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Wednesday, 11 December 2013
Page: 1510


Senator DASTYARI (New South Wales) (17:07): With humility and sincerity, I offer my respects to the traditional owners of this land, the first people who made their homes here and raised their families here, long before others discovered what a wonderful country this is. I acknowledge and honour their journey as custodians of the oldest surviving culture on earth.

Nobody can make the journey to this chamber alone. I am here because of the unfailing support of my family, my friends, my party and our movement. To family, who travelled across the world to come to this great nation; to the members of the Australian Labor Party; and to the people of my home state of New South Wales, I say thank you. Thank you also to the very many people who have travelled from afar to join us in the chamber today. I also pay my respects to my elders in this parliament, both the wonderful public servants and the elected representatives. Some of you are my team mates; some of you will be my sparring partners; but we are all here to serve the same great nation, and I thank all of you for the warm welcome I have received.

I arrived in Australia from Iran the year the Senate first met in this building. My parents, Naser and Ella, packed our suitcases in the middle of the freezing Iranian winter and left our tight-knit family, to bring my sister and me to Australia. They shared the dreams of opportunity that every parent has, but, more than that, they recognised that only by coming to this great country could they be certain that their children would grow up facing choices, rather than barriers. They were driven to their brave decision by an overwhelming commitment to their children. In so many ways, I owe this day to them.

My parents met as young student activists, studying civil engineering. But they never completed university in Iran. They were expelled from university for joining the Iranian revolution, along with many of their friends, some of whom were imprisoned, tortured and even killed. For most of us it is difficult to imagine living with such fear and uncertainty. For my parents, it was a daily ordeal. The Shah of Iran fell in 1979. But when Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile, my parents found themselves confronted by an equally repressive regime. A secular political tyranny had been replaced by a religious one. My Uncle Kamal and Aunt Nina, who are in the gallery today, fled across the border into Turkey, beginning a perilous journey that would eventually bring them to Australia. Fighting erupted along the border with Iraq in 1980, and three years later I was born into a country at war.

I was born in Sari, a small town in northern Iran, near the Caspian Sea. Funnily enough, my memories of childhood are all peaceful ones, of playing soccer, or football as we called it, in the street with the neighbourhood children, much in the same way as I would have been playing cricket had I been born in Australia. But what I did not know as a child was that my parents were consumed by fear of what the future would hold. I can only imagine their relief when, after years of anxiety, they learnt that they had been granted visas to migrate to Australia. I remember, as a five-year-old, boarding the train to Tehran from our small town in January 1988 and turning to my nine-year-old sister and asking if she thought we were still going to be back to see my grandparents on weekends. 'I mean, how far could Sydney really be?' It took us two days of continuous travel to reach Sydney. But the physical distance was nothing compared to the culture shock we were about to experience.

Just as it is today, Australia in the 1980s was a place of hope and tremendous opportunities, an island of peace and prosperity and a far cry from the war that had consumed our lives in Iran. Our plane landed in Sydney a fortnight before Australia's bicentenary celebrations. My father often reminds me of those first few days in the hot summer of 1988, when Australia was consumed by a nationwide bicentenary party. While the years ahead would involve a great deal of hard work, angst and sacrifice, my parents were celebrating too, for they had made it to a safe and just place and could focus on raising their family. Addressing the nation on that Australia Day, Bob Hawke, as the then Prime Minister, could have been speaking directly to this five-year-old boy when he said:

In Australia, there is no hierarchy of descent; there must be no privilege of origin. The commitment is all.

Like all of you in this chamber, I have made my commitment very clear. Like all of you, my commitment is to Australia's future. I cannot think of anywhere else I would rather live. I cannot thank my family enough for their struggle to make it happen. They sacrificed their dreams, their aspirations and their careers so that my sister and I could have the life that we have been able to lead. My sister, Azadeh, is the star of the family. I could not be more proud of her—a Fulbright scholar, an accomplished lawyer and a respected academic, but, perhaps more importantly to me, a big sister who has always looked out for and believed in me. While Mum and Dad surely never imagined that I would have the great privilege of standing before you here today, the fact that it is possible is a testament to why they, and so many others, took that leap into the unknown. In words that every parent longs to hear: Mum and Dad, you were right all along.

I started my schooling in Blacktown in Western Sydney without being able to speak a word of English. Blacktown is the heart of Sydney's migrant hub, so I certainly was not the only immigrant in the class. My first best friend was a young Greek boy who unfortunately could not speak a word of Farsi. I could not speak a word of Greek. Nobody could speak any English. Yet they were some of the best conversations I ever had, until I came to this chamber: two kids from the other side of the world united in Blacktown by the aspirations of their parents.

