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Thursday, 15 October 2015
Page: 7736

Senator McALLISTER (New South Wales) (10:19): This is really quite exquisite timing because on 31 October this year we will mark 40 years since the Racial Discrimination Act came into effect. We should be commemorating what was one of Whitlam's most enduring achievements. Instead, we have to defend it. It is a shame that some in the Liberal Party think it necessary to water down the race hate protections in the act. We hope that the new Prime Minister shows the strength necessary to stare down the less tolerant parts of his party. But we do not have much reason to hope because the Prime Minister himself has said to Andrew Bolt that he is 'very comfortable' with the measures in the bill. I am not comfortable with the measures in this bill, and neither are the Australians of all backgrounds who spoke out against the government's divisive proposal—Indigenous Australians and the most recent of migrants, Jewish people and Arabic people, and people of all political persuasions.

It might be that some opposite need a history lesson on why it is that we have the Racial Discrimination Act in the first place to understand why it is that we should not be watering it down. It is true to say that Australia has long struggled with racism, but it is probably fairer to say that Australia's minorities have long struggled against racism because it is they who have borne the consequences of prejudice. Unhappily, it is the case that the White Australia policy was one of the first pieces of legislation passed by this parliament after Federation. Prime Minister Edmund Barton argued in support of the bill, saying:

The doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply to the equality of the Englishman and the Chinaman.

And for the next 60 years, the doctrine of equality was not applied in Australia. All sides of politics share the blame for the discrimination that was entrenched in Australian life. Racism was not a minority view, nor was it a quiet one. In 1948, for instance, 57 per cent of respondents to a Morgan Gallup poll thought that the immigration of 'coloured peoples' should be stopped. These 57 per cent were not all bad people. They simply grew up in a time when racist beliefs were not just acceptable but could be passed off as a mark of civilisation. Nor was Australia alone in housing these beliefs. Racism has been and still is a global struggle.

None of this, however, made racial discrimination any easier to bear for those who suffered it. We will never know the cost of having turned away people because of their race. We do not know how many brilliant minds we turned away nor how many humble people who would have lived honest lives. What we do know, however, is the indignity and harm wrought on those of different backgrounds who made it to Australia, people who were denied jobs or education because of the colour of their skin, immigrants and their children who would hear families just like their own vilified on TV or in the papers simply because of where they had come from—the national shame of the stolen generation.

Forty years ago, this parliament looked at this past and said 'no more'. It was not a unitary effort; Australia's racist policies had required the connivance of both sides of politics, and dismantling it likewise required their cooperation. The Racial Discrimination Act was passed with bipartisan support. This did not mean universal support, however, far from it. Paul Keating later described the act as a 'very brave piece of legislation'. Only as brave a Prime Minister as Whitlam could have made it law.

It is instructive to recall what was said in this chamber when the bill was debated. One popular view was expressed by the senator who remarked:

Sometimes people have an aversion to others either because of personality, race, creed or whatever it might be. Does that mean it is such a bad thing? ... The fact of somebody having a racial attitude towards a person should not worry that person.

Or, to give it a more modern phrasing, people have the right to be bigots. I guess that, 40 years on, some things have not changed. But other things have changed and that is why it is so important to oppose this bill.

We are truly a multicultural nation today. The last census revealed that almost one in four Australians was born overseas and more than 43 per cent of us have at least one parent who was born overseas. The bill that is before us today is a product of a mindset that cannot even countenance tolerating difference let alone celebrating it. What I think we need to do, however, is value this diversity for what it is: our country's greatest competitive advantage in a global market place.

We are a successful, multicultural country with an educated multicultural people. This is something that the old economies of Europe do not have. They remain largely a monoculture and their migrant populations have very different educational and community profiles from ours. We cannot rest on our laurels in this respect. There is much to be done in ensuring that people from different ethnic backgrounds are able to enjoy the success they deserve.

There has been much discussion recently about a bamboo ceiling that prevents people from Asian backgrounds from reaching the management and leadership positions that people with similar or even lesser qualifications and experience are able to reach. It is a huge mistake if we do not capitalise on the raw human talent that we have.

This is the century of the south. We have heard from the government ad nauseam recently about the importance of trade linkages with China and other countries in the Pacific. Well, the people in Australia who are in the best position to help us take advantage of these opportunities are the well educated people with cultural understanding and links to these nations—in other words, the very people that this government slaps in the face.

It is difficult to conceive of this bill as anything other than an insult to ethnic communities in Australia. What is startling is the urgency with which it has been brought on. This is a government, we should remember, that thought that it was too busy with other matters to debate same-sex marriage and would not let that private member's bill onto the floor—no time for love, but when it comes to people's right to be bigots, this government clears a smooth passage onto the floor of the chamber.

The question we need to really ask is: why is this so important? Why is it so important to allow people to offend or insult people of other backgrounds? What are the situations where people have a legitimate debate fouled because of these provisions? That is what I think we should hear from the other side—a list of the types of racist and insulting statements the supporters of this bill have in mind that currently cannot be said because of the bill as it stands. It is all well and good to talk in esoteric terms about the freedom of speech, but what we are really talking about here is speech that is on the margins, speech that has the ability to poison the tenor of public debate, speech that is toxic to our community.

It is worth remembering why the original bill, the government's bill, was withdrawn by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott in the first place. He thought that the divisiveness of the government's attack on race-hate protections was distracting from national security issues. You do not need to make an instrumental argument against race hate and divisiveness. You can oppose it on its face. And you should.