Senate debates

Wednesday, 17 February 2021

Statements by Senators

Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee Report: Diaspora Communities

1:22 pm

Photo of Tim AyresTim Ayres (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Last week the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee reported on its inquiry into diaspora communities, and I was not able to make some reflections on the report and the conduct of that inquiry then. I intend to use this opportunity in senators' statements to do it today.

Australia is a place where people from across the world can be included and ultimately thrive. It's a fundamental strength for this country and it's one of the things that make Australia a great place to live and a great place for our children to grow up. It connects us to a globalised world. It creates a richer and more diverse way of life. But of course there are challenges in a multicultural society in making sure that we are continuing to improve the social, economic and political participation of Australians from migrant backgrounds, and that includes having consistent and focused support and attention from this place. Addressing the inequalities of outcomes faced by these communities, often stemming from racism and exclusion, is an important and challenging task that deserves all of our attention.

The inquiry was an opportunity to hear from groups doing the important work that underpins Australian multiculturalism: volunteer organisations across all of the different groups that make up the rich tapestry of our multicultural society. The committee received a suitably diverse range of submissions on a diverse range of subjects, and I want to thank all of the groups who provided submissions and, in particular, those groups that provided oral evidence. It did become clear over time that some of the participants in this inquiry were particularly interested in using the inquiry to discuss the future of Australia's relationship with China and how it is expressed in the lives of the Chinese Australian community. There is no doubt that the future of this relationship should be a source of debate and critical engagement.

Since Whitlam opened dialogue with China in July 1971, engagement with China has been a key part of Australian foreign policy. China is a key country in our region, and, despite some of the things that put distance between us, it is not a fact that can be wished away, as is the wish of some people in this place. Trade with China is a key source of national wealth, particularly in our resources industries. Thousands of young Chinese students choose to study in Australia. However, that relationship is complex and it is changing. A more assertive China is more active in the region, within and outside the norms of international order and rules. Australian produce has become vulnerable to trade bans, including our cotton, wine, lobsters, sugar, barley, timber and copper ore. Australia has, and should have, deep concerns about the status of Hong Kong as well as the treatment of the Uighur population in Xinjiang, and there are legitimate concerns about attempts to interfere with Australian democracy. How we manage that relationship requires strategy, requires careful reflection and requires leadership. In managing that relationship, a key advantage is the success of Chinese Australians.

There are 1.2 million Australians of Chinese heritage. Per capita, Australia has more people of Chinese heritage than anywhere outside of Asia. As with any large community, there is a diversity of political views. The diversity of those views can and should easily be accommodated and expressed in our democratic system. How this could be achieved was the subject of one of the public hearings in which a panel of Chinese Australian academics, amongst others, gave evidence about how Chinese Australians engage with Australia's democratic system. As has been the subject of much debate here and outside, Senator Abetz used his questions to demand that this group individually, publicly and unconditionally condemn the Chinese Communist Party. It was, in my view, an abuse of the Senate committee process and a deliberate attempt to humiliate the people who were participating in it. At least when Joe McCarthy asked people whether or not they were communists, he asked everybody the same question. This question this time was only directed to those Australians with Chinese heritage.

Since that incident has been reported in the press, Senator Abetz has stubbornly maintained that his questioning was fair, that his words were misrepresented and that no request for loyalty was made. Here is what the Hansard of the event records:

Can I ask each of the three witnesses to very briefly tell me whether they are willing to unconditionally condemn the Chinese Communist Party dictatorship?

Later in the exchange he said:

But can you not pick a side to condemn the oppressive ugliness of the communist regime in China? Why is that so difficult?

He's since given several speeches to the Senate chamber about the matter and used parliamentary privilege to make particular claims about these people, calling them 'apologists', 'Labor operatives' and 'self-described experts'—not something that he's done with anybody else who's appeared before that inquiry. The name-calling misses the point.

One of the witnesses, Mr Osmond Chiu, is a friend of mine. He's a thoughtful contributor to Australian political life. Ironically, Mr Chiu's submission described exactly the kind of predicament that he found himself in. He said:

Chinese-Australians, in particular, have found it challenging to participate in politics over the last three years because of a growing public perception that the Communist Party of China (CPC) operates within and influences the actions of Chinese-Australian communities.

The thoughtless assumptions that Mr Chiu describes have, of course, a long history in this country. Chinese migration to Australia predates our federation, but so does racism towards Chinese Australians. The belief that Chinese Australians inherently have divided loyalties echoes a set of dark, racist ideas that have no role in modern Australia.

The criticism of Senator Abetz's comments was entirely fair. Senator Abetz's stubborn response to his critics reflects traits that I suppose have served him well for his decades in political life. But they also reflect a set of views about China that have taken hold among particular members of this parliament. Rather than coming to terms with the complexity of Australia's relationship with China and, in particular, the complexity of the issues in the Chinese Australian community and the desire amongst many Chinese Australians to participate fully in our public life, these people increasingly view themselves as the antagonists in a sort of Manichean struggle between good and evil, a sort of 'boy's own' adventure, with little regard for the consequences, particularly for Chinese Australians in our community.

It's a world view that's not supported by our intelligence community. It's childish and it does a profound disservice to the Australian people, most notably Chinese Australians, because it hinders our ability to actually understand what is going on and our capacity to view the actions of the Chinese Australian community properly, and that was made very clear in later public evidence from the director of ASIO.

For those senators who are concerned about foreign interference, Mr Chiu's submission offers this insight:

The homogenous nature of Australian politics is one reason why politicians find it difficult to deal with issues like foreign interference because there is insufficient cultural and political knowledge of the foreign entities the government seeks to legislate against. A truly representative parliament is necessary if we want Australia to successfully navigate big foreign and domestic policy challenges, and to reflect the values of equality which Australia stands for.

Greater involvement of Chinese Australians is of immense value to our democratic system not only in our engagement with China over the coming decades but also in better reflecting the country we represent in this building. Senator Abetz's comments and actions have undermined that effort and they undermined the purpose of the inquiry he participated in.