How would you organise your society if you were living behind a veil of ignorance? Dr Tim Soutphommasane, Race Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission asked this question of leaders gathered at the Catholic Social Services Australia National Leadership Forum held at QT Canberra Hotel last week.
Would you ‘protect the vulnerable, help those in need, ensure there is a sense of justice?’, Dr Soutphommasane added.
Focusing on a local story about recent protests against a place of worship, a mosque in Bendigo, he said, ‘Bendigo is a town divided because of such protests. Some residents have sought to close down this project of building a mosque. They see the religion of Islam as incompatible with Australian values and society’.
However, the Commissioner said, ‘In a multicultural Australia, we should be welcoming everyone. Everyone has a right to protest, but it’s not the same as making a campaign of intimidation’.
‘The forces of division can be rallied against the forces of harmony and tolerance.’
Often this behaviour stems from fear and ignorance, he said.
‘While we have been a proud multicultural society, we are facing some challenges. Some aspects of our political debate have exacerbated divisions in our society.’
‘Harmony is not common place. One in five people say they have experienced religious or racial discrimination in the past 12 months.’
The Commissioner noted that in recent months there have been more arguments and debates about race relations, in particular regarding Adam Goodes. ‘For many people racism still evokes certain images or connotations which isn’t necessarily true today. We have a generational challenge to address this issue.’
‘In today’s society, prejudice is driven and fuelled by arrogance. The resolution is good will. People must understand the hurt they have done to others. Empathy is something we are short of as a society.’
‘Often in my work it’s a case of a failure of empathy, failing to understand that someone’s dignity was affected by an action or comment,’ he said.
‘A number of schools in the United States are now teaching empathy. How to recognise someone’s pain or hurt.’
This can be a powerful demonstration of how one can be transformed to do something for others, the Commissioner said. He concluded by quoting Pope Francis and his reference to ‘simple daily gestures’ in Laudato Si’.
‘In all of your work, I invite you to think about the welcoming hand or smile that gesture of good will or affirmation of acceptance that you can do in your workplace and community. I look forward to creating a more welcoming society.’
Following the address by the Commissioner, the annual Catholic Social Services Australia Awards for Excellence were presented. The winners were as follows:
Award for Excellence in Service (Organisational)
H.O.P.E. Program – CatholicCare Sydney
The Norma Parker Award for Most Innovative Program
Painting Services – Marist Youth Care