Senate debates

Tuesday, 5 September 2006

Matters of Urgency


Photo of John WatsonJohn Watson (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I inform the Senate that the President has received the following letter, dated 5 September 2006, from Senator Nettle:

Dear Mr President,

Pursuant to standing order 75, I give notice that today I propose to move:

“That, in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:

The need for the Senate to:

note the Prime Minister’s recent comments about the Muslim community needing to learn English and respect women; and
call on all political parties and leaders to promote the values of multiculturalism in the Australian community and the need for all members of the community to respect women.

Yours sincerely,

Senator Kerry Nettle

Greens Senator for NSW

Is the proposal supported?

More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

The Acting Deputy President:

I understand that informal arrangements have been made to allocate specific times to each of the speakers in today’s debate. With the concurrence of the Senate, I shall ask the clerks to set the clock accordingly.

4:03 pm

Photo of Kerry NettleKerry Nettle (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That, in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:The need for the Senate to:

note the Prime Minister’s recent comments about the Muslim community needing to learn English and respect women; and
call on all political parties and leaders to promote the values of multiculturalism in the Australian community and the need for all members of the community to respect women.

The Greens want to see Australian political leaders speak loudly about the value of multiculturalism and the benefits that multiculturalism has brought to our community. But, unfortunately, we have heard in recent comments from the Prime Minister and the Treasurer that they are currently engaged in attacking one section of our community. That is the opposite to what true political leaders should be doing. We are now seeing that it is in fact the Prime Minister’s attitude that is more of a threat to multiculturalism in this community than any actions of the Muslim community that he has been targeting with his attacks. Comments that single out one element of the Australian community for criticism are damaging to multiculturalism and therefore to the whole, broader Australian community and our commitment to multiculturalism.

The Muslim community is no different from any other community. We see Muslims across the country making a great contribution to Australian society. Multiculturalism is an ongoing project for all Australians to be involved in. It is not a simple case of one group of Australians learning the language of another. The Prime Minister’s claim that he is raising honest concerns about this issue are simply not credible. What we have seen in his actions are all of the hallmarks of a cynical political campaign—a calculated fear campaign that is designed to exploit community concerns about terrorism at the expense of the Australian Muslim community. A letter writer to the Sydney Daily Telegraph today points this out when she writes:

In recent years Mr Howard has concentrated on exploiting the fear generated by September 11 by employing his faithful dog whistle to link all Muslims with terrorism. Having achieved a climate in which any criticism of the Australian Muslim community is favourably received in parts of the broader community, John Howard has now abandoned the dog whistle in favour of a siren blast that will deafen us right up until the 2007 election.

The Treasurer appears not to be aware of the hard work that leaders in the Muslim community have been involved in in recent years. On the weekend he called on Muslim community leaders to do the very things that they have been doing on almost a daily basis since September 11. In fact, the work that has been done within the Muslim community to calm tensions within their community and the broader Australian community has been incredible. They have been doing a fantastic job. I am sure that many members of parliament have been involved in activities and events put on by the Muslim and broader communities in which we have seen Muslim leaders in this country calling out for peace and unity. These are the sorts of things that true political leaders should be doing—calling for peace, unity and respect for multiculturalism in this country. But, unfortunately, we do not see it from our Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister claims that people are resisting integration by not learning English. Putting aside the underfunding of the Adult Migrant English Program run by this government, where is the evidence from the Prime Minister that migrants of the Islamic faith have a lower rate of learning English than any other comparable migrant group? I have not seen any. The Prime Minister has certainly not presented any evidence to that effect. It is a great shame to have to remind the Prime Minister that there are significant numbers of Australians who do not speak much English, if any, who are arguably more Australian than he will ever be—that is, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander traditional owners of the land on which we are gathered. As a letter writer to the Age newspaper wrote yesterday:

Since when has not speaking English meant not being a good law-abiding Australian citizen?

It is a very good question indeed and a question that the Prime Minister should perhaps turn his attention to.

Perhaps the Prime Minister is offended by the sight of people demonstrating in the street against his policies in the Middle East. He must be careful here because Australian Muslims from the Middle East, along with other migrants and their descendants from these regions, have every right to be angry about the Australian government’s role in the mayhem in Iraq and about the Prime Minister’s uncritical backing of Israeli war crimes in Lebanon and continuing collective punishment of the Palestinian people. It is a political viewpoint that anybody is entitled to adopt. There is nothing un-Australian about being critical of Australia’s foreign policy; in fact, it is entirely consistent with Australian values to be a vocal critic of the government of the day, to exercise the right to free speech and political freedom of expression. Yet we see the Prime Minister singling out the Muslim community. He does so because of their poor treatment of women. We saw in the Daily Telegraph another letter, which says:

Mr Howard says women should be treated equally and with respect. High levels of domestic violence, the abuse of women in some police forces and in the armed services, the degrading of women by some sporting heroes and the lack of equal representation of women on corporate boards, in executive positions and in our parliaments seem to clash with the wholesome values espoused by Mr Howard.

