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Monday, 25 May 2009
Page: 4166

Mr MELHAM (9:20 PM) —Can I say at the outset that, when I was approached by the member for Kooyong to second this motion, I had no hesitation in doing so. I want to pay tribute to him, not only in his career in this place but in his former career and the advice he gave the Fraser government in relation to multiculturalism. He has made this country a better place. I think his defence of multiculturalism is something that is very hard to not agree with—what we suffer from is ignorance and prejudice. That is where people have their conservative views. I also want to acknowledge the members for Pearce and McMillan, who are in the chamber to listen to this discussion and acknowledge the part that they played, together with the member for Kooyong and the former member for Cook, who is here in spirit but not physically, and acknowledge the courage that they showed in arguing from the backbench with the former government in terms of the direction on migration and other matters. They are not easy things to do. Words are cheap; actions speak much louder than words. Each of those people took on their government and had some successes in some areas and not in others. Sometimes we take things for granted. What worries me is that we are losing a lot of corporate memory. We are losing a lot of people who understood how hard it was to get to a particular position, and people now take it for granted.

In times of economic uncertainty you can be led by pied pipers down the wrong road, and it is important to restate the values of this motion, which were debated in this chamber on Wednesday, 30 October 1996. There was bipartisan support. As the member for Kooyong said, it was a unanimous resolution. It was a resolution that was discussed some seven weeks after the first speech of the then member for Oxley, Pauline Hanson. She basically set bushfires burning, not just in this country but in the Asia-Pacific region and around the world. Quite frankly, the initial response of the then government was inadequate. I do not think anyone understood how quickly it would take off, but it did take off and it damaged our reputation. We still have to repair that in a bipartisan way. We have to learn from those mistakes. We have to stand up.

This motion is part of that. As the member for Kooyong also said, the word ‘multiculturalism’ was missing from the former resolution that we debated. We have also included words in relation to closing the gap that lies between us and Indigenous Australians in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity. It is a modernising of the resolution, but the values remain as true today as they were when we discussed it back then. They need to be taken up and they need to be argued, and we need to explain to people that the ignorant and prejudiced approach by some sections of our community is not going to benefit any of us. We need to lift our fellow human beings, not put them down because of race, because of colour or because of creed. Sometimes it is not easy to stand up for certain values, but these are everlasting values and that is why the member for Kooyong can be proud of his contribution to public life.

I also spoke on the previous resolution that was before the House in 1996, and one of the things I said then still rings true today:

Those who make political capital out of the fears and prejudices of certain people in our community must not be allowed to use the very real problems faced by many struggling Australians to further beat up the prejudices and the hatred.

In relation to the Racial Discrimination Act I had this to say:

The Racial Discrimination Act of 1975 is special to all of us.

…            …            …

This act is our bill of rights. This act makes us all equal. As parliamentarians, we should at all times strive to maintain the principles behind this motion and every subsequent piece of legislation in this parliament should respect the Racial Discrimination Act.

I think that is an important principle and I am pleased that the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs is going to bring forward some legislation to reinstate the Racial Discrimination Act in the Northern Territory. My views on that issue are well known within my party. I do not support acts of racial discrimination, whenever they are perpetrated. They do not justify the means. We need to do things in a non-discriminatory way. I do not want to be saved by being discriminated against. Those concepts do not stand together and, indeed, they are a simple solution to a complex problem. It requires us to think outside the box and is something that I fought in this place going back to the original Native Title Act, where we successfully managed to convince the government to do things in accordance with a special measure, not in a discriminatory way, which was the then legal advice. That was upheld by the High Court and I think we are all proud of that.

These are not easy decisions, but they need to be made if we are going to stand up. I think the interesting thing with the debate—then, as well—is that equal rights do not mean equal treatment. There are many groups of people with many different needs and aspirations. Equal rights means a fair go for those different groups of people—and that means different treatment to ensure that all Australians live the kinds of lives that they want. In other words, true equality does require differential treatment. When we are all at the table together we have different strengths and weaknesses. If one of us is deficient in mathematics, it requires intense help there to bring them up to the level of someone else. So when someone does get differential treatment—as Indigenous people deserve and need because of their special disadvantage—that is a positive discrimination which we should all embrace.

If you go to the Fred Hollows Foundation website, they have the statistics under the old method. It shows that 24 per cent of Aboriginal men live to the age of 65 and 35 per cent of Aboriginal women live to the age of 65. That statistic is a disgrace. It is an indictment on our society. It is not Aboriginal people who are responsible. It is not because they are living in a particular way. In other countries—in Third World countries—the statistics are far better. But today we have some news from the Bureau of Statistics showing that Indigenous life expectancy is longer than previously thought. Apparently they have rearranged the method to better account for Indigenous deaths, and Indigenous life expectancy has now improved by some 10 years. We should celebrate that, and this motion talks about closing the gap. Both sides of politics should keep working.

It is very easy and enticing to use race and prejudice to get votes. That is not a unique thing. It has happened around the world and can be done successfully, but what legacy do you leave your nation if you go down that path? It is well known that I had a reasonable relationship with the former Prime Minister, but on two areas we disagreed: his approach to Indigenous affairs and his denial of multiculturalism. I think he was wrong. He was sincere in his beliefs, but in my view he was wrong and his legacy would have been much better if he had stood up in this parliament and given a sincere apology to the stolen generations on behalf of the nation.

No compensation has rained on the nation as a result of the apology by Kevin Rudd last year. Indeed, on a number of occasions after he has been overseas he has come back to report that they know about the apology and were heartened by it. In Lima, of all places, when he was talking to indigenous people they knew about his apology. We are all enriched if we follow the values espoused in this motion that has been drafted by the member for Kooyong. We are not any worse off. The nation is enriched, the spirit is enriched and the parliament is enriched, and I think that is why it is worth supporting.

Debate interrupted.