Senate debates

Thursday, 4 February 2021


Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee; Report

3:38 pm

Photo of Anne UrquhartAnne Urquhart (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I present the report of the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee on the issues facing diaspora communities in Australia, together with a Hansard record of proceedings and documents presented to the committee. I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

Photo of Kimberley KitchingKimberley Kitching (Victoria, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise as chair of the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee to speak on the report for the committee's inquiry into issues facing diaspora communities in Australia. This has been a wide-ranging inquiry. Our terms of reference covered support for diaspora community organisations, safety concerns for diaspora communities, barriers to the full participation of diaspora communities in Australia's democratic and social institutions, and opportunities to strengthen communication and partnerships between government and diaspora communities. We wanted to hear the voices of those in our diaspora communities and to give a voice to those who don't always have one. We received rich evidence on all of these aspects and more. We heard of challenges, but also the varied and substantial contributions made by diaspora communities, as well as the importance of recognising and celebrating these contributions.

The committee received 90 written submissions. It held six public hearings via teleconference from 29 September to 6 November 2020. We heard from a variety of stakeholders, with perspectives ranging from the community to the national level. The committee is incredibly grateful to the groups and individuals who took the time to provide written submissions and appear before the committee. The strong response from community organisations in particular is a testament to their deep dedication to advocating for the needs of their communities. In total, the committee has made 18 recommendations for the government's consideration.

The committee recognises that the diversity of Australia's diaspora community is one of its key strengths. Almost half of Australia's population either was born overseas or has at least one parent who was born overseas. Diaspora communities make valuable contributions to Australia's society and are also able to positively impact on Australia's relationship with their home countries. The committee agrees that an inclusive and celebratory approach to multicultural affairs is appropriate. This celebration can take a variety of forms and deserves further consideration at all levels of government.

The importance of diaspora community organisations was evident to the committee. These groups provide crucial support to individuals, families and communities and often act as a bridge to government. The committee heard that many of these organisations rely on financial support from the Commonwealth to deliver their services. Many groups perceived a shift from a more community based funding model to the funding of a small number of large organisations as intermediaries, which presents certain challenges. This includes a lack of flexibility to enable smaller organisations to use funding for their community-specific needs. The committee understands that there can be efficiencies in using large organisations but is concerned by evidence that this may inadvertently disadvantage grassroots community organisations. The committee therefore recommended that the relevant departments take steps to ensure that they do not inadvertently disadvantage or exclude smaller and emerging community organisations.

Related to this, the committee thought it notable that many witnesses described the need for capacity building for community organisations wishing to access government funding. Some appeared to be unaware of the support already available. The committee welcomed the support available as a component of the Settlement Engagement and Transition Support Program. It recommended that Home Affairs ensure that this support is appropriately targeted and publicised.

Turning to safety concerns, the committee was disturbed by evidence concerning reports of foreign interference targeting diaspora communities, individuals and some media organisations. Despite not forming an explicit part of the terms of reference, foreign interference and its impact upon diaspora communities in Australia proved to be a key issue for the inquiry. Unfortunately, some witnesses did not feel safe enough to give evidence in public. We heard in camera evidence from some because either they were frightened from past experiences with the regimes in their countries of origin or they feared for their families, whether those families be here or in their country of origin. I don't think we can avoid naming the country from which witnesses felt threatened and that they had to give evidence in camera. The regime there is the Chinese Communist Party. In the last day, we have seen further documentation and authentication of sickening treatment and torture of the Uighur people in the forced labour camps in Xinjiang.

The committee recognises that many diaspora groups come to Australia to seek safety from risks and threats in their home countries. It is vital to protect the free and open society Australians enjoys. Reports of surveillance, monitoring, harassment and intimidation, including threats against family members overseas, are extremely troubling. We cannot tolerate these activities. They threaten the peace of our country. Home Affairs and ASIO are actively countering these attempts. The committee welcomed the establishment of the office of the National Counter Foreign Interference Coordinator and of the Counter Foreign Interference Taskforce in 2018 and 2019 respectively. I would like to thank those who work in our law enforcement and security agencies for the work that they do to keep us all safe.

