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Monday, 23 November 2015
Page: 13326


Ms CHESTERS (Bendigo) (19:22): In rising to speak on the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Allegiance to Australia) Bill 2015, I think it is important, given my job title as the federal member for Bendigo, to put on the record some comments about citizenship, as it is an issue that has been debated widely in my electorate for the last few months—in fact, probably the good part of two years, since our council decided to approve the application for a mosque to be built in Bendigo.

Quite often, the debate is: what is citizenship? What are our rights as Australian citizens? Sadly, what has happened in my community is that some people have confused citizenship and multiculturalism with patriotism. They have confused what we believe and uphold to be our rights and obligations as Australian citizens for a campaign which is against that. Locally, we have seen people don the Australian flag—basically, it is a racism campaign—and call for councillors to oppose the construction of the mosque. We have seen people in the name of citizenship demand that our local councillors and our local representatives not respect people's right to freedom of religion but instead call on them not to approve an application to build a mosque. We have seen people put forward the suggestion that Sharia law is about to be imposed on Bendigo—a ridiculous claim. A number of lies have been peddled by far right-wing extremist groups in the name of Australia, in the name of patriotism and in the name of Australian values and citizenship.

Surely, to uphold Australian values and citizenship, one would think the idea of a fair go would be to defend the Australian spirit and not isolate and misrepresent those of a particular belief. What some people have missed in this debate about citizenship, particularly in our communities and less so in what is being debated here today—is that modern Australia is a multicultural Australia. Modern Australia is now a multicultural society where every individual's right to practice his or her beliefs within the framework of the law follows the cultural tradition where that is respected and protected.

We all enjoy going to citizenship ceremonies. On the weekend, I had the opportunity to go to an unusual citizenship ceremony at our local Bendigo basketball stadium. Kelsey Griffin, who is a Bendigo Spirit basketball player—in fact one of our best—took the step to become an Australian citizen, and she did so with her family and with the Bendigo Spirit family in front of a full stadium. I thanked Kelsey for taking the unusual step to hold her own citizenship ceremony at the end of the game, because it gave a number of people in Bendigo the opportunity to engage in a citizenship ceremony they otherwise would not have. I was proud when our mayor read out the values that we hold as Australian citizens. Something that is lost at the moment in our national conversation is what it means to be an Australian, what it means to take out Australian citizenship, and the values that come with that. It means that we are part of an inclusive, multicultural society, that we respect one another's right to worship their religion and to express their culture and values. People do not give this up when they come to Australia; it is all within the framework of our legal system. We are a secular society but we do respect people's right to bring their culture here to this country and to share it with us.

Australia today is a rich tapestry. Many cultures have woven together to form our nation's fabric. Our strength is our diversity. I am the daughter of migrants. Both my parents are from England. I had to give up my British citizenship to run for parliament. When this bill was first put forward, before it went through the committee process and was heavily amended to become the bill that we have before us to today, I did question how it could impact on my family—how it could affect my sisters or, in fact, my parents—and the many other people who live in the Bendigo electorate who have dual citizenship. We are, quite frankly, one of the areas in this country that has the lowest number of people who were born overseas or who have a parent who was born overseas. Yet, despite the fact that we have higher than the national average of Australian-born residents, we are a community that celebrates diversity, that is inclusive. This goes back to the very beginning of our town.

We are a gold rush town and, as such, we had a large Chinese population in Bendigo. We also had a Cornish population and a US population. Their names still ring true in many parts of our town. But, as the Bendigo Chinese will tell you, the story of their journey towards citizenship has not been equal to, or the same as, others in Bendigo. They do not reflect kindly on Sir John Quick, who many in this place hold up to being one of the fathers of Federation. They believe he actively excluded them from citizenship when this country was first formed. Things have changed and we now do not exclude Chinese Australians or, in fact, any cultural group, from participating in our democracy.

The debate that we are having at the moment in Bendigo and in broader Australia involves groups—far-right extremist groups—that are calling for other groups to be excluded. They are saying, publicly as well as privately through social media and through bombarding people's letterboxes, that people who practise the Islamic faith should be excluded. They try to say they are not racist, yet they are everything but that. What I am concerned about with this debate is that when it started, when the former Prime Minister tabled this legislation, those same fears were invoked.

