Race politics 'back in Aust': commissioner

Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane. Photo: Wolter Peeters
Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane. Photo: Wolter Peeters

"Race politics" is back in Australia, the outgoing race discrimination commissioner has declared, accusing federal politicians of using multicultural issues to advance their political agendas.

Tim Soutphommasane criticised Turnbull government ministers for leading debates about "ethnic separatism" and sparking "panic and hysteria about African gangs".

"We must remain vigilant because race politics is back," he said in his final speech as commissioner in Sydney on Monday night.

"Right now, it feels like there has never been a more exciting time to be a dog-whistling politician or race-baiting commentator in Australia."

It's something he did not see coming five years ago when he was appointed to the role.

"I wouldn't have expected that the biggest threats to racial harmony would come from within our parliaments and from sections of our media. Yet here we are."

Dr Soutphommasane noted that race and ethnicity were "very squarely" at the centre of many debates about crimes committed by South Sudanese youth, but not when discussing white murderers such as Adrian Bayley or Roger Rogerson.

And that created division.

"In the past, we've had non-partisan, bi-partisan leadership on race issues (and) there's been an acknowledgement that's there's been too much at stake for race issues to be placed on the political agenda and subject to partisan contests," he told ABC radio on Monday.

He also lashed media outlets for fuelling racism by running debates without a sense of proportion and in the face of "compelling evidence" to the contrary.

Dr Soutphommasane pointed to a 2017 Fairfax Ipsos poll showing almost 80 per cent of Australians did not support changing 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act to legalise speech that "offends, insults or humiliates" on the basis of race.

"There's strong support for racial equality and multiculturism, society in Australia but we don't always see that reflected in our political and media debates," he said.

"More people will need to stand up right now because we are seeing racism come back in a resurgent way."

Federal Attorney-General Christian Porter is yet to announce Dr Soutphommasane's replacement.

Australian Associated Press

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