SPEECH: KEYNOTE SPEECH AT THE MULTICULTURAL YOUTH ADVOCACY NETWORK (MYAN) NATIONAL CONFERENCE - UNIVERSITY OF MELBOURNE
KEYNOTE SPEECH AT THE MULTICULTURAL YOUTH ADVOCACY NETWORK (MYAN) NATIONAL CONFERENCE
UNIVERSITY OF MELBOURNE
FRIDAY, 24 NOVEMBER 2017
I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land, their elders past and present. Even though he has gone, I acknowledge Zed Seselja Assistant Minister for Social Services and Multicultural Affairs. Also, I’m aware that Inga Peulich, Shadow Minister for Multicultural Affairs is here from the Victorian Parliament. I would like to acknowledge the youth ambassadors who are here also.
It won’t surprise you to know that most of the content of what Zed Seselja said, I agree with. I wish that were the whole story. I want to get back to the point, and we were there even last term, where the minister will stand up, and the shadow will stand up and give almost an identical message and bipartisan support for multiculturalism means that if we can get back to that point we are in the best possible place as a nation. We were there for much of the Howard Government, for much of the time of the Rudd Government and of the first term of the current Government.
We’re not there now. We are right now at the anniversary of one of the most extraordinary comments I have ever heard. When following a question, that I think was actually a question from me from memory, in the Federal Parliament where the minister for immigration referred to mistakes we have made in immigration based on what he described as the behaviour of second and third generation Lebanese Muslims.
Now we used to call second and third generation people ‘Australians’. That’s the concept of citizenship, is that you are Australian. Which I guess makes me a fourth or fifth generation Irish person. But I’m Australia. My heritage is critically important. I don’t mind being called an Irish Australian. But to simply be called Irish and not be called Australian at all I would find very odd and very challenging.
That was one comment. But it’s at the same time since the election we’ve had a revival, even though we were told it was finished, a revival of the debate about lowering protections of race hate speech and finally, we’ve had the citizenship debate.
None of this happened prior to the entry of One Nation into the Parliament. None of it. When we are in a situation when there is, in fact, a battle going on in this country for the definition of what it is to be Australian, it would be disingenuous of me to stand up and give the normal bipartisan speech that I want to be able to get back to.
Because if I ignore that that fight is going on, then we will lose it. I’m not willing to sit back idly and see the position of the country that I love change. In terms of the definition and what that actually means I agree with the conclusions that Zed Seselja put at the beginning in terms of the multicultural statement.
There are effectively for a multiracial country, three different ways you organise yourself. To use the crass simplicity of food, if you put the ingredients of a meal in separate containers and leave them in separate containers, you have a segregation model. If you put all the ingredients into a blender or a thermomix and press the button until it comes out as a smoothie or a purée, where everything contributes but having contributed in all then becomes indistinguishable, you have an assimilation model. That is the melting pot model which the United States itself is based.
If you put the ingredients into a salad, where every ingredient keeps its identity but together you still establish a national flavour, then you have a multicultural model of integration. That’s the model that I believe in and that’s what I want to defend.
The citizenship proposals that we have from the Government that while they were defeated in the Senate, and I was very happy about that, notwithstanding the Government got up the next day and said ‘we’re coming back.’ I believe this proposal is a fundamental change in that definition. A fundamental and permanent change. Now that might sound dramatic and some people
How can you say you’re changing the whole nation by just changing the rules by how many people each year apply to be citizens? Well, think about this.
What is the citizenship Act? You have the citizenship Act, by its very definition is that moment when we define what it is to be Australian. This is no ordinary debate. There are big issues in immigration debates. There are big issues when we discuss different visas but when we talk about citizenship head on, we define what it is to be Australian.
When you set an English language test deliberately at a level that some people, even if they were born here, would never be able to reach, then you do something that is the opposite of integration. You establish a permanent underclass of people who will live here their whole working lives and will never be invited to make a pledge to the country and will never get a response from this country that they are welcome and that they fully belong. That's a change in who we are. Nothing less, its a change in who we are.