The committee notes the challenge of ensuring government agencies have the language and cultural understanding and capabilities necessary to counter foreign interference and the roles diaspora communities may play in enhancing those essential attributes. The National Security Hotline is an essential tool for community members wishing to report potential acts of foreign interference. The committee recommended that the government consider running a multilingual information campaign on the hotline and on its role in the battle against foreign interference as well as promoting awareness through peak groups. Several witnesses expressed strong support for the adoption by Australia of Magnitsky-style legislation, including as a deterrent to foreign interference. The committee supports the Human Rights Subcommittee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade report on this subject and its recommendation that the government enacts targeted sanctions legislation to address human rights violations and corruption.

Despite the success of multiculturalism in Australia, the scourges of racism and discrimination persist. Sadly, the committee heard testimony to this effect. In line with the global movement to tackle racism, not only between human beings but also at a systemic level, the committee heard calls for a national antiracism strategy and a suggestion that an antiracism strategy and framework be developed.

Let us not use unclear language. Racism and xenophobia are evil. We must reject and combat these evils wherever they may lurk, for history teaches us where racism ends. It ends in pogroms. It ends in the gas chambers. It ends in the ethnic cleansing of Tibet and the ongoing obscenity of the treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang. It ends in the massacres of Rwanda, in armed attacks on mosques and synagogues live streamed on social media as entertainment. In Australia, Indigenous young people, in abject despair, hang themselves by the neck alone in jail cells.

Our silence about these things and the views of some that trade is more important than decency are something young people are confronting and denouncing with ever louder voice. I say this in a literal sense: we should thank God they are. I pray they get louder and louder and louder. We must have zero tolerance for racism everywhere. We are so lucky in this country and so we must hold ourselves to the highest standard, to be the best people. We have no excuse.

Australia's existing antiracism strategy was developed in 2012. It appears to have lost some momentum since that time. Noting that the development of a comprehensive new national antiracism framework will take time, and recommending this includes a comprehensive consultation process with a focus on diaspora communities, the committee further recommended consideration be given to reinvigorate the existing national antiracism strategy and campaign, particularly in light of the apparent increase in incidents of racism during the present pandemic.

The committee also looked at a lack of cultural diversity in a variety of sectors, including politics, business and the public service. The committee also looked at ways of strengthening partnerships and looked at those partnerships that exist between government and Australia's diaspora communities. Except for First Nations people, Australia's story is one of immigration. This is why I undertook to establish this inquiry and hear from these voices. I am very proud to be a strong advocate and defender for Australian values: for democracy and its pillars, the rule of law, a free press and free and fair elections. That is what makes Australia such an attractive destination for those seeking a new life. But this doesn't mean that we cannot do better.

I hope the inquiry's report helps the government to develop better strategies to engage with migrant and diaspora communities—the matters which we consider to go to the very issue of our security and sovereignty as a nation. This was an important aspect of the inquiry. I believe all members of the committee, despite a variety of views, take this seriously and solemnly. I know I do.

In closing, I would like to thank the deputy chair, Senator Abetz, as well as other members of the committee for their cooperative efforts with the inquiry. I commend the report to the Senate.

3:48 pm

Photo of Eric AbetzEric Abetz (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

We need to continue to celebrate and acknowledge the wonderful contribution that our various ethnic diasporas have made in the creation of the modern nation Australia and what she is today—economically strong, democratic, freedom-loving, engaged in world affairs on the side of liberty and opposed to totalitarianism. The diaspora have enriched our culture.

