning its desire to repeal race hate protections.

This op-ed was first published on the SBS website on Thursday, 21 March 2014.