The current citizenship test, yes, a lot of people will have to work hard to be able to pass it. But it’s set at a level that people with their best efforts, can reach. I'm going to read you two different passages from tests. I simply want you to think in these terms. I want you to ask yourself the question which one is more difficult and then I'm going to do a show of hands.
The hairy adornment of the lion renders him more formidable in appearance. But the plain fact is that the tiger's head and jaws are more solid, heavy and powerful than the lion’s. We can only tell the difference when examining the skeletons of the two animals with a skilled anatomist.
The next passage:
Calisthenics enters the historical record at around 480 BC with Herodotus’ account of the battle of Thermopylae…. Herodotus reported that prior to the battle the God-king Xerxes sent a scout party to spy on his spartan enemies.
Put your hand up if you thought the first one was the harder one. Now put your hand up if you think the second one is the harder one. I think we have got an overwhelming vote for the second passage.
The second passage is taken directly from the IELTS test which the Government is advocating should be part of the citizenship test. The first passage is one of the passages that was used as part of the white Australia policy. I’ve simply presented them to you so that you can see what they are to give you a sense of the gravity of what we are in fact up against right now.
The first passage when white Australia was in, it is true that one of the initial problems with white Australia was not everybody had to pass the test. Depending on what country you came from some people didn't have to sit the test at all. It’s actually the same for what we are dealing with right now. The university-level English test, or slightly lowered under the Governments latest proposal, you will have to pass if you come from Asia if you come from Africa if you come from South America. You will not need university level English if you come from New Zealand, Canada, the United States, the united kingdom or Ireland.
If you come on a Chinese passport and you're a permanent resident, you will need to pass that test that I read out to become an Australian citizen. If you come on a New Zealand passport, something which only recently the Deputy Prime minister was entitled to, you will not be required to have that level of English.
This is a big battle we're in. This affects the definition of who we are as a country. This determines whether within that salad bowl every ingredient, every identity matters as much as the other one. While we may have won in the Senate a few weeks ago but the comments from Peter Dutton make clear that this fight will happen again. We will need to win again.
Don’t be frustrated by the media. I want to give you a very simple example of the power of people organising. It’s now the case that you all get a week of television where pretty much no program gets more than a million views. People have changed how they absorb information. I gave a 90-second speech, very brief, the day the Senate rejected the Government’s proposal. I'll admit it was not the best speech I’ve given. But I asked people to share it on Facebook and it reached the accounts of more than 1.8 million Australians.
We have a capacity to organise now and to get messages out where the days of just being frustrated that the media won’t let us get our message out are over. Do not underestimate in these issues the power of the activism of yourselves. Holding the line isn’t enough. Making sure we have no backward steps would only be enough if we thought we already had our vision of multicultural Australia nailed and we already had it right. I’ve got to say we don’t. We don’t.
My view is that for a multicultural society to really work there are three things you need to do properly and I think at the moment we have got two of them pretty much right.
The first is you need to find space for people to be able to celebrate and observe their own heritage and their own faith. We do that as a nation reasonably well. The second thing is you need to have the big events where everybody, no matter what their background, can celebrate together. As a nation, we do that particularly well. I've got to say this state, and it’s been regardless of who’s been in Government actually, it’s just something about this state itself, does that better than any other part of the country in terms of having big events where everybody celebrates together.
But the third element that we need is to take advantage of the fact that we learn from each other’s heritage and we learn from each other’s stories. You might remember that when the Rudd Government first came to power we had this big thing called the 2020 Summit where we were divided into 10 groups of a hundred, so a thousand people altogether who were selected from all different fields around the country and we had this conference for a few days to come up with big ideas. It’s actually where the National Disability Insurance Scheme came from, from that meeting.
