B'Nai B'Rith Anti-Defamation Commission

Multicultural Tolerance: The Truth About Lies - 26 May 2002

Born here, Born there, Will we care in the 21st Century?

Before the Second World War, discrimination was not uncommon in Australia . In 1946, a major decision was taken to build a different Australia, an Australia where discrimination would be ended and outlawed from our minds.

Arthur Calwell, in a significant act of statesmanship, persuaded the union movement that it was in Australia's interests to embark, for the first time, on a major and deliberate migration programme, intended to build and transform Australia . This programme was supported by the opposition political parties of the time.

The decision to conduct the major migration campaign was in effect a decision to establish a multicultural and diverse Australia, which is now recognised as one of our great strengths.

We have been taught to learn the policies of tolerance and, through the refugee programmes, of the need for compassion and concern.

A further major step was undertaken after the end of the Vietnam War. The Government believed that there was an ethical obligation to provide a safe haven. In some years over 20,000 refugees a year came to Australia from Vietnam and Cambodia, in all, over 200,000 settled here and are good Australians.

A large number of these people went from South Vietnam by boats to what became transit points in Malaysia and Indonesia .

If we had adopted today's attitude of rejection many of them would have attempted to come here by boat, by people smuggler.

I was speaking to one of these immigrants not so long ago. When he arrived, he thought this was perhaps the most concerned and compassionate country in the world. But he now asks what has changed and why.

People have come to Australia from all parts of the former Yugoslavia. It is of enormous credit to the leaders of the Balkan communities in Australia that they kept their fighting in the Balkans and have not imported it to this country.

This indeed has been typical of the different racial and ethnic groups who now make up the new Australia . They emphasize the importance of priority for Australia as a nation, the imperative of not importing ancient quarrels to their new home and the need to build unity and strength out of Australia's diversity.

The Australia I am describing developed important values over the best part of 50 years. We learnt compassion and tolerance. Discrimination against Catholics became a matter for the past. Jewish people became highly respected in Australian society. Multiculturalism underlined the strength we gained from our diversity. It emphasised the primacy of Australian values.

But our current policies and attitudes to refugees and discrimination against certain classes of refugees stand in stark contrast to the Australia we have been building since the end of the Second World War.

It would have been possible to play politics with immigration policies at any time. Seven years after the Depression, Australians, if asked to vote, would have voted against a major immigration programme. If the people of Melbourne had been asked whether they wanted Melbourne to become the largest Greek city outside of Greece, they would have voted No. If any of political party had sought to make politics over the resettlement of the Indo-Chinese in the seventies and eighties, it would have been difficult to support the policy.

All of these things were right for the nation. They happened because our leaders made decisions and explained why those decisions were right for Australia .

How is it that both political parties were able to remove themselves from these attitudes and remove themselves from leadership of the nation and how is it that they both became united in the policies of discrimination and rejection? Is it that the polls were read before the event? Did they say that this was too tough, they would accept the polls and forget the task of leadership? Could anyone really believe that a few thousand Afghans, including large numbers of women and children, could be a threat to the integrity, to the sovereignty of this nation?

Why did we allow discrimination to become so rife, so blatant?

Australia's current policies offend international agreements but more importantly, they offend every decent fibre of our being as Australians, every idea of a fair go, the basic principle that we should do to others what we would like done to us.

Concern for the future has been manipulated to expand people's fears. This was especially so after September 11 and the demonisation of boat people as a class, as a group, continued.

Who would have thought that Australia in the year 2002 could hold some thousands men, women and children in prison without charge and without trial? The Convention on the Rights of the Child, in particular, says that children should not be arbitrarily imprisoned, but they are, by the Australian Government in our name.

Why should we be the only western country to have compulsory, mandatory, non-reviewable detention, places surrounded by razor wire, where inmates are known by numbers and not by their names? These detention centres cannot help but remind us of some of the uglier events in the history of the last century.

The Government and Opposition did not fall into these policies blindly, they planned for it and prepared for it. The boat people have been demonised. They have falsely been accused of throwing their children overboard. They have suffered the great crime of being branded as different and from a different religion.

We discriminate against them all, against families, against women, against children, some of whom are traumatised to destruction.

The discrimination against boat people and the way they are treated is blatant, unreasonable and inhumane.

False images have been built in people's minds over years when what in fact we have been dealing with is people fleeing a most terrible regime, a regime which the United States and its allies have gone to war to destroy.

It is not surprising that people have fled Afghanistan . I never thought Australians could treat such people as non-people, as one of Kipling's lesser breeds without the law.

A few thousand boat people was never a threat to Australia's borders or sovereignty. There has never been any question that Australia does and should exercise her sovereign right to determine who can come and stay here. But our humanitarian obligations to those seeking that right are clear. Until we have made a decision about whether they may stay or not, we should treat them in line with our international obligations, in line with the great Australian philosophy based on a fair go, with basic human decency. In short, we should treat them as human beings.

The Australian problem is small compared to the equivalent problems in Europe where up to 400,000 asylum seekers have sought refuge each year. Britain's new get-tough policy has not involved compulsory, mandatory detention and is benign and gentle compared to Australia's policy.

Australia used to be held as an example in the advancement of Human Rights. Now, we are a cause for concern. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has her personal envoy coming here to examine what we are doing. We have travelled a long way in 3-4 years. Who would have thought we could have gone from being an example to being under investigation because of discrimination in Australia?

The 650,000 refugees who have settled in Australia since the Second World War, know that you flee persecution by whatever means, and often without papers. In the past such people were welcomed but not today.

We all need to ask what has changed and why. We are going through a period of shame in Australian history and current events and policies can only be recorded in one way as historians look back on this period.

But why is it that there are not more people and more groups being thoroughly outspoken about the discrimination in our midst. Surely people here know that once discrimination starts, it spreads. Discrimination against any group is offensive to our core values as a nation.

B'nai B'rith Anti Defamation Commission has a proud record of opposing discrimination around the world and it has recorded many instances of discrimination against Jews in recent times, a discrimination which also is rising. It is critical however, that greater efforts be made to combat the discrimination which is most fragrantly practised by our government and make sure that it is ended and that we return to the idea of a common humanity in dealing with people in distress. We cannot allow the policy to continue.