Vietnamese TET Festival

Fairfield Showgrounds, Sydney, Saturday 5 February 2011

I want to congratulate Vietnamese Australians on 35 years most successful settlement and involvement in Australian life.

You have not only become part of Australia, you have brought to Australia skills and capacities which have made Australia a better country.  In so many ways you touch Australian lives.

I remember during a bicentenary parade the Vietnamese community in Melbourne had a large float which was a boat with the simple words on it “Thank you Australia”.  Australians received you as you fled from Vietnam after the defeat of South Vietnam with generosity and warmth.  I have been told of families who were initially settled in Adelaide for example, and found clothes and toys for their children ready and waiting for them as they were billeted in various parts of the city.  There was no razor wire, no fixed camps.  I have heard many examples of Vietnamese Australians seeking to repay Australia for their generosity and the warmth of the welcome and the fact that they had been able to become Australian.

Somebody stopped me in Collins Street in Melbourne a while ago, he called “How are you Mal?” I looked around, I couldn’t see anyone I knew but there was a young man in an air force uniform, “its me” he said, I came here in the late 70’s in my mother’s arms and as I grew up the family decided that somehow we should seek to repay Australia.  It was decided I should join the air force.

You have worked hard.  Many of you have excelled in universities, in business, in the professions.  Your community has demonstrated that diversity gives us an added strength, an added value to our own community.  You are Australian in every sense.  But that doesn’t prevent you celebrating the Vietnamese New Year or remembering Vietnamese traditions and ancient culture.

For 3 years in a row the humanitarian intake from Indo-China was around 20,000 or a little more each year.  A refugee intake of something over 70,000 has grown to a community not far short of a ¼ of million through family reunion, through business migration.

As we look forward to the future I would like to ask you to pause for a moment and remember the Australia that made it possible for so many people to come here in such a short time.  The White Australia Policy for practical purposes was ended in 1967.  This made it possible to overturn the decision made by the Labor Government in 1975 not to accept refugees from Vietnam, and to allow large numbers of refugees from Vietnam and Indo-China to come to Australia.  Once I had reversed the policy Labor did not oppose it and so it was bi-partisan.  In the event major parties supported an open compassionate and non-discriminate approach to immigration and refugees.

To my enormous regret, the Australia to which most of you came in the late 70’s or early 80’s started to falter in the late 1980’s and in the 1990’s.  There were several steps in this process involving both major political parties.  The first was the establishment of fixed razor-wire detention centres by Immigration Minister Gerry Hand, and then came Pauline Hanson who was never condemned as she should have been condemned.  Political leadership of both parties failed their moral and ethical duty.  Then came Tampa where fully armed troops were placed on a boat that had rescued refugees at sea.  Symbolism at its worst.  The Tampa incident played politics with the lives of people fleeing terror in ways we had not seen for several decades.  The Labor Party did not condemn the then government.

I was at the Kennedy School in Boston shortly after this incident.  Australian students asked for a private meeting, it won’t take long.  They wanted to know how long they had to pretend not to be Australian.  Tampa resonated around the world and cast doubts on Australia’s integrity and compassion.

During the Liberal Government years there were a small group who forced the government to modify some of the worst, the most inhumane aspects of refugee policy, especially concerning women and children.  The Labor Government changed some of the worst elements of that policy when it first came to power, but when it was accused of being soft on border protection, indeed of having lost control of our borders, both charges being totally false, the government sought to show that it was just as tough as the previous government had been.  That debate has resonated around the world in unhappy ways and damaged the reputation of Australia abroad.

The bi-partisanship whose objective was open and compassionate had endured from the end of the 2nd World War to the middle 1980’s.  Despite some attempts to establish a more reasonable policy we have in fact a new bi-partisanship which is harsh and lacks common humanity.  I know there are people in both parties who abhor this policy.  How is it that political leaders have put aside that which is right, that which is just, that which is humane for fear of losing votes.  There is so much to be gained for Australia by re-establishing for all time an open and compassionate policy.  Our leaders should stop playing politics with people whose lives are at risk.  Our government should stand on the moral high ground.  We all need to work to influence those in politics to adopt that ground.

Your most important task is to look forward to, and to work for the future.  I am delighted to see that Vietnamese Australians are starting to move into the political world, into local government, to state government.

Spare a thought for the Australia that it made it possible for you to come here.  If today’s debates had taken place in the 1970’s and the early 1980’s it is most unlikely that that would have happened.

There are some things that governments just have to do.  If you consult focus groups or polls before the event you will always get a negative answer.  An answer based on ignorance and perhaps on fear.  Political leaders must know in their hearts what is right.  If the do not they should get out of politics.  They should have the courage to fight for what they know to be right, to persuade.

We need to remember the Australia to which you came.  We need to re-establish that Australia and put aside the meanness and pettiness and political point scoring on issues which, from the nature of the debate demean us all.  Politicians who seek to win votes by being tough, by being harsh on those fleeing terror, deserve no support, they deserve defeat.

The example of your community and the work you have done in Australia, should be example enough, that much good would come from an open and non-discriminatory policy.  It should be a powerful argument that the more generous Australia can be re-established and that it is in the hearts of Australians to do so.

At the start of this New Year I ask your community to think of these issues.  To ask yourselves what role you can play in re-establishing and preserving for all time the open Australia, the compassionate Australia, the decent Australia that made it possible for you to come here.  I congratulate all of you on what you have achieved, the enormous contribution you have made to this country and ask you to think of these issues and take them to heart.