There are three components to any spoken or written act of communication: the intended message (what was meant by the sender); the message as conveyed (what was actually said); and the message as received (how it is interpreted by the recipient). The emphasis on language and inoffensive speech – with offence being subjective as per the recipient’s feelings, not the intention of the author nor the actual content of the message – allows the virtue-signalling instinct to be satisfied. The price is a neglect of the advancement of the substance of the inter-group equality agenda.
These thoughts are prompted by the accidental confluence of three totally disconnected recent news items on the one day. On 3 October last year, I wrote about the puzzling neglect of Asian-Australians in the country’s public life, especially in Parliament. This was followed by another article on 7 February that drew attention to a major report by Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane, Leading for Change: A Blueprint for Cultural Diversity and Inclusive Leadership.
The report painted a truly damning picture of Asian and indigenous Australians missing in action from top leadership positions. Of the nation’s vice chancellors at the time, 85% were Anglo-Celtic and the remaining 15% were European. Of the federal and state departmental chiefs, 97.6% were Anglo-Celtic/European, 1.6% were non-European, and 0.8% were indigenous. The corresponding figures for the federal ministry were 97.6, 0, and 2.4; for federal Parliament, 94.7, 3.5 and 1.8; and for the ASX 200 CEOs, 95.0, 5.0, and 0.
I was reminded of this graphic illustration of structural racism in our institutional leadership by an ad on page 22 of the Australian Financial Review on 6 August promoting the Higher Education Summit 2018, to be held 28–29 August 2018 in Melbourne (it will cost you a cool $3,000 to attend for the two days). In my 2017 article I noted how Asians are poorly visible in our university leadership, despite the fact that Asia has been climbing the fastest of any continent in global university rankings. Asia’s university leaders must be doing something right.
Every single one of the 14 highlighted speakers for the Australian 2018 Higher Education Summit conference in the ad is white, albeit 6 of them are women. In other words, once again the powers that be, with regard to creating and cultivating the public image of our various sectors and institutions, are acutely conscious of the need to be gender inclusive, but at the same time oblivious and insensitive to the matching requirement for racial diversity.
The impression of disquiet was strengthened by a second news item. On the same date (6th), Indra Nooyi, a Chennai-born and raised Indo-American, announced she was stepping down after 12 years in the top job as PepsiCo chief executive. During her watch since 2006, Pepsi’s annual revenue almost doubled from US $35bn to over $63bn, and the share price climbed by nearly 80%. Two other Indo-Americans are also at the helm of Microsoft (Satya Nadella) and Google (Sundar Pichai). Just how many talented Asian–Australians – men and women – are being ignored by corporate Australia, and at what cost to our economic health and prosperity?
The third item takes us back to Dr. Tim Soutphommasane. Anyone in his hot seat would have had some question marks as well as successes over the full tenure. In my view, the handling of the three University of Queensland students charged with racial vilification, and of the vexatious case against The Australian’s late and very talented cartoonist Bill Leak for a hard-hitting cartoon – hard-hitting cartoons are among the best and most effective political satire – were deeply flawed. I also believe he has been wrong on s.18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. That notwithstanding, Soutphommasane has waged a tireless campaign to raise awareness of and try to rectify systemic discrimination against groups of Australians and the two flawed instances were exploited to try to delegitimise his campaign.
On 6 August – yes, still the same date, which to me ordinarily is most significant as the anniversary of the Hiroshima atomic bombing in 1945 – Soutphommasane vented his frustration at the unrelenting attacks to which he has been subjected from some quarters. In a speech at the University of Western Sydney’s Whitlam Institute, he noted that on the one hand, Australia has ‘good reason to boast that it is one of the most successful multicultural societies in the world’. But on the other, channelling the prime minister, he warned that there has ‘never been a more exciting time to be a dog-whistling politician or race-baiting commentator in Australia’.
The worry is that the present government will dilute the mandate and choose a replacement who will live by the motto: First cause no offence to the government. Just as free speech is severely curtailed without the right to use speech that may offend, so a human rights officer is effectively neutered without the personal integrity and the statutory mandate to speak truth to power.
Ramesh Thakur is emeritus professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.