Speech on Labor's support for equal rights for all Australians

Parliament House, Canberra.

Mr DREYFUS (Isaacs—Deputy Manager of Opposition Business) (16:20):  This year marks the 41st anniversary of the Racial Discrimination Act, one of the great legacies of the Whitlam government. Passed in 1975, the Racial Discrimination Act makes it an offence to discriminate against a person because of their race, colour, descent, national or ethnic origin, or immigrant status. The act, of course, gave effect to some of Australia's international obligations under CERD, the Covenant for the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination, and under the ICCPR, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Diversity is what makes Australia great. We do not merely tolerate or accept multiculturalism; we welcome and embrace it. Every new community that has come to this wide brown land of ours has added its own unique culture to the great multicultural fabric that is modern Australia. This diversity makes our great country stronger. It offers all Australians the chance to learn about the customs and traditions of others, making us all wiser and more civilised as a result. I cannot imagine an Australia that is not the multicultural community that it is today, because this is what we have become over the many decades of successive waves of immigration to our country. The multiplicity of cultures that we see around us, particularly in our great cities, makes Australia an extraordinarily distinctive culture. Very, very few countries in the world can boast of the multicultural diversity that we have in our country.

I welcome the Prime Minister's words in this House about his commitment to an immigration policy which is wholly non-discriminatory on the grounds of race, colour, creed or origin. I also welcome the Prime Minister's denunciation of racial intolerance in any form as being incompatible with the kind of society we are and want to be. I trust that the Prime Minister's words will be followed by swift action in support of the laws and policies that uphold the commitments that are contained in his words, including upholding section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which provides protection for all Australians from being vilified because of their race or ethnic origin. It is exceptionally disappointing that the right-wing fringe of Australian politics, including some coalition MPs, have chosen to renew their attack on a law which has served Australia particularly well in the 21 years that it has been part of our law.

I note that the Prime Minister has yet to respond to a letter written by the Leader of the Opposition inviting him to join all members of the Labor caucus in signing a parliamentarians' code of race and cultural ethics which pledges to discuss racial issues in a truthful and respectful way. This Parliamentarians' Code of Race and Cultural Ethics is built on a document to very, very similar effect instigated by Senator Margaret Reynolds from Queensland in 1996, signed by very many members of both houses of the Australian parliament by 1998, which was prompted by what was, on any view, an outbreak of racial intolerance that had the potential to threaten the course and conduct of debate in this parliament. It is prompted by the potential for that same outbreak of racial intolerance that this new Parliamentarians' Code of Race and Cultural Ethics has been brought into existence. I very much hope that the Prime Minister and the members of the joint coalition party room do respond to the invitation that has been extended by the Leader of the Opposition.

What the Prime Minister's words in this House should lead to, but have not to date, is a swift denunciation of the member for Dickson's recent derogatory and uninformed comments about communities that came to our country under the Fraser government. The words that he has used when speaking of 'second- and third-generation migrants' demonstrate his ignorance. The children and grandchildren of migrants are not second- and third-generation migrants; they are Australians, and the member for Dickson should recognise that. He should be ashamed, as the immigration minister, of the phrases he has used.

The member for Dickson's other statements, about the supposed immigration mistakes of the Fraser government, are equally ignorant and, of course, divisive. Let me make this entirely clear to the government and to the Australian public: Labor does not think the successive waves of immigration to this great country of ours were a mistake. When I walk down Douglas Street in Noble Park, one of the great multicultural hubs of my electorate, I see the successes of multiculturalism. When I talk to the Vietnamese Australian cafe owner or the Sudanese Australian butcher, I see the opportunities that Australia offers and the diversity and success that multiculturalism brings. When I speak to the Mayor of the City of Greater Dandenong, my friend Jim Memeti, who came to Australia from Albania at the age of two, and who built a successful business while giving his time to his community as a councillor for the last 11 years, I see the success of Australian multiculturalism. All three of these people are dedicated, hardworking people who give their time and their labour to make our great country even better. Nobody who met these people would think that their coming to Australia was a mistake. Each one of them has created jobs for Australians and has contributed in many ways to our community. And everywhere I go in my electorate I see that cultural diversity. People from over 180 nations have made their home in my electorate, and many other electorates in Australia can say exactly the same thing.

What is distinctive about the Australian community, notwithstanding the incredible number of countries across the world from which Australians have come, is the harmony in which that amazing diversity is able to exist. Elected representatives, and in particular ministers in the government of our great country, have a responsibility to set a standard of acceptance and civility for all Australians. I would be greatly saddened if the 'ignorant' and 'alarmist' comments by the member for Dickson—and I am there quoting the former Fraser government minister Ian Macphee—were to be considered acceptable by young and impressionable Australians. We have to be particularly careful to speak in this place with care and compassion, and not with a view to divide and inflame, because, when an elected representative speaks, their words and their beliefs are legitimised by the very fact that an elected representative speaks them. I say again: there is a particular responsibility cast on elected representatives, particularly on ministers, to choose their words with care, and not—and this goes particularly for a minister of immigration in this country—to use words that have the capacity to divide and inflame and excite prejudice. The immigration minister of this country is the last minister who should be using the kind of language that, regrettably, the member for Dickson has used in the last week and, might I say, has gone on using despite the storm of criticism that has rightly erupted over the comments that he made.

Multiculturalism is the success of hope over fear, of opportunity over apprehension and of reaching out instead of staying in. As a proud Labor member and, more importantly, as a proud Australian, I stand here today in defence of multiculturalism, in defence of diversity and in defence of the continued commitment to denounce racial intolerance in any form as incompatible with the kind of society we are and want to be. What we need to hear from the government of our country, not just from the opposition, is the same defence of multiculturalism and diversity.

What we need to hear is a sustained rejection of racial intolerance in any form—and not merely on occasions like the occasion of this motion jointly sponsored by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. Every time a minister speaks, every time an elected representative speaks, whether within this parliament or without, we need to hear a defence of multiculturalism and diversity.

Instead of attacking the Australian Human Rights Commission the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General need to be defending that statutory agency when it carries out the statutory functions that it is charged to do. Instead of attacking the provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act which gives effect to Australia's obligation to outlaw race hate speech, the government should be upholding those provisions. (Time expired)