Transcript of Tom Calma ABC radio interview with Paula Tapiolas

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Introduction by Paula Tapiolas online: In the aftermath of the Prime Minister and Tony Abbott being whisked away by police after the protests by the Aboriginal tent embassy in Canberra.

People were quick to highlight the problem of racism in Australia, but offer no solution. So how do you work to change the elephant in the room?

Tom Calma is the former Social Justice Commissioner and the Co Chair of Reconciliation Australia, he joined the program to speak on the issue.

Tom Calma: I think it’s disappointing that it escalated to how it did. I think we need to recognise that people in Australia, in our democratic system, have a right to protest—but when protests get physical and threaten the security of people, and the safety of people, then that’s not acceptable.

Paula Tapiolas: It was all sparked by some comments Tony Abbott made that the Tent Embassy had run its course and it was perhaps time to close it. Do you agree? Has the Tent Embassy served its purpose now?

Tom Calma: No I don’t agree. I think it’s a very important symbol of the struggle that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people nationally still experience and do so every day. Now, what’s important to recognise is that the government, and the opposition , at the federal level, and many State andTerritory Governments has also signed up to what we call a Close the Gap statement of intent, which is a bipartisan agreement to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to achieve equality by the year 2030. So we have still got another two decades to go of working together, and that’s why maybe the comments were premature by the leader of the opposition and were interpreted differently by some of the protesters.

Paula Tapiolas: The average Australian would be thinking 2030, that’s a long way out—two decades before, as Australians, we can consider ourselves equal. Are you disappointed that it could take that long?

Tom Calma: No, not really. That’s a target I’d set in my 2005 Social Justice report as the Social Justice Commissioner for health equality, and it’s within a generation. It’s a realistic timeframe; it’s something that we have to work towards. When you look at every indicator that’s out there, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are way behind the rest of society. And if we recognise that it wasn’t until 1967 through the referendum that there was a concerted effort to start to give access to a whole lot of government services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, it’s a very short time frame, really. We’ve come so far—and we all need to work together on this. We’ve seen that process start already, through COAG who way back in 2007 stated they wanted to work towards this time frame of 2030— so we just need to stay focused. Government and the opposition, whoever is in power on the day needs to understand that they have to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Every major government report in the last two years have indicated to government that why their policies have failed, and failed in the past, is because they haven’t treated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with respect, and engaged with us so that we’re part of the solution and not just seen as the problem.

Paula Tapiolas: So then does what happened in Canberra yesterday come back to a perception as racism, or to racism itself?

Tom Calma: It could be perceived as that. That’s why my call is for all political parties not to politicise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs for political gain. Recognise that a lot is happening, and a lot still has to happen. We have organisations like Reconciliation Australia, and I’m a Co-Chair of RA, working very hard. We’re at a time when just last week, we saw the expert panel hand over the report on Constitutional reform to the government, to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Constitution. So that just indicates how far we’ve got to go — we’re not even recognised as a people.

Paula Tapiolas: We’re with former Social Justice Commissioner Tom Calma, who is now the Co-Chair of Reconciliation Australia, Tom is there a clear cut solution to racism in Australia? It’s been raised in of course to Australia Day, where do we go now?

Tom Calma: I think we just need to continue to work. I think it is important that prominent people like Dr Charlie Teo raise the issue and talk first-hand about their experiences. Through the work I did when I was Race Discrimination Commissioner for five years it’s very evident that there are pockets of racism. Racial discrimination does occur in Australia—both direct discrimination and prejudice that was highlighted by Charlie Teo—but also the indirect where it might happen in employment situations or in service delivery. And these happen, and what that does it marginalise people. But the good thing about Australia Day is that it’s a time where we should be celebrating that we are in a country where we see very, very mixed cultural groups come up and accept to be Australian. We need to recognise that Australia is a very multicultural society and that’s why I urge government, and the move has started to happen now, to have a multicultural policy for Australia. To take it head on and to recognise that it—something like over 50 per cent of marriages in Australia are between two different cultures. So we are multicultural.

Paula Tapiolas: Do you think that the protests that we saw yesterday are going to somehow set back the cause, and put the attention in the wrong place?

Tom Calma: Well I think it will depend a lot on how the media run it. We’ve seen already the Prime Minister recognise that the situation has happened, and she hasn’t laid blame in any direction. We just need to say okay, that has happened, we have a group of protesters, reportedly 200 people out of the half a million Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia. So don’t tar everybody with the same brush of just the actions of a just a couple of people in Canberra yesterday.

Paula Tapiolas: Could it be a reaction to the fact Australia Day has a focus too much on European Australia?

Tom Calma: It is. And there’s a very strong movement and feeling for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that it’s not Australia Day when we’re celebrating a point in time of our history when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people—the first people, the original inhabitants—where disenfranchised from their land. We haven’t in all cases had a respectful relationship ever since then. Every gain that we’ve made has been through struggle and through protest. We need to recognise and accept that we still have a way to go, that we have to do it together and that we are the first Australians. But I think a lot of people do appreciate that, if you look at the work that Reconciliation Australia does. We’ve seen the time of the bridge walks and now the Reconciliation Barometer which indicates that 90 per cent of Australians want to have respectful relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. So let’s all work together—politicians, journalists and shock-jocks, to try and progress and move forward.

Paula Tapiolas: Tom Calma thank you very much

Tom Calma: Thank you

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