“AUSTRALIA’S level of racism has gone down on the Richter scale,” retired High Court judge Michael Kirby says.
“From a 10 when I was a boy, it’s now a seven.”
It is a disturbing statement.
That it comes from the man who retired in 2009 as the longest-serving judge in Australian history only reinforces how far the nation still has to come.
“Australia was built on racist attitudes, racism was enshrined in legislation,” the former High Court Justice says.
“There is a long way to go.”
Yet the number of international students who have arrived in the last decade shows Australia is a popular place to learn. And it is the international education industry which has helped shift the views of many, Mr Kirby says.
Bringing young international students with “flexible attitudes” to the island nation helps Australians to know, understand and embrace people from different backgrounds, Mr Kirby states.
“It’s easier to dislike them when you don’t know them,” says the man who sat on Australia’s highest court for 13 years, and who for nine years was Chancellor of Macquarie University in Sydney.
“[Meeting different people] reinforces what Australian students are taught in theory.”
The ease of meeting a student from another nation has never been greater. In 2009 the number of enrolled international students hit a record 630,663, up 130 per cent from just seven years earlier.
His Honour (he no longer retains the Justice title) does not pretend to know exactly how great a factor international education has been in creating a more tolerant country. But the effect of being able to see and relate to those who might seem different reminds him of the influence a TV soap opera had decades ago on opinions of the gay population.
The suburban based soapie Number 96 portrayed the first openly homosexual man on Australian television, a lawyer played by Joe Hasham.
“Number 96 played a significant role in changing attitudes to gays…it did more than two hundred learned, serious-minded speeches could have,” Mr Kirby says.
In addition to the personal connection many Australians have had with international students in the last 20 years, countless businesses and education providers have come to rely on the foreign student dollar.
Mr Kirby says this can help to change some intolerant views.
“[As] more Australians get an economic investment, this gives people a stake in [the students’] presence,” he says.
Crimes against international students
Yet seven on the Richter scale is still an almighty quake, and overseas students have not all been free from attack – physical and verbal.
Robberies of students, particularly from India, and a number of highly-publicised serious assaults have seen public demonstrations in Melbourne in 2009, with the Indian community demanding better protection.
In February last year, Meld Magazine had reported the acknowledgment by then-Chief Police Commissioner Simon Overland that race had been playing some part in the over-representation of international students, in particular Indian students, among robbery victims.
“Undoubtedly some of what we’re seeing is racism,” the Chief Commissioner had said.
Michael Kirby is surprised to learn of the remark from Meld, but is glad at least one public official was prepared to make it at the time.
“I support that,” Mr Kirby says.
“Had there been more comments of that kind, there would have been less damage to the Australian education industry, particularly in India.”
Mr Kirby is highly critical of the “denialist” manner in which the spate of attacks on international students had been managed and presented by government.
He acknowledges, as Chief Commissioner Overland had at the time, most victims were likely targeted because they were on their own, often travelling late at night for work, and were easy targets for opportunistic criminals.
“They probably would have been attacked even if they weren’t of [predominantly] Indian background,” MrKirby says.
But he says authorities had failed to confront the issue as they should have.
“They should have made it clear that if there was even the slightest element of race, perpetrators would face the full effect of the law, and race would be taken into account in sentencing.”
The co-author of a decade-long study on racist attitudes in Australia agrees with Kirby that the 2009 attacks on Indian students, to the extent they had been racially motivated, reflects a more widespread intolerance.
Head of University of Western Sydney’s Social Sciences Department Kevin Dunn has said the 2009 attacks had revealed “a deep undercurrent of racist incivility” against those who appear different.
With his report, published in September, showing more than 43 per cent of Indians and Sri Lankans surveyed had experienced discrimination via name-calling or similar insults, Professor Dunn echoes Kirby’s view that leaders had to open up and confront the issue.
“This country would be in a far better position today if more political effort was expended on anti-racism initiatives than it was on denying racism,” Professor Dunn said.
Michael Kirby says the public relations handling of the 2009 events had been “very poor”.
“It was not a good look,” Kirby says.
Since 2009, the number of international students enrolled in Australian courses has dropped, Australian International Education figures show.
The number of Indian students enrolled had fallen by more than 20,000 in 2010. The Strategic Review of the Student Visa Program, completed by Michael Knight this year, outlines a range of factors responsible the dip, with the 2009 events and their publicity included among separate economic and permanent residency factors.
“[The attacks] undermined Australia’s reputation as a safe destination for students…it will take some time to overcome the negative perceptions,” Mr Knight said.
Attitudes towards migration
An honorary graduate of universities in India and Sri Lanka, Mr Kirby says while there is a view in Asia that Australia accepts student migration simply for economic advantage, the nation will remain an attractive place for Asian students.
“That’s logical; we’re an English speaking, democratic, generally safe country on the edge of Asia,” Mr Kirby says.
Economics aside, Mr Kirby would like to see more international students studying at secondary schools around the country. It is in our interests, he says, for young Australians to meet people from other backgrounds.
Mr Kirby says international education can help Australia show the world it can be relied on to provide a place to study free from the racism of the past.
“We must be worthy of the trust of other countries.”