The most important thing for me at the meeting was a speech at the beginning. It was a speech at the beginning from a woman who some of you know and she is no longer a university student she is now an academic I think at this university, Dr Sana Nakata, and she stood up and gave a speech that has affected me and my understanding of our country forever. She referred to her own background as a Torres Strait Islander women. She said her whole life she has been asked to choose between her Torres Strait Islander heritage or her Japanese heritage or her Irish/UK heritage as though she had to pick one of them to determine her definition and said why can’t it be true that all of that makes up the story of herself? But then she added an extra layer and said because she is Australian why isn’t it true that we all share her heritage and stories because they are part of the Australian story. This is the bit that I don’t believe we do well enough at all and that is to find space where we share each other’s story and we learn from each other's story.
I’m so glad you caught up with the cast of Sunshine last night. The work of SBS is a critically important part of that. But we need to go so much further. I can give a simple example of how far backwards on this I think we are. Some of you would know and one person from the Baha’i community was kind enough to come up to me before we started today and refer to some of the messages that I’ve given. I’ve made a habit of making speeches for the various festivals that people observe throughout Australia and then share those comments. When I make a speech about a celebration that is important to my heritage such as Christmas, I always get the social media feed saying 'keep your religion out of my life, how dare you'. When I make a speech for example concerning Eid I get a message 'oh you’re just sucking up to the Muslims who live in your part of Sydney'. When I give a message asking people to acknowledge Yom Kippur I get a message 'oh you're apologising for what you have previously said about Palestine'.
For all of them, my answer is the same. We want to be a nation where each celebration will mean more obviously to the people where it’s passionately part of their heritage and their story but because their heritage and their story is part of Australia’s story we all want the invitation to be able to celebrate it too.
In a couple of weeks time I’ll be in my part of Sydney in a place called Wiley Park where the Christmas Carols will happen. Between now and then some newspaper, radio station or current affairs program will run a shock horror story where there will be a shopping centre in my part of Sydney which hasn’t put it’s Christmas decorations up yet and that Christmas has being banned in Sydney and this is all because of multicultural Australia and what a disaster it is. Then the shopping centre will put up the decorations at the exact time they always do each year and the newspaper, radio program or current affairs program will claim it as a win that they have delivered it. But without any publicity when the Christmas carols happen in my part of Sydney there will be people from every faith turning up. There always have been.
I live in a suburb called Punchbowl. The suburb next door is a suburb called Lakemba which has become a place in Sydney where everybody arrives during the night to share the Iftars during the month of Ramadan together. You walk through those streets. There are a lot of people who have been fasting but I’ll tell you, there is a lot of people who haven’t, who are simply there because they want to share the fact that this is not simply a month of fasting, it is also a month of blessings. You feel that as you walk through the community. People of a range of faiths come through to share in that.
There are moments when we do this and moments where we get this right but I don’t think we do it nearly effectively enough. So I don’t want to focus on 'aren’t we great, the best multicultural society in the world, we have got these threats, we need to hold them back', there are big steps we need to get through. I know we question, and I want to leave some time for questions, people often get frustrated with the news media.
Can I just add two things on the news media? One, do not underestimate the extent to which you can now take control of the message through organising and secondly please don’t get trapped in a world of non-fiction. The cultural world of how our stories of fiction are told can be just as empowering.
I was probably 15 the last time I went to a doctor of my ethnicity. I’m not sure if I know a doctor of my ethnicity but I also can’t think of a doctor I’ve seen on screen who was of any ethnicity other than my own. We need to get to the point where cultural stories and having our fiction look like modern Australia is something that doesn’t only happen when the story is about diversity. It needs to also happen when the story is just about Australia. We are not there yet and that is something that we must address and we can too quickly, and activists are more guilty of this than anyone, too quickly get trapped in a world of non-fiction as though that is the only cultural power, it’s not.
Ultimately what is the transaction I want us to get to? I want us to get to this point- an acknowledgement that in Australia there are more than 24 million stories, all of them are Australian. They all have two general types. They have either been on this land since the first sunrise or they involve the story of immigration. When someone wants to join that story the moment when they do that is when they make a pledge of commitment through citizenship. From that moment they are as Australian as anyone else. The response from the Government at that moment which used to be the citizenship message when I was the minister for citizenship and I’m hoping to get it back on that message, the response of the Government when someone makes that pledge of commitment should simply be the words ‘ welcome home’.