It stands to reason that as the various ethnic groups have come to Australia there have been misunderstandings as to language and cultural norms and expectations. There has been ugliness, but that is where English language skills are so vitally important in giving our various new arrivals a full entry into our society and protecting them from exploitation. Overall, I believe Australia has done exceptionally well, and the benchmark has to be the other countries in the world. The report which is being considered by the Senate has been an excellent exercise. I appreciate the chair's and the secretariat's substantial contributions to its preparation, along with those of my colleagues and the providers of evidence to the committee. I'll also take the opportunity to associate myself with the remarks of the chair.

It is a matter of regret that some submitters found it necessary to submit in confidence because of fear of retaliation from some within their own diaspora grouping doing the bidding of a foreign country and because of reprisals in their country of origin towards their extended families. During the hearing, some inappropriate allegations were made suggesting that witnesses appearing as experts, thought leaders or think tank contributors on China and its impact on the Chinese diaspora shouldn't be asked if they condemn the CCP dictatorship, which is brutalising its citizens. Let's be very clear: one million of their own people in concentration camps; forced sterilisations; rape; forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience; imprisonment of home Christians, imprisonment of Falun Gong practitioners; imprisonment of pro-democracy activists—not to mention the Tibetans, the Mongolians and that country's illegal land acquisitions. To not condemn such a heinous regime is in itself heinous.

We now have the BBC doing a full expose of the plight of the Uighurs at the hands of this barbaric regime. We have had the China Tribunal, headed by Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, finding beyond reasonable doubt that forced organ harvesting occurs. We've had the findings of the US Congress and of the Canadian parliament—and the list goes on. Professor Clive Hamilton, in his books Silent Invasion and Hidden Hand, has outlined the barbarism of this regime. ASPI, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, has done a report, Uyghurs for sale, outlining the slavery to which these people are submitted.

Despite this overwhelming list of substantiated reports, books and inquiries by exceptionally eminent persons, the apologists seek disingenuously to dismiss these sorts of damning findings. There's a professor from the University of Adelaide who, incredibly, asserts there is no evidence. Really? Professor Hamilton's got it wrong, ASPI's got it wrong, the BBC's got it wrong, Sir Geoffrey Nice has got it wrong—or is this professor simply an apologist for an evil regime? Then, somewhat coincidentally, one of the submitters to our committee, a Mr Osmond Chiu, ignorantly dismissed Professor Clive Hamilton's seminal work, which contained over 50 pages of evidentiary footnotes, as unsubstantiated. What more evidence could be gathered than was contained in that seminal document and book by Professor Clive Hamilton—who, might I add, was a former Greens candidate at an election, so hardly somebody from my side of politics, but is somebody who has the integrity and willingness to call out an evil regime for what it is: namely, evil? The apologists cannot bring themselves to condemn the evil Chinese dictatorship.

I've unhesitatingly sought to stand in solidarity with those who have been oppressed by the Chinese dictatorship. Within my own party, I recall being the only one in the party room to stand against a proposal put forward by the Prime Minister and the Minister for Foreign Affairs for an extradition treaty with China. I know there were some others, like Senator Fierravanti-Wells, who would have liked to have joined me, but she was on the frontbench at the time. I had previously been politically assassinated by that group, so I was free to speak. But I have had a longstanding interest in this area and have stood firmly and strongly with the oppressed, and I'm happy the extradition treaty never came into being and is now completely off the agenda. Indeed, we have now suspended our extradition treaty with Hong Kong because of this dictatorship's behaviour.

You ask thought leaders and self-described experts to condemn the brutal dictatorship, and what do apologists do? As Professor Clive Hamilton predicted in his book, they immediately condemn you as racist and then offer sufficient criticism of the regime to retain credibility, but they will never condemn it. That might be one of the reasons why I invited some people to actually condemn the regime, and they failed to do so. I know what the Uighurs would have wanted them to do. I know what the Falun Gong practitioners would have wanted them to do. I know what the house Christians would have wanted them to do. The women that are being forcibly sterilised and raped as we speak would be wanting us in Australia to stand in solidarity with them.

