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Wednesday, 11 December 2002
Page: 7798


Senator PAYNE (7:20 PM) —Yesterday was International Human Rights Day. I see it as an opportunity to reflect on all that we have achieved in this country to build a harmonious society, where difference within the bounds of Australian law is not only tolerated but embraced and welcomed. Harmony is only diminished by comments like those of the Hon. Fred Nile MLC and some less than responsible media debate and reporting. Attitudes have shifted in Australia following 11 September 2001 and the Bali bombing, and I want to reflect on where we are today with respect to Australia's cultural diversity and the right to freedom of religion and expression.

Last Friday in Canberra I attended a conference of the Federation of Ethnic Community Councils of Australia, where future directions in multiculturalism were discussed. On Sunday I was a guest at the Multicultural Eid Festival in Fairfield, celebrating the end of Ramadan, with tens of thousands of Muslim Australians from dozens of different national backgrounds, where the emphasis was on the courage, compassion and service of Islam.

It seems to me that the end of this difficult year is a good time to make these reflections. I have considered how we have travelled over the past decade as part of that assessment. In a 2002 report released last week by SBS called Living diversity: Australia's multicultural future, Australians were surveyed on their opinions of multiculturalism. The majority expressed support for immigration and multiculturalism. Two-thirds of the national sample believe that immigration has been of benefit to Australia. In contrast, and interestingly, a recent UK survey commissioned by the BBC found only 30 per cent support it in Britain.

Australians are qualified in their support for multiculturalism, yet they engage strongly in a culturally diverse lifestyle. The majority of the national sample support multiculturalism and cultural diversity, respectively 52 per cent and 59 per cent, but to a lesser extent than they support immigration. In the national sample, the younger the age group the more support there is for multiculturalism—from 46 per cent in the 55-plus age group to 64 per cent in the 16 to 24 age group, signalling a clear mainstreaming of multiculturalism in contemporary Australia.

The term `multiculturalism' was originally borrowed from Canada. It recognises and celebrates our cultural diversity. It accepts and respects the rights of all Australians to express and share their individual cultural heritage within an overarching commitment to Australia and to the basic structures and values of Australian democracy. Multiculturalism is the way we address the challenges and opportunities of our cultural diversity. I think the key to its success is inclusiveness. This cultural diversity is one of our great social, cultural and economic resources. The unity in this diversity is built on the moral values of respect for difference, tolerance and a common commitment to freedom and to Australia's national interests.

For multicultural Australia to flourish, multicultural policies should be built on the foundation of our democratic system like any others, using some basic principles: firstly, civic duty, which obliges all Australians to support those basic principles of our society which guarantee us our freedom and equality; secondly, cultural respect, which, subject to the law, gives all Australians the right to express their own culture and beliefs and obliges them to accept the right of others to do the same; thirdly, social equity, which entitles all Australians to equal treatment and opportunity so that they are able to contribute to the social, political and economic life of this country free from discrimination, whether that be on the grounds of race, culture, religion, language, gender or place of birth; and, finally, productive diversity, which maximises for all Australians the significant cultural, social and economic dividends that arise from the diversity of our population.

I think the second of those principles, that of cultural respect, was most recently breached—and, in my view, outrageously— by the Reverend Fred Nile, when he suggested a ban on Muslim women wearing the chador in public places. I do not think his call is logical; I think it is discriminatory and divisive. It will do nothing to enhance Australia's national security. In fact, it would give enemies of Australian ethnic harmony one of their key goals: that is, to polarise our society and make the war against terrorism appear to be a war against Islam by Western countries, which it most emphatically is not.

My personal view is that his argument is illogical. He appears to think that banning the chador will mean that it in particular cannot be used to hide terrorist weapons— apparently as a response to the Moscow theatre terrorist incident. So, equally logically—or illogically, perhaps—why not ban all baggy and bulky items of clothing? If his argument is taken to its logical conclusion then I assume that, equally, businessmen should give up wearing overcoats and Catholic nuns who adopt the traditional dress should not wear habits. Proposals like this are even counterproductive from a national security perspective. Rather than uniting Australians in the war on terrorism, it will have the opposite effect of dividing the nation and of pitting moderate Muslims against Christians and other elements of our multicultural society. If that proposal was ever implemented, the terrorists would have achieved one of their key aims: that of dividing the moderate Muslim and non-Muslim communities of the world.

For many Muslim women the chador is a symbol of their faith. This is an open, free and democratic nation and I believe we should respect and protect a person's right to express their faith. A clothing based ban would suggest that perhaps all Muslim women are potential terrorists and would divide the community, encourage religious intolerance and leave the way open for further violations of religious freedom. Rather than calling for bans, we should be acknowledging the position in which wearers of the chador, the hijab, the abaya or the khimar have been placed. Because they are easily recognisable as Muslims, they are open to abuse and they face persecution and harassment within the wider community. It is happening in my city of Sydney all too often.

I make my remarks on this issue from the basic principles of liberalism. I quote a former distinguished senator Sir John Carrick, from an article in the Australian Quarterly of June 1967:

If Australia is to survive and be free, we must learn to be good neighbours. We must respect the rights of others to be different, to be separate and free. Our definition of freedom should connote our responsibility to respect and defend the freedom of others. These things demand an understanding of political philosophy and a recognition that our social values are not absolutes to be thrust at others. For these challenges, I believe the Liberal philosophy to be adequate.

The words of Sir John Carrick are also what I stand for.

The role of the media and the need for the media to participate in constructive debate in this area are important, indeed fundamental. But, unfortunately, it is not uncommon to hear discussion on talkback radio these days in this area that can at best be described as distressing and at worst as blatantly racist. There are discussions that victims of race-hate crimes `bring it on themselves'. While one late-night talkback host allegedly referred to some Muslims as `the raw sewage of humanity', the point should also be made that so-called `shock jocks' often do not make racist or discriminatory comments themselves but do allow them to go to air with little or no demur. I think some leadership in that area is important.

I want to quote the words of the Prime Minister at the Bali victims memorial ceremony in the Great Hall on 24 October. He said that we should:

... continue to live the kind of lives that we regard as the birthright of all Australians. And we've also been reminded of the great tolerance of the Australian people. The Australian people deeply angered and grieved as they are are not about to abandon the spirit of openness and tolerance which is also one of our great hallmarks.

That spirit of openness and tolerance is not one which is imposed on the Australian people but one which has been achieved gradually, through waves of largely post-war immigration and also particularly through the initial efforts of the Fraser government, whose major achievements included the re-creation of the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs and the establishment of the Australian Ethnic Affairs Council, both in 1976, and the establishment of the Institute of Multicultural Affairs to conduct research and advise government. Also, importantly, I believe that the establishment of the Special Broadcasting Service in 1980 has done much to take cultural diversity into living rooms across this country.

Work has obviously continued in ethnic affairs since that time, and in recent years this government adopted the New Agenda For Multicultural Australia, in 1999, and established the Council for Multicultural Australia, which works to promote respect for our differences and to promote the social, cultural and economic benefits of multiculturalism for all Australians and for community harmony. I particularly want to acknowledge the very valuable work of Ben Chow as chairman of the council.

We as a nation have a history that is complex, multifaceted and varied, but I suspect it is not nearly as complex, multifaceted and varied as our future will be. Maintaining and continuing the success of this bright, tolerant, open and diverse nation will take leadership—not just the leadership of people who fill parliaments like this around the nation but leadership of communities, leadership of the media and leadership of those who wish to see that sort of nation sustained. I am pleased to count myself as one of those people.