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Racism is no joke in new war on prejudice

AUSTRALIA. The state of Victoria plans a tougher line on ethnic policies reports Geoff Maslen.

An Aborigine walks into an outback pub wearing one flip-flop. "Ah," says the barman, "ya lose a thong, mate?" "Nah," says the Aborigine. "I found one."

If the Victorian government has its way, such jokes will be banned in all state schools: a new anti-racism policy intended for schools will ban students and teachers from telling ethnic jokes, expressing views of people that are based on stereotypes of national identity, or teasing others because of their skin colour or ethnic-religious clothing.

Teachers or students accused of racial discrimination will face disciplinary action if complaints are made, and schools will be expected to take all reasonable steps to prevent racism.

Although racist jokes are exempt under federal anti-discrimination laws, the Victorian government wants them outlawed in school and will insist that principals set up grievance procedures to examine claims of racism by students or staff.

Australia has been engulfed in a fierce debate over race since Queensland independent parliamentarian Pauline Hanson used her maiden address in the House of Representatives to call for an end to Asian immigration and special help for Aborigines.

Ms Hanson established a One Nation party which will try to win seats at the next federal election. Its policies include cancelling additional welfare benefits to Aborigines, denying foreigners the right to buy land, and preventing Asian immigration.

The Victorian government decided to take action against racism in schools after becoming frustrated at a delay by the federal government in setting up a pound;2.5 million anti-racism campaign.

The state anti-racism policy says school principals will be expected to provide all members of school communities with a "fair, efficient and consistent process for investigating complaints of discrimination and harassment".

It says schools should adopt strategies to identify and counter cultural bias and prejudice; provide cross-cultural training for teachers; offer conflict management courses for staff and students; and emphasise the positive elements of cultural diversity in all teaching.

Schools will also be required to include multicultural themes in all key learning areas within two years and Aboriginal culture will form part of the core curriculum.

A national survey of teacher attitudes in the 1980s and then in the mid-1990s found that while there has always been strong support among Australian teachers for multiculturalism, this had grown over the past decade.

Researchers at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and the Australian Catholic University found strong support for the maintenance of immigrant children's cultural heritage.

Teachers, however, said they were not well-equipped to teach about these heritages, especially for smaller minority groups.

"A very significant shift has also occurred in attitudes towards the political participation of ethnic groups," said research leader Dr Des Cahill. "In the 1980s, 45 per cent of teachers agreed that 'some ethnic groups have become too aggressive in their demands on Australian society', while 10 years later this had fallen to 15 per cent."

Dr Cahill said that overall, the survey results showed a strong majority of teachers were in favour of a multicultural policy, with the overwhelming majority convinced that the "promotion of multiculturalism will not lead to social tensions and community disharmony".

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