But no. We had our national broadcaster, only a couple of days ago, again seeking to condemn me for my questioning but not being able to bring themselves to do what at least the BBC has been able to do, and that is expose this evil regime, this barbarism—the Uighurs that are being raped, sterilised, put into concentration camps. The Chinese diaspora in Australia fear for their relatives and fear for themselves as to the consequences if they speak out.

Despite the attacks that came from certain quarters, I have been heartened by overwhelming support, including from a local Australian Chinese newspaper that has a circulation of tens of thousands in this country. It had a front-page heading 'Chinese Aussies support Tassie senator's push to distinguish Chinese regime from Chinese people'. They were fully in support. We had letters and emails flooding into the office and we had a YouTube channel with 100,000 followers offering support. A former Chinese diplomat, a defector from China who knew exactly what was going on, tweeted:

Don't let patriotic @SenatorAbetz feel ashamed for his courage against the CCP influence! The Australian Values Alliance—

which is a Chinese organisation in Australia—

stood up to support him.

China Uncensored, a YouTube program from the United States, with hundreds of thousands of viewers, is overwhelmingly supporting me. Our diaspora need protection from the malignant forces in Australia and from overseas that seek to intimidate and silence their fellow diaspora into noncriticism of the evilness of their regimes.

3:58 pm

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I also wish to speak to this important report on the experience of diaspora communities in Australia. I was very pleased to be able to be part of the committee inquiry and attend the hearings and hear from witnesses about their experiences as members of a diaspora community. The report and the evidence that was given to us outline three key areas which need attention. One is the various communities' ability to access services, access grants programs and access the services that they need. The barriers in the way of them being able to do that are the fact that they are very complex systems, it's not clear where to go to access support and help, and the fact that often small, under-resourced community organisations don't have the resources to be able to fill out very complicated grant applications, for example. So there was a lot of importance placed on trying to reform those systems, streamline those systems so that the various diaspora communities are able to access services and opportunities that the rest of Australia are able to.

For the other two areas, I think it's important to look at them in an interlinked way. One was the experience of racism of many of our diaspora communities, and the second, of course, was from people in Australia who are diaspora communities—refugees or asylum seekers or people fleeing authoritarian, totalitarian regimes. Clearly one of the strong threads of this inquiry and the report was outlining the experiences of people that continue to be intimidated here in Australia by those authoritarian regimes, as previous senators have outlined, China being the prime one amongst them—the actions of the Chinese government in pursuing people of Chinese origin here in Australia. It is worth noting that China isn't the only one; we received evidence from people from a range of countries who had their home country not wanting them to speak out about conditions in their home country and applying pressure on them and on their families and friends and colleagues back in their home country to try and silence them. So it is an important thread of this report to be supporting people, to be removing that level of foreign interference so that people here in Australia can speak out freely, do have freedom of speech and are able to speak out about the appalling human rights violations going on in their home countries.

As a member of the Greens, my approach to foreign relations and foreign affairs comes from a human rights' framework. We put human rights absolutely first. It is important that we do everything we can to support people around the world, whether in China, whether in Cambodia, whether in some African countries, so that people in those countries have human rights and don't have their human rights abused. It's also important we do everything we can for people to be able to speak out here in Australia and support freedom of speech, democracy and people's overall rights in their home countries.