People in my electorate were having their letterboxes bombarded with this awful hate-speech mail. At the same time we had a Prime Minister saying that we will strip people of their citizenship if they engage in terrorism acts. But what the legislation that was first put before the public failed to do was ensure that there was proper and due process. When the bill was first put forward it was messy and sloppy. We were not sure how people who fell into this category would have their citizenship stripped. The bill was therefore sent to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, which received from constitutional experts a number of written submissions in evidence during its hearings. This process raised serious concerns with the original bill: whether it was constitutional and whether it could be struck down by the High Court.

As well as the committee process, the government at the same time also launched a discussion paper titled Australian citizenship: your right, your responsibility, and held a number of public meetings. I felt that one of the booklets that was released at the time inflamed the situation we had in Bendigo. When people raised an issue of concern with me, when they said they were worried about sharia law being imposed, that they were worried about what the mosque would mean for Bendigo, I would send them a copy of what we talk about at citizenship ceremonies. It was quite a positive document that talked about how we are an inclusive society and how our rights and obligations as Australian citizens are to respect one another. But this new document, Australian citizenship: your right, your responsibility, talks about terrorism in the very first page. It talks about the number of people who have been arrested in relation to terrorism and it talks about the Sydney siege. These are serious issues—absolutely—but is it appropriate to have them in a document that should be about celebrating Australian citizenship?

Any acts of violence should be condemned. Our law enforcement agencies are doing an outstanding job of ensuring that people who are terrorist threats are being investigated, arrested and prosecuted, as they should be. What we talked very little about, though, and what we have had a stunning lack of commentary about from government and from the frontbenchers—in fact where there has been dead silence—is the number of people who have been arrested who are associated with far-right activism. Equally, just as many people involved in far-right activism have been arrested for what I would class as similar situations to others involved in terrorism. A number have been arrested on weapons charges. A number have been arrested and police have discovered tasers, bomb-making manuals and other equipment during the raids. Yet these people, who are the anti-Islam campaigners, get very little criticism from this government. If these people had been of the Islamic faith there would be speaker after speaker standing up to condemn them. if these people had been of the Islamic faith, as opposed to being white supremacists, how many speeches condemning these people would we have heard from frontbenchers in this place.

The government has failed to be measured and equally to go after the far right, as they have gone after others in our community—whether it is just politically or ideologically convenient. I call on the government to be equally measured. In my community we know what happens when we do not have political leadership on this issue. We see the things we have seen, not just in Melton but in Bendigo—some locals caught up in the lies and the misinformation. I do my duty, as local MPs would do, and explain to people that sharia law cannot be imposed upon Bendigo. It is ridiculous to suggest that. I explained how our Constitution works. I explain their rights and obligations as Australian citizens: how they need to be inclusive and how our country is built on this proud tradition of migration.

But it is not something Bendigo can do on its own. We need the support of our political leaders here in this place to condemn the far-right-wing extremism we are seeing. Just as we have seen in this booklet that talks about people being arrested for terrorism and the Sydney siege, perhaps it should also talk about the far-right extremists who have been arrested and have had bomb-making equipment—people who want to preach hate and who have openly said they are quite happy to take up arms in their campaign to keep Islam out of Australia.

This kind of violence should be condemned by all of us in this place. There should be a $40 million fund established for an anti-radicalisation campaign of the far-right extremist groups. I applaud the government's efforts to work with the Muslim community in Australia, and the $40 million they have put on the table to help counter the radicalisation of young Muslim men and women. But I want to see $40 million put on the table to help communities like my community in Bendigo, and other communities, to tackle the radicalisation from the far-right white supremacists.

We are engaged in an education campaign. A lot of our citizenship values are involved in that, reminding people that we must be an inclusive and tolerant society. It is who we are as a country. But resourcing is everything. The frustration that we have locally is that we are doing it on the smell of an oily rag. Councils and health groups are putting together these resources and materials to help explain to people that what is being pushed on them by the far right is not true. It is not patriotic, it is not Australian and it is not about freedom of speech.

The bill before us today has been heavily amended and it is one that Labor can now support. A number of constitutional questions have been raised by legal experts, but it is an issue for the government. Suffice to say that at the end of the day the government will need to ensure that the legislation that is put before the parliament is constitutional and will stand up to any High Court challenge. Citizenship is not just a gift, it is also a right of people here in this country. It is something we all must value, regardless of your beliefs or your religion.