STATEMENTS BY SENATORS - Multiculturalism

I rise to make a statement in response to the Senate report from the Select Committee on Strengthening Multiculturalism which was tabled late in the last session of the Senate. I would like to commend the committee for their work on this critical issue, especially acknowledge the hard work of Senator Di Natale and give thanks to all of those who made submissions and gave evidence to the committee.

Multiculturalism should be something that we celebrate in this country and in this place. It should not be seen as something extra or bolted onto any imaginary or existing Australian monoculture. Australian culture is woven with a rich and unique diversity of many cultures, which began and continues with the first peoples of this nation, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Our many and diverse Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations are the epitome of multiculturalism—human beings of diverse cultures centred on saltwater country, river country and desert country. Historically across Australia, Indigenous people were strongly multicultural, interconnected by sophisticated kinship protocols, responsibilities and relationships that transcended geographical boundaries and linguistic boundaries. Multiculturalism was our norm. Our society centred on law, language and land. Today, the many cultures living together in Australia are contributing to this modern nation and its rich tapestry. This, I hope, is how we understand multiculturalism—with respect and acceptance for our cultural diversity, our differences and our common humanity.

The committee report directs attention to the issues of cultures as opposed to the concept of race. The question of race is a concept and term that is widely used in parliamentary language and legislation and in the construction of entities with 'race' as part of their name. The consequence of 'race', however, is not necessarily as straightforward as it is often assumed. We know that the use of the term 'race' has the capacity to reinforce negative perceptions of others from different cultures. We know that 'race' is the branding iron to impart deliberative differences, followed by the whip crack of racism. Fundamentally, it is used to entrench power, position and dominance over other human beings of difference and to deem them as inferior.

The physically encoded and outmoded sense of race was the basis of forced social change, assimilation policies and, indeed, belief in biogenetics. As a consequence, Indigenous families were regimented, ordered and controlled by government officials and functionaries on the basis of race. My father, a so-called white man, was imprisoned for the crime of loving my mother, a so-called half-caste, on the basis of race. In April 1934, in Old Parliament House, there was a meeting of administrators of Aboriginal affairs called the conference of Commonwealth and state Aboriginal authorities. They agreed to a national policy accord that said:

… this Conference believes that the destiny of the natives of aboriginal origin, but not of the full blood, lies in their ultimate absorption by the people of the Commonwealth, and it therefore recommends that all efforts be directed to that end.

This was a chilling genocidal moment of great consequence for my family, for the first-nation peoples of this nation and, certainly, for our nation itself. The notion of race that underpinned the policy thinking of that meeting drove the bureaucratic, civil and criminal regimes of the time. It is responsible for taking children away and the stolen generations. It lingers on in today's encounters between the first-nation peoples and elements of the settler society, despite it being no longer official policy.

Social science tells us that minor biological diversities of skin colour, hair type and eye shape are not a significant marker of difference. Those differences may be socially regarded as significant, but, in biological terms, they are irrelevant. There is much more that unites us as members of the human species than might be seen as dividing us. We're all members of the human race. It is the nature and manner of our social and cultural conditioning that inhibits our tolerance and respect. We should be shifting away from the use of the term 'race', especially in this place. This will take time, as it is embedded in many pieces of legislation. However, this matter ought to be seriously considered by us all.

In this committee report, the Australian Labor Party recalls the fact that, in the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples' first report to parliament, the committee proposed the removal of sections 51(xxvi) and section 25 of the Australian Constitution because of their reliance on 'race'. Section 51(xxvi) is relied upon by this parliament to do positive or negative things to the first-nations people by way of legislation and policy. The joint select committee, at the time chaired by Senator Nova Peris, as she was, and Mr Ken Wyatt, described the term 'race' as an 18th century concept. They advised that the embedded racist thinking that governs the construction of these clauses in the Constitution should be removed.

We must work to change this. Our ongoing support for multiculturalism in a global society requires this of us. The acknowledgement and fostering of cultures as opposed to race induces a shift in our language that is inclusive of all, supportive of personal identity and pride and engendering a sense of belonging to this wonderful nation. There is no place in Australia for racism. As time goes on, as Australians we may mature to see that there is no place in Australia for the concept of race itself.

In this place, unfortunately, we have seen in recent sittings the sharp whistle go out to the dogs of racism in this country. We have seen the cultural practice of some of our Australian cultures being parodied and insulted. Cultural identity should not be mocked with superficiality and simplicity. Respect and understanding have much more to offer to our already rich diversity. In my own family's life, encounters with such racist intolerance based on race has, in fact, caused division, entrenched inferiority and turned what would be normally sustainable and beautiful relationships into things of terror and fear, with the dominance of authority based on eugenics over our lives.

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