Is Australia a Racist Country

In the past months of since May, there has been a global wave of protest mostly intense in the western hemisphere, due to racism. On May 25th this year, the United States got a racist incident that caused protests almost throughout the nation, Canada, United Kingdom, and here – Australia at Melbourne city and other parts of the world. That suggests existence of a crisis regarding the prevalence of racism in the global human society. Nevertheless, there are regions and countries where the racism index is higher than others. For instance, the World Population Review ranks India as the most racist county in the world (“Most Racist Countries 2020”). In that perspective, this essay argues whether Australia is a racist country. Notably, Australia has multiple races, which might cause cultural dilemmas including racial disparity. However, Australia is not a racist country due to strict laws and regard for human rights, diplomatic perception of immigration, advocacy for universal education access, and appraisal of minority cultural groups.

Australia has some of the firmest laws against racial discrimination in the world. Australia has tried over the years to revise its rules in a bid to safeguard against the harmful manifestation of racism, including hatred, disharmony, and conflict discrimination, and in its dangerous practices of racial violence. The first Federal Legislative defense against racism was the passage of the “Racial Discrimination Act of 1975 (RD Act).” The introduction of the act resulted from the fact that Australia was part of the “International Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in 1975 (CERD).” Australia developed a statute guideline, the Racial Discrimination Act of 1975, in the discharge of its treaty obligation (Martinez, 2015, p 948).  The RD Act was a milestone in Australian legislation and aimed to generate a formative influence on its social and political life—altering Australia’s racial dynamics. However, the RD Act was met with strong opposition, especially from the Liberal/National Parties who were against some clauses of the “Draft Racial Discrimination Bill in 1973, viz Clause 28 & 29” concerning incitement and other forms of dissemination (Jayasuriya, 2005). The two clauses were fundamental in the debate about racial discrimination legislation in 1975.

The opposition forced the Australian government to enter a reservation on Article 4 (a) of CERD, which states that “states that the dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority, hatred or incitement to racial hatred, as well as all acts of racial violence or incitement to racial hatred are offenses punishable by law” (Jayasuriya, 2005). The provisions, in other words, are related to racial vilification offenses, including the provocation of racial hatred and hate speech. Australian government opted to consider these acts relating to unlawful propagation of race as just civil wrongs subject to conciliation (Williams and Reynolds, 2015, p 241). However, the Australian government agreed that it would consider passing proper legislation at “the first suitable moment” to deal with race issues. The stand Australia on Article 4(a) remained unbending for many years, and even further reinforced in 1980 when the nation entered a comparable reservation on Article 20 of the “International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)” on the same basis that the Article undermined the right to freedom of expression and speech (Jayasuriya, 2005). The act states in part, “any propaganda for war shall be prohibited by law; and that any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law” (Australian Government 2020). Australia considered these provisions to undermine freedom of speech.

However, the suitable moment as stated earlier, may have reached after closely two decades. In 1983, “Australian Human Rights Commission (HRC)” raised a motion, arguing that there was no substantial reason for Australia to continue with the reservation on Article 4(a) of CERD, and suggested that action be taken to revise the law, thus making racial incitement a statutory offense (Jayasuriya, 2005). The proposed amendments suggested new provisions to the RD Act that outlaw particular forms of racist statements. Such included:

  1. Incitement to racial hatred—provision prohibiting public utterance or publication of words or engagement in conducts, which having considered all situation, is likely to constitute hatred or violence or contempt against an individual or group of individuals, distinguished by race, descent or origin or ethnic or color.
  2. Racial defamation—provision making it unlawful to publicly insult, threaten or abuse a person or group of persons, or hold an individual up to slander or contempt because of race, decent origin, or ethnicity.
  3. Defamation of publication—a provision clausedefining publication in a broad perspective to include electronic media and print, abusive telephone calls and signboards, and many others (Jayasuriya, 2005)

The Liberal/National government of Nick Greiner, 1988-1992, took these issues to the next level, becoming the first Australian government to address racial abuse and incitement to racial hatred publicly. The “NSW Anti-Discrimination Racial Vilification Amendment Act” was passed in 1989, highlighting pertinent issues, social practice, and legal principles that are intrinsic in addressing the intricate social problem of racism. The act was adopted as with the HRC modifications of 1983, a conciliation method. Serious matters, including incitement or threat of physical harm, were to be transferred to of office of the Attorney-General for possible prosecution as felonious offenses. In 1990 the WA government also introduced legislation to curb racial harassment and vilification. The “Crime Code Amendment – Racial Harassment  And Incitement to Racial Hatred of 1990” made a criminal offense to publish or possess material to make racial hatred or harass a racial group. These and other amendments that followed after strived to make Australia a less racist nation. The most recent “Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001” (Australian Government 2020), under the Victorian laws, makes racial and religious vilification a criminal offense. As such, even though RD Act faced opposition from the onset as it was seen to result in political censorship, the gradual amendment it has met over the years positions the Australian laws as the strongest in terms of protection against racism compared to any Commonwealth Act. With the robust rules that protect against discrimination, it becomes fair to conclude that Australia is not a racist country as others may perceive.