Let's go to the point which has been debated in this chamber while we've been discussing this report: when it comes to the actions of the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese totalitarian government, it is incredibly important to recognise that speaking out about the actions of the Chinese government does have an impact on people of Chinese background here in Australia. It does impact on Australians of Asian heritage. We've got to be incredibly careful that, in very rightly criticising the actions of the Chinese Communist Party, there aren't then flow-on impacts on people of Asian heritage here in Australia. Too often some of the discussion and some of those criticisms get conflated into xenophobia, they get conflated into an overall attack on anyone of Chinese heritage and they inflame racism against people of Chinese background here in Australia. We heard plenty of evidence in our inquiry about what impact that has had, about the rise of racism against people of Asian background that's occurring in Australia. China is in our headlines, and the China-Australia relationship is very contentious at the moment, so there is a lot of genuine and appropriate criticism of the Chinese government. But that flows over into people being victimised and having their human rights impacted here in Australia. They are being impacted; they are being attacked in the street. They are being called names. They don't feel that they are being valued as citizens, just because of their heritage.

What I think is also important is that it's not appropriate—to follow on from Senator Abetz's contribution just now—to ask every Australian of Chinese background where they stand and whether they condemn the actions of the Chinese Communist Party. Many will want to speak out but many others feel they can't, and it is not appropriate to do that. It is also not appropriate to single out people of Chinese background and ask them how they feel about the actions of the Chinese Communist Party and not ask everybody else. Senator Abetz wasn't asking the questions that he asked in that committee hearing of people not of Chinese background; he specifically just asked the people of Chinese background. When they weren't willing to condemn the actions of the Chinese totalitarian state he then went to town on them and made a perfect point of what, in fact, those witnesses were pointing out: it makes it very difficult for people of Chinese origin to stick their heads up above the parapet and to contribute and be involved in political and community life here in Australia because of those sorts of pressures. These are the factors that we really need to be very careful and very sensitive about. We need to be very clear that when and if we are pointing out, quite justifiably, human rights abuses and actions—whether by China, or by Cambodia or by other states—that the criticism is not then having a bearing or an impact on people of those backgrounds here in Australia.

To that end, I think we need to have a lot more focus on what we need to do here in Australia in order to address rising racism in this country. Of course, that then goes to another suite of the recommendations of this report about the need to have a comprehensive, well-resourced and effective antiracism strategy. There are too many people in this country who are happy to say: 'I'm not racist. We're a thriving multicultural country. We're not a racist country,' who are basically living in ignorance. They're not aware of the rising levels of racism and the need for us to take serious action about it. If any of the recommendations in this report are going to have notice taken of them, I really hope that it is the one about the need to really thoroughly and comprehensively address the rise in racism, and that we need a comprehensive antiracism strategy. That's so we can make sure that people of all backgrounds in Australia feel they can have their human rights upheld here in Australia, just like having human rights upheld all around the world.

I think that the report is a very important contribution to the debate here in Australia and I look forward to seeing some of the recommendations implemented.

4:08 pm

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

As somebody who has lived her life across the diversity that is contemporary Australia today and who has been very actively engaged in our cultural diversity, I was very pleased to participate in this inquiry. Having also been a former minister in this space, I thought this was a very timely inquiry and report. I too associate myself with the comments of the chair—that's you, Acting Deputy President Kitching!—of the deputy chair, Senator Abetz, and with some of the comments that Senator Rice made as well.

I'd like to focus on a number of the recommendations. Of course, the first recommendation is about the need to further recognise the contributions of our diaspora communities in Australia. Let's face it: one half of us were either born overseas or have at least one parent who was born overseas.

One of the important recommendations is No. 5, which recommends that the government consider increasing, by way of a multilingual media or information campaign, awareness of the National Security Hotline as a means of reporting foreign interference. The evidence that came before us very much pointed to where this foreign interference is. As other senators have said, whilst a number of totalitarian regimes were identified in the inquiry, nevertheless the country that attracted the most attention was definitely China. As somebody who has been very outspoken against the Communist regime—indeed, when I was minister, I made some comments which resulted in an international debate about China's activities, most especially in the Pacific—I felt as I was speaking out on that issue that there weren't too many people who were interested in listening to the warnings that I was making in relation to the regime. I believe my comments were prescient and have been fully vindicated as more and more has become obvious about what the Communist regime is doing internationally and most especially here in Australia. We saw in this inquiry the face of what that foreign interference really is. Ordinary Australians, particularly those of Chinese heritage—there are 1.2 million of them—are the human face of this interference. Therefore, I think that that is really the most important take-out.