Mr Howard should speak out about the value of multiculturalism. (Time expired)

4:10 pm

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Long before the Greens party was ever thought of in Australia, the Liberal Party, the party of which I am proud to be a member, was the pioneer of Australian multiculturalism. It was the Holt government that began the abolition of the White Australia policy, which was brought to fulfilment—to give credit where it is due—by the Whitlam government. It was the Whitlam government that began the introduction of multiculturalism in Australia, but that was fulfilled by the Fraser Liberal government. If you read, Senator Nettle, as obviously you have not, the histories that have been written of Australian multiculturalism, generally by authors of the Left, you will discover that in fact it was the Fraser government that bedded down multiculturalism and established the bipartisan consensus which has governed our public policy in this field ever since.

Although some credit is given to the late Mr Al Grassby as the founder of Australian multiculturalism, when it comes to actually implementing and bedding down that policy, do you know, Senator Nettle, who is entitled truly to be remembered as the founder of Australian multiculturalism? Mr Petro Georgiou, now the member for Kooyong, the man who as Malcolm Fraser’s senior adviser shepherded that policy in the early days of the Fraser government and who, as the architect and designer of SBS, established it and other vital multicultural institutions. So, Senator Nettle, please do not give any pious lectures from the Greens party to us, who were responsible for multiculturalism in this country, about the importance of multiculturalism; nor let us have any attacks on the current Prime Minister, during whose government, for the first time in our history, non-European migrants to Australian outnumber European migrants.

We have run a multicultural policy in this country for three decades. Both sides of politics are entitled to credit for it. The Greens party has had nothing to do with it. In the government party room today, I sit with members of parliament of Italian heritage, of Greek heritage, of German heritage, of Dutch heritage, of southern African heritage, of Palestinian heritage, of Chinese heritage and of Hungarian heritage—all part of the rich mixture of Australian society today. There is more ethnic diversity in terms of background among the members of the government parties than there is in any political party represented in the Australian parliament today—just as it was my party, the Liberal Party in Queensland, which was the first to elect to this Senate an Aboriginal Australian, the great Neville Bonner. It was again in Queensland that our coalition colleagues, the National Party, were the first to elect to the Queensland parliament in 1974 a Torres Strait Islander, the late Mr Eric Deeral, the member for Cook, the first member of his race to serve in a state parliament. So please do not tell us what we do not need to hear from you, Senator Nettle, about multiculturalism. Multiculturalism for the coalition is not only an essential value but a value which our side of politics has more responsibility for creating than any other political party in this land.

Senator Nettle, I see in your urgency motion—as in your speech—that you chastise the Prime Minister for making the observation, which I believe more than 90 per cent of Australians would regard as going without saying, that it is a desirable thing that people who come to this country should learn, if they do not already have the facility, to speak English. Why, Senator Nettle? Let me tell you why. Because English is the national language. Of course Australians should speak English. That is not to say that everyone who migrates to this country should already speak English. Many great Australians have not done so. Sir Arvi Parbo, one of our greatest industrialists, did not speak English when he came to Australia as a young man. Dr Victor Chang, another great Australian, did not speak English when he came to this country as a young man. Nor did the Belgiorno-Nettis family—another great Australian success story; a great success story of multiculturalism. My good friend Senator Santo Santoro tells me that when he came at the age of five to live in Australia from Italy, he did not speak a word of English.

These are all magnificent success stories—people who have come from other lands, from other cultures, and made a great success of and a great contribution to Australian life. None of them spoke English when they arrived in Australia, but do you know what, Senator Nettle? They all made it their business to learn. They all made it their business, as part of joining the mainstream of Australian life, to ensure that they did speak the national language and, had they not done so, of course they would not have enjoyed the success which their ability, their endeavour, their energy and their ambition subsequently gave them.

