The issue of discrimination has been in the news a lot recently. The relative merits or evils of section 18C of the Race Discrimination Act have been hotly debated.

With this backdrop, it was timely that we released our annual Youth Survey in early December. It showed young people’s concern about equity and discrimination continue to grow, featuring as the second top issue nationally in 2016.

Worryingly, just over one quarter of young people indicated that they had experienced some form of unfair treatment or discrimination in the last twelve months. Race or cultural background was the reason for discrimination in over 30 per cent of these cases.

In addition, half of young people surveyed had witnessed someone else being unfairly treated or discriminated against in the last twelve months. The discrimination they witnessed was most commonly on the basis of race/cultural background (57.5%).

Sadly, the results showed us that the experience of discrimination was not borne equally by all respondents. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people were almost twice as likely to have experienced discrimination on the basis of race or cultural background compared to non-Indigenous young people (55% compared to 28%). They were also more likely to experience unfair treatment or discrimination on the basis of mental health, age, physical health or ability, sexuality, religion and other reasons than their non-Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peers.

It’s always saddening and disheartening to see young people talking about these issues in such high volumes. But neither I, nor our staff, found the results particularly surprising. We have at our finger tips a wealth of data which shows not only the levels of discrimination but the impact it has on those affected.

We know that discrimination can be a negative influence on mental health and the Youth Survey continues to show that coping with stress is young people’s top personal concern and mental health is a rising national concern.

With this in mind we made our submission to the parliamentary inquiry into Freedom of Speech in Australia. With high levels of ongoing racial discrimination and the negative impacts this has on the wellbeing of many people, including young people, we do not believe that Part IIA of the Racial Discrimination Act imposes unreasonable restrictions upon freedom of speech, and do not think that ss.18C and 18D should be reformed.

Let me be really clear…s.18C is not the problem, discrimination is.

Racial vilification causes harm at many levels and protecting people from that harm is an appropriate object of government legislation. Freedom of expression is not an absolute right and preventing the harm caused by racist speech is of sufficient importance to warrant appropriate restrictions.

The Australian government needs to show leadership in protecting people from racial discrimination and the harm that can follow. Businesses, media, schools, sports and community groups also have a role to play in combatting discrimination, but leadership should come from the top with our representatives in government fostering a national conversation where everyone feels respected.

Our young people have a right to feel safe from needless victimisation. We owe them that much.

Photo of Catherine Yeomans


Catherine Yeomans
CEO Mission Australia



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