by Jaclyn Keast
Academic, political philosopher, social commentator, writer, and columnist Dr Tim Soutphommasane, who was recently appointed Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner, is committed to the value and power of friendship. He believes friendship in public life is something different to the friendship we may hold dear in our private lives. It’s a sense of friendship that exists between fellow citizens, a ‘civic’ friendship, underpinned by the values we are able to share by virtue of Australian citizenship.
One of Dr Tim Soutphommasane’s earliest childhood memories is the day he and his family became Australian citizens.
“My parents said to me that we are now Australian, that I was now Australian. Those words have always stayed with me. Citizenship for me isn’t just about a certificate or having a passport. It’s a statement about where you belong and who you are,” he says.
Dr Soutphommasane has spent much of his career as a journalist, author and Oxford scholar exploring ideas of citizenship, politics and the nature of being Australian.
He says it is a common immigrant experience to question Australian identity in a way that some who’ve been here generations do not. He personally identifies as a first-generation Australian with Laos and Chinese heritage. For some that might be a mouthful, but he sees no reason to think it’s unworkable.
“I make sense of it by anchoring it in my understanding of Australian citizenship,” he says. “By having a shared public identity and culture, you ensure there is room for people to express themselves in their own way with comfort and without feeling they need to conform or distort themselves.
“You can be someone who expresses your Italian or Greek or Lebanese or Chinese cultural heritage but you can also, at the same time, embrace your Australian citizenship. There’s no contradiction in that.”
In his PEN Free Voices lecture, entitled ‘Friendship and Politics’, Dr Soutphommasane explores whether ideas of friendship need to return to our thinking about Australian public life.
Friendship in public life, he stresses, is something different to the friendship we may hold dear in our private lives. It’s a sense of friendship that exists between fellow citizens, a ‘civic’ friendship, underpinned by the values we are able to share by virtue of Australian citizenship.
“Some people would say in a society you need to share a certain cultural lifestyle or ancestry, but I don’t think that way of understanding community makes sense in our modern and diverse society,” he says. “The things that we do share are the things we use to guide how we treat others in our public life.”
It’s the ‘fair go’. It’s getting in the front seat of taxi. It’s addressing people by their first names.
While these examples may sound trivial, Tim Soutphommasane says they are expressions of something deeper, a sense of openness and fairness that defines Australian public life. In his 2012 book, Don’t Go Back To Where You Came From: Why Mutliculturalism Works, he says this sense of egalitarianism and a clear process to citizenship are part of Australia’s success as a multicultural society, especially compared to some European countries.
As Australia’s new Race Discrimination Commissioner, he wishes to appeal to this notion of a civic friendship as a tool to fight racism.
“When racism occurs, it’s not merely about personal injury. It’s something that causes a civic wound. It’s offensive to our notions of equality and fairness. These are values that members of society can all accept and share,” he says.
Dr Soutphommasane’s parents fled Laos after the communist takeover in 1975. They spent time in a refugee camp in Thailand before resettling in the south of France, where he was born in 1982. The family moved to Australia in 1985 under the Family Reunion Program, and began a new life in south-west Sydney. Within three years, they were citizens.
“My parents were never able to take out French citizenship, even though they lived in France for 10 years. That alone says something, I think, about how they regarded Australia. They were clearly able to call this place their home,” he says.
That’s not to say the course of immigration always ran smooth. His parents didn’t speak fluent English, only fluent French. They suffered several encounters with racism. However, they always tried to instil in him the value of Australian citizenship.
But growing up as an Asian-Australian during the 1990s, an era marked by the anti-Asian sentiment pushed by Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party, wasn’t always easy. Tim Soutphommasane didn’t always feel as comfortable calling himself Australian as he does now.
“Among my classmates at school or among people in my local community, the phrase Australian would describe people who were Anglo-Celtic, rather than a civic identity that included people of different racial or ethnic backgrounds,” he says.
One incident that sticks with him in shaping his thoughts of national identity was an ANZAC Day ceremony during his time at Hurlstone Agricultural High School. A fellow student asked for the school to “pause and remember the sacrifices of our forebears, so that we can enjoy the Australian way of life”. He remembers feeling confused as that student was also of Asian descent. He knew his forebears weren’t at Gallipoli, rather more likely they were on the banks of the Mekong. In fact, he knew that some of those who signed up to fight for Australia may have been motivated by the desire to keep his forebears out.
However, he doesn’t feel excluded from ANZAC Day these days. He feels he has every right to participate in it, as a day that remembers the contributions and sacrifices that citizens make for their country.
Talking with Tim Soutphommasane, it’s easy to forget he is only 31. His eloquence is striking; he often pauses over questions, explaining he wants to give “quite perfect answers”. It’s no surprise to learn he was former NSW Premier Bob Carr’s speechwriter at the mere age of 21.
Politics has always been an interest of his and his PhD from Oxford University centred on political philosophy. This interest was born primarily from a passion for social justice, something he says began when hew was as a teenager reading American philosopher John Rawls in Cabramatta Public Library. He is quick to say “a good society is only as good as how it treats its most vulnerable”.
It’s this passion for social justice that he hopes will inform his five-year term as the Race Discrimination Commissioner. While he acknowledges there is work to do, he is optimistic.
“It always helps to take a long view of Australian society. It was only just over four decades ago that the White Australia Policy was partially in place. In the space of four decades, we’ve gone from White Australia to multicultural Australia and we’ve done that in a very admirable way. That gives me a lot of encouragement as to how we can deal with the challenge of racism in the years to come.”