Senator Nettle, I sometimes think when I hear people of your point of view that you seem to think that a nation is nothing more than an accumulation of people who happen to live in a common territory at a given point in time. Your view of what a nation is is so impoverished. A nation is more than a few million people inhabiting a common territory and bringing nothing to the commonality of their experience. A nation is about a common language. A nation is about a common history and a shared future. A nation is about a common set of laws. I am pleased to notice that in an aside you acknowledged, Senator Nettle, that being a nation is also about having a common set of values. The citizenship oath or affirmation contains that declaration. We have all heard it many times. We have seen new people come to our shores swelling with pride as they utter those great words, pledging themselves to the people of Australia ‘whose democratic beliefs I share, whose rights and liberties I respect and whose laws I will uphold and obey’.

We are fortunate in this country to be a liberal democracy—one of the only liberal democracies in the world in which liberal democratic values have lasted for as long as the story of our nationhood. We in Australia have always had certain fundamental precepts, among which has been the freedom of speech—which you rightly laud, Senator Nettle—and nobody says that the right to criticise government is not a fundamental value of we Australians. Of course the right to criticise government is an essential value—not in some of the states that you and your parliamentary leader defend so often in this chamber, I might say, Senator Nettle, but for we Australians. Another essential value for we Australians is the equality of the sexes, a principle which you and the party which you represent in this place have often declared to be a fundamental value.

I might refer Senator Nettle, if she did not hear it, to Senator Mason’s fine speech last night in which he also pointed out that the rights of gay people, now a fundamental value of we Australians, are not respected by some of the regimes which you and your leader come into this chamber to defend. The values of tolerance, liberty, respect for the individual, respect for people of other genders and other sexualities, free parliamentary debate, the freedom to criticise the government—all of these essential Australian values, all of them part of the rich multicultural texture of which we in the Liberal Party are so proud to have been progenitors—are the very values which are denied by the regimes for which you and your leader, Senator Brown, are so often cast in the role in this place as apologists. Senator Nettle, multiculturalism is alive and well in Australia today. It is part of our liberal democracy. It has been part of our liberal democracy for three decades and we in the government parties are proud to have been the principal authors of that great Australian story.

4:20 pm

Photo of Annette HurleyAnnette Hurley (SA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

People all around Australia at the moment are suffering from the government’s triple whammy of rising interest rates, rising petrol prices and changes to industrial relations laws. One by one members of the government seek to deflect attention from that by raising other issues. This time it was the Prime Minister’s turn to raise the spectre of people coming into this country and resisting integration, as he put it. There has been an attempt to say that there are migrants to this country who are resisting the values of multiculturalism, about which Senator Brandis spoke so eloquently. Those values of multiculturalism are that people can practise their own culture and tradition provided they comply with Australian law and government and with Australian values.

The Prime Minister—backed up by the Treasurer, Mr Costello, who is always inclined to go further—has put the spotlight on the Muslim community in talking about this. He referred specifically to the Muslim community as resisting integration. He then spoke of the need for migrants to Australia to learn to speak English. This is a classic case of government members, and the Prime Minister in particular, seeking to make these sorts of statements and then doing nothing about them. The government makes statements that get broad approval in the public but then it does nothing to implement them. The Prime Minister is head of a government. If he feels that there is a problem in our community, and with our immigrant community in particular, perhaps he should do something about it. However, the Prime Minister is doing nothing about it.

One of the problems that has developed in our immigrant community is that the adult English language program which is available to migrants and which has for many years been available to migrants is no longer keeping up with the strains of the population coming into Australia. The problem with the Adult Migrant English Program—AMEP, as it is called—is the inadequate number of contact hours to learn a language as complex as English. It is a very hard language to learn, and immigrants have 510 hours to reach a functional level of English. But the program is quite a rigid one, and the starting times are often quite rigid. Migrants have one year to complete the program, and class sizes are often too large.

One of the reasons the problems have started to develop is that AMEP is based on an English-as-a-second-language model, and English as a second language is not appropriate for a number of the refugees and humanitarian entrants that this government has brought into the country. I have no problem with the government fulfilling its rights and responsibilities by bringing in refugees and humanitarian entrants, but many of the entrants who have come in in the last few years are not literate in their own language, and the government knows this very well. The government has acknowledged this but has not kept up the level of resources to allow migrants to learn the English language effectively. One of the chief problems is that there is often not suitable child care for people who want to learn English, and if child care is not available people are unable to access the course. This is not a universal problem. Some providers, like ACL in Auburn, which I visited just recently, have child care in the building, virtually next door to where people are learning English. It is a good model but is by no means universal, and this is particularly so in rural and regional areas.

