Wills Electorate: Migrants of Australia


Peter Khalil: I would like to use this opportunity to speak to the migrants in my electorate of Wills. There are so many migrants that have settled in my part of the world, in the northern suburbs of Melbourne. So many in my electorate have come recently from India, Nepal, Bangladesh or Pakistan, but there are also older migrants, who have been there for many, many decades, from Greece, Italy and Lebanon. Some of the newer migrants have come from those countries as well. Tonight I really want to say that I understand many of the challenges that they face in becoming new Australians and being new to Australia as well, because I too come from a migrant background.

My parents came to this country from Egypt some 48 years ago. Similarly to many who come today, my parents were escaping a region where conflict was the norm and there were very limited opportunities for people there. Like millions of other migrants who have come to Australia, they’ve sacrificed greatly and helped build Australia to be the wonderful country it is today. They came here for a better life, frankly. They wanted a better life for themselves and, more importantly, for their children. My parents did that for my sister and I. We grew up in a Housing Commission place in inner-city Melbourne. It was a bit difficult growing up in the seventies and eighties in Australia. It was quite tough for my family. It was tough from a socioeconomic point of view, and I think it would be fair to say it was tough for hundreds of thousands of migrants who were starting out in those decades. Australia was a different place back then.

My parents worked very hard. My dad had to give up a career as a lawyer in Egypt. He ended up working at Australia Post. My mum couldn’t finish her university degree in Egypt, and she ended up working at the Reserve Bank printing factory as a translator and interpreter. But my parents, like so many other migrant families that have come to this country, did really benefit from the policies of successive Labor governments, from the Whitlam Labor government through to the Hawke and Keating Labor governments. We had access to affordable housing, universal health care and education. Education in particular was, and is, so important to migrants. It’s important to my family and the millions of others who’ve come to this country, because it really is the key that opens up the door to opportunity. It opens up so much opportunity. More than that, something that was instilled in me growing up was that education is critically important to our future. And it was good government policy that gave us access to that education. We’re not a unique story, my family. Millions of Australians have been given opportunities, through policies based on fairness, to contribute to this country on their merit and through their hard work.

There’s another important thing that, as migrants, my parents understood, and that was the importance of giving something back to Australia, giving back to a country that had given us so much opportunity. They often said to me: ‘Australia’s not the lucky country. You hear that all the time, but we’re actually the lucky ones, to be Australian.’ I think that’s true.

I have to say, I’m a Labor MP today because of those policies—the access that we had to affordable housing and to health care, and the access I had to education so that, within a generation, I could make my contribution to Australia as well. There is a real commitment to equality of opportunity. That’s something we talk about a lot. It’s equality of opportunity regardless of one’s race, one’s ethnicity or one’s gender, and it’s not just a three-word slogan; it’s real. Bob Hawke, one of our great prime ministers, stood up to enormous pressure in the eighties to limit migration based on race. Paul Keating gave us a vision of our place in Asia. In so many respects, those Labor governments gave migrants opportunities to build their lives in this country.

Of course, government policies don’t always guarantee things won’t be difficult. There are always going to be great challenges for new migrants to this country. There will be times when my constituents, the new migrants in my electorate, will, like we did, face great hardship and some ugly prejudice as well. Many migrants still face those disadvantages today. There is a temptation to give in to that hatred and anger when you’re faced with ignorance and racism, particularly when you’re a kid or a teenager, and I admit sometimes I gave in. There were many times when I directly experienced prejudice and racial abuse. I got into lots of fights. I’m a bit ashamed to say that. But I think overall, apart from those few occasions when I got into a few dust-ups, I did try to refuse to give in to that mentality that I was a victim.

Australia, of course, has changed greatly from the seventies and eighties, when I grew up. Back then, racism was far more overt and institutionalised. It was kind of a common thing back then. It was kind of normalised. But our country has evolved. Our laws and our institutions have reformed, I think, very much for the better, and our cultural sensitivity has developed. It’s not just about laws; it’s also about a better understanding of common decency to our fellow human beings and understanding that you don’t judge people based on their ethnicity, their race, their skin colour or their gender; you judge people based on the content of their character and what they say and do in life. But that doesn’t mean, of course, that today we don’t still face challenges. Prejudice still does exist. There are inherent biases that put up obstacles to equity and access for people of diverse backgrounds and for women. That does exist today, and we are fighting that battle for equity, access and equality every day.

Beyond that, I’m conscious too—particularly for the constituents in my electorate, including migrants—of the fact that we’re in a time when political discourse, frankly, has become quite vociferous and vitriolic. We’ve seen the rise of the far right in Europe. We’ve seen a kind of nativist populism and a transactional foreign policy in the Trump administration. We’ve seen those far right movements in our own country where people are demonised because of their background. African Australians, Muslims and people from the Middle East particularly tend to be used as political footballs. They’re exploited for short-term political gain. Again, unfortunately, as it was decades ago, race has been used to stoke fear, anger and discontent amongst the populace. That political manipulation of anger and resentment is heading us onto a path leading to the extremities of politics. The far right seeks to demonise our diverse community by not treating its members as individuals but scapegoating an entire ethnicity. This is probably best seen, for example, in laying the blame for rises in crime solely on an ethnic group, particularly Africans in Victoria, and using that to stoke fear. I’m cognisant of my responsibility as a political leader to highlight the many successes of that migrant community, because we know that African Australians have made great contributions to this country and have bequeathed so much culture and contribution to Australia as they’ve made their way, like many other migrant groups in this country.

We are a very diverse culture. The debate around multiculturalism has been won. It has been had and it has been won. We are a diverse nation. We come from all over the world. So the great sadness of this kind of political discourse is that it’s fighting a battle that’s already been won. We cannot go backwards in time. We’re a country that celebrates our diversity, but I think it’s important to say the reason our multicultural model works is that in Australia you don’t have to choose between your identities. You can be proud to be someone of Egyptian background like me. By the way, I’ve checked with the embassy! I know that was a while ago, but many of us were caught up in that. I was born in Australia. Indeed, those of us who are migrants and still have that connection are the ones that checked the most often, I think, because identity was always an issue that we had to—

An honourable member interjecting—

Peter Khalil: Yes, the ones from the UK didn’t bother checking. But identity has always been an issue for us. But it’s about that identity. Being Australian has nothing to do with your race, your ethnicity or your gender. It has everything to do with embracing democracy, democratic values and equality before the law, regardless of those identity markers, and embracing what I think is a quintessential Australian value: the fair go for all.