Parliamentary speeches

Standing up for multiculturalism

March 05, 2020

'All of us know how to hate, but not all of us know what it's like to be hated.' With these words the former Race Discrimination Commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane, opens his book On hate. This is a call for empathy, and it's also an urgent call to action, because more and more Australians are being subjected to the hate that is racism. We, in particular those of us who have the privilege to serve in this place—more so, those who serve in Australia's government—need to think more about the effect of our actions on others.

Australians are rightly proud of our multicultural society, but we can't take it for granted. On this side of the House we most certainly do not. It is under threat, in particular from the insidious force that is racism. While the work undertaken by the Scanlon Foundation shows us that this year 85 per cent of Australians believe that multiculturalism has been good for Australia, this survey also identified some worrying trends. People's sense of belonging in Australia is in decline, and more people have been reporting discrimination based on their skin colour, ethnic origin or religion. This has more than doubled in the decade from 2007 to 2017.

The truth is that racism is on the rise in Australia. In particular, we are seeing a rise in race based violence. Recently, we have seen some shocking incidents of anti-Semitism, in particular the display of Nazi flags in Victoria and also in northern Tasmania. We have seen shocking and repeated incidents of Islamophobia, including this summer, with the dreadful, unprovoked attack on a heavily pregnant Muslim woman by a stranger in Parramatta.

I'm afraid to say that we are witnessing a creeping normalisation of hate. One attack on an Australian because of who they are, how they worship or how they look is one too many. I'm sure we all agree on this, but there is so much more to be done by those who have the power to make a difference. Let me be clear: the vast majority of Australians abhor racism, but we need national leadership, setting the standard and leading by example. This has been sadly missing in this place.

In relation to the coronavirus, I note the bipartisanship that's characterised our public health response. I note that we saw a wide range of responses from government ministers highlighting aspects of this disease and our response, in particular going to the risks to our economy, but I heard nothing about its impact on multicultural communities. Our response and bipartisanship here should extend to tackling the racism that Chinese Australians and Asian Australians more generally are being subjected to.

When I've been out and about I've heard awful stories of racism and exclusion at what is a terribly difficult time, with businesses closing and people losing hours in their jobs as well as worrying about friends and family overseas. Last night, Chin Tan, the current Race Discrimination Commissioner, said there had been a spike in race related reports and complaints to the Human Rights Commission.

There's another way to deal with this, to show leadership. In New Zealand, the response to coronavirus shows us the path. 'Coronavirus is not an excuse to be racist and xenophobic' was the clear message of their Give Nothing to Racism campaign. It's a message we should heed here.

By way of contrast, this week the position of the assistant minister for multicultural affairs has been described as untenable by a range of multicultural groups, following a social media post. We remember that that minister, the member for La Trobe, has form on using inflammatory language about African gangs to feamonger and divide, but he has said nothing to correct the record here and neither has the Prime Minister stepped in to stand up for Australians who are feeling pressure and feeling anxiety. It is yet another failure of leadership. We also heard the disrespectful remarks to our Hindu community made the Treasurer in this place. We on this side of the House know two things about the member for Kooyong. We know that he has a sense of self-confidence that is almost inversely proportionate to his achievements in this place, but we also know that he is a decent man with a consistent record in standing against race. That's why his comments were so disappointing. Meantime, Labor has been listening, and we have been acting, too. We have been calling for a new national antiracism campaign to be funded. The Federation Of Ethnic Communities' Council of Australia has strongly supported this call, as have other multicultural representative groups. On 13 February I wrote to the acting minister, seeking his support for such a campaign. As of today he hasn't bothered to reply.

None of this takes place in a vacuum, of course. We see that tomorrow Stirling Hinchliffe, the Queensland Minister for Multicultural Affairs, has convened a ministerial council on multicultural affairs, the first in nearly a decade. The federal government won't be participating. Back in October, I wrote to the minister and asked if he would—

[An opposition member: Why not?]

'Why not?' I'm asked. I wrote and suggested that the minister should attend. I haven't received a response, six months on. That shows this government's priorities when it comes to standing up for multicultural Australia. The Queensland government and other states, including Liberal states, are leading the way, but this government is blind to the insidious forces that are undermining our multiculturalism. We note under this government the successive machinery of government changes that have devalued multiculturalism within national government. We note the cuts to settlement services. Anyone who's read the Shergold report sees what a damning indictment it is of this government's approach to everything that's about supporting new migrants and supporting new and emerging communities—indeed, even on Liberal terms, on encouraging economic participation and entrepreneurship, which have been such a feature of first- and second-generation migrations.

There is also a failure to take on those who seek to undermine our multiculturalism. I think of the speeches given by former Prime Minister Abbott and former Foreign Minister Downer last year, speeches given overseas that talked down Australia. They were speeches that should have been held to account by the Prime Minister or a minister in this government, yet these attacks on multicultural communities were left to stand. Of course, the Abbott government proposed changes to the Race Discrimination Act to weaken protections against hate speech, and the then Attorney-General, Senator Brandis, said, 'Everyone's got the right to be a bigot.' He should have listened to the words written by Tim Soutphommasane. He should reflect on that contribution. More recently, this parliament was disgraced by the vile speech of former Queensland senator Anning, who called for a 'final solution' to what he described as Australia's immigration problem. This was followed by coalition senators voting for Senator Hanson's infamous 'It's okay to be white' motion in the Senate.

It's now been more than seven years since Prime Minister Julia Gillard funded the 'Racism. It Stops With Us' campaign. This campaign helped raise awareness of racism in the community and galvanised action across Australia. Across Australia today people and organisations are doing good things to reduce and prevent racism, particularly following the high-profile Adam Goodes documentaries, which highlighted the continuing racism directed against our First People. But all of us in this parliament, and especially those in government, those who hold the responsibility for these issues, must demonstrate the leadership that these times require.

The ASIO director-general has said that far Right and neo-Nazi groups are emerging as one of Australia's most challenging security threats. The latest report from the Global Terrorism Index says there has been a 320 per cent increase in far Right terror in the past five years, and of course we approach the anniversary of the Christchurch massacre, that awful day when an Australian killed 51 people at worship. We saw news out of New Zealand overnight that police in Christchurch have the home of a man they believe could be linked to a threat in one of the mosques involved in last year's terror attack. The Australian parliament then came together in sorrow and respect. On that day, the Prime Minister did speak for us all. He said:

At the heart of all extremism … is the inability to tolerate difference, a hatred of difference, and a hatred about the choices of others. We must strive to see the 'us' in our national life and to celebrate it …

He was right. He's still right. But we must do more. These fine words have been belied by action and by inaction.

We can't forget the horror of that day. We must not. We must do more to foster respect, to build solidarity. In the Prime Minister's terms, to see the us, not reinforce a sense of us and them, which is so present right now and which is undermining all that is good about our multicultural society, is modern Australia's greatest achievement. One year on, we must ask ourselves: have we learned all the lessons of this tragedy, this awful massacre? Have we done all that we can do to stand up for our multiculturalism, to understand what it's like to be hated, to demonstrate a zero-tolerance approach to the corrosive poison that is racism? I fear that we haven't. Today, I call on the Morrison government and every member of it to stand up for multiculturalism and to stand up for every Australian.