The Challenge of Racial Discrimination in Queensland

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Image: Queensland Police cultural liaison officers attend World Refugee Day celebrations in Brisbane (Courtesy of MDA Ltd.)

By Damian West (Originally published March 2014)

Queensland Police Commissioner Ian Stewart has co-signed an open letter calling on the Queensland community to unite against racial and religious vilification. Drafted by the Police Ethnic Advisory Group (PEAG), the letter was also co-signed by Queensland Anti-Discrimination Commissioner, Mr Kevin Cocks.

PEAG is an advisory group to the Queensland Police Service (QPS) comprised of police, service providers and community members.

The letter follows recent acts of vilification targeting members of Queensland’s Muslim community.

“Australia is recognised as one of the most peaceful and stable countries in the world, and it is well understood that multiculturalism has significantly contributed to making Australia the great nation it is today,” said the letter.

“We must all stand against acts by any individual or group that unfairly discriminates against others or breaks our laws. We must not let fear or suspicion divide us. We believe that the majority of Queenslanders stand with us on this.”

A QPS spokesperson said that the letter “clearly demonstrates the commitment from the Senior Executive and throughout the organisation to not tolerate, and to deal effectively with racially motivated incidents.”

PEAG Vice Chair, Sultan Deen says that while drawing on recent past events, the letter carries a proactive message, calling on all Queenslanders to move forwards united against racial and religious vilification.

Since its origins in 1991, PEAG has helped deliver important policing initiatives in Queensland including the Police Liaison Officer (PLO) program and changes to police recruitment and training practices.

A community under pressure?

The open letter also confirmed the sorrow of Queensland Muslim community leaders and the wider Muslim community towards acts of terror occurring around the world.

It’s an important message to share, says letter co-writer and PEAG Vice Chair, Sultan Deen, but one that Queensland’s Muslim community is tired of having to articulate on terms outside its own control.

“It seems to be the case that every time something happens, we’re called on as a community to explain ourselves and defend ourselves,” said Mr Dean.

“Take ISIS for example. Our community here is disgusted by what’s happening, and we condemn their actions absolutely. But when we’re called on to restate our position time and time again, it becomes really frustrating. Again, why should we as a whole community need to come out to explain ourselves in light of events that we are equally as saddened by.”

“The message we’re left with as a community is that a large part of the wider community doesn’t trust us,” he said.

It’s a pattern that the Anti-Discrimination Commission Queensland (ADCQ) has seen repeating itself since the September 11 attacks more than a decade ago. ADCQ Commissioner, Mr Kevin Cocks says that this ongoing pressure is discouraging many victims from coming forward to report instances of vilification.

“We see here quite regularly how the broader Muslim community are feeling quite vulnerable because the issue has been significant since 9-11, and at different points has spiked for whatever reason – whether it’s politically motivated or whether the media are overcooking the way they portray or report incidences – and so certain people find it a very difficult step to make a complaint,” Mr Cocks said.

Trends and patterns

Although the baseline has remained relatively unchanged in recent years, spikes in acts of religious and racial vilification have coincided with widely televised news events over the past 12 months.

But ADCQ Commissioner, Mr Kevin Cocks says the “random and opportunistic” nature of recent cases is a particular cause for concern.

“We’ve heard of quite a lot of instances where people might be waiting at a bus stop and others driving past yell out obscenities and threatening sorts of suggestions. Sometimes criminal assault is involved. We’re finding it’s targeted mostly at women and children, and usually by men,” Mr Cocks said.

“Other areas, of course, include the vandalism of mosques and individuals’ private homes or cars. And we now often see anonymous posts on blogs or facebook where individuals are making very generalised statements that sometimes cross over to serious vilification of the Muslim community,” he said.

“Also, it’s just not people from the Muslim community who are being targeted – anybody who may look different, or who wears other religious clothing such as Sikhs, are also being targeted.”

