Democrats show strong support for Muslims Print E-mail
Monday, 02 August 2004


On 16 and 18 June 2004, Senator Bartlett of the Democrats spoke in the Senate about his concerns for the Muslim community in Australia and in relation to the visit by Muslim representatives on the 17 June 2004.


16 July 2004


Senator BARTLETT, (Queensland—Leader of the Australian Democrats) (7.17 p.m.) —Among many issues of concern affecting Australia at the moment from world events is, in my view, a real potential problem with the future strength of multiculturalism. The term `multiculturalism' has been used by some people as a controversial one, so you can use the terms `cultural diversity' or `social dynamism'—I do not really mind. I think there is a potential major problem with the ability of groups in our community to be effective parts of our entire society, to be able to contribute fully and to be able to do so free from discrimination and fear. There is a very real prospect that that danger may appear. We have the real prospect that one of the real strengths of our nation will be compromised unless we address this danger now


There are recent reports on this, and many parliamentarians would have received letters from Islamic groups in Australia concerned about discrimination they believe is targeted towards them and their communities. They say and believe that antiterrorism laws and proposed laws in this country are particularly focused on the Muslim community within Australia. Clearly, the government rejects this and has said that it rejects this. I think we need to hear this very real view, and it is a very real belief and feeling and view of many Muslims within Australia. It is not a brand new feeling. It is something that has grown since September 11 2001, with the implementation of the ASIO legislation and other laws since then, and the activities and the focusing of some Federal Police and ASIO raids on Muslims in Australia. It is a reality that sections of the Muslim community feel targeted. It is not good enough to say, `You are not being targeted.' That is the way they are feeling and they need more than just blithe reassurances saying that it is not the case. If we have such a large number of Muslim organisations saying that this is their view and their feeling, then we have to acknowledge it. They say that only Muslims have been arrested and only organisations linked to Muslims have been prescribed.


These perceptions need to be addressed. In the same way, this government says that immigration laws are not discriminatory and that they are applied equally across the board. The fact is that, in their implementation, there are people from certain countries who are treated differently from people from other countries. People with disabilities are discriminated against and people from certain backgrounds—


Senator McGauran —Not in the law.


Senator Bartlett —It is simply a case of the way it is administered and that is a fact. The government can say that it is non-discriminatory; the fact is that in its implementation it is discriminatory. That is not to say that officers within DIMIA are racist or are deliberately saying, `We will not let you in because of the colour of your skin.' It is saying that the structural implementation and operation of it is such that that is the actual outcome. That is the concern that is being expressed in relation to the structural operation of these laws and it is something that needs to be acknowledged.


You can couple that with some of the actions within the community. We had controversy over the absurd comments of Reverend Fred Nile, for example, in relation to Muslim women wearing particular attire. We had the situation a month or so ago of a female Muslim soccer player who was told she could not play whilst she was wearing a headscarf. I would commend the Victorian Soccer Federation for the way they handled that incident and I believe that it has since been addressed in a constructive way. But it is an example. There was more coverage recently of a Sikh man who was told he was not allowed to wear his turban inside. While these are only a small number of incidents and are easy to brush off as isolated examples, we need to add them together and to hear the message that is coming from the Islamic community. We need to be very aware of and I believe concerned about it. Those sorts of fears very easily become self-perpetuating and self-fulfilling prophecies. It is something we must guard against. We must go out of our way to assuage such fears and prevent them from developing.


To that end I particularly note and praise the joint work of Australia's peak Islamic, Jewish and Christian bodies, who have met together through the Australian National Dialogue of Christians, Muslims and Jews—a joint initiative of the Federation of Islamic Councils, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry and the National Council of Churches—to enhance understanding and to speak out together against discrimination and violence and for greater understanding. That is what we need to do more overtly. It is not enough to say, `Look, it's not discriminatory. You've got it wrong.' We have got to overtly, proactively, positively and strongly increase understanding and awareness and actively express support for different expressions of belief and different ethnic backgrounds.


I say that as someone who is not religious and is not at all keen to see religion inserted into the political debate or into the education system. But it should be something that people are able to not just practise but express. People should be able to be comfortable being who they are within our community. That is something that is at risk. Religion is obviously a key part of and integrally linked to many people's culture and heritage. That diversity is something that makes our nation particularly strong. I think we have done better than almost any other country in the world at having people from such a wide range of diverse backgrounds, cultures, religions and heritage together and not just `tolerating'—to use a word that is a bit of a double-edged sword—but actively embracing and using the value of the unique viewpoints and maximising the positives of each of those viewpoints to bring a greater whole.


We talk about a globalised world and moving into a new century. The one big advantage I think our country has over many others is that long history we have of migration, despite some obvious difficulties along the way. We have done quite well in getting the maximum value out of all those different cultures. I do not want to lose or risk that in any way, for the sake of our whole country as well as for those particular groups within our community who feel fearful and targeted and who fear that they are at risk of unfair laws or laws that give excessive power without adequate scrutiny.


I would point briefly to the recent situation in France, with the passing of legislation that bans the wearing of headscarfs, crosses and overt religious symbols in schools. I do not totally condemn that. France has a very different history; indeed, secularism has been a specific focus and part of their law for nearly 100 years. It is a different situation. Whilst I understand some of the reasons why the French have gone down that path—it is a decision that was made across the political spectrum by people of the Left, the Right and the Centre to go down that path, with very little parliamentary dissent—it is still something that concerns me, because I do think it runs a risk. Whilst I understand the historical reasons why it has been put together to ensure the separation of church and state—and this is from a nation that actually has a very strong religious heritage, more so than Australia, actually, and it also has a larger Muslim community—there are dangers in suppressing open expressions of belief. There are other problems there that needed to be addressed. I understand those in the French context and I am not totally critical of it. There are counter arguments about ensuring that Muslim women or girls who did not want to wear the veil were not being oppressed in schools as well—and this law does only apply in schools and not in other areas.