The presumed failings of migrants to learn English, mentioned by the Prime Minister, John Howard, is actually a failing of this government to provide more effective English language programs for migrants. This is probably the difference between Australia’s approach to multiculturalism and that of a lot of other countries. Australia has always taken the view that, in order to help migrants integrate, programs and resources should be available to help the migrants do that. That has always been supported in a bipartisan way, but it is starting to fall down. The February estimates hearings heard that AMEP had 2,200 additional migrant students at the same time as the government’s funding program decreased by $10.8 million. Andrew Robb, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, took offence at this statement and said that the government had increased its Adult Migrant English Program funding by $36.8 million. What Mr Robb did not say was that this funding was over a four-year period and was announced in the same year as the Howard government increased its refugee intake from 4,000 in 2003 to 13,000 this year. So AMEP has had to cope with more refugees with fewer funds. The government is simply not keeping up with its own refugee program. Cutting programs while increasing the number of refugees by 9,000 people makes no sense at all and, after 10 long years of the Howard government, we are beginning to get a bit used to his, because common sense has not been a highlight in a number of their programs.

The failure of the Howard government to effectively manage its English program is also economically damaging to Australia. By not running an efficient English program, the Howard government is failing to capitalise on the economic benefits which all migrants happily offer. This is poor financial management. I have not met a migrant yet who does not want to learn English and learn it well. All migrants should be given the opportunity to learn English so that they can contribute to our economy. Australians expect this. They also expect the government’s English language program, which costs taxpayers $153 million annually, to be producing results. But in 2005 only 11 per cent of the 36,405 people enrolled with AMEP exited with functional English—that is, only 11 per cent of the people met the aims of the program.

The government has an obligation to provide migrants with the opportunity to learn fully functional English through a flexible and well-managed program. It is true that many of our earlier migrants were not given the opportunity to learn English through such a program and have contributed greatly to this country—and Senator Brandis mentioned some of those people—but we live in different times now and people should have the opportunity to learn English effectively through a good program and to fully contribute to Australia’s society and economy. A country with a small population growth rate, such as ours, depends on immigration and the economic benefits it brings. If the government’s English language program is not working efficiently—and 11 per cent is not a very flattering result—these benefits are not captured and that has a financial knock-on effect for all Australians. It is interesting that, while the Prime Minister complains about some migrants not learning English, his own government is bringing in section 457 migrants who speak very little English at all and putting them into jobs that place their lives in danger, and that is a different set of circumstances.

In conclusion, I would like to say that, before he goes around singling out one particular community for their presumed failure to learn English, the Prime Minister should look at his own government’s failure to run an effective and economically sound English language program. He has had 10 long years to sort it out, and he appears not to be succeeding very well.

4:30 pm

Photo of Bob BrownBob Brown (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

The Prime Minister’s attack on the Islamic community in Australia—by claiming that while 99 per cent had integrated, one per cent practiced discrimination against women or had not learnt the language—was more than a dog whistle. It was divisive and xenophobic in a way that you do not expect the Prime Minister of this country to behave.

And it was full of double standards. The Exclusive Brethren, who support the Prime Minister and get ample return through legislative consideration, are 100 per cent discriminatory against women. They do not allow women who are married to work. They do not allow women who are not married to have any job where they have men in subsidiary positions. They do not allow boys or girls to go to university. And yet the Prime Minister never, ever talks about this group of 15,000 people in our community, who are repressed and have had their rights taken away. How much more productive it would be if the Prime Minister were to genuinely try to create the multicultural society we once had, and that Senator Brandis spoke about.

He has not done that, and I think I can add to this. Senator Brandis talked about Hezbollah. The Greens have strongly supported the Lebanese people and their right not to be bombed. I am appalled that just a moment ago Senator Brandis joined other members of the government in voting against the Greens motion not to have cluster bombs ripping apart little kids in Lebanon, who are totally innocent. Really, the government should get its— (Time expired)

4:31 pm

Photo of Concetta Fierravanti-WellsConcetta Fierravanti-Wells (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Those opposite may rail against the Prime Minister’s recent comments regarding integration, but I am sure not only that they have been well received but that they are supported by an overwhelming number of Australians. It needs to be reinforced, as the Prime Minister has stated, that it is important for those who come to Australia to integrate. To integrate means to accept Australian values.

Australia today is a country forged from different cultures and tied by a set of common beliefs and values—a belief in a free and competitive market system, freedom of choice, respect for human life and respect for the rule of law. This means that those who come from societies which are less contemporarily progressive than our own need to have an acceptance of these values and beliefs. And those values and beliefs may be different from those in the country whence they came—for example, equality of men and women.

