10 September 2015

On Monday we marked two years since the election of the Abbott government. That night, the Prime Minister declared 'a good government is one that governs for all Australians'.

Such promising statements are not uncommon from members opposite yet the only true test of a government's performance is its leadership, not merely its salesmanship. So let us compare this government's rhetoric to its record.

Whilst this government may boast it 'is building and maintaining a prosperous and cohesive multicultural nation', it is appalling record shows otherwise.

After two years in office the Abbott government has not moved to articulate a clear policy on multiculturalism whilst simultaneously cutting $33 million from programs and organisations that are actively working to promote an inclusive and harmonious society.

It has also slashed funding to the SBS, breaking an explicit promise by the then opposition leader the night before the election that there would be no cuts to the SBS.

It tried to deny migrants the chance to be reunited with their loved ones through the attempted abolition of the non-contributory visa and other family visa categories.

Far from deterring this government, such contradictions seem to only embolden its determination to say one thing and then do the exact opposite. This was personified on 24 February of this year when the Prime Minister incredulously stated:

“I think it is important that we indicate; as a government, as a community, as a legal system that there is no place for inciting racial and religious vilification in our society.”

If this is the case then why did he launch a nonsensical attack on section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act seeking to explicitly permit racial vilification and intimidation 'in the course of participating in the public discussion'?

In attempting to sell these ridiculous proposed amendments to the act, the Attorney-General also found it appropriate to defend the rights of 'bigots' and belittle the effect racial vilification has on an individual's personal identity and to our cohesion as a multicultural society as merely 'hurt feelings'.

Despite the Prime Minister's assurances that any watering down of Section 18C is off the table, we still see certain coalition members pushing for protections against racist hate speech to be weakened with a bill in the Senate.

Let us look at the Prime Minister's statement from September 26 last year.

“I am determined to do everything I can to promote national unity and I'm also determined to do everything I reasonably can to crack down on the preachers of hate.”

Well whilst the Prime Minister has determined to ban certain ministers from appearing on an ABC panel show, he has outright refused to ban, or even condemn, members of his Government from addressing Reclaim Australia rallies—rallies which Australia's Race Discrimination Commissioner, Dr Tim Soutphommasane, has correctly noted are 'organised racist movements … [where] people sporting Nazi tattoos and other insignia have been openly parading their extremist sympathies... and peddling messages of fear, hatred and division'.

Furthermore, during the last election campaign the Prime Minister vowed:

“… an incoming coalition cabinet...will never seek to divide Australian against Australian.”

Yet members of his government have done just that, embarking on a duplicitous and inflammatory campaign which seeks to stereotype and amplify negative attitudes so that it grossly distorts the reality of our cultural diversity.

Case in point: Senator Bernardi's assertion that halal certification processes are a 'racket which have been used to fund organisations linked to proscribed extremist organisations'.

Let us be clear, these actions are not simply controversial, but, rather, they are an attempt by certain members of government, with all the influence it entails, to give legitimacy to the repugnant concept of discriminating amongst our citizens according to their race, colour and creed. Even the Minister for Agriculture has rightly labelled this ridiculous campaign as 'unnecessary heat' and noted the 'quite devastating' impact this bullying campaign could have on 'thousands of meat workers in Australia' which could see the price of beef triple and the sector becoming unviable.

Rather than condemn such overt discrimination, however, the Prime Minister found it appropriate to marginalise Muslim-Australians by stating:

“I've often heard Western leaders describe Islam as 'a religion of peace'. I wish more Muslim leaders would say that more often and mean it.”

Perhaps the Prime Minister could seek advice from the former ASIO director-general David Irvine, who was moved to note in a speech last year:

“In my experience the overall leadership of the community of Muslim Australians in dealing with these issues … has been outstanding. In this sense, the Australian Muslim community has made, and will continue to make, its own valuable contributions to our national character, our national livelihood, our national security and to our national cohesion.”

The government also sought to impose segregation on certain members of the public visiting Parliament House, by forcing women wearing head and facial coverings to sit in glassed enclosures rather than the public galleries—one of the most nonsensical episodes in the history of this parliament.

No individual should ever be deemed a greater or lesser Australian because of their culture or beliefs. No government should make it harder for citizens to feel safe and welcome in the Australian community.

At a time when recent findings from the Scanlon Foundation reveal worrying trends in our migrant communities - including increased levels of discrimination and a reduced sense of belonging – our Government should be doing all it can to carry on the great legacy of Australia’s multiculturalism – a nation that recognises and gives voice to its cultural riches and where every citizen, regardless of their background, can enjoy equality of opportunity.