Now More Than Ever

As I write, in National Reconciliation Week 2024, a zeitgeist debate – all around us and omnipresent – rages around a statement made by arguably the Nation’s most respected political journalist, Laura Tingle, that Australia is a racist country (timing, right?).

Does this awful discussion reinforce the National Reconciliation Week theme, Now More Than Ever?

I was asked by The Conversation to contribute a piece that seeks opinion from people who are experienced in this area. I was reluctant, as aways, because of the inevitable social media reactions by racists. Only last week a man commented, on the Facebook page of the supposedly genteel North Shore Times, about me: ‘does this dike (sic) think she’s Aboriginal?’ And almost as difficult to deal with were the comments by the well-meaning but unaware. Stay off social media. Don’t feed the trolls.

But, now more than ever – at a time when both Indigenous people and others of goodwill and decency are dealing with the deep grief of being roundly rejected by the Australian people over the very simple and straightforward notion that the original inhabitants of the place, First Nations people, should have a democratically elected Voice and recognition in the founding document of the modern nation – why should I not take advantage of the right that social media offers: to express my opinion publicly, in my workplace capacity, like everyone else? Do I let myself be hounded down from doing my job? Do I acquiesce to the taunts and demands of racist, sexist, entitled bullies?

So I said yes, with my usual trepidation, and you can read my piece here.

In it, I say yes, Australia is a racist country – and we have the data to confirm it: 

On any objective reading, this data indicates that yes, Australia is a racist country. And this is reflected in our workplaces. Now more than ever, because one person subjected to racism simply for trying to participate in the paid economy, is too many. Now more than ever, we need to seek avenues to make sure everyone can go to work without fear of ridicule simply for who they are, the way they look, or how they represent their culture. Now more than ever, it is time to ask why, to examine the evidence, to stop the tiresome debate and to begin to actually start to address racism. The current scenario is simply unacceptable.

The Racial Discrimination Act, notably Section 15 which is how it applies to every single workplace in Australia, was introduced into this country 49 years ago in 1975. Yes, 49 years ago. Why then, after all this time, do so many people not understand that it is UNLAWFUL to be racist at work? In our paid employment? How responsible is this lack of enforcement of the law in our workplaces for the prevalent racism in the community more generally? Is it the case that the notion that ‘I can say what I like’ at work is responsible for the larger community problem?

Now more than ever, at a time when recommendations of the Sexual Harassment National Inquiry 2020 have been put into a Framework called Respect@Work which has created legislative changes to the Fair Work Act expanding on previous protections against sexual harassment in the workplace and a positive duty on employers, do we need a similar Inquiry into race-based harassment and discrimination at work and similar or strengthened recommendations?

Now more than ever, at a time of discussion around the possible introduction of a Human Rights Act, do we need to recognise that the past 49 years of carriage and responsibility of the provisions of the Race Discrimination Act in Australia’s workplaces by the employment sector and the human resources industry has been a dismal failure? Do we need to collect the data, analyse the evidence, and try to make our workplaces free of the scourge of overt and covert discrimination?

Now more than ever, I think we do. I understand that many other diverse voices, in addition to First Nations voices in the race discrimination area would agree. As I said in The Conversation piece: 

A National Inquiry, conducted by the Race Discrimination Commissioner and the Indigenous Social Justice Commissioner the Australian Human Rights Commissioner with a delegate of the President of the Fair Work Commission, (after all we are talking about workplaces here) with recommendations, could be a start. Australians simply cannot accept that the current racism experienced at work is normal. It needs to change.

Now more than ever.

Nareen Young is Associate Dean, Indigenous Leadership and Engagement UTS Business School and Professor, Indigenous Policy (Indigenous Workforce Diversity) at UTS Jumbunna Institute. She is informed by her Indigenous and culturally diverse heritages in all her work.