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Monday, 26 March 2001
Page: 23008

Senator TCHEN (10:20 PM) —I rise tonight to speak on a topic that is rarely spoken about in this chamber, which is rather strange, given that the purpose of this chamber is to be one of the two highest political forums of the nation. The topic I wish to speak on is politics and political parties or, more precisely, the image of political parties. I shall proceed by way of a couple of recent events to illustrate how the image of political parties can have nothing to do with the reality of the same political parties.

Last weekend, the Queensland division of the National Party took what the Brisbane Courier-Mail called `two difficult but proper decisions' that will help it retain its place as the dominant political party in rural Queensland. The first decision was to put the One Nation party last in its Senate preferences at the next election. The second decision was to re-endorse Senator Ron Boswell in the No. 1 spot on its Senate ticket. These are important decisions not only for the National Party but also for Australia. The National Party should be congratulated for making them and Senator Boswell should be congratulated not only for his reindorsement but also for his courageous and successful efforts to persuade his party to stand by its proud history of serving the people in rural and regional Australia and its even prouder history of having helped lead Australia to greatness on the world stage as a trading nation.

I used the word greatness, and it is true. Today we sometimes forget that it was the National Party, under the leadership of the late John McEwen, that helped develop Australia into, proportionate to our population size, one of the most powerful trading nations and one of the most outward looking nations of the world. Since 1996, in coalition the National Party has again helped to repair much of the damage done to rural and regional Australia during the preceding decades due to the Labor government's neglect—neglect that has bred the kind of discontent that unscrupulous opportunists, typified by the One Nation Party, will seek to fan and use to seduce for their own aggrandisement. This kind of unscrupulousness Mrs Pauline Hanson demonstrated on the weekend, when she warned the voters of Queensland about the dangers of giving government to the Labor Party at the next election, because, if she did not get her way, she would direct preferences to the Labor Party. What a contradiction! However, that is Mrs Hanson.

As far as the National Party is concerned, I am enormously reassured by the fact that Senator Boswell and the National Party will stand as a bulwark against unprincipled opportunists, such as the One Nation Party represents, at the next election. Here, we look at the image of a party which is supposed to be conservative and which is denigrated as conservative by the Labor Party, and yet it has the courage—which the Queensland Labor Party, at a state election, did not have—to stand up against One Nation.

Now let me turn to a political party image of a different kind. One of the images which the Labor Party has laboured to acquire for itself is that it is supposed to be the party for the ethnic communities of Australia. It is supposed to be a party that promotes multiculturalism and ethnic diversity in politics. How does this image fit reality? Let me tell you the story of a Chinese Australian member of the Australian Labor Party, a man who has given faithful and loyal service to the Labor Party for 30 years, who is nevertheless a man who is not afraid to speak his own mind and to make his own decisions according to his own beliefs, which does not make him popular within the Labor Party. Nevertheless, he is a member with 30-plus years of service.

I have the privilege of knowing Robert Chong and have worked with him—in spite of our political differences—as a community advocate. I admire his persistence and his integrity, which are not often found in the party that he prefers to belong to. But I do value his contributions as a community worker and advocate and also as a representative with political interests in the Chinese community. Robert Chong is a councillor of the city of Whitehorse, a suburban municipality in Melbourne that includes the suburbs of Box Hill and Nunawading—what we might describe as middle Melbourne.

Like many other Chinese Australians who came to Australia in the sixties, Robert came as a student from Malaysia who, after obtaining tertiary qualifications, stayed on and became Australian by choice. He developed an interest in politics while he was still at university and joined the Labor Party then. As I said before, he served it loyally as a thinking member. Robert worked for the Australian Defence Organisation as a senior civilian staff member. He also developed his political interests as a community advocate for the multicultural community.

Four years ago he successfully stood for the council in the city of Whitehorse in an area which is predominantly mainstream Australian. He stood as an independent Labor candidate and not only got himself elected but also helped the endorsed Labor candidate to be elected. He served the council well and he served the community well. Three years later, in the year 2000, he was re-elected against a challenge by another sitting member, who came across the boundary thinking that he might be able to knock Robert off, because Robert was serving in a mainly Anglo-Australian area. But he lost; Robert won again.

With four out of 10 councillors, the Whitehorse City Council has been, if not a Labor controlled council, then at least a Labor dominated council. By this year, every one of the four Labor councillors except Robert Chong has served a term as mayor. One would have thought that 2001 would be Robert's turn to be mayor—the first Asian Australian to serve as mayor in middle Melbourne. In his four years on the council, Robert Chong has been easily one of the best performing members of the Whitehorse City Council. He is well known in the community; he is well regarded in the community. He could have stood for mayoral office before but has stood aside in favour of his Labor colleagues. This year should have been his turn, surely.

Two of the non-Labor councillors pledged their support. The local papers, a week before the election, anointed him as a shoo-in. When the vote was counted, Robert Chong had polled three out of 10 votes. The two non-Labor councillors had delivered their votes—one an Australian Democrat and one an Australian Green. Only the three votes from Robert's Labor colleagues were missing. What does this tell us of the difference between image and reality? When the numbers were counted, the Labor Party's votes were missing. When the crunch came, the chardonnay set of the Labor Party could not stomach the thought of an Asian Australian mayor in middle Melbourne. When the line was drawn, the Labor Party was on the wrong side. The image does not fit reality.

Senator Schacht —Which council are you talking about?

Senator TCHEN —The Whitehorse City Council in Melbourne. In the Queensland election, Premier Peter Beattie got away with not standing up to the One Nation Party. But it was not that he did not stand up to it; he did not want to stand up to it. The image does not fit the reality: the Labor Party is not interested in multiculturalism.