While I was enjoying a fantastic public education, my parents worked tirelessly. Dad drove a taxi, and the entire family worked in a small cake shop. You know, there is no better way to learn about hard work and commitment than to work in a small family business. I would go there every day after school and work alongside my parents, my aunties and my uncle. They are here today, and I am sure they will happily recall that I was consistently fired on a weekly basis from a business that we all ran together, but I was nonetheless still expected to show up to work the next day—perhaps, just perhaps, igniting an early passion for workers' rights and the trade union movement.

I know I am extremely fortunate not just to be standing here today, but to be in Australia at all. It is not a story that is unique to me. There are thousands of Australians who have taken a journey similar to mine. None of us in this chamber should ever forget that whatever our political differences, whatever the issues of the day, we are lucky to live in this great nation—a place that prides itself on pursuing opportunity and equality.

My own personal story has had a profound impact on my views and my aspirations for Australian society. I cannot help but feel for those who have not been so lucky. So let me put it plainly: I believe John Howard's calculated response to the Tampa affair appealed to the worst in us. It may have helped win an election but it hardened my resolve as a then 18-year-old living the Australian dream in Sydney's north-west.

Twelve years on and I believe we have not made nearly enough progress. The rhetoric of our national discussion about the so-called boat people still lacks a real sense of compassion. That is why I believe it is time for us to have a real conversation in this country about asylum seekers—a conversation that is not about the number of boats but about the names, the faces and the stories of the people they bring. A conversation that is not just about how we stop the boats but about what we can do to improve the situation of those so desperate that they would consider getting on those boats in the first place.

It is far too easy for us as politicians to exploit our community's natural fears of difference and change. I honestly believe we can do better than that. As politicians, we are privileged to be the voice of those who cannot always speak for themselves and we have a duty to do not just what is easy or popular but what is right—right for the weakest in our community, right for the hardest working and right for the long-term future of Australia. A better conversation about asylum seekers does not mean sacrificing our values or silencing honest criticism, but for the benefit of those who live here today and those who will live here tomorrow we need to take the politics out of this debate. That is what we need to do—stop the politics.

The Labor Party is not the reason people risk their lives to come to Australia. The coalition parties are not the reason people wait 20 years in refugee camps to come here. The reason is the hope of a better future this country has to offer for persecuted people and their children. The fact is this is an incredible country and a beacon to people everywhere. Surely we can not only understand that but in fact feel a sense of pride that people see us here in Australia as a place of hope.

Immigration is not just about providing a home for people fleeing persecution and violence, though that is the progressive and enlightened thing to do. It is not just about enjoying cultural differences from all over the world, although every Australian has those benefits too. It is a question of national prosperity and it involves both Australia's humanitarian intake and our general migrant intake. Friends, we should be honest: the journey has not always been easy. The passage has not always been smooth. Mistakes have been made along the way. There has been grandstanding by politicians and attempts to divide Australia, and it has been going on for over 100 years. My own party's history of support for the White Australia policy, right up to the 1960s, is part of that story.

But through all this we created a nation renowned for its safety, security and lifestyle. We should be proud that people want to live here and that our reputation across the globe is so strong. I challenge anyone in this chamber: come out to Granville, to Auburn, to Sydney's south-west and western suburbs. Visit our communities and deny that these new Australians are contributing to our economy and our culture. Overall, immigration adds to our national wealth. Immigration is nation-building. Immigration makes us strong. The people who come here will drive Australia's economic prosperity for years to come, and immigration is one of the great signs of optimism, of activism and of faith in the future of human history.

Friends, let me be clear: I unequivocally believe in a big Australia. My immigrant family put its faith and hope in a new land where they could give their children a new life. They were right to do so. Our immigrant nation puts its hope and faith in new people we know will make us stronger and fairer for decades to come. We are right to do so now. Our conversation about immigration should start from the same optimism, the same activism and the same faith in the future which has been the key to our success as a nation for over 200 years. But it does not, and I believe it is no coincidence that a country whose national conversation about immigration is so poor is also one where we are far too willing to predict hard times and focus on the negative.

Australia seems to be going through a period where we want to be down on ourselves. Our politics have become cynical and negative. Our media is too focused on our weaknesses rather than our strengths. There is no doubt in my mind that we can achieve far more as a nation by working together that we can against each other. Whenever possible, we must focus on the things that we have in common. We must stop letting the issues that divide us dominate our political landscape. It is not our role as politicians to focus on winning elections through cynical and negative politics. It is our role to be optimistic about Australia's future and to remind people what a great nation this is.

This is not to say that we do not face challenges, but I believe that there are no challenges too large for this nation to overcome. This is a country full of good people with a broad range of views. With bold leadership we can find compromise and consensus for the good of the nation. That is the best way forward. There is no reason that we cannot have the best hospitals, the best schools and the best economy in the world. There is no reason that Australian scientists cannot be at the forefront of the next big medical breakthroughs or that our entrepreneurs cannot be inventing the next big thing. But to achieve this we have to work together—the business community working hand in hand with the trade union movement, the wealthy and the privileged working hand in hand with those who are down on their luck, families who have lived here for generations working hand in hand with those who have just arrived here and, yes, from time to time, the Labor Party even working hand in hand with the coalition parties.

