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How Muslim communities have integrated into the wider Australian community: address to Islamic Council of Victoria/FaCSIA Symposium, Melbourne.

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Teresa Gambaro MP Assistant Minister for Immigration and Citizenship

Media Centre Speeches

Address to Islamic Council of Victoria/FaCSIA Symposium

Address to symposium ‘How Muslim communities have integrated into the wider Australian community’

Islamic Council of Victoria and Department of Family and Community Services and Indigenous Affairs

Melbourne 23 February 2007

Distinguished guests, other speakers, ladies and gentlemen

I am delighted to be here this evening at the inaugural symposium and I thank the organisers - the Islamic Council of Victoria and the Department of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.

This week will mark my first three weeks as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, and I appreciate very much the opportunity to introduce myself and meet with you.

I want to congratulate all the people who have worked so hard to develop this symposium. My department is really pleased to be closely involved with the Bringing Communities Together strategy.

Tonight, I will talk to you about cultural diversity, shared national identity and common values.

The change in the department’s name - particularly the replacement of ‘multicultural affairs’ with ‘citizenship’ - has given rise to some anxiety and misinformation in some communities concerning the Government’s intentions. I have written to community leaders across Australia to reaffirm the Government’s continued commitment to the effective integration of migrants and refugees. In that letter I explained that the emphasis on citizenship in the name of the department reflects the warm invitation we extend to those joining our national family. Tonight’s symposium provides me with an opportunity to elaborate on these issues.

Rumours of the ‘death’ of multiculturalism are greatly exaggerated. But multiculturalism - as a term - has become redundant, let me explain what I mean.

Many have grown attached to multiculturalism as a catch phrase or label, while remaining unsure of its definition, and unconvinced of its benefits. Multiculturalism, as a term, can be interpreted in any number of ways. In my view, its very imprecision is a critical weakness.

On the first episode of the new ABC programme, Difference of Opinion, a panel guest extolled a virtue of multiculturalism in Australia as being the variety of foreign food we have to choose from.

As a first generation daughter of Italian migrants, I find that particular defence of multiculturalism in Australia - in the context of an important national discussion - to be trivial.

If that is all that ‘multiculturalism’ is, or describes, then that term does nothing to describe the contribution and commitment of my parents to Australia. And the term does nothing to honour the contributions made by other Australians from culturally diverse backgrounds. The term can also trivialise the achievements of Australia’s 300,000 Muslims and magnifies the perceived distance of Australian Muslims from the rest of Australia.

Multiculturalism, as a word, can serve to distance us from ourselves. In my view, I think multiculturalism as a label, is past its use-by date. It doesn’t tell us what we share in common, it doesn’t tell us who we are, it doesn’t tell us what our values are, and it does not point the way toward continued national prosperity. But I believe that its policy fundamentals are important and should remain.

So let us celebrate unity within our cultural diversity. If Australia’s prosperity is to continue to grow, if all our children are to inherit and build upon our labours, then we have no option other than to unite behind a core set of common values; a shared Australian identity. We should all celebrate our individual backgrounds but we cannot afford to be confined by them.

We must commit to Australia as a whole.

Australia cannot be a nation of islands within an island. Together, we hope to achieve a stronger, more united community. All of us here tonight agree that those who come to Australia should unite behind a core set of values, a shared Australian identity. We all know that. This is because we all recognise that values are the key to character.

As Australians, whatever our background, age or country of birth, we are united by shared values. The self-appointed elites are greatly amused by this discussion. They disparagingly refer to the system of shouting beers in public bars as signifying the evolutionary apogee of Australian values.

Again, the trivialisation of a serious discussion continues. They are the ones suffering from the hangover of an out-dated cultural cringe. But you in the

audience know what these values are - for they are real values - not just quirks of custom.

These shared values are respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual, democracy, our commitment to the rule of law, freedom of speech and the press, the equality of men and women, and the spirit of egalitarianism, which embraces the uniquely Australian principle of the ‘Fair go’ which encompasses mutual respect, honesty and compassion for those in need.

And there is absolutely no conflict between commitment to these Australian values, of participating in the national identity, and fulfilling our respective personal religious obligations.

Australia’s Muslims have demonstrated that there is no incompatibility between a commitment to Islam and being Australian - and making a constructive contribution to this country.

For Australia’s Muslims, there is no conflict between veils and vegemite.

We need to ensure that the new arrivals develop the English language skills and a general understanding of our community, so that they might integrate quickly and make the most of the opportunities available in Australia.

An ability to communicate in English is essential for integration and participation of all migrants in broader Australian society.

Critics have argued that in the past, many migrants came to Australia without much English and proved to be wonderful, productive citizens.

No one argues with that.

But things have changed over the last 30, 40, or 50 years. Gone are the days when the majority of migrants worked in low-skill jobs and learned English on the factory floor.

Australian society, and the Australian economy, has moved on. For migrants, a functional command of English is now a pre-requisite for performance in a 21st century economy. Learning English can be difficult - I know this from personal experience - but it is not an insurmountable hurdle, nor is it an unreasonable expectation.

On the contrary, English language skills are personally empowering for new arrivals - and the Government is committed to assisting their process of self-empowerment. This is because English language ability is a passport to participation, a passport to prosperity. And English not only bridges the gap between communities, it bridges the generation gap within our communities.

The government is working closely with Australia’s Muslim community, and has established a number of collaborative partnerships to address strategic national or regional issues.

You here tonight are familiar with, or have participated in these partnerships and initiatives, so I won’t tell you what you already know about the

Government’s $55 million cultural diversity policies and programmes. I also welcome the participation of key Australian organisations, such as Surf Life Saving Australia, the Australian Sports Commission, the National Rugby League and the Australian Football League, as well as the Guides and Scouts, have been working to help create avenues for Australians - of all backgrounds - to fully participate in, and contribute to, the broader community and to truly integrate.

And I thank the Imams for their good work. Last year’s Conference of Australian Imams was an historic moment. Their contribution to more rigorous education and training initiatives in Australia are greatly appreciated. Fifty per cent of Muslims in Australia are under 25 years of age, most of have been born in Australia with English as their first language: the government has encouraged Imams to reach out to these young people by giving their sermons in English.

But all initiatives require commitment and involvement not just from government agencies, but from the NGO sector, and from community leaders involved in promoting and participating in these programmes and partnerships.

As I mentioned earlier, the principle of the ‘Fair Go’ is a uniquely Australian value. A fair go, however, expects fair effort. Australians will always help those in need but they rightly expect those receiving assistance to contribute in return.

The Government will continue to support all migrants by ensuring they have access to education, employment and involvement with mainstream community activities. In return, the Government expects migrants to make the effort to learn the language and the culture. It is in all of our interests. And it will assist in developing greater understanding of Islam among the majority non-Muslim population in Australia


Some are concerned that the Government is denying, or dispensing with, Australia’s cultural diversity. These fears are unfounded. Cultural diversity is a fact of Australian life.

There has been a change in language, and a change in emphasis.

As I mentioned earlier, the term ‘multiculturalism’ fails to explain the Australian national identity, our shared values, and it does nothing to point the way ahead.

It does nothing to explain the commitment and contribution of migrants to Australia.

Instead, we should celebrate our cultural diversity and commitment to shared Australian values. And a great method of doing this is by ensuring we can all speak to one another - in English, our national language.

I look forward to these symposia over the next seven months, and will be interested to see what they produce and how they contribute to greater understanding.

Together, we can do great things.