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Thursday, 15 May 2014
Page: 3996

Mr GILES (Scullin) (11:32): I rise to make a contribution in support of multiculturalism and the call for broad based political leadership against racism and race hate, to say clearly in this place that no-one is entitled to diminish another person through their prejudice and bigotry, that the state must not license bigotry.

Last week I had the privilege of visiting the Thomastown Mosque in my electorate with my colleagues and friends the member for Isaacs, the shadow Attorney-General; and Bronwyn Halfpenny, the state member for Thomastown. We subsequently attended a community meeting in the Thomastown library, attended by the Whittlesea Multicultural Communities Council and VCE legal studies students from Thomastown Secondary College.

The visit by the shadow Attorney-General was prompted by wide-ranging community concerns about the Abbott government's proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act. These same community concerns had previously prompted me to make my own submission on behalf of members of the Scullin community about these proposed changes and their impact.

At the Thomastown Mosque, which principally services a significant Turkish Muslim population, those present were surprised to learn that our Attorney-General, our first law officer, was defending the rights of bigotry instead of promoting mutual respect and acceptance in our society. Some of the community members were unaware of these proposed changes and all were disappointed, to say the least, at the government's shambolic pretence of consultation. I note the member for Brisbane's comments here about the need to extend the time to allow for greater and more genuine community consultation about these important matters.

Concern was expressed that the proposed changes were redolent of Hansonism during the mid-1990s and the environment after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, which all of us remember. I note that Australian Muslims across our country experienced different forms of exclusion, marginalisation and, occasionally, racist attacks. We saw this reach a crescendo in the Cronulla race riots. Fortunately we did not see such acts in Melbourne, which I believe is testament to the multiculturalism and cohesiveness in our communities, as well as the leadership shown by both sides of politics in Victoria. At this point I pay great credit to Jeff Kennett as Premier, who was the lone voice of reason in some elements of the Liberal Party at this time.

Last week, Albert Chew, a member of the Whittlesea Multicultural Communities Council, of Chinese-Malaysian descent, spoke passionately about his lived experienced of both de jure and de facto racism in his country of birth. Albert described in confronting detail his firsthand account of what it was like to be discriminated against in the workforce, in society, and what it was like to have your own government sanction bigotry against you. Albert was also horrified by the prospect of Australia sliding down that slippery slope.

Students from Thomastown secondary did their teachers, and indeed all present, proud with their perceptive and penetrating questions. This is a school that is representative of the multicultural make-up of the area. These students wanted to know what impact these changes would have on their school, their community, their future and Australia's future.

Indeed, a recurring theme of all questions and concerns was confusion about why the government was proposing these changes in the first place. Like everyone else there, the member for Isaacs could only speculate, given the government has yet to make the case as to why there should be any change. People across the electorate of Scullin are overwhelmingly in favour of keeping existing protections against hate speech and indeed favour strengthening them.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that these proposed changes are simply a sop to the extreme right-wing elements and the right-wing opinionists in the media in response to the so-called Bolt case. Given reports today that a bill will be presented before cabinet within weeks, I feel it is appropriate to refer to Justice Bromberg's ruling from this case:

… I have observed that in seeking to promote tolerance and protect against intolerance in a multicultural society, the Racial Discrimination Act must be taken to include in its objectives tolerance for and acceptance of racial and ethnic diversity. At the core of multiculturalism is the idea that people may identify with and express their racial or ethnic heritage free from pressure not to do so. People should be free to fully identify with their race without fear of public disdain or loss of esteem for so identifying. Disparagement directed at the legitimacy of the racial identification of a group of people is likely to be destructive of racial tolerance, just as disparagement directed at the real or imagined practices or traits of those people is also destructive of racial tolerance.

Whilst I think that we can do better than tolerance in our society today, I believe that Justice Bromberg's underlying sentiments are correct and worth paying heed to. This debate is about more than technical matters around the structure of one piece of legislation. It is concerned with something more fundamental than legislation per se. It goes to the heart of the society we wish to live in.

I want to thank Sucettin Unal and other members of the Thomastown Mosque's executive who were present last Friday, and Councillor Kris Pavlidis and all those involved in the Whittlesea Multicultural Communities Council and Thomastown Secondary College, for their participation and contribution to this important debate in our community and for Australia.