People who come from societies where women are treated in an inferior manner need to understand that this is not acceptable in Australia. Each person is entitled to full recognition and respect. The promotion of these values and beliefs across the diversity of our contemporary Australian society is vital to our continued social cohesion. When people come from a country with a dissimilar set of values the onus is on them to understand and respect the community that they have chosen to come and live in.

I have lived my life across the diversity that is Australia. And whilst cultural diversity has brought us many advantages, there have also been challenges. When my parents first came to this country they, like many others, experienced difficulties and prejudice. It was a fact of life. They got on with it. They integrated. They shared their culture, traditions and values. They accepted and they became accepted. Through this, they and many others have helped forge the unique Australian way of life that we enjoy today.

At the time my parents came there were no settlement services. Today we afford new migrants much more assistance. We are recognised as one of the world’s best practice countries in respect of the resettlement programs we offer. Each year we spend in excess of half a billion dollars helping people to settle into the Australian community. As a new arrival it is much easier to learn English today than it was in the past. Indeed, as the Prime Minister has said, integration today means not only accepting Australian values but learning English as quickly as possible. The English language is essential to understand the community you live in, and whilst Australia is a nation that boasts a population with over 200 ancestries, which speak over 200 languages, English is the common language that brings us together and allows us to understand one another.

While some seek to gloss over divisions in our society by affirming a desire for harmonious coexistence and religious tolerance, problems do exist. Unfortunately, there is a small section of the Islamic population which is resistant to integration. Indeed, this is clearly of as much concern to its own community as it is to the rest of Australian society. Having spent many years working in our culturally diverse community I know that many Islamic people, like millions of other migrants to Australia, have come to Australia to work hard and build a better life for themselves and their children. They, too, are appalled by the attitude of this small minority.

There are unfortunately some who try and distort these calls for people to fully integrate into the Australian community as some kind of discrimination against them. Australia is a tolerant and compassionate society founded on understanding and respect for social and religious differences. Our success as a culturally diverse society comes from having put our commitment to Australia first. I note that following the Prime Minister’s comments a number of Muslim community leaders complained that Mr Howard had unfairly singled them out at the risk of further marginalising their community. Our response to this should be to reiterate the call for migrants to integrate no matter which country they come from.

The Treasurer echoed the Prime Minister’s sentiments in a recent interview. I share Mr Costello’s concerns that there is a minority in the Islamic community who have been radicalised and have sought to prey upon young people in particular. I support his call. It is very important that the moderate leaders speak out quite plainly and clearly against those radicals. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs has also urged the Muslim leadership to get on the front foot, identify the problems and come up with solutions. Leaders of the Australian Muslim community must step up on this issue to assure the broader Australian community that most Australian Muslims are integrated and committed to the wellbeing of this nation.

Australia has a relatively small Muslim community of some 360,000 people. Most are hardworking, exemplary Australians. Most Australian Muslims respect Australian values and live very comfortably within the broader community. The Australian government recognises and respects the enormous contribution that has been made to the Australian nation through migration. We are a country that has embraced diversity. Our diversity has been our strength.

I am the daughter of migrants to this country and, as Senator Brandis said yesterday, we are very proud that on the coalition side we do have the diversity that those opposite lack. As the first woman into this Senate of Italian origin, I am indeed proud of our cultural diversity, as I am sure Senator Bernardi, Senator Santoro and others on our side are equally proud of their heritage. On my first day at school I did not speak a word of English. It was important for my parents and for their integration into Australian society that I did learn how to speak English. Today I am proudly completely bilingual and I think that I, like many people in our Australian community, have benefited from the cultural diversity of our roots. We have shared that cultural diversity, but first and foremost our commitment has been to this great country that has embraced millions of migrants like my parents.

Indeed, there have been almost seven million migrants welcomed into the Australian community since the Second World War. Together we have forged the great Australian society that we have today and the Australian society that is welcoming to people from other countries in the world. But one thing that my 25 years of involvement have taught me, particularly in the broader community, is that what is so important for their integration is not only the speaking of the English language but the acceptance of the values and beliefs of many of the communities that have come here, which are now mainstream—the strength of the family and the strength of their religion. Our cultural diversity has indeed been our strength.

