“Right now, it feels like there has never been a more exciting time to be a dog-whistling politician or race-baiting commentator in Australia.”
That’s Dr Tim Soutphommasane in his final speech as Race Discrimination Commissioner – delivered on Monday night in Western Sydney. After five years of enduring almost constant attack and criticism, the Commissioner steps down in less than two weeks.
He may be the last with his title. Conservative commentators have repeatedly called for the position to be left vacant after his departure, and the Federal Government is looking at renaming and redefining the role so it “cannot be divisive or contribute to division”.
When we talk about racism, it’s often described as something that recedes a little each year, as society moves towards a more welcoming and progressive ideal.
But in his speech on Monday, the Commissioner said race politics is back – and it’s begun to get much worse just as he’s preparing to leave office.
‘We have to make sure we don’t have double standards’
Speaking with Hack today, Dr Soutphommasane said the current debate on crime, multiculturalism and immigration was “creating more racial division than social unity”.
“We’ve seen a particular escalation of debate in recent months – if you look at the panic and hysteria around African gangs in Melbourne, if you look at at the warnings of Australian multiculturalism in crisis from senior government ministers in recent months,” he said.
“Just in the last few weeks you’ve had former prime minister Tony Abbott question whether we should continue to have a non-discriminatory immigration policy.”
Last month, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull claimed Melbournians were too scared of Sudanese gangs to eat out at night, and a couple weeks later he floated the idea of a “values” test to fend off “ethnic segregation” and the growth of ethnic ghettos.
Dr Soutphommasane says these fears are nonsense.
“The statistics also show Australian-born and New Zealand-born offenders are also over-represented in Victorian crime statistics.”
“But there’s only one particular group at the moment being singled out: Sudanese Australians.”
“We have to make sure we don’t have double standards.”
The danger of unfairly singling out any particular community, he said, was that past experience showed it could create more problems than it could solve.
“I hope it doesn’t get any worse,” he said.
“There’s a real responsibility for all Australians who care about this country to think about speaking up and calling out racism when it occurs.”
“Racism when it does happen is an assault on our fellow members of society and is an assault on our values and we reject it because we believe in the idea of equality.”