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Tuesday, 25 May 2010
Page: 4011

Mr PERRETT (7:05 PM) —I do not normally have much to say about the member for Tangney’s contributions to debate; anyway, on with my speech. I rise to speak in support of Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2010-2011 and the related bills before the House. I commend the efforts of the Treasurer and of the Minister for Finance and Deregulation in delivering a responsible budget to guard Australia in uncertain economic times. I know the people of Moreton are relieved to have a safe and responsible hand on our nation’s rudder that will return the good ship, Australia’s budget, to surplus nearly three years early. Our economy truly is the envy of the world. While many nations, particularly in Europe, are still feeling the effects of the crisis, Australia’s economy is growing, our industries are surging and our unemployment levels are steadily improving. The Rudd Labor government provided the leadership, direction and stimulus to keep our economy from short-circuiting but it was all Australians—especially our businesses, small and large; our construction companies; our manufacturers and other industries like hospitality—that kept Australians employed throughout the crisis.

None of us want to see a repeat of the crisis that unfolded in the latter part of 2008. Once every 75 years is enough for me. But there are some worrying signs in the global marketplace still. The Greeks might not be bearing gifts for quite a while, and you never know what challenges may lie ahead. Thankfully, Australians know that they can trust the Rudd Labor government to manage the economy responsibly and calmly both in good times and in bad. Australians know they can trust a Rudd Labor government to govern in the national interest and for the nation’s future. We do not make short-term, risky decisions that are more motivated by political shenanigans than good policy or economic responsibility.

I am very proud of the achievements of the Rudd Labor government since November 2007. Australia, thankfully, is not the same country it was during the Howard years. In opposition Labor promised a more compassionate Australia, and that is what we have delivered in government. The former Liberal-National coalition government was the government of Rottweilers on the waterfront, of Work Choices, the government of climate change denial, the government of wheat for weapons, the government of ‘children overboard’ and kids behind razor wire, and the government that refused to apologise to the stolen generations. It was a lazy government that found good times when they received the keys to the Lodge, but still the coalition government had a miserable heart.

I am proud to say Australia is a different country nowadays. The apologies delivered to the stolen generations on 13 February 2008 and to the forgotten Australians on 16 November 2009 are the highlights from my time in this Australian parliament. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s address is a close third. I will well remember the first two events as holy moments, when both sides of politics put aside the usual bravado and let the parliament of the people simply say sorry for the past wrongs of past governments. Wrongs can be carried by families for generations—like curly hair or green eyes, the past is forever with us. The true significance of these apologies will only be known to those families and those groups most affected by the wrongs of the past. They know the healing. I saw the tears, but they really know. Even then the outcomes are not necessarily readily tangible, but sorry is the start of moving on and restoring people who have been broken or damaged or hurt by governments, irrespective of how well intentioned the politicians and public servants of the day were.

There is another significant group of Australians who have been wronged by a previous government’s policies that emanated from a chamber located under the same coat of arms we now sit under. I refer to those Australians affected by the racist and discriminatory White Australia policy—a policy that particularly targeted Pacific islanders and the Chinese diaspora. This policy was introduced by Prime Minister Edmund Barton on 7 August 1901 as one of the first acts of the Australian parliament after Federation. It received royal assent on 23 December 1901. That was some early Christmas present to those who came across the sea after hearing we had boundless plains to share! That was a Christmas present delivered by the government of the day. Our first Prime Minister, Edmund Barton, led the Protectionist Party, and he argued:

The doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply to the equality of the Englishman and the Chinaman.

Not the ‘Englishwoman’ or the ‘Chinawoman’, obviously. That was the language of the day. But Alfred Deakin, the Attorney-General and first member for Ballarat, gave the game away when he argued:

It is not the bad qualities, but the good qualities of these alien races that make them so dangerous to us. It is their inexhaustible energy, their power of applying themselves to new tasks, their endurance and low standard of living that make them such competitors.