An effective systemic response

For perpetrators of racial or religious vilification to be brought to account, various factors need to fall in alignment.

Victims must be aware that they’re protected from vilification by Queensland law and, if so, must perceive the benefits of making a complaint to outweigh the costs. Police, where involved, need a sound applied knowledge of the Anti-Discrimination Act (1991), in particular Section 131A which draws the line between acts of vilification treated as civil matters versus those subject to the criminal legal code. Where present, bystanders can play an important part through recognising what they see, by offering support to victims and through later recalling important evidence.

The shortfall of available evidence is a recurring issue given the isolated and sudden onset of many instances. A QPS spokesperson said that successful prosecution by police is made more challenging for serious acts of vilification where the burden of proof shifts from ‘balance of probability’ to ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ under the criminal legal code.

Another legal challenge includes the increasing prevalence of vilification online where perpetrators who commit acts outside of Queensland (even where Queensland residents are targeted) are not subject to the Act.

The biggest challenge to successful prosecution though remains the persistent gap between incidences of vilification and people subsequently coming forward to lodge a complaint, either with the QPS or ADCQ.

“There are a few reasons for people not reporting, and one of the primary ones is that many people who have recently arrived in Australia come from countries where authorities are not trusted and perceived as corrupt,” said Mr Cocks.

“Those individuals are often suspicious and reluctant to come forward to the police or the ADCQ to make complaints. Or they might not even know that they’re protected under serious anti-vilification laws.”

Building trust and positive community relations has been an important part of the PEAG, the QPS and ADCQ’s strategy for nurturing a climate where people feel protected by law and free to make a complaint.

Another key strategy of the ADCQ has been the establishment of an online reporting portal where victims can lodge complaints anonymously. Such reporting allows the ADCQ to identity trends in racial or religious vilification as they emerge; information that in turn supports police on the front line.

The ADCQ also provides information to witnesses as part of its bystander strategy.

“We have developed a bystander video to encourage people who might witness these attacks to tell them what they can do in a safe way. Even just to help gather evidence through their iPhones during the incidents and taking notice of number plates and then making sure the person who has been attacked is alright and to be supportive of them in that process,” Mr Cocks said.

Mr Cocks also highlights the ‘I’ll Ride With You’ (#IllRideWithYou) campaign that went viral during the December Sydney hostage crisis as another “heart warming” example of how bystanders and everyday people can make a difference.

Moving beyond vilification

“Queensland has quite a diverse population…I think it’s just important to build relations with people and get to know each other. I’ve heard of people who may have been not supportive of people from the Muslim faith, (but) once they’ve had those opportunities to meet, they realise, ‘were all just people; parents, workers, business owners…there’s not a lot of difference’. That stems from the Golden Rule, which is to try to build relationships with your neighbours, and that one should treat others as one would like others to treat ones’ self,” said Mr Cocks.

“If we can all try to adhere to that rule, we will all go a long way towards building relationships and getting to know our community much better as Queenslanders,” he said.

A QPS spokesperson said that similar neighbourly actions have brought about positive resolutions in specific cases.

“Some hate filled graffiti was daubed on the outside of a prayer room and was reported to police.  Whilst the complaint was taken and investigations continued into bringing the offenders to account, the congregation made it clear that they were willing to forgive the perpetrators and wanted to work with them to help them better understand the congregation, rather than try to fight against it.”

(Originally published at http://www.mdaltd.org.au)

Helpful links

The open letter co-signed by Queensland Police Commissioner, Ian Stewart can be accessed at http://mypolice.qld.gov.au/blog/2015/03/03/open-letter-from-the-police-ethnic-advisory-group/

The ADCQ website contains lots of valuable information, including case studies that illustrate racial and religious vilification along with information about how to make a complaint – www.adcq.qld.gov.au

For information on the Police Ethnic Advisory Group (PEAG), go tohttps://www.police.qld.gov.au/programs/community/CulturalAdvisory/peag.htm

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