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Wednesday, 30 October 1996
Page: 4788

Senator KERNOT (Leader of the Australian Democrats)(4.27 p.m.) —The Australian Democrats support this motion. I want to spend some time talking about why this motion is necessary. It is absolutely necessary because of the deep hurt and offence that has been given to many decent Australians who are simply going about their business of living and making their own contribution to this nation—indigenous Australians, Australians who were born overseas, their children who were born here.

This motion is necessary because of the way that this debate has been absolutely spiralling out of control, because of the damage being done to Australia's reputation as a tolerant multicultural nation, because of the consequent effects on trade, investment, tourism and our capacity to attract overseas students.

This motion is necessary because of the delay that we have seen in this country showing the required leadership on this issue. Mr Malcolm McGregor in today's Financial Review describes it as a `shameful silence'. It is a silence that has resulted in newspaper pages day after day being filled with letters of barely repressed bigotry and hatred, and television news giving—again, evening after evening—great prominence to bigoted, ignorant and offensive views. The problem is that those views go unchallenged. Equal time has not been given to the other side of the issue.

It is a shameful silence that has resulted in letters, in this case from Chinese students, from Deakin University, La Trobe University, Melbourne University, Monash University, RMIT, et cetera, saying:

We are Chinese international students . . . studying in Australian universities . . . Unfortunately, we have been targeted by racial hatred and are suffering of racial hostility directed against us. The cases of . . . insults/attacks on our members, our families, and even on our children are increasing daily; some of us have been attacked by the racists at the railway stations, in the streets, on the roads, at the shopping centres, even at the schools and university campuses for no reasons.

This is Australia in 1996. It is a shameful silence that has resulted in the Vietnamese Australia Welfare Association of New South Wales, in its newsletter for this month, recording:

. . . the . . . Vietnamese Community in Australia have recently received bomb threats and this has made people question to what length freedom of speech should be allowed to go.

It is a shameful silence which invites others to perpetrate fraud. A respected former member of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, Mr Ted Egan, found, one Saturday morning, that somebody had written a letter in his name, expressing views quite the opposite of what he holds about future prospects for reconciliation and healing. Mr Egan had to have a letter published disassociating himself from that letter.

It is a shameful silence which sees my 13½-year-old daughter, with her close Asian friends of the last seven years, simply walking down the streets in Brisbane and being told, `Go back where you came from!'—something she has never experienced in her 13½ years of life. It is something which causes her distress and anguish and obviously to question why this is happening. It is, as others have referred to it, a silence that has seen visiting Asian troops subjected to insults and violence; a silence which has seen attacks on indigenous Australians, which has resulted in distortions of their place in history—in fact, almost a denial of their place in history.

In contrast to the silence, we have seen in this place the continued imputations directed towards indigenous Australians—of a lack of accountability, of fraud, of corruption, of incompetence—day after day after day. It has been very hard to have the other side of that story told as well. This motion is absolutely necessary because previous qualified silences have resulted in an incitement to vilification, a lack of respect—a hatred almost—all dressed up under the guise of free speech.

In the last 50 days, since that disgraceful speech, some Australians have spoken out. I know Democrats have spoken out. I am reminded that, in 1977, the Democrats were founded on the slogan of tolerance, honesty and compassion. Some people thought that was very idealistic and old-fashioned, but I think they are qualities that are very important in Australia in 1996.

It is important for leaders not to wait to sniff the wind of public opinion before they speak, because some truths are fundamental. One of those that I truly believe is that evil flourishes where good men and women sit and do nothing.

Let me address what the motion says. There is not much in it to quibble about. I find it very interesting that it avoids the use of the word `multiculturalism' and uses the words `cultural diversity'. That change is interesting to me. Of course I support reaffirmation of our support for the reconciliation process. Of course I support the sentiments associated with cultural diversity in this motion. But what is interesting to me are the omissions.

I compared the words with the words of the original motion, which the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Beazley) tabled some time ago, and that original motion certainly uses the word `multiculturalism', and it certainly talks about providing leadership. There is no mention of history in this motion. I find that incredibly disappointing and cowardly, because how are we going to stand up as a mature nation—Senator Hill talked about going towards the next century—without simply acknowledging our past, without acknowledging the fact that there have been failures of policy in the past?

We can do that without saying we have to acknowledge guilt. We can talk about the shame some may feel, but we have to acknowledge in order to heal and move on. So this motion is incredibly deficient in that respect. I listened to the speech in the other place by the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) in support of this motion and I note that he still asserts that we are too apologetic about our history and far too self-conscious about our achievements. How ironic that many countries in the world consider our success in multiculturalism to be one of our achievements—but we are not allowed to talk about our past.

I think leadership is incredibly important. Leadership sets the tone of this country. It defines what we are and what we aspire to be. Leadership leads to understanding, and I think there has been a failure of leadership in one important area, which has led to the capacity to exploit people's fears about difference. I think that failure of leadership has been on the pace of change in this country as a result of the economic rationalist policies of the last decade or so, a simple failure to say, `Of course we are living in an era of global capitalism; of course there are adjustments this country has to make; yes, there will be some pain on transition; yes, we are planning to ease the pain of transition.' We have had none of this.

That is why I accept that people feel insecure about the future. But that does not mean that they are excused for taking refuge in ignorance and racism. It is absolutely time for leadership on this issue. It is time to restore respect for the dignity of our fellow Australians. It is time to restore mutual respect, because that is what tolerance is based on. Mutual respect is the fundamental prerequisite of reconciliation, and it is that respect that has been missing in this debate for the last 50 days or so.

No-one in this country should be afraid of a rigorous debate about immigration levels and population policy. No-one should be afraid about rigorous debate on what constitutes appropriate policy directions in indigenous affairs, but it has to be a debate without hate. I have been ashamed of the debate in this country over the past 50 days. I do not want to live in a country that is perceived as racist by Australians who live here and by our important neighbours overseas.

Mr Howard may say he abhors racism and he may hope that this motion proves that, but it is my view and the Democrats' view that it will take more than a resolution of a couple of hundred parliamentarians to redress the deep hurt and offence that has been caused to so many Australians. It will take more than this motion to redress the damage that has been created by 50 days of qualified shameful silence. Make no mistake about it—the damage that has been done is long term and it is deep. The healing that we were hoping would happen as we move into the next century has irreparably been set back.

The Democrats support this motion, but they support it with the qualifications that I have made in my comments this afternoon. It is very disappointing to me that we have omitted some important facets—the reality of history and the acknowledgment of what leadership can do in this country.