London: Hate speech and counter-terrorism measures may be fuelling a general rise in racism, xenophobia and discrimination in Australia, a UN committee says.
Australian government officials were grilled in Geneva on Tuesday by the UN's Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, over a periodic report on our country's progress in tackling racism and disadvantage
It was Australia's first appearance before the committee since 2010.
Verene Shepherd, the committee's rapporteur for Australia, welcomed our progress in adopting an anti-racism strategy, appointing a race discrimination commissioner and bringing in new health and justice programs for indigenous people.
However she "voiced concern that hate speech and counter-terrorism measures were fuelling racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia and ethnic-based discrimination in the country", according to notes on the meeting released by the committee on Tuesday evening.
Shepherd said the Australian government needed to target the minority of Australians who do not want multiculturalism.
Tim Soutphommasane, the Race Discrimination Commissioner, told the committee there were "clear indications that racial intolerance and racial discrimination are on the rise" in Australia.
"It is especially concerning that, as in many other countries, extreme nationalist organisations have grown in prominence within public debates about race and immigration".
Another committee expert, Gun Kut, asked what Australia was doing to counter "negative trends" such as "racism in political discourse and targeting of migrants by far-right groups".
Adrianne Walters, from Australia's Human Rights Law Centre, was at the hearing in Geneva and said the UN committee had made it clear that Australia has considerable work to do to eliminate racism from our institutions, laws and public debate.
"The Committee was particularly concerned about Australia's increasingly cruel treatment of refugees and people seeking asylum and demanded to know why the Australian Government has not evacuated all the men, women and children on Manus Island and Nauru to safety in Australia," Walters said.
The committee also homed in on the pace at which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are being drawn into the quicksand of child protection and criminal justice systems.
Walters said the Australian Government's response to the committee on the asylum issue "was typically obtuse".
And she said the Committee's frustration with Australia's inadequate responses to questions was clear, with Australia pointedly asked twice about whether it will implement the recommendations of the landmark Northern Territory Royal Commission in the Northern Territory and beyond.
Walters said she shared the committee's grave concerns about the deterioration of political discourse in Australia and the rise of xenophobia and nationalism.
"While the Australian Government claims a strong commitment to multiculturalism, attempts to weaken vital racial vilification laws and to make citizenship harder for migrants in the last few years, together with the cynical linking of multicultural policy with terrorism and national security, create a dangerous authorising environment for racism and xenophobia," she said.
Lachlan Strahan, the Department of Foreign Affairs first assistant secretary, told the committee that "unfortunately, some Australians said repulsive things about racial issues, but the majority rejected such ugly discourse", according to the committee notes.
He said far-right parties were thankfully small and splintered "even though sometimes they could be very loud".
Racist language was "called out" and political leaders and courts were willing to take "the right kind of action to defend diversity and tolerance", he said.
The enemies of diversity were the enemies of democracy, he said.
Shepherd noted that the previous president of Australian Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, had been "vilified by senior officials and undermined financially".
She was concerned by recent changes to the AHRC including the reduction of the timeframe for people to make complaints.
She also highlighted the increasing percentage of indigenous women in prison, and expressed concern about the harsh living conditions in offshore detention centres.
Shepherd urged Australia to end its boat turnback policy and offshore detention of asylum seekers.
The Australian delegation defended Australia's policy on asylum seekers who arrived by boat, saying our tough stance on people smuggling had decreased criminal activities, and people intercepted at sea would not be settled in Australia because the government wanted to "send a clear message to people smugglers".
The committee also complained that plans for an English language test for would-be citizens seemed discriminatory.
Strahan said the citizenship legislation was "in the hands of politicians", according to the committee notes.