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Monday, 25 May 2009
Page: 4164

Mr GEORGIOU (9:10 PM) —I move:

That the House:

(1)   reaffirms its commitment to the right of all Australians to enjoy equal rights and opportunities and be treated with equal respect regardless of race, colour, culture, creed or ethnic origin;

(2)   reaffirms its commitment to maintaining an immigration policy wholly non discriminatory on grounds of race, colour, culture, creed or ethnic origin;

(3)   reaffirms its commitment to the process of reconciliation between Indigenous and non Indigenous Australians, and to closing the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity;

(4)   reaffirms its commitment to multiculturalism and to maintaining Australia as a culturally diverse, tolerant and open society, united by an overriding loyalty to our nation, obedience to its laws, and commitment to its democratic beliefs and institutions; and

(5)   denounces intolerance in any form on the grounds of race, colour, culture, creed or ethnic origin as incompatible with the kind of society we are and want to be.

This motion is based on the racial tolerance motion of 1996, which was adopted in the fraught environment associated with the political surge of so-called Hansonism. In the face of Hanson’s calls to reintroduce racial discrimination in immigration policy, to abolish the policy of multiculturalism and to slash programs for Indigenous Australians, it was critical that our political leaders stood up for the principles of tolerance, fairness, equality and mutual respect. They did so in the racial tolerance motion.

This motion was proposed by the then Leader of the Opposition, Kim Beazley. Members of both sides of the House were involved in its drafting. The then Prime Minister, John Howard, introduced it and the motion was supported unanimously by the parliament. The motion reaffirmed the parliament’s commitment to an immigration policy without discrimination on the grounds of race and creed, to reconciliation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and to maintaining Australia as a culturally diverse and tolerant society, united by an overriding commitment to the nation and its democratic institutions and values. It denounced racial intolerance in any form.

In my judgment, this motion contributed significantly to efforts to counter those who sought to incite fear and prejudice. Since the 1996 racial tolerance motion, however, events have generated new challenges to our values of tolerance and respect for diversity. The 2001 terrorist attacks on the US and the attacks on Bali, Madrid and London evoked calls for discrimination at our borders and in our domestic policies.

That no major political party contemplated a return to a discriminatory immigration policy speaks well of how far we have come. But, in other respects, in the domestic sphere, we have regressed. In an atmosphere of heightened security concerns, many Australians of Muslim and Arab descent have been targets of suspicion and discrimination. They have been made to feel isolated, mistrusted and fearful and as not being accepted as Australian. Government made the test for Australian citizenship much tougher, reflecting profound misconceptions that the previous arrangements were too weak to protect social cohesion and national identity. Multiculturalism—what is a truly unique Australian achievement—was eroded and ultimately the word was banished from the vocabulary of official discourse. The current economic hard times, far from diminishing the importance of action to promote equal opportunity and multiculturalism, require a reaffirmation and a strengthening of the commitments made by this parliament 13 years ago so that vulnerable members of our community are not scapegoated or abandoned. As prosperity ebbs, the necessity for vigilance actually increases.

The motion I move today shares core elements with the 1996 motion—a commitment to maintain Australia as a culturally diverse and tolerant society united by shared values; a non-discriminatory immigration policy; the advancing of reconciliation between Indigenous and other Australians; and the denunciation of intolerance—and it strengthens these elements. The motion adds culture and ethnicity to the original references to race, colour, creed or origin, which reflects contemporary language about diversity in Australia as well as that of international human rights treaties.

The motion recognises that, as we strive for a united and tolerant Australia, reconciliation between Indigenous Australians and others must always be at the forefront of our political, social and economic efforts. The motion reaffirms the commitment this parliament made last year when it adopted the apology to the stolen generation: the commitment to close the appalling gaps that existed between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity. Slow or no progress in ameliorating this state of affairs is simply not acceptable.

This motion explicitly and deliberately uses the word ‘multiculturalism’. The omission of the term from the 1996 motion reflected the then government’s ambivalence about this concept. It was an omission that was regretted by a number. As the negative sentiments grew in strength, the institutions of multiculturalism were eroded, the term was dropped from the lexicon and respect for diversity was omitted from the list of core Australian values about which applicants were advised when they were applying for citizenship.

I ask the parliament to clearly declare that we are committed to a policy of multiculturalism, a policy that involves both rights and responsibilities, and a policy that respects cultural diversity within a framework of shared values, including a commitment to our democratic beliefs and institutions and to the rule of law. Some have asserted otherwise, but the fact is that this has always been intrinsic to Australian multiculturalism and it is important that we restate it, recognise it and affirm it.

Societies characterised by racial, ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity have existed throughout history. With increasing population movements, they are very common today. But the instances where diversity has been experienced as positively as it has been in Australia over recent decades are far less common. A key factor in this has been the policy of multiculturalism. As Malcolm Fraser said in a seminal speech 30 years ago:

Multiculturalism is about diversity, not division. It is about interaction, not isolation. It is about cultural and ethnic differences set within a framework of shared, fundamental values …

Our society is not perfect—the situation of Indigenous Australians demonstrates this—but I do believe that it is arguably the most successful, united and harmonious multicultural society in the world. I once thought that this was a particular perspective. But, having seen some of the countries that we are trying to emulate, I have realised that their commitment to multiculturalism was a very surface one, whereas we have been working at this for almost 40 years. I believe it is timely to reaffirm the values that have been crucial to the success of our society and I commend the motion to the House.