SPEECH - ADDRESS TO THE SETTLEMENT SERVICES INTERNATIONAL METROPOLIS CONFERENCE - WEDNESDAY, 31 OCTOBER 2018
ADDRESS TO THE SETTLEMENT SERVICES INTERNATIONAL METROPOLIS CONFERENCE
WEDNESDAY, 31 OCTOBER 2018
TOWN HALL, SYDNEY NSW
(Acknowledgments omitted – check against delivery)
It was I think 12 years ago. I was in the Opposition, as I am now - there was a happier period in-between. I held the immigration portfolio.
It was a time when settlement services in Australia weren’t running as well as they are now.
There was a man on his first night in Australia who had arrived with his family. From the service that wasn’t as good as what we have now, he was shown where the stove was, where the rice was and shown where the telephone was.
One of his daughters was quite ill and on this first night, they looked around for a while, trying to work out where they can light a fire.
They couldn’t work out how to light a fire and so they ate raw rice as their first meal in Australia.
But it was a couple of nights later when his daughter had a seizure and for the first time he went to the telephone that he had been shown, picked it up only to discover that there wasn’t a voice on the other end.
He ended up walking through the streets of the suburb he was in calling out to people for help.
We had only just started up opening up our humanitarian program to people from Africa. So he was calling out in a language that none of his neighbours understood.
His daughter didn’t make it.
That’s what the welcome to Australia becomes if we get settlement wrong.
The work that is done by the people in this room is extraordinary, just extraordinary.
No government can do what you do because you provide that human face. You provide that direct personal engagement that no briefing note will match, no file will match.
When someone has arrived having experienced torture and trauma that might be quite different from what has been experienced by anyone else who has ever come here, you are their person. The work you do is a big part of what their welcome in Australia is.
I wish it was the whole story but it’s not.
The environment of the race debate in this country is the other part of the story.
The part that sets the atmosphere to whether or not people feel they have been truly welcomed to Australia.
There is, for all your efforts, at one level almost nothing you can do that makes the welcome real if the voices of hatred get loud enough.
I often want to talk about us being the most successful multicultural nation in the world.
I’m always more reluctant to when there are Canadians in the room. But I want it to be true.
About two years ago the voices of hatred started to get elected in our Parliaments again.
How we handle that won’t define what my day-to-day life is like, because I will never be a victim of hate speech in this country.
But how we handle that will determine whether or not people who start to get pushed to the margins feel that they have truly arrived in a place that didn’t want them.
There used to be a phrase in Australian politics that was coined by Laurie Oakes that was called ‘dog whistle politics’ - the concept that you could send out a coded message and most people wouldn’t hear it but the person you really wanted to hear it, they’d know you are on their side.
It doesn’t happen anymore. There are no dog whistles in Australian politics now, people know exactly what is going on and they are foghorns.
They are loud, angry foghorns.
And against that, the voices of decency and the voices of unity have to prevail.
I want all these things to be bipartisan - they used to be - and I believe in the future they will be again.
During the course of this term, we did have another attempt to weaken our laws against racial hate speech.
We did have an attempt to change our citizenship laws which introduced a new English language test that you would have to pass even if you had been speaking English all your life and came from Singapore. But you wouldn’t have to pass if you had been speaking English all your life and came from Canada.
And the test was set at the same level that a number of universities have as their entrance requirement.
I understand that is no longer Government policy. But we really need to be careful because these messages aren’t just heard by the voters in some marginal seat that you might be trying to appeal to.
These messages are heard by people who absolutely need to hear a message of welcome.
I had a brief period as Australia’s citizenship Minister; I was the last one my side of politics had.
As well as the wonderful words of the citizenship pledge that Senator Reynolds read out earlier there is also a Minister’s message that changes with each Minister.
The final words of the message that I had as Minister were the words ‘welcome home’; the last message that would be given to people from the government before they became citizens.
Those words were removed and haven’t been put back. I hope no matter who is in government at some point, the words ‘welcome home’ come back.
Because ultimately in any multicultural society there are three ways of organising and it’s as simple as the food on our tables.
We keep the ingredients separate and we have segregation. We put them through the blender and we have assimilation. We allow them to be a salad where every ingredient keeps its identity but together you still get a national flavour. And in that, we have a true, successful multicultural model.
There have been times in Australia when we have done it brilliantly.
Right now we have to be honest; there are voices of hatred wanting to put that under threat.
We need to have the voices of decency be louder than the voices of hatred.
We don’t appease them, we don’t placate them and we don’t preference them.
Only then we can make sure that the welcome isn’t only put back into a citizenship message but it is something that people feel here - every day.
Thank you so much for the work you are doing.