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Tuesday, 27 September 2022
Page: 1237

Senator WONG (South AustraliaMinister for Foreign Affairs and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (15:15): First, in regard to the amendment circulated in the chamber by myself and Senator Birmingham, I acknowledge Senator Birmingham's willingness to co-sponsor, which, as people might recall, is my preferred response on issues of race in this place. That was the way in which we sought to deal with the comments that former senator Anning made. The amendment has been circulated and there are a few changes, but I would make the point that it also calls on senators to refrain from inflammatory and divisive comments both inside and outside the chamber. I, and on behalf of Senator Birmingham, move to amend the motion in the following terms:

Omit all words after "That", substitute "the Senate—

(a) condemns racism and discrimination in all its forms;

(b) assures all migrants to Australia that they are valued, welcome members of our society;

(c) affirms that, if Parliament is to be a safe place for all who work and visit here, there can be no tolerance for racism or discrimination in the course of parliamentarians' public debate; and

(d) calls on all senators to engage in debates and commentary respectfully, and to refrain from inflammatory and divisive comments, both inside and outside the chamber at all times.

I will make some comments in relation to the amendment of the primary motion generally. We are seeking to amend for two main reasons. First, we don't agree that the offending sentence should be repeated in this place. We don't think it should be repeated at all, much less in the Senate. Second, we don't think that a censure can be our default response in such a situation, particularly in reference to social media and other comments.

I do want to say, to start with, that I condemn Senator Hanson's comments without reservation. I think they're appalling. They're comments that have been levelled at me countless times since I arrived in this country. I remember getting them when I was a kid in the schoolyard, and I've got them since. They're not just the pathetic hecklings of a schoolyard bully. They are, as Senator Faruqi rightly said, something you say to de-legitimise someone's right to speak. I don't know what drives it. Perhaps it's the fear of anything different—different races, different ethnicities, different opinions. But I say to Senator Faruqi: we on this side do understand your grievance at this comment and we understand why you are calling out such behaviour.

I pick up on something that Senator Faruqi said in her contribution about how triggering this is. It's true. It is triggering each time you hear it. I am the Senate leader; I still get triggered. I wonder how it is for kids in the schoolyard who get the same thing. I join in the assurance that is in the motion that all migrants to Australia are valued and welcome members of society. I was reflecting, when I saw the media focus on this, on my first speech, because I actually talked about this experience. I asked the question in the speech: How long do you have to be here and how much do you have to love this country before you're accepted? How long? The good news is that I do actually believe that the overwhelming majority of Australians are accepting. I think the overwhelming majority of Australians are accepting and respectful, and I would say also that, regardless of our differences of views, I think the overwhelming majority of members of this chamber are accepting of people of different ethnic backgrounds.

In relation to the workplace issue, the parliament has been through a long and comprehensive review into Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces, led by Kate Jenkins, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, and she rightly described us as having an opportunity to transform this place into what it should be, referring to:

… workplaces where expected standards of behaviour are modelled, championed and enforced … and in which any Australian, no matter their gender, race, sexual orientation, disability status or age, feels safe and welcome to contribute.

She went on to say:

This aim is an important one, because it is only by reflecting the whole of Australian society, and living up to community expectations, that Parliament can perform its function in a representative democracy …

Each of us in this place needs to take responsibility for our words and the impact of our words. Sometimes we say the wrong thing. Sometimes we do say the wrong thing, but we do have an individual and collective responsibility to act in a way that Australians would expect of us and that we would expect of our fellow Australians.

It is why, when confronted with such behaviour or words that we are describing, I think it's far preferable that the response is bipartisan. That's the approach, as I said, that I took with Senator Cormann when Senator Anning made his most egregious remarks several years ago. If I may repeat what I said on that occasion, in that debate and in that motion I made clear:

… that we abhor racism and religious intolerance, and that we acknowledge and celebrate diversity and the harmony of the Australian people. We stated our respect for people from all faiths, cultures, ethnicities and nationalities—a respect that has made our country one of the world's most successful migrant nations and multicultural societies—and we reaffirmed our commitment as Australians to peace over violence, innocence over evil, understanding over extremism, liberty over fear and love over hate.

For our democracy to function well we must treat each other as equals. It is true that freedom of speech is a feature of democracy, but speech which is directed at people's heritage, race or religion is an attack on democracy, because fundamentally what it is saying is, 'You are not equal.' We must treat each other as equals, no matter the differences in our views. When we fail to take such an approach, it is not only diminishing of the other; it is diminishing of us all.