4:39 pm

Photo of John FaulknerJohn Faulkner (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I have said in this chamber before that Australia is a country where many cultures make a single nation, a nation where we all share a fierce loyalty to Australia and a common pride in Australian values: those values of a fair go, of not judging a book by its cover, of lending a hand and standing together. Those values are once again under threat from Mr Howard. The Prime Minister who told us that no Australian should have to choose between their history and their geography is now telling our fellow Australians that we will only accept them if we erase their childhoods, erase their grandparents, erase their past.

I will pass over the irony of the Prime Minister who leads the most un-Australian government that we have ever had actually advising anyone at all on what Australian values are. Mr Howard’s values are about a widening gap between rich and poor, about the invasion of another country based on a lie, about distorting our Australian democracy by using taxpayers’ funds to pay for massive advertising campaigns designed to manipulate voter opinion. They are Mr Howard’s values.

But I just cannot pass over the Prime Minister using the rights of Australian women as an excuse to attack part of our community. The position of women in fundamentalist Islamic states and the distinctive clothing of many Muslim women have led to the cheap and easy equating of Islamic faith with discrimination against women. This is a longstanding excuse for colonialism, which Gayatri Spivak famously described as ‘white men saving brown women from brown men.’ Here in Australia the behaviour of teenagers who practise gangster rap moves rather than religion is used to smear entire ethnic groups. When Mr Howard says that migrants ‘must be fully prepared to embrace Australian attitudes towards women’, that is the dog whistle he is blowing.

Ask yourself the question: what exactly are these attitudes? What exactly are the Australian attitudes towards women that migrants seeking to integrate and to fit in ought to adopt? There is no doubt that Australian women are full and equal citizens of our nation. There is no doubt that Australian women ought to be treated as the full and equal citizens they are. But there is also no doubt that far too often in places around our country that basic standard of decent behaviour has not been met.

There are workplaces, as we all know, where women have been harassed, underpaid and ignored when it comes to promotion. There are community organisations where women’s participation is limited to an auxiliary role. There are religious institutions where women are forbidden to play an equal part, banned from leadership and relegated to subservience. The Australian Bureau of Statistics found in 1996 that 23 per cent of women who had ever been married or in a de facto relationship had experienced violence in the relationship. Mr Howard, who claims ‘Australians ... do not tolerate women being treated in an inferior fashion to men’, has presided over a blow-out in the gender wage gap. In 1996 it was an average of $230 but today women earn on average $308 a week less than their male counterparts. Women’s total wages average just 66 per cent of male total earnings. Does this go to prove that John Howard is fundamentally un-Australian?

We still have a situation in Australia where 60 per cent of minimum wage workers are women although less than 45 per cent of the workforce are women. We still have a situation where women in our defence forces continue to suffer victimisation, bullying or harassment. In my view, it is long past the day where anyone can credibly argue that women’s unequal position in Australian society is due to the unequal distribution of talents and abilities. It is not credible to argue that. There is no gender bar, as we know, on intelligence; there is no chromosomal qualification for talent.

It is clear that women are not being treated, in the Prime Minister’s words, ‘fairly and equally and in the same fashion as men.’ So where should we look for the cause? Should we blame the less than one per cent of the Australian population who are Muslim migrants? Or should we look at ourselves: our workplaces, our streets, our homes, or perhaps senators might even care to look at our parliament. It is easy to find scapegoats in members of our community who look different. It is comfortable to pretend that the flaws in our society are all the fault of others: the different, the foreign, the strangely dressed. But if Australia falls into the easy comfort the Prime Minister advocates of blaming our problems on his latest bogeyman, not only will we do a grave injustice to those members of the community we make into scapegoats, we will actually fail to solve the problems themselves.

Australians of faith deserve better from their Prime Minister than to be demonised for their religion. And Australians who suffer discrimination deserve better from their Prime Minister than to have their real problems blamed on imaginary hobgoblins.

4:49 pm

Photo of Andrew BartlettAndrew Bartlett (Queensland, Australian Democrats) Share this | | Hansard source

This is a strange motion in some ways, and a strange debate, because it is a motion that most people would not disagree with. We note the Prime Minister’s comments. We express support for multiculturalism. I note that in Senator Brandis’s speech, in leading off for the government, there were significant components which I did not disagree with at all. Indeed, I am pleased to see it strongly on the record that multiculturalism is alive and well and an essential value. It is pleasing to have that so unequivocally on the record from a member of the government, of course, quite rightly noting the strong and proud record of the Liberal Party in regard to building up and maintaining multiculturalism.