Besides the robust anti-racism laws, Australia also welcomes many immigrants every year, coming in as top seven after the U.S., Germany, U.K., Spain, Canada, and France. In 2019, there were approximately 7.5 million immigrants living in Australia, constituting 29.7% of the Australian people born overseas. The number is slightly higher than the previous year 2018, where 7.3 million of the Australian population is comprised of immigrants. Every single nation of the globe is represented in the Australian community according to the 2019 and the past censors. England constitutes the largest population of Austrian born overseas at 986,000, followed by China (677,000), India (660,000), Sri Lanka (140,000), and Australian born (17.8 million) (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2020). The numbers have all grown from the previous years, as shown in figure 1, suggesting that Australia is a welcoming nation for people from other races.

Figure 1: Trends in Australian Immigrants from Top 10 Countries 2009, 2014 and 2019 Census

Source: (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2020).

Historically, Australia has experienced a wave of immigrants than emigrants from the country, thereby adding to the nation’s population growth. Different waves of migrants from other parts of the world over time have resulted in significant diversity of Australia’s population. The highest level of immigration in periods before 1891 resulted in about 32% of the population enumerated as immigrants, and in 2019, the portion of the population born overseas was close to 30% (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2020) shown in figure 2.

Figure 2: Percentage of oversea-born Australians 1891-2009

Source: (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2020).

Again the current Australian policies also promote immigration to Australia, just like other countries with large numbers of overseas-born citizens such as the US and Canada.  As part of its planned immigration policy programs, the Australian federal government allots places every year for foreigners wanting to migrate permanently to Australia. For instance, in the 2010-2011 migration policy program, announced on 11th May 2010, the federal government allotted a total of 168,700 positions, comprising of 113 850 slots in the skill stream, 54 550 in the family stream, and 300 unique eligibility spaces. The country’s Migration Program has evolved over the years, which the changing of laws, shifting the focus from attracting immigrants from the UK to increase its population, to focus on attracting skilled immigrants and workers to meet its professional labor demands of the economy (Harriet 2020). The immigrants are drawn from every corner of the world, suggesting a country that is opened to diversity. The high immigration into the country has fostered multiculturalism, positioning Australia as one of the most prosperous multiculturalism societies globally.  The racial, linguistic, and ethnic diversity resulting from favorable immigration policies contrast sharply with the prolonged image of Australia as a racist white country trapped in the past.

Another pointer that Australia is not a racist country is the admission of many international students to the country leading learning institutions nationwide. Study indicates that Australia hosts unprecedented international students, who currently constitute up to more 25% of enrolments at some universities. The initial phase of significant Australian enrolment of international students started way back in the 1950s when the country played a significant role in the implementation of the “Colombo Plan for Cooperative Economic and Social Development in Asia and the Pacific,” conceived “Commonwealth Conference on Foreign Affairs” in 1950, Sri Lanka and launched in 1951 (Adams, Leventhal, and Connelly, 2012, p 400). Australia then became the destination of thousands of international students from Asian countries between the 1950s and 1980s. Most of whom received education on Australian Government scholarships. About 20,000 international students had studied in Australian universities by 1985 under the Colombo Plan and other schemes of scholarships (Meadows, 2011). The Colombo plan alumni from Australian universities have influenced both political, social, and economic dynamics throughout Asia, courtesy of the generosity of the Australian government.

Today, international students enrolled at Australian universities constitute nearly half of all the master’s candidates and one-third of the doctorate programs, making the nation’s high-degree enrolments disproportionately reliant on the foreign market. Overall, the foreign students constitute approximately 21% of all tertiary admissions in Australia compared to about 6% in other countries, according to the “Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)” newest yearly report on educational programs globally (OECD (2019). The influx of many international students into Australian tertiary education systems implies that students are exposed to diverse cultures, and the education system has become more diverse and inclusive, which contracts the lingering narrative that Australia a racist nation. A racist country cannot accept such an influx of a large number of international students to the tune of 21% of its tertiary program as that is likely to increase brain drain.

Racism in Australia is not something surprising or new. For various sociopolitical and historical reasons, the country, just like any other nation in the world experienced racism from the earliest days of colonization, including racial discrimination against its aboriginal population. However, there have been numerous strategies over the years to curb racism and related social glitches. One approach commonly resorted to, particularly in modern years, is the application of the law as a means to expunge racism in the Australian social fabric completely. Australia has, over the years, strived to amend its regulations on racism and humans’ rights from the introduction of the Racial Discrimination Act of 1975 (RD Act), leading to today’srobust national anti-racism laws. Australia is also known for accepting a substantial portion of the world’s immigrant population, coming seventh globally. The influx of immigrants has created a diverse ethnic, linguistic, and cultures, making it among the top multiculturalism societies in the world. Besides, Australia also admits the largest number of international students to tertiary institutions, up to 21% compared to the average 6% in other countries globally. A combination of all these factors makes it reasonable to conclude that Australia is not a racist county.

To sum up, Australia is not a racist country. She has some of the strictest laws against racial discernment in the world. The Racial Discrimination Act 1975, which the state upholds to date,consider racial discrimination unlawful in Australia and supersedes territory and state legislation to the extent of any inconstancy. Besides, the country welcomes a considerably large number of immigrants every year. Australia also registers many international students in its tertiary institution, further pointing to a nation that values diversity.  Though the Australia has a history of discrimination of the aboriginal population, the country today is sensitive to matters regarding race and ethnicity.


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