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.