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Wednesday, 9 February 2005
Page: 145

Senator TCHEN (7:17 PM) —Last night I had to discontinue my remarks about an outstanding Work for the Dole project in Melbourne, and tonight I would like to continue those remarks. Last night I reported to the Senate that that particular project was remarkable for two reasons. The first is the general reason that it is a Work for the Dole project and is part of a program which has been an unqualified success in terms of community building. The second remarkable reason is that that particular project was sponsored by the Islamic community of Melbourne and it is about achievement in the Muslim community in Victoria.

The objective of that Work for the Dole project was to design and produce a booklet containing information on the Muslim community and Muslim achievements, including a comprehensive directory of Muslim businesses in Victoria. The project provided participants with experience in undertaking research, conducting interviews, collating and compiling data and utilising computer skills to design and produce that booklet. I again thank the Senate for giving me leave last night to table a copy of the booklet for the record.

It is important that this project involved the Muslim community, because the 2001 census recorded that Australia’s Muslim community totalled 281,780—92,735 of whom, about one in three, live in my home state of Victoria. The Muslim community is a high achieving community: 45 per cent of the population have attained VCE or equivalent level education, 34 per cent are university graduates and 10 per cent hold postgraduate qualifications. This compares with 31 per cent of Victoria’s general population with a university degree and only five per cent with postgraduate degrees.

However, education achievements have not translated into job market successes. The unemployment rate for Victoria’s Muslims is said to be about 2½ times higher than for non-Muslims. Discrimination is no doubt one of the causes of this discrepancy. Discrimination on an individual basis is something that we can deal with as it comes up according to the laws which are already in place. I am confident that this discrimination will be eradicated—and soon. However, another problem for the Muslim community may be a lack of confidence in the security of their place in society, both for those individuals and for the group. This is a problem which minorities in a diverse society are often plagued with. This particular Work for the Dole project, sponsored by the Islamic Council and called ‘Celebrating Muslim achievements in Melbourne’, tackles this issue front on. In celebrating Muslim accomplishments, and there are many, this project helps to celebrate not only the determination and resourcefulness of these Muslim Australians but also the Australian society that, to quote from the booklet, ‘provides great opportunity for those who aim to succeed, despite colour, race or religion’.

While Islam is no stranger to Australia—archaeological records indicate that Indonesian fishermen have been visiting Northern Australia since the 1600s—the Muslim presence was recognised by the European settlers, only it began with the recruitment of the so-called Afghan cameleers whose contribution to the exploration and settlement of Australia’s vast interior has so far received scant recognition but certainly cannot be discounted. In Coolgardie in 1898, for example, there was a Muslim community some 300 strong with two mosques. However, in an echo of a description common to the Chinese community on the goldfields in eastern Australia and one of the strongest indications and sources of both misunderstanding and potential discrimination, there was not one women amongst this 300 strong Muslim community.

Muslim migrants were actively excluded from Australia after Federation—not unexpectedly, given the prevalent political and social attitudes of the time—and for the next half-century. After World War II, the door began to open for Muslim migrants, led by Lebanese Christians and white Muslims from Bosnia, Cyprus and other Balkan countries, in very much the same way that the Colombo Plan sponsored students and opened the way for English-speaking Asians. In 1967 an agreement with Turkey meant that Turkish migrants were able to come to Australia as assisted migrants, and in the seventies civil wars in Lebanon and Cyprus led to healthier growth of the Muslim community in Australia.

Within the broad confines of Australian multiculturalism, incidents of actual and active discrimination experienced by the Muslim community have been relatively rare but not non-existent, and the Muslim community continues to be probably one of the most misunderstood minority communities in Australia. According to a report prepared by the Centre for Cultural Research, University of Western Sydney, for the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, called Living with racism: the experience and reporting by Arab and Muslim Australians of discrimination, abuse and violence since 11 September 2001, there is evidence of a noticeable increase both at a personal level and at a community level since 9-11.

While it seems to me that this finding must be considered less than unexpected, I do not believe that we should give too much emphasis to this aspect of the report. For one, both the quality and the comprehensiveness of the report were open to question. I should like to come back to this later, if I have time. For now, it is more important that we focus on the question of the best way forward. The best way, the only real way, to eliminate the evil of discrimination in society is to confront it head on, with confidence in our own values and in our neighbours’ goodwill. The Islamic Council of Victoria has certainly done that by sponsoring the Work for the Dole project.

I would like to pay tribute to the Islamic Council of Victoria, which is the umbrella organisation of Islamic societies in Victoria and their representative body to the Australian government and the Australian community at large. The ICV is a member of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, the umbrella organisation of all Islamic Councils in Australia. The Islamic Council of Victoria was established in the late sixties, with a mission to represent the Muslim community and promote mutual understanding, harmony and cooperation among the Muslim community, among communities and groups in Australia, and among Australians. This is a laudable mission. The leadership and members of the ICV, which has been committed to it for 40 years, should indeed be commended and congratulated not only on its intention but also on its success.

Action is always more important than rhetoric, and ICV’s participation in the Work for the Dole program is another example of this. It also should be noted that the day after September 11, the ICV courageously issued a public statement saying, ‘The killing of innocent people is a crime against God and against humanity,’ and that there should be no sympathy for such atrocities.

So I take great pleasure in commending and congratulating the ICV for its many contributions to our society, especially the current chair of the council, Mr Yasser Soliman, and ICV’s representative at the 21 July 2004 Work for the Dole graduation celebration, the honorary treasurer of ICV, Mr Rohan Gould—one would think a very un-Muslim name—who is an excellent representative of the Australian Muslim community. I also thank Mr Bilal Cleland, author of the book Muslims in Australia—A Brief History, published in 2002, who kindly informed me about this important group of fellow Australians.

Today being the first day of the year in the lunar calendar, a holiday celebrated by more than a quarter of the world’s population in East and South-East Asia, I take this opportunity to wish all my Senate colleagues and all the officers of the Senate a healthy and prosperous Year of the Rooster.