Tanya Plibersek is the ALP member for the Federal seat of Sydney. She is a member of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Economics, Finance and Public Administration.
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Project SafeCom NOTE: we have serious reservations about the ALP's current asylum seeker policy as launched last year by Hon Simon Crean and Ms Julia Gillard, and in this criticism we join with Labor4Refugees. You can access some of their remarks about the Labor Policy through our web page "The struggle for Labor, the trouble with Labor". We look forward to the January 2004 National Conference, where the ALP will hopefully finally listen to what has been strongly endorsed by the ALP members in most State Conventions around Australia: to abandon the policy of mandatory detention.
"The first and biggest lie is the one that suggests asylum seekers are a threat to this nation. By world standards we have a tiny number of asylum seekers and accept only a small number of refugees. Poor countries such as Pakistan and Iraq bear the brunt of the burden of caring for displaced persons. The Howard government must be removed as soon as possible, but not only for this reason."
"The Coalition victory at the last election was based largely on a campaign of fear and hysteria. It is clear now that the Government intentionally lied about the throwing of children overboard from a boat carrying asylum seekers - but this is just the last in a long list of lies told by the government.
The first and biggest lie is the one that suggests asylum seekers are a threat to this nation. By world standards we have a tiny number of asylum seekers and accept only a small number of refugees. Poor countries such as Pakistan and Iraq bear the brunt of the burden of caring for displaced persons.
The Howard government must be removed as soon as possible, but not only for this reason.
The Howard government has consistently attacked the most vulnerable members of our community. It is not just refugees, but the unemployed, older Australians, young people, Indigenous Australians - all of these groups have come under attack and disability pensioners are next.
Yet getting rid of the Government must be done democratically. Labor and the minor parties must be prepared to reject legislation, giving the Government a trigger for a double dissolution, but we cannot block supply.
This is an illegitimate tactic, and would mean a loss of support from many Australians - both those who voted for the Government, and those who still remember their anger the last time this tactic was used. Australians feel they have a right to choose their governments through the ballot box. I agree. I hope we get the chance sooner, rather than later."
Tanya Plibersek MP
Member for Sydney
Talk presented in Workshop 7:
Understanding the Religious Fundamentalism dynamic - At home and Abroad
Now We The People conference
University of Technology, Sydney, 24.8.03
Tanya Plibersek MP
It was very instructive to see the front pages of today's newspapers and the news last night, with Howard coming out and saying that Pauline Hanson was treated too harshly. Aside from what you get for $500,000 of social security fraud, the timing of the Prime Minister's comments is significant. We heard from Andrew Wilkie this morning about the stories we were told about the weapons of mass destruction - that wasn't on the front pages this morning, and it should have been.
I'm convinced that the Prime Minister timed his comments to keep that off the front page.
His other reason for defending Pauline Hanson, is that it was so effective the last time he did it. When Pauline Hanson became a phenomenon in the Australian community, what gave her more fuel than anything else was the Prime Minister saying that everyone has a right to an opinion and she's just got hers. John Hewson described that at the time as a 'dog whistle'. That's the best description of all. Tot he people that Pauline Hanson was speaking to, the Prime Minister was saying, 'I agree with you, and I'm not going to do anything about it. This multicultural industry has got my hands tied, so I can't come out like I did in 1987 and talk about Asian immigration, but I can say that Pauline Hanson has got every right to say what she wants to say'.
It's not that I'm a supporter of shutting down debate anywhere, at any time, on anything. People do have a right to an opinion. But that's not what the Prime Minister was really saying. He was really saying: 'I agree with her'.
So - multiculturalism 30 years on and why we failed the refugee test.
As Jock Collins said, multiculturalism has disappeared off the public agenda in many ways in Australia. This is despite the fact that we are relatively a high immigration country. That has been a bipartisan policy for most of the past five decades.
The difference today is that if you ask the average person in the street, 'Has John Howard reduced or increased the immigration intake?", almost everyone would say he is reducing immigration intake. He wants people to agree that he is stopping immigration, that he agrees with the Hanson voter, has taken on board their concerns, has acting for them, and he is stopping immigration. That's not what has actually happened.
