Discrimination, Equality, Multiculturalism


Peter Khalil: Our democracy is based on a fundamental principle of equality before the law, regardless of one’s faith, race, ethnicity or gender. Indeed, it should be regardless of one’s postcode as well. That is an important principle. It’s not one that is actually practised in most countries in the world. And I think it’s been the basis for our multicultural model, which has been a spectacular success over the decades. We’ve had our difficulties with race and ethnicity, yes. But it has been a successful model—similar, obviously, to other new world models, like the US’s melting pot and others, but unique in the sense that Australians can be Australian and feel Australian, regardless of their background. Also, they don’t have to choose between their identities. They can be proud of their Irish heritage, or their Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Egyptian, Lebanese, Italian or Greek heritage. Wherever they’ve come from in the world, they don’t have to choose between that identity or heritage and being Australian.

In fact, being Australian is being multicultural, in many senses. We’ve all come from somewhere else. Unless you’re an Indigenous Australian, you’ve migrated to this country. It might have been many generations ago or it might have been a month ago. That’s an important point. And it works because we embrace that diversity as a strength of our nation, not just tolerate it. Growing up, I had a lot of trouble with my identity. I had a big question mark about whether I was actually fitting in, whether I was an Australian, because I used to get told, ‘Go back to where you came from,’ or ‘Piss off, you wog.’ That is probably unparliamentary, but it happened—and much worse. So I questioned my own identity. Was I an Australian? Did I belong here? But I came to understand that, yes, I am Australian, because we are part of that multicultural story. We’ve all migrated to this country and made it what it is. I’ve experienced hate speech. I’ve experienced the vilification that we’re talking about today. It does have an impact on you. It changes you. And it hurts.

I know there’s a lot of debate about the law having normative change that leads to cultural change, but in this country there have been many instances where the parliament has led the way with changes in laws that have had a normative change, which have led to cultural change and acceptance of others. It may not have been popular at the time of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975. I’ll use an even earlier example: female suffrage, which was one of the foundations, during 1901, when we became a nation. It was agreed upon by all, but it probably wasn’t very popular at the time. Unfortunately what we remember too is that the main part of that law was the White Australia policy, but female suffrage was part of it as well, the start of our Commonwealth. So the law can have an impact in changing culture and cultural attitudes, and in shifting attitudes, cultural change and acceptance.

Free speech has never been absolutely free. There are exceptions. There’s defamation. There are laws that restrict free speech. We should be entitled to say and articulate and have freedom of expression in this country, but there are limitations on that free speech. You can’t just shout ‘Fire!’ in a theatre and get away with it. That’s a famous legal case. And there are other exceptions. The law has, in the past, through this parliament and other state parliaments, sought to adjust and provide certain exceptions and restrictions around the way that we exercise that free speech, because with it comes an obligation as well as a right. That’s an important point that we have to remember.

In many respects, this motion goes to the heart of this point. I know there’s a debate we’re having about how far free speech can go and how far we can regulate behaviour, attitudes and so on, but let me tell you this. It is very true, at least from my experience, that when faced with the kind of deep-seated hatred based on my ethnicity—and I went through many of these examples growing up—if there had been laws that restricted people from doing that, it would have changed a lot. I am thankful that there was the foresight in several parliaments to put forward and pass the Racial Discrimination Act and other laws that made Australia a better, more egalitarian country.