Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane’s latest push to embed grievance-mongering identity politics at the heart of the nation’s institutions threatens to politicise race and undermine support for immigration. Fostering racial division should not be part of his job description, but that is exactly what he doing by racialising the question of who gets ahead (and why) in Australia.
According to Soutphommasane, Australia — half-a-century after the White Australia Policy ended — remains a racist country because the upper echelons of politics, the media, and business are dominated by ‘Anglo-Celts’. He doesn’t say that Australians from non- Anglo backgrounds can’t make it to the top; only that these groups are statistically under-represented compared to the ethnic makeup of the broader community. It is impossible to reduce the multitude of non-racial factors — and the millions of individual judgements and preferences — that account for the level of so-called white privilege in these fields to just one explanation.
Nevertheless, since his appointment to the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2013, Soutphommasane has used his taxpayer-funded position to argue that equality of opportunity is a myth in contemporary Australia due to the unconscious racial bias that exists in the community. He claims there is no equality of outcomes when it comes to race, because non-ethnic political, media, and business elites continue to prefer to rub shoulders with their own kinds. This accusation of systemic ‘casual racism’ within business is levelled with a pointed policy intent. Soutphommasane says ethnic diversity targets are needed in corporate Australia; not a hard quota, but a soft ‘aspiration’ to ensure the senior ranks of business reflect the multicultural character of Australian society.
This is a distinction without difference. Once companies sign up to the kind of ‘diversity pledge’ he proposes, the reputational risk of failing to hit the target — and thus appearing to be a ‘racist’ employer — will ensure compliance becomes a KPI for HR managers and divisions. Employment and promotion based on merit and performance will inevitably give way to affirmative action style ‘minority hire’ policies. When advancement up the corporate ladder is based on identity — on a person’s race rather than what they can do and contribute — it will seriously undermine teamwork, breed professional resentment, and encourage non-collegiate segregation in the workplace.
Any attempt to apply the same principles of diversity to politics would be even more disastrous. Promoting the idea that Australia’s democratically-elected parliaments are un-representative because they do not perfectly mirror the nation’s ethnic diversity is playing with political fire. This not only suggests that racial groups can only be represented by politicians from the same racial group; it also suggests that different racial groups have different political interests to other Australians.
Ethnic quotas for parliamentary candidates — which is the logical solution for the problem of ethnic under-representation — would encourage the rise in Australia of the kind of divisive race-baiting politics seen in the United States, where politicians routinely exploit racial issues to mobilise the support of minority voters. In the local context, attempts to rig politics and business in favour of ethnic minorities will prove deeply counterproductive. This will be a gift to populists such as Pauline Hanson and One Nation, whose anti-immigration rhetoric would be sure to resonate with increasing numbers of ordinary voters dismayed by the idea of migrants enjoying special race-based privileges compared to non-ethnic Australians.
As well as threatening high levels of mainstream support for immigration, it is deeply irresponsible to inflame racial tension at a time when Australia is accepting more than two hundred-thousand new migrants each year. In the interests of social cohesion, the Race Discrimination Commissioner should be focusing on the common values that can unite all Australians, rather than singling out and politicising supposed racial divisions. The message Soutphommasane is sending to new Australians is also appalling: that the racial barriers to social advancement in Australia are little different to those that exist in many of the countries they have left, where class and caste frequently determine outcomes in life. This will encourage migrants to believe they cannot succeed in Australia by dint of their own efforts, and should instead look to politics to gain preferment.
In reality, the Australian Dream of freedom, prosperity and the fair go for all is available to all Australians regardless of race – a remarkable national achievement and legitimate source of national pride. Soutphommasane’s agenda puts this all at risk. The whole idea of affirmative action goes against the key principle upon which popular support for our immigration program has been founded upon since the end of WWII: that a large, legal, and non-discriminatory immigration program is the best interests of all Australians. The only way to run a successful immigration program in modern multi-racial Australia is to stick to the egalitarian principle that enabled our nation to accept and successfully integrate millions of migrants from all round the world: that here, all comers — regardless of background — will receive the same fair go for all, with special privileges and favours for none.
The Race Discrimination Commissioner played a well-documented role in the persecution of the late-Bill Leak by publicly soliciting Section 18C complaints against the cartoonist, promoting calls for the abolition of the AHRC. Not content with undermining freedom of speech, Soutphommasane is now intent on setting Australians against each other, and sowing race-based social divisions by explicitly linking race to political and corporate achievement. Hence, the AHRC is not only a threat to basic freedoms in Australia; the fundamental threat it now poses to the community harmony eminently justifies shutting it down in the national interest.
Jeremy Sammut is a Senior Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies.
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