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Just call me Mr Tolerance

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The call for a tolerant society sounds progressive but it really misses the point. Tolerance suggests a grudging acceptance of difference. We should be advocating for, and celebrating, diversity – not hoping for acceptance. FCW Lawyers is committed to diversity and equal opportunity. We understand this requires challenge and debate – and we welcome it.

Here we examine the issues through the lenses of race and gender. 

Advocating for change

Advocacy goes beyond telling intolerant people that while we understand and respect their opinion, they could try a little harder to be nice. Advocacy requires truth telling. It requires demystifying untruth masked as social protection for unskilled, marginalised white males and the use of the status quo as a testament to merit.

We should not be merely telling bigoted and intolerant people that we respect their freedom of speech. I do respect it and do not want to curtail it, unless it creates demonstrable hurt and damage. However, our civil and respectful society, that we love, requires us to go beyond tolerance, and the principle of free speech, and be socially responsible and courageous in respect of diversity and inclusion.

Tolerance of differing views has not broken through the barriers faced by people who are not white Australian males in accessing opportunity. It has permitted a slide into our racist past that makes “turning back the boats” a key plank of both major parties. Tolerance has also permitted a growing perception that feminism is a form of militant lefty politics, rather than simply the demand of equal opportunity for women. Is there something wrong with advocating for an end to these awful trends? Must we, in the name of tolerance, sit by and watch our generous society decay into a polarised, selfish community that is unaccepting of diversity?

Attacks on diversity harm us all. We are all foreigners in a different country. Am I a higher quality and better person in Australia than I am elsewhere? No. When a woman is born in Australia, she has a significantly greater risk of not fulfilling her capacity and of being paid less when compared with men. Is that how it should be? No.

As leaders in our community, we should not aim to achieve a society that tolerates diversity like a rude drunk; rather, we should advocate for and celebrate it. We must challenge the perceived norms that discriminate against those who are not white Australian males and be compassionate, generous and empowering. 

Our story of migration 

Two populations of people now inhabit Australia:

  •  traditional owners
  •  immigrants. 

Early immigrants prevented traditional owners from voting in their own land until 1962 (in state government voting, Queensland was the last to change in 1965). More than 90% of the population voted in the 1967 referendum to alter the constitution to include Aboriginal people as Australian people, not flora and fauna. That was an act of tolerance. It was also a shameful recognition of a racist pretence that Aboriginal people were not human. 

One of the first acts of Australia’s new Parliament in 1901 was the Immigration Restriction Act, which enacted the White Australia policies of the colonies to prevent immigration to Australia from countries other than Britain and deport undesirables (people of a different race). It underwent some amendment in the 1950s to allow the immigration of European refugees from World War II and some significant change in 1966 under Prime Minister Harold Holt. It was torn up in the 1970s. It wasn’t until I was 15 that Australia stopped having fundamentally racist White Australia legislation. I can remember celebrating its death with my brother – we thought the fight was over. We were wrong. The removal of the White Australia legislation was an act of tolerance, not activism. And it is for this reason that its success has been cynically eroded ever since.

The data surrounding Australia’s racism is staggering. A 2015-2016 survey with 6000 participants by Professor Kevin Dunn, from Western Sydney University, on issues of cultural differences, tolerances and specific groups in the racial hierarchy, revealed:

  • 60% of people said they would be highly concerned if one of their relatives were to marry someone of Muslim background
  • those of non-English background experienced the highest rates of discrimination in public places
  • 56.9% of people reported experiencing racism or discrimination in shops or shopping centres
  • 58.2% of people reported experiencing racism or discrimination on public transport or in the streets
  • 49.1% of people reported experiencing racism or discrimination online
  • 20.5% believed that African refugees are the instigator of an increased crime rate in Australia – a demonstrable untruth.
  • One in five Australians have experienced racism between 2016 and 2017 

Illegal boat people – the scourge of Australian opportunity?

Since Tampa, Australians have been told of a wave of illegal immigrants who land on our shores, create safety risks and steal jobs. We are told in simplistic rhetoric that we must “stop the boats” of the people traffickers immediately. 

There are two ironies about the ‘boat people’ or ‘illegal immigrant’ flood we have experienced:
• white Australia’s arrival in Australia was mostly made up of criminals
• ‘boat people’, when reviewed by the courts, are mostly found to be genuine refugees (over 90%) – that is, legal refugees. 

