More than 150 people attended Reconciliation Queensland’s question and answer-style panel discussion on racial discrimination at Arana Leagues Club on Survival Day (Jan 26).

Among the panel members and invited guests were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander elders, politicians and other prominent figures.

Reconciliation Queensland’s Indigenous Co-Chair Maurice Serico said the strong attendance numbers showed that ordinary Australians yearned for a more meaningful way to mark their national day.

“Given the current debate around changing the date, the rallies around the country and the turnout to our event, I think we are witnessing a significant shift in mainstream attitudes to the way we define our national identity,” Maurice said.

“The challenge now is to maintain this momentum toward reconciliation, particularly in light of the divisive push to change section 18c of the racial discrimination act,” he said.

Speaking at the forum, Maurice shared some of his own experiences suffering discrimination and injustice because of his Aboriginality.

“If you suffer from that kind of racial discrimination, there is no way that you can share in the fruits of living in Australia that citizenship and full rights can offer,” he said.

Queensland Greens convenor and former senator Andrew Bartlett was master of ceremonies for the event, ably keeping everyone on topic and in a positive mood.

First Nations panellists included Torres Strait Islander elder Uncle Thomas Sebasio, Murri elder, author and activist Aunty Lesley Williams, and cultural change advocate Grant Sarra.

In his opening argument, Grant Sarra provided examples of racism he experienced as a child at school and also later as an adult working within the TAFE system through prison training programs in the 1980s.

He listed the insults that had been hurled at him while growing up, including words like “coon, nigger, boong, abbo” and revealed that his school teacher had threatened to publicly bathe him and his sister.

Then he recalled comments made by his superiors at work when he attempted to introduce a cross-cultural training program, “They said to me, you can’t speak for Aboriginal people. You don’t look black.”

“That’s what racism is,” Grant said, adding that everyone needed to acknowledge that no one was perfect and therefore had no right to judge others.

He also took issue with politicians going through the motions of acknowledging elders past and present at formal occasions.

“I want you to think about that when you’re in the audience when that’s said again, put your hand up and say ‘Thank you very much Minister for that acknowledgement of these people. Can you now tell us, the audience, how you are authentically doing what you’ve just said?’ and that will make a difference,” Grant said.

Aunty Lesley spoke about the wages that that had been stolen from her and many of her generation, and she recounted some of her experiences growing up in Cherbourg.

“Our elders were put there [Cherbourg] for a reason. Supposedly for their protection…but we had no idea that there was another agenda, [that] of white fellas deciding for us,” she said.

“Because they thought we had nothing up between our ears. So naturally we fought that.”

Uncle Thomas shared similar experiences of racism growing on Erub Island in the Torres Strait, including that the government only allowed white teachers to teach local children to fourth grade.

“Any teachers [who] teach beyond fourth grade, the government give them a one way ticket from the islands back to Australia and never to return to the Torres Strait,” he said.

Also on the panel was Queensland’s Anti-Discrimination Commissioner Kevin Cocks, State Minister for Multicultural Affairs Grace Grace and the Vice President of Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR) Queensland, Dr Wayne Sanderson.

Andrew Bartlett turned to Kevin Cocks for his view on whether it was possible for the law to “fix” racism in society.

In response Kevin said, “Racial discrimination…is based on fear, hate and power. And it’s embedded deeply in our structures or our institutions that exist and govern our lives on a daily basis.”

“Laws can’t change that. What laws can do is set a standard for where we as a community must start to aim, to strive for. To set a standard that you cannot say those degrading and inhumane words like ‘boong’. To set a standard that we are equals,” he said.

“We’re all born equal, we’ll all die equal. And to set a standard that we must stand up when we witness racism and we must speak out against it.”

Grace Grace agreed with the points Kevin made, but as a member of parliament she spoke in support of the State Government’s legislative response to racism.

“The Premier has made statements…that we are looking for a Queensland human rights act, which will be modelled similarly to the Victorian charter of human rights and responsibilities,” the Minister said.

“There’s work to be done on that and we’re working with all the stakeholders on what that could look like and hopefully that will come to Cabinet soon,” she said.

Speaking as a retired Uniting Church minister and as a clinical psychologist, Dr Wayne Sanderson warned about the human impact of racist comments by prominent political figures.

“I’ll never forget the reactions that I was hearing about from staff colleagues at Lifeline Brisbane, and especially the hundreds of people through the 24-hour crisis line, when Pauline Hanson first hit the headlines,” Wayne recalled.

“We were hearing people telling us that they’re shocked, because their little kids in the playground at school are getting whacked by people who they thought were their friends,” he said.

“That sort of stuff [was] reverberating and filtering throughout, making its waves in the community, and that was 1996 for goodness sake. Where are we now with those things?” he asked.

A number of audience members were also given an opportunity to contribute to the conversation and the consensus appeared to be that more events like this were needed to counter the growing threat of racist hate speech and sentiment in society.

The day ended with a rousing performance from the Songlines Community Choir.