This was the crux of the ‘yellow peril’ cry which believed Asian immigration would threaten ‘white wages’ and ‘white standards of living’. Maybe I could use the terms ‘English wages’ and ‘English standards of living’. Irrespective of the various political arguments aired at the time of its introduction to the parliament, the White Australia policy restricted non-white immigration to Australia. It did so on the basis of language skills rather than a blatant banning of non-whites or non-English. Any controversy regarding the bill was about how to implement a white immigration policy rather than the virtue of so doing.

The Immigration Restriction Bill 1901 received virtually unanimous support. The names are not recorded in the parliamentary debates of the time. The first member for the Federation seat of Moreton, James Wilkinson, voted for it. As only the ninth member to represent the seat of Moreton, I feel the weight of responsibility to try to make right the vote of my predecessor. It was a discriminatory policy. It was a racist policy. It was wrong. It was un-Christian, unfair, unfounded and in the honest light of today almost unforgivable. The policy has hurt, or harmed, or disturbed or insulted many thousands of people since 1901. It is a stain on the fabric of this great democratic nation. Perhaps now it is time for parliament to contemplate some gesture of reconciliation. I want to place before this House a measure of ‘definite and high policy’, which are Edmund Barton’s words from his second reading speech, quoting from the parliamentary debates from the first session of the first parliament.

I acknowledge this policy was formulated in very different times and by largely well-meaning politicians, but we modern day Australians now should consider taking responsibility for the mistakes of then. Maybe we should do so as a nation so that we can truly move on. Maybe we should do so because it is truly the right thing to do. If not us, then who? If not in our time, then when? Will the 10th member for Moreton say sorry, will the 20th member for Moreton say sorry, or will it be the 50th member? An apology would help us tell and explore and learn from the untold stories of then and since 1901. For example, our modern, progressive history books tell us, albeit briefly, that there was a strong anti-Chinese sentiment in Australia in the 19th century that carried right through until the beginning of last century. There was the Palmer River goldfield massacre in Queensland, where Chinese people were slaughtered by miners. During one anti-Chinese rally in the 1890s, every window of the many Chinese businesses in Brisbane were smashed—not in Berlin, but in Brisbane.

These shameful racist actions and sentiments, I must admit and I am sorry to say, were also present in the formation of the Australian Labor Party. The early unionists organised unashamedly against the endeavours of Chinese workers. Thankfully, the White Australia policy was gradually dismantled after World War II and formally abolished by the Whitlam government in 1973. I was only in grade 3, so it is not that long ago at all. Thank you to Gough Whitlam and I hope he gets well soon.

The Racial Discrimination Act 1975 set the nation on a more steady course to a more harmonious future. Parliament back in 1975 was prepared to show courage to let us all combine to advance Australia. Nevertheless, the hurt and shame the immigration restriction legislation and subsequent acts caused many thousands of people remains. There are traces of it in many communities. You do not have to travel far at all. Of course, there are still some from time to time, like a certain former member for Oxley and her failed One Nation party, who still argue for a return to those dark, troubled days of old. Even in this chamber we still hear the occasional dog whistle, but for the most part Australia has matured into a thriving, compassionate, harmonious and understanding multicultural society. Nowhere can you experience this any better than on Brisbane’s south side, where we enjoy a strong, vibrant and interconnected society, with tangled roots stretching all around the globe—Australian taproots but runners going off everywhere.

I myself have a whitebread past, but I proudly represent an electorate where one in three residents was born overseas. We are a truly diverse community—red, yellow, black and white—but we are also a welcoming, tolerant and forgiving community. The Moreton electorate is experiencing rapid population growth, at around 16 per cent, and in recent years we have seen many new arrivals settle from Sudan, Zimbabwe, Eritrea, Iraq, South Africa and Afghanistan, to name but a few. The Moreton electorate is also home to a thriving Chinese diaspora, hailing from Taiwan, from mainland China, from Malaysia, from Hong Kong, from Fiji, from Papua New Guinea and from other parts of the globe. There is an Islamic community from Africa, Europe and Asia. There is an African community also. There are Indians from Fiji and elsewhere, lots of British, Koreans, Vietnamese and many others, and I am sorry if I have left them off the list. I am proud of my multicultural society and the efforts of everyone to share our space and to get along, but we have to work hard at it.