There are two myths in the characterisation of these people as ‘boat people’ and illegal immigrants:
• MYTH ONE: they are illegal: in fact, they are not ‘illegal’ until a court finds they are illegal – the results overwhelmingly find they are mostly legal
• MYTH TWO: there was, and is, a ‘wave’ of ‘boat people’: in fact, the  numbers below demonstrate that the number of asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat is modest. 

Beneath the characterisation of people entering Australia as ‘illegal arrivals’ is an implicit suggestion that, if they were legal, Australia would generously welcome them as we are prepared to support the global crisis of refugees. Yet we have received precious few compared with most western countries. The Refugee Council of Australia found that in the 10 years to 31 December 2015, 139,398 refugees were recognised or resettled by Australia. That number accounted for 0.99% of the global total of 14,128,593 – with Australia ranked 26thoverall, 31stper capita and 46threlative to GDP. A low level for a country with the fourth highest standard of living in the world. For a land of plenty, our country’s standing is shameful. This is not about jobs for Australians being under threat; it is racism and greed.

Tolerance has permitted the gradual reduction in humanitarian recognition and the resettlement of refugees, as well as the development of these euphemistic labels such as ‘boat people’ and ‘illegal immigrants’. Tolerance has also permitted the re-emergence of the Australian First white politics of One Nation and other reactionary political movements – greedy, racist, insensitive and foolish concepts that damage our social cohesion, global reputation, and that will ultimately damage our growth and economy. It is fuelling the development of a racial cleave in our society – a society known from the 1970s as welcoming, respectful and compassionate. A place we were all proud to call home.

Our ‘lucky’ women

Frequent references by the media on our progress on gender equality and merit, would suggest that misogyny is dead in Australia, and that there is a level playing field for men and women. 

It was not long ago that I sat in an Executive meeting of major law firm when the Managing Director seriously suggested not promoting women who were pregnant, because their confinement would prevent them from marketing and bringing in work. When pressed, he said the figures spoke for themselves! He gained no support and was eventually condemned, but his views were stealthily introduced into remunerations and benefits for new mothers.

What does the base line evidence suggest? It suggests these outdated views were not his alone. A 2018 study conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) revealed that women working full time receive, on average, weekly earnings that are 14.6% less of those received by men. Yet, women on average have more qualifications than men. For example, the percentages of women and men between the ages of 20 and 24 years who have attained year 12 qualifications or above are 91.6% and 88.7%, respectively. The percentages of women and men between the ages of 25 and 29 years who have attained a bachelor’s degree or above are 39.9% and 30.9%, respectively.

A 2018 report on Gender Equality at Work by Conrad Liveris found that women made up only 26.2% of ASX200 board directors, 12 were ASX200 chief executives and an equal 12 organisations had a female chair. 

The most recent Law Partnership Survey by the Australian Financial Review reported women still represent only 27% of partners in law firms. This is despite that there are more women than men graduating from law – and has been the case for quite some time. 

We see political parties refusing to consider strategies to increase female participation and presence in cabinet. Although the Andrews Government just introduced a gender equal cabinet, the Liberals simply refused it. The same is true of boards and business. All claim affirmative action is not merit based yet the current statistics unequivocally prove that the only persons enjoying social success in Australia are white Australian males.

How productive are diverse workplaces?

Repeated research shows that diverse workforces are more productive than less diverse workplaces, even though the latter is sometimes more comfortable for the inhabitants. This premise was explored in Ellison & Mullin’s 2014 article, Diversity, Social Goods Provision, and Performance in the Firm. 

American worldwide management consulting firm, McKinsey & Company, found that diversity boosts employee engagement, job satisfaction and performance. Its 2018 report, Delivering through Diversity, revealed that firms with diverse executive teams were up to 33% more likely to outperform their competitors.

This is true in all businesses – from those in professional services through to construction.

If the moral arguments for diversity struggle to gain traction amongst those in our population who are historically intolerant, the economic arguments are hard to ignore.

Where do we go from here?

The time for tolerance has past. The effort to make intolerant people put up with diversity has failed and things are not getting better. Good people must step up and be a voice for diversity. They need to challenge tabloid characterisations of race and feminism. 

Good people need to celebrate diversity and resist the temptation to go quiet when the loudest voices articulate their shrill, nationalist and male-centric fears.

Let’s not seek to repress intolerant and bigoted speech. Let’s improve the debate and relentlessly tell the truth so the emptiness and ugliness of racism and misogyny is seen for what it is: a destructive and alienating attack on the civility and respect that binds us as a socially responsible and just society.