“Breathtaking”: Race Discrimination Commissioner Slams Tony Abbott Over African Gangs Comments

Tim Soutphommasane warns Australia is returning to the bad old days.

Tim Southphomassane African Gangs

Want more Junkee in your life? Sign up to our newsletter, and follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook so you always know where to find us.

Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane says Australia is seeing a return to the racial politics of times gone by following a week of high profile attacks against Melbourne’s African community, and claims of an “African gangs” crime wave by senior Liberal politicians.

Soutphommasane, whose term as Race Discrimination Commissioner ends in a month, warned against using minority communities for electoral gain, and singled out the Victorian Liberal Party for a racially tinged pamphlet it sent to voters about gang violence ahead of the state election later this year.

“We should be clear that the majority of Australians don’t want race politics,” he told Junkee. “The majority of Australians take pride in our multicultural character. What we’re seeing in our public debates at the moment does not reflect the sentiment of the community at large.”

Soutphommasane also attacked former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who earlier this week wondered why we let “difficult” people into Australia.

“I guess the big question is why do we stir up trouble for ourselves by letting in people who are difficult to integrate?” Abbott told 2GB radio. “And this is why I think all credit to Peter Dutton, who is doing his best to manage our immigration program in our national interest.”

“We must remain true to our values. And that includes our immigration policy,” Soutphommasane told Junkee. “I found [Abbott’s] remarks earlier this week to slander migrants from Africa breathtaking. We should be very clear, that African-Australians make a very valuable contribution to our society.”

Abbott’s comments were the latest in a series of warnings about African gangs by senior Liberal party figures. Last Tuesday, prime minister Malcolm Turnbull warned about “street crime in Melbourne”. Frontbencher Christopher Pyne awkwardly backed him up later that day.

And this week, Peter Dutton blamed the death of Melbourne teen Laa Chol on the existence of African gangs.

In a speech at the University of Sydney today, Soutphommasane criticised politicians for what he said was a “return of race politics.”

“We are seeing a sustained fuelling of racial fear and anxiety,” he told the policy forum. “The Liberal opposition in Victoria has distributed pamphlets claiming it would ‘stop gangs hunting in packs’, featuring a shadowy photograph of hooded dark-skinned youths.”

“We are heading into some dangerous territory. The public discourse on multiculturalism, immigration and race has deteriorated. And there is a clear and urgent risk that our racial harmony will suffer,” he said.

“The noise from racial hysteria may drown out any talk about diversity.”

Soutphommasane also took issue with the frequent misuse of crime statistics to suggest that African-Australian immigrants are over-represented.

“If we were to focus only on race and ethnicity. We would see a very distorted public debate about crime,” he told Junkee. “Do we dwell on the ethnic background of murders like Adrian Bayley, Carl Williams or Roger Rogerson? We’re entitled to ask why it is that we focus on race, ehtnicity and crime for some groups but not for others.”

“The facts are clear. There is offending that takes place by people from that community — community leaders readily acknowledge there’s a small number of criminal offenders that warrant attention — but you shouldn’t reduce it down to race and ethnicity. We need to understand what other factors there are, such as economic and social disadvantage.”

Soutphommasane makes these comments less than a month before he wraps up his five-year stint as race discrimination commissioner. He’s played a crucial role in key race debates over the past half-decade, including fighting against proposed changes to hate speech laws within the Racial Discrimination Act.

“I don’t necessarily see my work as that of a ‘cultural warrior’, but race issues have been caught up in the so-called culture war,”Soutphommasane wrote in a blog post this month. “My approach has always been to be forthright in speaking out against racism — and to do my job without fear or favour.”