One of the other recommendations was about Magnitsky and encouraging the government to enact Magnitsky legislation. If we are going to enact Magnitsky legislation, we have to make sure that the agencies with the powers to enforce that legislation are adequately resourced. I have to say that over the Christmas vacation period I was very disappointed by what happened with AUSTRAC on the issue in relation to the transfer of Vatican funds. If that's the sort of basic error that an organisation like AUSTRAC is making, I think that we have to take a very serious look to ensure that our agencies are up to speed to be able to undertake the necessary work to enforce Magnitsky laws here in Australia.

I will go specifically to some of the evidence in the inquiry, particularly in relation to the Communist regime. We saw firsthand the work that the United Front Work Department of the Central Committee of the CCP is doing here in Australia. We had seen the work that Professor Clive Hamilton did and the books that he's written and also the work of Dr Alex Joske, and I commend both of them for the contribution that they have made to the body politic, most especially in relation to this issue. We saw firsthand the insidious practices of Beijing loyalists in Australia. These insidious practices here in Australia by people loyal to Beijing have caused alarm to our Chinese Australian community. Many who have escaped persecution and want to live freely in a democratic Australia feel intimidated. They have made an important contribution to the fabric of our community and they have been strong advocates for democracy and for our multicultural society. Therefore, I underline the comment that was made earlier. The criticisms that I and others have made have been against the Communist regime; they have not been against the Chinese people and certainly not against the 1.2 million Australians of Chinese heritage who have warmly embraced our way of life but whose way of life now feels very threatened as a consequence of Beijing's bellicose activities.

We know that the Communist regime has a history of illegal and bellicose activities. We see it daily in the South China Sea. Therefore, from that perspective, Australia, if we honestly say that we want a values based foreign policy then we have to stand by that, and we have to stand up when countries like China and other totalitarian regimes do not act as good international citizens, and that means calling them out when they do not act in accordance with international norms. If we say that our foreign policy is a projection of our values and beliefs, therefore, it is important that we support the international rules-based order. We need to stand up for those values, even when there are commercial consequences, when we see the egregious abuse of human rights by some of these totalitarian regimes—and we are seeing it. As Senator Abetz said, at the moment, there it is on the BBC: we're seeing what is happening to the Uighurs. It's also important that countries like Australia join with other nations. It would be really good to see Muslim countries also standing up for their Muslim brothers and sisters who are now facing persecution in China. It's not only incumbent on democratic countries like Australia to call that out but also important for us to encourage other countries, particularly countries in the Muslim world, to also speak out in this way.

We have to understand that China is not a democracy. It is a totalitarian regime, and therefore we need to treat it as such, rather than thinking that we can continue business as usual. We cannot continue business as usual with the Communist regime. It's not going to work anymore. Quite frankly, the Australian public is not going to stand for business as usual with the Communist regime any more.

In particular, before I conclude, I also want to touch on the effect of the Hong Kong security law. This is a very bad law and I know that so many people in Australia fear its application, not just if they go back to Hong Kong but also because so many people in the diasporas have connections in these countries—in China, in Vietnam and in other countries—where they fear repercussions for their citizens.

I will conclude on a couple of recommendations. Recommendations 12, 14, 15, 17 and 18 effectively go to communication with diaspora communities. When I became Minister for International Development and the Pacific one of the things I asked was: did we have an ethnic media listing in the department of foreign affairs? I was so disappointed that there was not an up-to-date list of ethnic media. Let's not forget that the ethnic media in the country is 500 to 600 strong and growing every day, because our diasporas get their news from around the world in different ways. Therefore, it is vitally important that we utilise the diaspora communities and utilise that media to more effectively communicate with government.

Question agreed to.