Frankly, I think most of this debate, certainly what is driving the concerns expressed in the debate from this side of the chamber, is not about multiculturalism but about the concerted and clearly deliberate tactic on the part of senior members of the government, including the Prime Minister, Mr Costello and Mr Downer, to single out and target Muslims. That is the problem. It is not about multiculturalism; it is about demonising Muslims, it is about playing on people’s fears and prejudices and, apart from it being unfair for those people, my wider concern is that it is incredibly damaging and destructive for our community.

It is the classic tactic as was noted today in the AgeI would urge everybody to read the article by Amjid Muhammad about the clear tactic to incite moral panic—the use of which by political leaders goes back 2,000 years. When politicians need to divert attention from their own failings and community concern about their own failings, they pick on an easy target, a scapegoat and they whip up some moral panic, play on prejudices and fears and reap the political benefits. It is true there are political benefits to be reaped whether it is by attacking Muslims and playing on prejudices there or by attacking Aboriginal people—these seem to be the two targets of favour lately.

I am not disputing a lot of what has been said about multiculturalism from the government’s side of things—I am pleased it has been put on the record—but the problem is the selective application of it and the clearly deliberate singling out of Muslims, misrepresenting their beliefs and stereotyping and distorting their views.

One thing I found most disconcerting about this was a comment in Michelle Grattan’s article from 4 September reporting concern by Muslim representatives about the comments of Mr Costello. That was understandable. They said that Mr Costello did not communicate with them, that he has never bothered to talk with them. These comments were from an Islamic family and childcare agency in Victoria and people from the Muslim community reference group. The Treasurer of this country is happy to go out there and make extraordinarily ignorant comments about Islam and yet has not even bothered to talk to people in his own community and in his own state who are on the government’s own Muslim advisory reference group. What is the point of spending money putting up these bodies if you are not even going to listen to them? That is my core message to all of us in this debate: just listen. You do not have to agree with everything, but just listen. Try to understand how people feel when they are repeatedly singled out by the leaders of this nation and by people like Alan Jones, when they are continually targeted and when they know that community prejudice is being deliberately inflamed. Just imagine how they feel. Mr Robb said that Muslim leaders are their community’s worst enemies because some of them foster the victim mentality. I say to him: if you target people and victimise them, it is no secret that some of them will adopt a victim mentality. In fact, it is extremely hard not to. So look at yourself and how you conduct yourself in this debate and look at the damage it is doing to Australia.

4:53 pm

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It was with a sense of hope and perhaps unbridled optimism that I read Senator Nettle’s urgency motion because I thought it was going to be an opportunity for us to talk about the wonderful work that this government has been doing in the field of multicultural affairs and certainly in providing a more prosperous, safe and stable nation for all Australians. However, my optimism was soon dashed when I heard Senator Nettle’s comments, because the motion turned out to be simply an ill-informed attack on perhaps the most successful prime minister we have ever seen in this country, which is also probably the most prosperous country within the Western world at the moment, I think.

I would like to put on record the quote from the Prime Minister relating to this issue, because Senator Nettle has called for us to note it and I think that, rather than note it, we should endorse it. He said:

And what I want to do is to reinforce the need for everybody who comes to this country to fully integrate and fully integrating means accepting Australian values, it means learning as rapidly as you can the English language, if you don’t already speak it, and it means understanding that in certain areas, such as the equality of men and women, the societies that some people have left were not as contemporary and as progressive as ours is. And I think people who come from societies where women are treated in an inferior fashion have to learn very quickly that that is not the case in Australia, that men and women do have equality and they’re each entitled to full respect. I think Australia has benefited enormously from immigration.

I was hoping that we could talk about the benefits to Australia of immigration; however, Senator Nettle has identified the Muslim related comments of our Prime Minister. Once again, let me put on the record that there is a very small section of the Islamic population—I say a small section, and I have said this before—which is very resistant to integration. There is nothing inflammatory or offensive about that comment. In fact, it is probably consistent with what Senator Nettle put out in a press release on 20 February 2006:

There are good and bad individuals in every religion.

What is wrong with that comment? When the Prime Minister makes it, suddenly it is a terrible slight upon the Muslim community in this nation, whereas, when Senator Nettle makes it, she is standing up for the minority groups. This is an urgency motion from someone who also put out a press release on 6 October 2004, which is on her website, when she gave a speech at an essay prize giving ceremony for a group called ‘Australians against Australia’. What an outrageous proposition it is for a member of this parliament to go and endorse and support a group called ‘Australians against Australia’ and then happily submit a press release about it. I have to tell you, Senator Nettle, that I am a little bit disturbed that you want to get involved in those sorts of things.

