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Acceptance is ...

By Sebastian De Brennan - posted Thursday, 12 January 2006

It was only back in 2000 that Australians of all backgrounds converged to put on the greatest Olympic Games ever.

A few weeks ago tens of thousands of ethnic myriads gathered to help our Socceroos finally secure their spot in the World Cup 2006.

A mere one week later - and in a more sombre moment - Australians of all persuasions advocated for clemency for convicted drug-trafficker Nguyen Tuong Van, a Vietnamese Australian, born in a refugee camp in Thailand. Although sadly those pleas fell on deaf ears, the heartfelt support given by many throughout the nation was, perhaps, something to be salvaged from his tragic ending.


Taken collectively, these examples served as a powerful reminder that, for all our differences, the majority of Australians were moving beyond the precept of tolerance towards a higher ideal of acceptance.

The Sydney race riots over the past few weeks have only served to erode that good work.

Let’s be clear, to set upon an Australian icon - a lifesaver - is plainly unacceptable. But we all know that these events go beyond the treatment of Cronulla lifeguards. If it were only about the surf lifesavers, then there seems to be little gained when Anglo-Celtic members of the community throw bottles at our other Australian icons - ambulance workers and paramedics.

The recent commotion is indicative of broader ethnic tensions that have been brewing for some time now. And while the style of media reporting has no doubt fuelled community tensions, this was a legitimate story that was worthy of coverage.

These deep-seated issues will not be resolved through some kind of technical fix such as putting additional police on the streets, or encouraging more people of non-English speaking backgrounds (NESB) to become lifeguards. These tensions demand adaptive and multi-pronged solutions. Piecemeal actions like those proposed do not make racist attitudes and prejudices disappear.

So how then are we faring as an inclusive nation?


I am reminded of a recent leadership program I attended where a speaker argued that, as Australians, we have a history of “discriminating against the first and the last peoples in this country”: the Aborigines were the first to be marginalised, and those from the Middle East the last. In short, the speaker contended, getting a fair go was by no means a universal or immutable Australian right, but rather one that changed according to our history.

At the time I rejected the proposition, but consider the following:

Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders remain the most socially disadvantaged group in Australia, and in terms of health indicators, one of the most disadvantaged peoples in the world. Whereas other countries have discrete departments to deal with their Indigenous peoples, in Australia we have a Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (as if those who have been here for over 40,000 years were a mere afterthought).

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About the Author

Sebastian De Brennan is principal of De Brennan & Co. Consulting and teaches in the College of Law & Business at the University of Western Sydney and the School of Business at the University of Notre Dame Australia.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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