Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Race Discrimination Commissioner from the Australian Human Rights Commission has pointed out that the stability of pluralist societies was now coming under strain as a result of extreme forms of populist nationalism sweeping through Western democracies.
Emphasising the need for interfaith and intercultural dialogue, he said, “The work of dialogue has never been more important in our society. It is the mark of a flourishing liberal democracy that it can deal with difference and disagreement, not through violent means but peaceful ones; that it can have a civil exchange of ideas, based on fact and reason; that its citizens can grow wise through deliberation.”
Although, some political and social commentators are questioning multiculturalism and its success, Dr Tim Soutphommasane claimed, “there is strong and emphatic support in the Australian community for multiculturalism, cultural diversity and immigration. The evidence on this is unequivocal.”
He drew attention to the Scanlon Foundation’s annual study of attitudes concerning social cohesion. The study surveys a nationally representative sample of people each year. Last year, the Scanlon Foundation found that 83 per cent of its respondents agreed that multiculturalism is good for the country. It was 86 per cent in 2015 and it was 85 per cent in 2014.
Drawing a line between freedom of speech and freedom to vilify, Dr Tim Soutphommasane said, “It should be clear that the majority of Australians recognise that freedom of speech, as with all freedoms, is not absolute or unqualified. As the saying goes, my freedom ends where your freedom begins. Any right to express bigotry must not exist at the expense of a right to live free from bigotry’s effects.”
“My freedom to raise a punch stops from where your nose begins,” he joked.
Dr Tim Soutphommasane was speaking on the topic “Tolerance and Harmony in Challenging Times” at the lunchtime Affinity Intercultural Foundation’s lunchtime Lecture Series held on Wednesday 12 April 2017 at the Affinity offices in Sydney.
The popular event attended by almost 100 guests of diverse background, faiths and professions was facilitated by Ms Philippa McDonald, Senior Reporter of the ABC who attended the event with her mum and some other members of her family.
The guests were welcomed by Mr Barrie Unsworth, a former Labor Premier of NSW and currently a member of the Affinity Advisory Board. Mr Unsworth also introduced Affinity Intercultural Foundation being founded in the year 2000 by a group of young Australian Muslims in order to meet the needs of the Muslim community in interacting with the mainstream Australian society.
Ms McDonald introduced Dr Tim Soutphommasane, the keynote speaker at the event who has a uniquely interesting background.
Thinethavone ‘Tim’ Soutphommasane was born in Montpellier, France in 1982 to Chinese and Lao parents who had fled Laos as refugees in 1975. His family was resettled under the Family Reunion Program in Sydney’s south-western suburbs in 1985 where he was raised and attended Hurlstone Agricultural High School.
He graduated from the University of Sydney with a first-class honours degree and then went to UK as a Commonwealth Scholar at the University of Oxford where he completed a Master of Philosophy with distinction and a PhD in political theory.
From 2010 to 2012, he was a Lecturer in Australian Studies and a Research Fellow at the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University. He has been a columnist with The Age and The Australian newspapers and has authored four books.
From August 2013, Dr Soutphommasane commenced a five-year appointment as Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission.
While talking on racial tolerance, Dr Soutphommasane warned, “the evidence shows that the vast majority of Australians endorse our multiculturalism and repudiate racism. The state of our multiculturalism remains strong. Yet I fear there is a small minority who may act upon their intolerance or bigotry, if given the permission to do so.”
“We must never take our tolerance and harmony for granted. And all of us have a responsibility to remain vigilant and do our part to set the right standard for our society. This is, naturally, a task for our political leaders. But other leaders in our community – within government, business, education, civil society – also have a part to play. We all have our part to play,” he further added.
On being questioned by AMUST correspondent that the anti-discrimination legislation did not address discrimination, vilification and demonisation on the basis of religion and how Islamophobia was taking its toll amongst young people on school yards, he acknowledged that this indeed was a big gap within the anti-discrimination legislation and needs to be addressed by our politicians and legislators anytime soon.
The event ended with presentation of gifts to the speakers and highlighting of upcoming events by Mr Ahmet Polat, Executive Director of Affinity.
Read the transcript of the full speech of Dr Tim Soutphommasane: