Diversity Australia Blog
Diversity Australia Blog
As far as titles go, ‘Race Discrimination Commissioner’ is a fairly benign one. Certainly, as distinct from its incumbent, Dr Tim Soutphommasane, it is not quite as bombastic as its former Soviet counterpart, the ‘People’s Commissariat for Nationalities’.
That comparison of course is not meant to imply the office’s communiques, or that of its parent body, the Australian Human Rights Commission, could be likened to the comical agitprop of communist regimes.
“Today Australia has been transformed,” heralds a futuristic newsreader in a promotional video for the AHRC publication Leading for Change: A blueprint for cultural diversity and inclusive leadership.
It is July 2026, and Australians awake to glorious news that massive cultural diversity targets within government, universities and business have been exceeded. No longer is Australia an Anglo-dominated backwater, thanks to a leader and his ten-year plan.
“A driving force was Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane,” the newsreader continues effusively, before crossing to archival footage from ten years prior featuring the visionary himself. “Australia’s a very multicultural society,” said he, stern-faced and with much gravitas, “but we don’t see that diversity represented yet in our senior leadership…It’s pretty striking, and simply it’s not good enough.”
“Passionate words from Tim Soutphommasane,” adds the newsreader admiringly, repeating the great man’s name for posterity. All that was missing in this video were the shots of cheering citizens taking to the streets in spontaneous demonstrations of joy and thanks.
Laugh if you will at this cringeworthy and grandiose affirmation of one’s own legacy, but remember your taxes are paying Soutphommasane’s $339,460 salary. That does not include the budget for his support staff, or travel, or the office outlay. Not bad work for an entry-level academic and former ALP staffer who was appointed by the Rudd Government to the AHRC at the age of 31.
In a speech last week to the Western Australian Multicultural Mental Health Forum, Soutphommasane denounced those who sought to “reopen ideological culture wars”, and dismissed with derision suggestions that “cultural Marxism [is] taking over public institutions.”
Ideological culture wars? The very use of that simplistic terminology to describe an opposing view is revealing, especially for a man supposed to personify diversity. But for this human rights commissioner, the ideal culture is Soutphommasane-centric, and dissenting opinions threaten social harmony. Indeed, such people are guilty of “deviationism”, to borrow a Stalinist term. Critics therefore are not to be regarded as opponents, but as enemies. What is cultural Marxism if not aggressive social engineering in the name of equality, together with public condemnation of those who question its worthiness?
“Today’s conservatives frequently endorse a form of destructive radicalism towards public institutions and civil society,” wrote Soutphommasane, a self-described social democrat, only months before his appointment to the AHRC in August 2013. This is tosh. One need only look at the events last week in Hamburg’s G20 summit and the actions of so-called anti-fascists in the US to see who is responsible for this destructive radicalism. It is not conservatives who are torching cars, looting shops, and attacking police officers. Yet Soutphommasane maintains “very nasty forms of xenophobia and populism are on the rise in many countries.” In other words, we must blame those who voted for Trump and Brexit.
And last week’s speech would not be complete without Soutphommasane attributing ill-motive to those seeking amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act, particularly section 18C, which makes it unlawful to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate people based on their race, colour, or national or ethnic background.
Never mind that careers and reputations have been destroyed as a result of complainants exploiting this section, or that the test for infringing 18C is essentially a subjective one; Soutphommasane’s take on reformists appears to be one of malice. “Some commentators…complain about there not being enough freedom of speech to racially insult or offend others,” he said. That’s right, the man who once wrote the ‘Ask the Philosopher’ column for this newspaper resorted to using a cheap logical fallacy – the straw man argument – as a substitute for informed rebuttal.
Yet Soutphommasane champions freedom of speech when it comes to defending the left. “The arts must…consciously question the status quo,” he wrote in June this year. “This has always been the role of the arts: to challenge, to disrupt, to speak truth to power…” But what of artists who disrupt progressive dogma? The late Bill Leak spoke truth to power with his cartoon last year in The Australian featuring a delinquent indigenous father, and Western Australia police commissioner Karl O’Callaghan said it was an accurate depiction of what his officers saw daily. Soutphommasane, however, responded by tacitly urging people to make a complaint under the 18C process. He later denied this constituted touting. Presumably he meant at no time did he don a sandwich board or spruik outside the entrance to the AHRC office.
Given his antagonistic demeanour and his glass jaw, Soutphommasane will likely struggle to sell an already controversial blueprint requiring cultural diversity “targets” within corporations. The recommendation that employers should gather and report “cultural diversity data” has been labelled “racial profiling” of employees by Liberal backbenchers. As an aside to the statist connotations, the blueprint is written in depressingly familiar bureaucratese, especially with its espousing of “diversity metrics”. “Diversity and inclusion”, it says, must form part of “managers’ performance appraisals.”
Are you having trouble staying awake? What a surreal life it must be for the likes of Soutphommasane and the others at the AHRC. Then again that office’s culture has been defined by its president, Gillian Triggs, with all the trappings of elitism and her personality cult. Fortunately she finishes this month, and who knows what lavish ceremony will mark her departure. Flying out Elton John to play Goodbye England’s Rose as the British-born Triggs walks down the steps for the last time, perhaps? As the American political philosopher Thomas Sowell observed “We should not be surprised to find the left concentrated in institutions where ideas do not have to work in order to survive.”
The Turnbull government empowered by an angry backbench has rejected a Human Rights Commission-led campaign for racial and cultural diversity targets to be pushed on corporate Australia.
The commission’s July 2016 reform blueprint, Leading for Change,recommended that organisations consider “sending signals on cultural diversity” by collecting data on the cultural backgrounds of employees in addition to the setting of aspirational targets. The blueprint defines cultural diversity as differences based on “race, ethnicity, ancestry, language and place of birth”.
Liberal MPs were yesterday in open rebellion against the commission’s diversity campaign, warning against any steps that amounted to “racial profiling” of employees. They also urged newly appointed commission president Rosalind Croucher to ensure the body did not become a “commission to implement left-wing policy”.
Social Services Minister Christian Porter yesterday rejected the substance of the commission’s report, upheld the autonomy of businesses to employ people on merit and defended Australia as a successful multicultural society.
Mr Porter told The Australian there was no need for the proposed targets. “Anyone who has actually visited Australian business and professional organisations can see that the embrace of diversity is on plain display,” he said. “Decisions on the make-up of organisations’ leadership and diversity are matters for them … Government has no plans to implement recommendations from this report.”
Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane has recruited a range of senior organisations into the diversity campaign, including leading figures from the public and private sectors. A Leadership Council on Cultural Diversity — chaired by Dr Soutphommasane and established in December — includes ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Martin Parkinson, PwC chief executive Luke Sayers and Commonwealth Bank chief executive Ian Narev.
Speaking last year at the University of Sydney, Dr Soutphommasane noted that 95 per cent of the chief executives of ASX200 companies had either an “Anglo-Celtic” or “European” background and argued there was evidence to suggest “organisations understand leadership in ways that privilege ‘Anglo’ cultural styles.”
Victorian Liberal senator James Paterson criticised the push by the commission as a “bit creepy” and questioned the objective of the campaign.
“Will the Human Rights Commission be satisfied if every single organisation perfectly reflects the community in age and sexuality and race and every other different characteristic — because that’s the logical conclusion of this,” Senator Paterson said. “You don’t need a racial profile of your workforce to ensure that it’s diverse … Where does this end?”
Tasmanian Liberal senator Eric Abetz cautioned there was a degree of artificiality about encouraging targets that could create resentment if people believed they had been overlooked or promoted because of their cultural background. “I just think it’s fraught with difficulty and social engineering,” he said.
Queensland Liberal National MP George Christensen said the commission was “out of control” and “overstepping the mark.”
“Not having someone of a particular gender or a particular ethnic minority group in a management position of a company is not a human rights abuse,” Mr Christensen said.
“I really do hope that the new president of the Human Rights Commission will take a long hard look at this sort of nonsense. It is not a commission to implement left-wing policy.”
When contacted by The Australian, the commission clarified it was not seeking to impose compulsory quotas on businesses but was instead encouraging the adoption of aspirational targets.
The 2016 reform blueprint — which was produced by a working group comprising members of Telstra, PwC, Westpac and the University of Sydney’s Business School — argues that “a strong case exists for including targets as part of one’s diversity and inclusion policies”.
“Targets are voluntary goals adopted by an organisation at its discretion, whereas quotas refer to goals that are mandated by an external body and imposed upon an organisation,” it says.
Some businesses have already adopted aspirational targets. PwC Australia hopes that 30 per cent of its partner admissions will come from a “diverse cultural background” by 2020.
As an entrepreneur, Ms Liu founded The Dream Collective in 2012 because she was confronted by the lack of leadership development opportunities for young women in the workplace.
She says Australian corporate leaders are doing it wrong, and need to get better at “walking the talk”.
Research shows that for every $10 invested into senior leaders, less than $1 is invested into the frontline leaders, even though this is where the valuable changes will be made.
“Australian corporates need to shift their approach from focusing on the senior executive level to turning their attention to the pipeline of young female talent coming through their doors,” said Ms Liu, who also co-founded, Australia’s first job share matching technology platform Gemini3.
“Businesses should be investing in the entry-level career women because these frontline professionals are the nation’s next generation of female leaders.”
The number of women in the bottom ranks is disproportionate to the number of women at the top, and this is not a standard we want for Australia’s business landscape.”
Ms Liu said The Dream Collective started as a passion project, but now operates in Sydney and Melbourne with plans to launch in Singapore and Tokyo by the end of 2017.
It partners with corporate brands such as Vodafone, Coca- Cola Amatil and Facebook to deliver leadership and corporate training programs, and is busy working on a micro-documentary series with those brands to be showcased at a premiere in Sydney this week.
Coca-Cola Amatil’s HR group director Libbi Wilson said fostering greater diversity within the boardroom is critical for businesses.
“An organisation needs a culture of flexibility, not just flexible options for women,” she said.
According to Vodafone Australia’s head of organisational effectiveness, Vanessa Hicks, the technology sector must strive to be an exemplar on the issue of gender diversity.
“The technology and telco industry is placing particular focus on females and STEM and it’s something we see as critical to improving diversity,” she said.
Facebook’s ANZ recruiter Sammie Hall said offering workplace flexibility was an important catalyst in encouraging greater female participation, but there was no set formula for success.
“The challenges for each individual would almost certainly be different but some of the ‘enablers’ might be universal,” she said.
“Diversity is strength – and the world’s greatest fire department will grow even stronger when it more closely resembles the city it serves.” -Mayor Bill de Blasio, June 2, 2015
On June 2, 2015 Mayor Bill de Blasio signed into law Intro. 0579-A, allowing for greater transparency into the New York City Fire Department application and hiring processes by requiring that an annual report be made with regard to the racial and gender makeup of applicants. The bill, co-sponsored by Council Members Helen Rosenthal and Elizabeth Crowley, was a result of years of scrutiny on diversity in the FDNY. Currently, less than .5 percent of over 10,000 FDNY firefighters and officials are women. In 2014, the city agreed to a $98-million-dollar settlement paid out for lost wages and benefits to 1,470 black and Hispanic firefighter applicants.
In introducing their bill, Rosenthal, chair of the Council’s Committee on Contracts, and Crowley, chair of the Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice, cited far greater percentages of women in other cities’ fire departments. Their bill had 43 other council members sign on as sponsors, was swiftly approved of by the mayor, and was, for some, a long time coming.
The following is an abridged history leading up to the signing of the bill.