Over the last decade, our immigration rates have peaked and troughed a little, but they are relatively consistent. What has really changed is the way the government speaks about immigration. Today, we don't have any sort of dialogue between the Australian people and the government about the benefits of immigration. We don't have any sort of dialogue about the benefits of the multicultural society that we already have. With or without a policy of multiculturalism, we have a multicultural society.
Jock Collins talked about Labor's culpability in this. It is true that neither of the major political parties has taken the Australian people into their confidence. Neither has had enough respect for the intellect of the average Australian to say - these are the benefits. Despite the fact that we have not had that honest dialogue with the Australian population, by and large there is a great deal of support in the community for immigration and for a multicultural Australia.
The SBS Living Diversity, Australia's Multicultural Future Study found that two-thirds of a national sample found that immigration had been a benefit to Australia. That's much higher than a recent UK study commissioned by the BBC.
Australians are qualified in their support for multiculturalism, yet are engaged with a culturally diverse lifestyle. The majority of a national sample supports multiculturalism and cultural diversity, respectively 52% and 59%, but to a lesser extent than they support immigration.
Non-English Speaking Background Australians more strongly support multiculturalism and cultural diversity. Among second generation NESB, support declines, though it remains above the levels in the national sample. Many people assume that there is a great deal of support among ethnic communities for immigration and multiculturalism, but it is mixed, as in every other community. My parents are Slovenian, and I go to a Slovenian club, and I can tell you that there are plenty of people out there who don't like more recent immigrants. They tell me about it at length, in a great amount of detail.
The interesting thing is that, despite the lack of engagement from the government about the benefits of multiculturalism and immigration, there is still significant support, and it is highest among younger people. The younger you go, the better is the support for immigration and multiculturalism.
That gives me an awful lot of hope. When I saw the title of today's talk, I thought it was a rather grim take. We do face enormous problems at the moment, but it is very reassuring that support for immigration and multiculturalism increases as you go down the age scale.
Degenerating into anecdote for a moment, I do a lot of school visits and the curriculum in most schools today is so much better than when I was at school. I was embarrassed to speak a second language when I was at school. All of the child-care centres and schools that I visit put a lot of effort into programs to encourage and support diversity. They don't 'tolerate' multiculturalism, they encourage and support diversity. That's something that I find very reassuring.
There's probably not two or three people in this room who know the second verse of the national anthem. A lot of schools I my electorate do, and they sing, 'For those who've come across the seas, we've boundless plains to share'. The absolute joy that it is to see the kids at Ultimo Public School - probably three-quarters of them would be recent arrivals in Australia just learning English - playing with other kids in the playground, singing "I am, you are, we are Australians'. It brings tears to my eyes every time because they have got such a better understanding of the fundamentals of multiculturalism than plenty of the people that I work with.
Staying on the positive note for a moment, the people in the Australian community who are involved in groups like A Just Australia, ChilOut, people who regularly visit Immigration Detention Centres - these are people who restore our faith that we have developed something special in Australia. People who are not related to the people they are visiting, don't come from the same ethnic background, have no first-had experience of what it is to be a refugee, or an immigrant, but appear to put a lot of time and energy into reaching out the hand of friendship.
It is important, when we feel discouraged and demoralised by what we face at a government level, that there is this enormous groundswell of ordinary people who are prepared to invest emotional energy, time and money in just doing the right thing.
But we do still have substantial numbers of people in the Australian community who have accepted the rhetoric that they've hear over many decades, of being overrun. They fear that there is an actual danger to Australia's physical security or to Australia's cultural and heritage from hordes or masses of people coming to Australia. It ignores the low numbers coming to Australia, but the rhetoric has stayed in people's minds.
