7 November 2016, Parliament House, Canberra, Australia
Deputy Speaker, the House of Representatives I first entered in 1990, I realise with the benefit of that wonderful thing called hindsight, was a different kind of place to what it is now. For one thing, words still mattered, speeches mattered, mattered enough for members to actually listen to them. To react to them, to engage in real debate, sometimes what was said in the chamber even was reported. Alas, those days when parliamentary proceedings were seen as more than today’s daily televised sideshow of Question Time have passed.
But out of nostalgia, this traditionalist persisted with one sliver of those former ways. With each new parliament I listen with interest to what apparently it is now appropriate to call first, rather than maiden, speeches. They provide great insights into colleagues, their history, their hopes, their aspirations.
So it was in the last day in the last session in September that I sat in the chamber during the adjournment debate, waiting to speak on some of the remarkable first speeches delivered earlier in the day. I had prepared to congratulate new members on what was some marvellous, sometimes entertaining, and sometimes very moving addresses. But Mr Speaker, as I sat waiting for your call, my spirit of good humor evaporated as I listened to the Member for Dawson deliver what amounted to a diatribe about the rise of Islam in this country. The member’s speech was replete with generalisations, there were appeals to fear and prejudice that appalled me.
My instinct was to at the very least disassociate myself at the first opportunity. I should have remembered the advice John Stuart Mill gave 110 years ago: “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends than that good men should look on and do nothing”. That I did nothing, said nothing when my turn on the adjournment did come, is not something I can be proud of. Controlling my tongue on the basis that saying what I thought would only result in the Member for Dawson receiving more attention than his contribution deserved, was not the right thing to do. Nor was worrying that differences between Coalition members would be exploited by our political foes. That had been the response of other members in this and the other chamber to another provocative speech that week from a new senator from Queensland. She too played on the fears of those Australians feeling economic and social exclusion. She too made those bogus claims that Australia was in danger of being swamped by Muslims. Dangerous Muslims who were arriving with their violent extremism. Dangerous Muslims who did not share Australian values. Same speech, different house.
My silence on the adjournment that night did not prevent the views of the senator and the Member for Dawson being widely circulated. It did not stop their words from further inflaming the views of the prejudiced. It did not stop the government’s opponents from exploiting the unfortunately different views that exist on my side of politics.
Speaker, during the break, I thought long and hard about how to respond to those that encourage division. How to respond to those who exploit fear and the vulnerable and disillusioned for political gain. How to respond to the Member for Dawson. How to politely point out to the prime minister that a man who holds office in the Turnbull government seemingly has views that are at odds with his own description of our country given in New York recently by the prime minister, when he said, “we are not defined by race, religion, or culture, but by shared political values of democracy, rule of law, equality of opportunity, and a fair go.” Noble sentiments. Good sentiments, repeated in the parliament when the prime minister and leader of the opposition spoke as one on the issue. The kind of sentiments that should have replaced my silence.
Speaker, it was a long and lonely walk before the penny dropped as to why I had not called out the Member for Dawson on the spot. The issues swirling in our multicultural nation for me are public, passionate, but for me, they are not personal. The truth is I didn’t act as I should have because I am not Muslim, Chinese, Afghan, Greek, or Greek-looking, nor Italian, nor Sri Lankan, nor Sudanese. Not Aboriginal.
I might have noted in that adjournment speech that the Member for Chisholm Julia Banks spoke passionately about the little girl who was called a “wog” and how she had to go home and grab her brother’s dictionary and look up what wog meant and then deal with the pain of others seeing her as different because of her darker skin and her dark hair. She looked a little different, so was a point of attack. I haven’t been called a wog, a daego, a chink or a raghead. You see Mr Speaker, I am plain whitebread, cut for toast.
I was born in the town that Gillian Triggs, the human rights commissioner, said she would never hold a function in, Koo Wee Rup. In might be expected for someone with my background to shrug their shoulders when members of parliament’s remarks are directed at a particular race, or to ignore the hurt those remarks can cause. To defend the member’s right to free speech as if that was a right that should be unlimited. To nod wisely because the member was simply reflecting the view of those who elected them, “don’t blame me, blame them”. It’s another of the changes in this place that I referred to earlier. The now prevalent belief that members in this place should follow, not lead. For my part I remain steadfastly Burkean in my view of the proper relationship between the elected and their electors as I was those 16 years ago.
