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Monday, 4 September 2006
Page: 132

Senator BERNARDI (10:12 PM) —I rise to speak tonight about some worrying developments, ones that are becoming increasingly noticeable in our broader society, in our public education system and, indeed, even in our preschools and child-care centres. I speak of the erosion—I call it the ‘sanitisation’—of some aspects of our Australian culture. This seems to be occurring out of some misguided and often foolish attempt to pander to the perceived sensitivities of various minority groups in this country. I say ‘perceived sensitivities’ because, on the whole, mainstream religious or ethnic groups are not the ones driving this form of cultural erosion.

I recall events at Christmas 2002 when a number of child-care centres and kindergartens throughout Australia banned all nativity scenes and Christmas celebrations due to a desire to be ‘culturally sensitive’. Quite rightly, this led to a robust debate in the community about multiculturalism in Australia and the dangers associated with denying our own cultural values for fear of offending others. However, as I mentioned, religious and ethnic minority groups in Australia are by and large not agitating for this type of change. Indeed, in 2004, a member of the Islamic Council of Victoria wrote that he knew of no member of any religious minority, Muslim or otherwise, who was offended by our cultural celebration of Christmas.

It seems that those who are behind the campaign for this form of cultural sanitisation are the self-appointed cultural elites. There are an increasing number of examples that illustrate this point. At Christmas time in 2004, the City of Sydney council led by Lord Mayor Clover Moore decided to limit the Christmas decorations around the Sydney CBD out of a misguided, and quite frankly ridiculous, fear of offending other ethnic groups. Such was the public backlash that the following year the City of Sydney council deliberately sought to redress the outrage felt by the Australian community by setting up a bigger Christmas display than ever before.

I will give another example. Earlier this year, under the guise of ‘an infection control method’, all Bibles were removed from the bedside tables of public hospitals in Queensland, Victoria and South Australia. However, I—and many other clear-thinking Australians—suspect that this move was more likely due to health bureaucrats being worried about being ‘culturally sensitive’ than their being concerned about infection. Quite frankly, if I were in the Queensland hospital system I would be looking for a Bible too! But that is not the point. If I had to stay in Indonesia, or Egypt, or any other predominantly Muslim country, I would not feel the slightest twinge of offence at seeing a copy of the Koran next to my bed.

But, of course, others do choose to see this differently. How else can one explain the 2001 decision taken by the management of the Stamford Hotels in Adelaide to remove all Bibles from their hotel rooms because, according to the hotel manager, Australia is a multifaith and multicultural society? Fortunately, common sense prevailed and the public backlash forced the Stamford Hotels management to rethink their decision and bring Bibles back into hotel rooms.

In South Australia, in another example of political correctness gone mad, the Rann Labor government announced that the term ‘chaplain’ was no longer appropriate for use in schools. This sort of nonsensical political correctness risks dividing, not uniting, our communities. And just weeks ago, in South Australia once again, I was disappointed to hear that a newsletter was sent to parents of Rose Park Primary School students which detailed the school’s decision to abandon Christmas and Easter plays that were staged for the children by a local interdenominational Christian group. According to media reports, the principal of this primary school dismissed these Christmas and Easter plays as ‘religious seminars’.

Sadly, I have already experienced this at first hand; there was a similar process at the child-care centre that my children attended. Over the course of two or three years I saw their Christmas celebrations of peace and goodwill to all downgraded into what was effectively a culturally neutral end-of-year gathering. The concept of Christmas and what it means in a historical, religious and cultural context in this country was completely ignored to ‘preserve the rights of non-Christians’.

But what about the rights of the approximately 70 per cent of Australians who identify themselves, notionally or otherwise, as Christian? I would argue that banning the central message of Christmas, downgrading Christmas celebrations and removing Bibles could also be construed as offending the cultural sensitivities of the majority of Australians. And when have Australians ever asked another culture to cease the celebration of one of their culturally significant events? On the contrary, we have welcomed other cultures into this country, and they have contributed significantly to our richness and diversity.

I can speak of this richness and diversity with firsthand knowledge. My own ancestry is a mix of Australian and Italian. My wife was born in Ireland; I have brothers-in-law born in Malaysia, Austria and Ireland, and a sister-in-law from Denmark. As a result, my own family has a positive understanding and appreciation of other cultural practices.

However, to abandon our own cultural observances is the equivalent of asking the Irish to stop celebrating St Patrick’s day, the Muslims to cease observing Ramadan and the Jews to give up Hanukkah. Of course, this would be unthinkable. Imagine the public and media furore were this to occur. And yet our own cultural elites are doing just this at the moment to our own culture.

Why are we allowing the politically correct zealots to devalue Australian culture? It saddens me that the vocal minority are tempted to deny and belittle the very things that make our country the very best in the world, so much so that people of other nations actually want to come here. Our tolerance, our sense of fairness, our democratic nature—all these are born from our heritage, and our heritage is Judeo-Christian. Our laws and traditions have evolved from this heritage. And yet the continued attempts to reduce our historical and cultural beliefs undermine the very reasons so many migrants seek to call Australia home.

In the 1990s one migrant father even went to the Equal Opportunity Tribunal to try to ban the singing of Christmas carols at his children’s school. Quite rightly, his behaviour caused absolute outrage in the community as it was seen to be demonstrating his disregard and disrespect for the beliefs of the country he had chosen to live in. However, we risk this same level of divisiveness when we devalue our own culture for fear of causing offence to others. In the end, it is the minority groups who are—erroneously, I have to point out—blamed for compelling us to cease celebrating our own cultural traditions.

Instead it is time to demonstrate the same respect for our own beliefs as we show to others’. Australian culture is built upon Judeo-Christian principles. Whether practising Christians or not, all Australians benefit from these fundamentally good values. In fact, many of the tenets of Christianity are actually shared by other religions. The fundamental moral guidance to ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ appears in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam—in fact virtually all major religions and cultures. I believe it is wonderful that our children are taught about these cultures, and about the Aboriginal Dreamtime, and about many other religious practices in our school system. It broadens their view of the world and encourages awareness and tolerance. However, this should not be at the expense of our own cultural values. Indeed, when have value-free zones ever been good for children?

Some may even argue that the difficulties we are experiencing today as a society—the abuse of innocent children, the growing divorce rate, the sense of loss of community, and the like—can be attributed to the fact that we are losing many of the historical traditions that bind us as a nation. Traditions such as the centrality of the family and, even at a basic level, respect for others are at risk of becoming expunged from our culture.

Christmas and Easter celebrations remind Christians and non-Christians alike of the importance of goodwill to all, the benefit of sacrifice and the gift of love. These values are important to us as a nation and important to many of us as individuals. The biggest threat to our way of life does not come from those who choose to call Australia home; it comes from those who do not believe our culture is valuable and worth defending. As a society we need to continue to show tolerance for other faiths and cultures. But we also need to show the same respect for, and pride in, our own cultural and historical traditions. To deny it is not multiculturalism; it is anticulturalism.