From the political campaigns I have seen, the people most supportive of that rhetoric, most vulnerable to it, least sceptical, are the people who least often see recent arrivals to Australia. Perhaps the most racist local campaign I saw in the last federal election was in the Tweed, Larry Anthony's seat. Larry Anthony's campaign literature said: 'Labor has a secret plan to release refugees from detention centres. They will be looking for low-cost accommodation and will be housed in the caravan parks of the Tweed'. They distributed this to every caravan park in the electorate. The caravan parks were actually where Labor was doing very well, because residents of caravan parks are not generally wealthy, and they were very angry with the government over GST on caravan park rentals. We were going very well in the caravan parks, but this single leaflet turned around our vote enormously. They were being shafted by the government economically, but their own hip pocket meant less to them that the rhetoric about refugees moving in next door. There was probably not one person in any of those caravan parks who had met a recent refugee, probably in their lifetime.
The other place that the racist campaign did well was in Michael Lee's seat of Dobell, where they put up a thousand posters of Howard gripping the lectern and saying: "We decide who comes here and under what circumstances". They had billboards and letter-boxing of that image, which became synonymous with Howard the strong defender of Australia's borders.
It was a killer blow. It rally worked for them. Again, Dobell is one of those seats with the smallest number of new arrival immigrants compared to virtually any other electorate in the country. It works much better with people who don't have personal experience of refugees and immigrants.
The fear that gets raised most often with me, and the reason that the government has been so successful, is economic. There is the fear about your job and your kids' jobs. The insecurity generated by the increased casualisation of the workforce, decreased job stability, increased part-time work, decreased protections from dismissal, decreased unionisation - all feed into people's economic insecurity. No wonder they are economically insecure. The attacks on workers' rights have made it easier to take their jobs. Instead of blaming the government, it is much easier to blame some poor bastard who's just arrived on a boat - and there's John Howard pointing at him or her.
The other economic theory is what the American's call 'downward envy'. These are people doing it tough and they hear these stories about Woomera Club Med. We have front page newspaper reports - some of the most disgraceful journalism I've seen - describing how terrific life is in Detention Centres.
Anyone who has visited a Detention Centre, even Villawood - which is good compared to Woomera - but the minute you walk through those gates, and the gates shut behind you, and there's barbed wire everywhere - you are not having a good time. It wouldn't matter how good that facilities were, if it was Club Med, if you weren't allowed to leave, it would not be a good time.
Australia has chosen the most expensive system for dealing with refugees - locking them up - or even more expensive, putting them on Nauru or Manus Island. It is even more expensive to turn a boat around near Perth and taking it back to Christmas Island - probably increasing the costs tenfold at least. Australia chooses this mot expensive way of dealing with people -economic fear of the cost of refugees is something people talk about - but then they support the most expensive way of processing people with an asylum claim.
Lots of people, including immigrants, believe that modern refugees get so much help it is just not funny and anyone who is interested in this issue has a responsibility to educate themselves and everyone they know about how untrue that is. There is less help today than for a long time - the two year waiting period, lack of access to Medicare, lack of access to English, to work opportunities.
People who are accepted as refugees and put on Temporary Protection Visas get no help at all, and they have the threat of being sent back in three years time. They are thrown onto the mercy of previous immigrants from the same community, or onto charity. There is a group called Bridge for Asylum who let you make automatic deductions from your bank account to support people on Bridging Visa Class E, who get no help from the government and who are not allowed to work. They are probably the most desperate.
All we can do about that is educate ourselves and keep saying how clearly false it is to say that refugees are living high on the hog.
There is another group of fears called religious and cultural fears. We still have a media that focuses inappropriately on race when reporting crime. I did not hear anyone say that those boys who bashed the baby in Maroubra were Anglo boys.
We need to be very cautious about the role of schooling. I was saying before about how great schools are. Thirty years ago we had a debate about funding religious schools. For those of us who have always supported a broad-based public education system, as a community we have a right to say we want to put the majority of our resources into schools where there are kids from all sorts of races, religions and backgrounds. Parents, if they have to, can make a choice to isolate their children. But I don't want to support that choice as a legislator. I don't want to make it par for he course that children are divided up at a young age, and go to a school that only reflects their socio-economic background - rich kids to rich schools, poor kids to poor schools - or reflect only one type of religious or cultural experience.
The younger we expose children to one another's culture, views, backgrounds and values, the better it is for all of us in the long run.
Transcript found at: Now We the People's Conference