So I remind you of the words of Edmund Burke, that great parliamentarian, “Your representative owes you not his industry only but his judgement and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices to your opinion”. That is the principle I have always followed perhaps remaining true to my conscientiously held belief contributed to the 1998 defeat I suffered along the way. Just as Ewen Jones paid the ultimate political price in Herbert this year for his stand in always deferring to his better angels on matters of principle. But I believe I enjoy a special relationship with the community that I now serve.
They may not agree with my positions I take, but they know I am on their side. That I am serving them in the best way I know how. So to all of us in the parliament should reflect on our relationship with the Australian people. Right now it’s broken.
A bit of humble representation from the powers that be wouldn’t hurt. It’s time for us to rise above the politics of fear and division because our love of diversity, difference, and freedom will endure. Our love of the rule of law, respect for one another, tolerance for one another will endure. Our love of freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and love of country will endure. Our love of shared values, a fair go for all and shared responsibilities will endure.
At the recent election the Coalition received 42% of the primary vote, Labor close to 35%, the Greens a tick over 10. 87% of Australians did not vote for minor parties. Only 1.9% of Australians gave their first preference to One Nation party. Family First, the Australian Democratic Party and Nick Xenophon Team all received greater vote than One Nation. Why then is someone on my side of politics cuddling up to Hansonite rhetoric? Those propositions and policies will only hurt the Coalition parties in the long run in the same way the once great Labor party now is the captive of the Greens relying on their preferences to win 31 of their seats in this house.
Speaker, I do understand the fear of Islamic based terrorism. The government is responding with every resource available.
I do understand the concerns of the Australian people over these issues. I am not immune to the fears expressed to me by the people that I meet.
At the same time we cannot condemn the whole of the Muslim community for the actions of a crazy dangerous few. That’s not fair. Otherwise the people who hate all that is good about this nation will win and we are the losers. Australia, we’re better than this. We need not walk in the footsteps of the world. We as a nation can stand apart. Confident. Fearless. Together. United. Unafraid.
Together we as a people can stem the tide of divisiveness infecting Western countries around the globe. Right here, right now, we can turn to take the higher road. Believing in one another to defend against the purveyors of fear and disunity. Let this nation be the circuit breaker and travel the road of the wise, leaving the foolish to perish in division.
We should always have empathy and consideration for those doing it tough. We must speak to the people in their language about the basic concerns affecting their daily lives. If not, we further push those that feel alienation and disaffection, by economic and social exclusion, into the arms of the One Nations of this country.
Or as Michael Gordon said in The Age article on the 30th of September, “The problem in Australia is not with the people but with a leadership more intent on making political points than expressing empathy, or pressing the case that we all gain from an inclusive pluralist society, or addressing inequality, or celebrating the multicultural success stories”.
One of them was unfolding that weekend. Whether or not the Western Bulldogs were to raise the premiership cup at the MCG, the story of how the club faced extinction, survived and thrived by supporting all elements of the community facing multiple challenges. At a time of widespread institutional weakness the club was a model on how to win a social licence, said Labor MP Tim Watts. Back in June the club celebrated World Refugee Day by having its 11th annual citizenship ceremony at the Whitten Oval, when 45 migrants and refugees from 21 countries sang the national anthem and then the Bulldogs club song. Along with their citizenship, they received Bulldogs membership packs. Club president Peter Gordon strolled among the throng on Thursday’s final training session. He recognised many of them in the crowd. Joyous, united, and prepared to invest without reservation, the dream, the face of modern Australia.
Speak of the vast majority of the Australian people fit the Western Bulldogs view of the world. It is our challenge now to show those that feel alienated, disenfranchised, that they also share a bright future investing in a dream without reservation. Our responsibility in leadership is to bring those that feel like they have been left behind, to know our intention is for all Australians to share in the wealth and opportunity in this nation. For all Australians to feel they have hope in the future, some control of their lives to representative democracy and enjoy a sense of belonging so that they can confidently stand firm against those peddling policies of fear and division.
Speaker, the politics of fear and division have never created one job, never come up with a new invention, never started a new business, and never given a child a new start in life, or lifted the spirits of a nation.
Deputy Speaker, at this moment I don’t know what Muslims are asked to do but I know what Christians are asked to do. To do justly. To love, mercy and kindness, and to walk humbly with their God.”