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Monday, 25 June 2018
Page: 6265

Mr FITZGIBBON (Hunter) (11:58): I second the motion. One of the things Australia is renowned for is the generosity of its people, yet too often in this 21st century we hear people in our communities lament our level of investment in foreign aid. Foreign aid brings Australia respect and influence around the world. It helps keep the world stable in geostrategic terms. It creates and grows export markets for Australia. But, most of all, it is the right thing for a wealthy country like Australia to do. But our generosity comes not just through government. Every year, hundreds of thousands of Australians make their own donations to needy people elsewhere, typically in developing, failing and war-torn nation states. As the terms of the member for North Sydney's motion indicate, this is not a new phenomenon.

It is a historical fact that, during the early hours of 25 April 2015, Armenian political, religious, educational and intellectual leaders in what is now Istanbul were arrested, deported to the interior and put to death. Many more were forced off their ancestral homelands, facing abuse, starvation and eventually—again—death. The work and efforts of those Australians who responded to the plight of the Armenian people in the years following 25 April 1915 were extraordinary. The work of those involved in the Armenian Relief Fund of Australia set an example which many have followed in the subsequent decades, and the establishment of the Australasian Orphanage must have had the collateral benefit of bolstering the reputation of the young Australian nation; it certainly forged enduring relationships between our two peoples.

For Australians living in the first quarter of the 20th century, the historical homelands of the Armenians and other Christian minorities could hardly have been further away, yet widespread media coverage of their suffering at the hands of the Ottoman Turks was a call to arms for many here in Australia. The New York Times reported almost daily on the mass murder of the Armenian people, describing the process as systematic as well as authorised and organised by the government. Theodore Roosevelt would characterise the events as 'the greatest crime of the war'. At least 1½ million Armenians lost their lives in that period. But, as is so often the case, despite the distance which separated them and the victims, the response of Australians seemed beyond what you'd expect from a distant, small and young nation-state. Of course, the bond between our two peoples had been forged out of the military presence in the region of the Anzacs. Many Anzacs witnessed and recorded the shocking treatment of the Armenian people. I've had the honour of laying a wreath at what is known as the Armenian Genocide Museum in Yerevan, Armenia's modern-day capital. Like my visit to the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel, it was a deeply emotional experience.

Of course, there are sensitivities about the use of the word genocide, and I understand that. But surely we spend too much time arguing about a descriptor, a word, and too little time providing closure for so many Armenians, Assyrians and other minorities. Whatever the words used, the fact is that between 1915 and 1923, hundreds of thousands lost their lives at the hands of the Ottoman Turks for no other reason than their religion or ethnicity. Up to 30 countries around the world, and our own New South Wales parliament, have now declared the actions of the Ottomans an act of genocide. I do not believe the ongoing failure of Australia to do the same helps rebuild trust and relationships. Indeed, it may further inflame tensions. We invest so much in the strength of our international relationships, and yet I believe one further act could further strengthen our place in the world. The failure to have a debate certainly does not send the right messages. Remember, it was Hitler who, ahead of his invasion of Poland in 1939, said, 'Who after all speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?'

Australia has built much strength and earned great respect internationally and domestically as a result of our willingness to recognise and take collective responsibility for our treatment of our Indigenous peoples in the years following European settlement. Others around the world can learn from our experience, our actions and, of course, our courage.