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It’s been an interesting few weeks since I stepped into the national diversity debate with a post on LinkedIn.  It’s not something I recommend you do for fun, but it has been a very enlightening experience engaging in discussion and debate with a wide cross section of people on this topic.  And what has become clear to me is this is a discussion we need to openly have as a country.  Because right at the heart of this conversation – and this was the key point of my post – is the simple, yet very nuanced, concept of tolerance.

I am passionate about wanting to live and work in a diverse, inclusive and tolerant society.  And in Australia, unlike many other jurisdictions in the world, we have a chance to strive for this ideal.  But only if we understand that this comes with one important condition – an ability to accept differences.  It’s very easy to accept people who look and think like us, but what really matters is whether we can truly accept people who are different to us – those that come from different backgrounds and cultures and who have different life experiences, personal attributes, perspectives and beliefs.  

Since I wrote on this topic, we have seen both the best and worst examples of tolerance in Australia.  Three weeks ago at the MCG, two nations with a history of conflict and tension – India and Pakistan – played a game of cricket in front of 90,000+ excited (and very loud) fans. And with its carnival like atmosphere, it was a genuine celebration of what living in a vibrant and tolerant multicultural society is all about.  That very same day, a 15 year old Indigenous schoolboy, Cassius Turvey, tragically died after he was assaulted in a senseless attack walking home from school – a shocking and shameful example of intolerance which has stirred a deep and visceral grass roots reaction around the country.

As a leader, I want to foster an environment at Deloitte where we celebrate all forms of diversity and are tolerant and respectful of our differences – a place where people can be authentic and are judged by demonstrated behaviours, actions and values, not by any personal characteristics.  At one level this is quite easy to say, but at another level this aspiration has a hard and difficult edge.  Because it means we have to be comfortable with challenge, personal differences and diverse points of view.  And, importantly, it also means we need to take action in situations where people are demonstrably intolerant of others.

A good friend of mine used to say ‘the standard we accept is the standard we walk past’ and this has always strongly resonated with me.  And that is why I found it hard to walk past the situation I wrote about in my post and why we need to openly acknowledge the prejudice at the heart of the Cassius Turvey tragedy.  Because history has shown that discrimination of any form breeds further discrimination and intolerance breeds further intolerance.  And the uncomfortable truth is we can’t apply the concept of tolerance selectively – we can’t accept someone because of their gender but not their sexuality, because of their culture but not their religion, because of their physical differences but not their mental differences, or because they agree with us on some things and not others.

Perhaps I am an idealist but I want to live in a nation and society which is genuinely diverse, where difference is embraced not ostracised, where people are judged on their actions not their personal attributes or beliefs, and where we can debate things that matter openly, honestly and respectfully.  For me this is what a true democracy is all about and why the concept of tolerance is so important and worth fighting for.