Australia is a great country. Indeed, this is the lucky country—not in the somewhat sarcastic sense that Donald Horne intended, but in the sincere sense in which Australians took up that phrase and made it our own. This is a great place to live and a great place to work. We are a nation of tremendous skills and natural resources. Friends, we are a nation whose best years are still ahead of us.

We are also a nation that has been very well served by the movement in politics that I represent. I joined the party that shared my optimism and my values. With inspiring national leaders like Whitlam, Hawke, Keating, Rudd and Gillard, it is little wonder that I was drawn to the Australian Labor Party. From a young age I was given an opportunity to get involved and be part of this movement. I am really proud to have played a role in reforming and revitalising the New South Wales branch of the Labor Party, the oldest branch of Australian Labor.

I will be forever grateful for the friendship and support of Jamie Clements, Michael Lee and Chris Minns during my time at the party office. Jamie, you are an extraordinary leader and you will take the New South Wales branch from strength to strength. I am so proud to have you as a close mate. Thank you to the amazing Kaila Murnain, who has become the first woman elected assistant secretary, the tenacious Courtney Roche and the ever-diligent Brendan Cavanagh. I could not have asked for a better team. I also want to thank John Graham for his enduring support. John, I have no doubt that the news that you were always prepared to cut a deal with me will do wonders for your own career!

There is another group of Labor people I want to thank. The eight-hour day which is now a standard for many workers throughout the world began in Sydney. This milestone was won by a group of stonemasons. These 19th century campaigners asked for eight hours of work, eight hours of recreation and eight hours of rest. This movement continues to seek improvements to our workplace safety conditions, hours of work and wages that benefit all of us in ways many of us rarely take pause to consider.

I have been fortunate to have had the invaluable friendship and guidance of many remarkable people. In particular I want to thank Mark Lennon, Gerard Dwyer, Barbara Nebart, Wayne Forno, Tony Sheldon—who is here with us today—Derrek Belan, Jim Metcher, Tara Moriarty, Mark Boyd, Graeme Kelly, Steve Butler, Tim Ayres, Jo-Anne Davidson and Alex Classens. Together we have not only reformed and rebuilt New South Wales Labor, but—let's face it—together we have we also kept half the Chinese restaurants in Sydney functioning!

I do not think it will come as a surprise to many that I married into a family as passionate about politics as I am. To my beautiful wife Helen, an independent woman who is both smarter and funnier than I am: you are an amazing mother to our two daughters, Hannah and Eloise, and the perfect partner in all that I do. I am truly thankful to share my life with someone as brilliant and supportive as you. Convincing you to marry me is the best campaign I have ever run. Helen's family has also become my own. Pat has welcomed me with open arms. Peter Barron, you are my father-in-law, my mentor and my friend. I cannot find the words to thank you, in no small part because you are the man I would usually turn to for a meaningful but witty one-liner.

In politics you are surrounded by friends when things are going well, but inevitably there are difficult days in this business, and I am lucky to have friends who support me in both the good times and the bad. My friend for life Sam Crosby and his amazing wife, Rose, have always been beside me and supported me from one crazy adventure to the next. To Josh McIntosh and his partner, Kate—Josh and I lived together for four years and I actually once calculated that I still owe him at least one year of rent—all I can say is, 'Unfortunately, once again, mate, the cheque is in the mail.' Sally Deans and Bob Nanva, you both have the amazing ability of being in politics but also being universally liked. Please, please, teach many of the people in this chamber how.

To Helen's many friends, in particular Chloe Bennett: you have become my friends too. Thank you for being there for Helen, especially for the long periods I have been away in the last job and in this one. To Prue Car, Damian Kassabgi, Paul Howes, Jim Chalmers, Walt Secord, Ernest Wong, George Wright, Anthony Chisholm, Daniel Mookhey, Gerard Gilchrist and Elizabeth Scully, who have shared my political journey with me, I will be forever indebted. I would not be here without your support.

I spoke earlier of my parents' belief in opportunity. It is also a belief that they have instilled in me. It is a part of my family story, and it will no doubt be part of my parliamentary story too. I am fully aware of the privilege I have been granted to stand here and will work hard every day to deliver better opportunities for all Australians. After all, that is the least that the people of this great country—the country of the 'fair go'—deserve from their politicians.

When I look back to my first few days in Australia, I recall a charismatic leader with his amazing silver hair and distinctive high-pitched voice speaking calmly and passionately about Australian ideals and our future. At the heart of Bob Hawke's speech was the idea of a modern, diverse nation, proud of its heritage and facing the future with confidence.

Friends, never forget where you came from. You will always be shaped by your story. No matter what I am able to achieve and contribute, no matter where my story goes from here, there will always be a part of me that remains a wide-eyed five-year-old boy excited to have arrived in the greatest country on earth. Thank you.