News : Article

Politicians must not licence prejudice, says Race Discrimination Commissioner

Graphic: Australia's Race Discrimination Commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane

It is not in the national interest for politicians to give licence to prejudice, Australia's Race Discrimination Commissioner has warned.

It is not in the national interest for politicians to give licence to prejudice, Australia's Race Discrimination Commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane, wrote in an opinion piece following the recent federal election.

"It's important that we are able to have debates about multiculturalism and immigration. In a democracy, no issue is ever beyond discussion.

But the manner in which we conduct debates matter. Citizens should be civil and respectful. Arguments should be grounded in facts and reason. Passions and emotions must never spill over into violence.

This goes to one responsibility that our political leaders must fulfil. It isn't in the national interest for politicians to give licence to prejudice.

There is a grave cost when they lapse. Groups and communities can be singled out. Back in the 1990s, it was those of Asian backgrounds who were susceptible. Today, it is Muslim Australians who are frequently labelled as a public threat (though Asian Australians aren't yet off the hook).

Liberal democracies must take their values seriously. Every member of our society should be free to live without fear of discrimination. This includes being free to practise their religion, as guaranteed by section 116 of the Australian Constitution.

For friends of decency, taking our values seriously means fighting any resurgent intolerance. It means confronting racism and bigotry.

People can be admittedly reluctant to do so. No one these days wants to be accused of being "politically correct" about race. People can be cowed into silence or into turning a blind eye.

But we shouldn't be apologetic about responding to ignorance or nastiness. Yes, everyone is free to have an opinion. But having an opinion doesn't mean that others must agree with you. Those who invoke freedom of speech shouldn't complain when others exercise the same freedom.

Indeed, calling out racism or bigotry doesn't mean that you are preventing someone from having an opinion. It just means that you are holding them to account for what they say. If people don't want to be called a racist or a bigot, they can start by not expressing a racist or bigoted opinion.

Elections often give countries a chance to measure their social progress. So far after this election, we have seen some early signs of the racial ugliness and social division that erupted twenty years ago."

This opinion piece was first published by Fairfax Media.

Date: 5 July 2016

Source: Australian Human Rights Commission

Image credits

  1. Australia's Race Discrimination Commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane - Australian Human Rights Commission