The Prime Minister’s comments are, quite frankly, stating the bleeding obvious. People understand them; they accept the fact that we are a society that has built a very progressive, very stable and very safe and tolerant society based on the fact that we have assimilation. When people come to this country, they bring their unique cultures and values and they integrate them with those that are already here. That is what makes us Australian. The Greek and Italian people came to this country in the 1950s. They learnt how to speak English. My father was a proponent of it. He arrived in this country at 16 and could not speak any English. He got a job and learnt how to speak English. He has employed hundreds of people in the time since. These people add to our culture. They learn the Australian tradition of the barbecue and then they decide to put some octopus on it. We were not having octopus on our barbecue until those cultures came here and made part of Australia what it is today. We have since enjoyed the rest of it. We had the Indochinese immigration of the late 1960s, the 1970s and the early 1980s. They came here and their culture has given us fantastic food, tolerance, diversity of religious beliefs and a range of new experiences and new initiatives. These are the things that make us quintessentially Australian. We have an Australian culture which is an amalgam, a blend and a combination of a multiethnic society. Our culture is Australian.

Rather than scoring cheap shots, because I am quite disturbed by Senator Nettle’s unbridled attack on this government and what it has done for the people of Australia and particularly for the new migrants in this country, I want to highlight a bit of the hypocrisy of the Green movement. All of a sudden, they have picked up on these comments, but this is the same mob—and I say ‘mob’—that have criticised the government and, in particular, our Prime Minister because he supported the right of Muslim children to wear headscarves in schools. This for some reason outraged the Green movement because he referred to it as being impractical to ban it.

We have a policy of opposition from the Greens. They do not care what it is about and they do not really stand for anything. They simply want to oppose, rankle and contradict—and I find it quite offensive. But their hypocrisy does not stop there; it continues across the board. In January of this year, Senator Bob Brown condemned the Attorney-General, Philip Ruddock, because the Attorney-General apparently ‘inflamed’ the rest of Australia by saying, ‘When you are an Australian you have a responsibility to uphold the laws of this country.’ I am sure that the people of Australia were outraged to hear that they have a responsibility to uphold the laws of this country! That is what it means to assimilate. It means that, when you come to this country, where you have freedom, diversity, tolerance, organisation and a patient community, you accept the laws of this country, you participate and you contribute to the culture. First among these things is the ability to communicate with your fellow Australians. You need to be able to speak to them, you need to be able to order things in shops, you need to be able to use library books, and you need to be able to fill in forms, because you want to participate in the greatest democracy on earth. For the Greens to rankle or attack our Prime Minister for such a senseless, pointless political argument is baseless.

5:01 pm

Photo of Kerry NettleKerry Nettle (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to thank all senators for their contributions to this debate on the value of multiculturalism. It is a great shame that the Prime Minister of this country is not able to do the same thing. I also want to thank Senator Brandis for raising the Greens’ proud track record of defending people who have diverse sexuality. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for his own party or for this government. The senator may be interested to know that when two young gay men were hanged in Iran last year, I raised the issue with the Minister for Foreign Affairs. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade responded that it had raised concerns with the Iranian government about the deaths of these two young men, on the basis of its opposition to the death penalty. I was pleased to hear that that had occurred. But the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was not able to provide me with any information to say that it had raised concerns with the government of Iran about the fact that homosexuality in Iran is a crime that is punishable by death.

If Senator Brandis, Senator Mason or, indeed, the foreign minister is able to provide me or the Senate with any information about the Australian government raising concerns on this issue, I would be very pleased to hear it, because, as far as I know, I was the only member of parliament who stood up for these two young Iranian men who were sentenced to death last year—and their only crime was that they were young gay men. I am proud to have stood up for those two young men. If any other member of parliament were to do such a thing, I would be more than pleased to hear about it. And I would be more than pleased if I were to hear that the Australian government raised that issue. All I have been told so far is that the government raised concerns about the death penalty. That is good, but the government has not been able to indicate to me that it raised any concerns with the Iranian government about the fact that homosexuality in Iran is a crime punishable by death and that these two young men were hanged. I called on the government and the foreign minister to raise this issue, and I have still not heard if they did. They have only told me that they raised concerns about the death penalty.

If Senator Brandis, Senator Mason or Mr Downer is able to provide me with that information, I would be more than happy to hear it. I commend this motion to the Senate, and I would now like to hear the Prime Minister speak about the value of multiculturalism. (Time expired)

Question put:

That the motion (That the motion (Senator Nettle’s) be agreed to.) be agreed to.