We all know the greatest challenge to harmony is ignorance, as demonstrated by the words I quoted from our first Prime Minister back in 1901, from the parliamentary debates. Ignorance fuels misunderstanding, and misunderstanding intolerance. We must not let this happen. That is why I started a Moreton multicultural reference group, uniting community leaders from many different backgrounds at the one table. We get together regularly to thrash out the issues and challenges that face us all. It is also why I have held a Muslim roundtable with our Islamic leaders, to help drive greater understanding and head off misunderstandings early. That is why I support United Nations style soccer tournaments in my electorate. It is why I am working with the African community in Moorooka to support local traders and to hopefully secure funds for a community centre with a library attached. It is why I have joined a committee that is dedicated to constructing a war memorial at the Sunnybank RSL to honour the service and sacrifice of Australian armed service personnel of Chinese descent.

The Chinese diaspora made significant contributions, even as far back as the Boer War, but particularly in the First World War and the Second World War, even the conflict in Malaya, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and in other conflicts around the globe—even though in some of these conflicts overseas they were not even classed as citizens at home. There are no records of exactly how many Chinese-Australians have served in our armed forces, because many lied about their ethnicity to join up. But we do know that many Australian-Chinese have a proud history with our armed forces. Billy Sing is one I could mention—there is even a movie coming out about his history and his achievements.

At the very same time that Chinese-Australians were prepared to fight and die at war for this country, Australia held onto the racist White Australia policy and actively called for the deportation of Chinese and other Asians who had put down their roots in this wide brown land. The local Sunnybank RSL, the Chinese community and other community members are working together on this memorial project because we believe that the stories of Australian-Chinese service personnel need to be told, need to be honoured and need to be commemorated.

I was pleased to have the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, the Hon. Alan Griffin, attend a fundraising dinner for this memorial last Saturday night at Sunnybank’s famous yum cha restaurant, the Landmark. Not only did the community dig deep for the whole project, but we also announced the memorial’s winning design, by Griffith University architecture student Sarah Batchelor, and I am proud to say that she is a Moreton constituent. Even though we had entries from all around South-East Queensland, thankfully a Moreton constituent won. Sarah’s design features a black granite base, a stainless steel bowl and two structures designed to look like smoke or fire rising from the bowl. You can have a look at my webpage to see the design, as my words do not do it justice. Sarah’s design captures the Chinese tradition of burning incense to commemorate the dead and the Australian ode to the fallen, ‘Lest we forget.’ The winning design was not chosen by me; it was chosen by the Memorial Steering Committee in consultation with the RSL and a local feng shui master.

The memorial will be constructed in the Veterans Memorial Gardens at Sunnybank RSL and will honour the service and sacrifice of the Chinese diaspora in the Australian defence forces. It will be a focal point for future commemorative services and a place to appropriately honour the military contributions of our Chinese-Australians. This project is being driven by a lot of goodwill in my local community. While I hope there will be some federal dollars made available for this project, it is largely being funded by the generous donations of local citizens, particularly our Chinese-Australians, or Australian-Chinese.

We can never undo the injustice of the past, but we can provide some hope for the future. This evening I begin the call for an apology to Australians affected by this racist White Australia policy—Pacific Islanders, too, but particularly the Chinese diaspora. Fair-minded Australians should consider whether it is time to say sorry or carry out some other gentle form of reconciliation. That this policy came into law is a sad fact and a low in Australia’s history, but it is an incontrovertible fact from our history. We should not deny it. Instead, we should acknowledge the hurt still carried by many in our community who have connections stretching back to the Middle Kingdom. It is time to begin the journey towards ‘sorry’. We must apologise to the generations of Chinese-Australians, or Australian-Chinese, the Chinese diaspora or whatever they wish to be called. I should point out that the committee that organised this memorial competition was in agreement on everything except what we should call the Chinese-Australians, the Australian-Chinese or the Chinese diaspora—but that is committees for you. We cannot right the wrong. We cannot rewrite history, but we can start to write the future.