It is an example of the complexity of the problem. It is an example of a situation that Australia does not want to end up with. We have a situation where we do not need to worry about levels of action or laws to address problems like that, but we have got to be aware of where discrimination might develop and try to get in early and ensure that all parts of our community are able to feel safe and contribute fully for the benefit of all us, not just for that group.




18 July 2004


Senator Bartlett, (Queensland—Leader of the Australian Democrats) (3.57 p.m.) —I would like to speak firstly on the controversy and the legitimate public concern about this government's total failure to follow up its basic responsibilities in ensuring that the coalition forces, which our nation is a part of, follow international law and basic standards. There has been a lot of debate, a lot of statements, a lot of accusations and a lot of dodging and weaving by the government. It is a simple fact; a straightforward issue. It is not really very complicated. The simple matter is that we as a nation, as everybody knows, were part of an invading force in Iraq. That automatically makes us an occupying power and we cannot then cut and run from our responsibilities in being part of an occupying power and ignore our responsibilities to ensure that the forces that we are a part of follow international law. It is a simple thing.


The simple fact is that the Minister for Defence, the Prime Minister and the Minister for Foreign Affairs have all looked the other way and have all failed to follow up repeated indications and reports of problems, with a mindset that it is not their problem. It is their problem; it is their responsibility. That is the simple fact. There is a clear legal responsibility and, more importantly, a moral responsibility on the part of the government—the relevant ministers and the Prime Minister—to follow up reports of mistreatment of prisoners held by coalition forces. That did not happen, and that should be condemned. The Democrats, along with others in this place, will ensure a debate on this matter next week.


The simple fact is that the Minister for Defence has failed in his task. The Democrats believe he should be censured, and together with other parties next week we will ensure that there is a debate to that effect. I live in hope that the minister will finally give a proper explanation. Perhaps the even more extraordinary possibility will happen and he will acknowledge that a mistake has been made and make a commitment to ensure that it does not happen again. Either way, there has been a clear failure on a range of fronts, and it is the Democrats' view that a censure of the minister is appropriate. I expect that a debate around that issue will happen next week.


In the adjournment debate two nights ago I made some comments in relation to the situation facing the Islamic community in Australia. I made what I thought was a very general speech simply reporting the views of some in the Muslim community. As a consequence—as, unfortunately, often happens—Senator McGauran, who is here again tonight, heard one or two sentences and then immediately extrapolated and assumed that he knew what else I was going to say. He stood up and gave a speech responding to what he thought I was going to say rather than what I did say. He completely misrepresented what I said. He totally missed the point and obviously had not listened at all. Given that he is here again, I hope he actually listens this time to the point that I am making. It is simply reporting a fact about the perception amongst many in the Islamic community that they are being specifically targeted as a consequence of laws passed by this place. We have just passed another piece of antiterrorism legislation today. I am simply reporting that fact.


The day after Senator McGauran got up and said, `This is all nonsense; everything's fine,' there was a big piece in the Australian detailing Islamic women in particular and their experiences and perceptions. You cannot just deny them and say, `No, their perceptions are not real or valid.' They are real, and you need to acknowledge and address them. That is the simple point that I am making not just to the government but to all parties in this place. I include the Democrats in that, even though we did not support the passage of the antiterrorism legislation or the ASIO legislation previously. It is incumbent on all of us here as community leaders to make clear statements not just to the Islamic community but also to the Australian community as a whole that the Muslim communities around Australia are valued and valuable parts of our society. They have an important contribution to make. If Senator McGauran does not want to believe my statement, he can look at the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission's report on the Isma project. Coincidentally, it has just appeared this week as well. The Isma project is about listening. I will briefly quote from its executive summary:


The majority of participants—


and over 1,400 Muslim and Arab Australians participated in these consultations—

... reported experiencing ... prejudice because of their race or religion.


These experiences ranged from offensive remarks about race or religion to physical violence.


Participants felt that those most at risk were readily identifiable as Arab or Muslim because of their dress, physical appearance or name. For example, women who wear traditional Islamic dress—

such as the hijab headscarf or veil—

were especially afraid of being abused or attacked.


That is a reality. It is not good enough just to say, `We are not aiming these laws at the Islamic community.' Yesterday—the day after I made my comments on this subject in the adjournment debate—I met with seven representatives from a range of peak Muslim organisations in the ACT, New South Wales and Victoria. They specifically stated their perception. You cannot say that perceptions are wrong. You can say that their understanding or belief about why it is happening may be wrong, but you need to convince them of that. I believe that part of that is making clear statements to the entire Australian community saying that the antiterrorism laws are not targeted at Muslims, that the Muslim communities are valuable parts of our community and that an essential part of why multiculturalism and ethnic diversity is so important to Australia is the value the rest of us get as a community from the contribution of each person and each group of people of different ethnic and religious background and cultural heritage.


The plain statement that these groups were making was that that they believed that the law has been applied in such a way as to be systematically discriminatory against Muslims. For example, one organisation said that all of the 17 organisations proscribed since the act was passed are linked with Muslims, whereas in the United States only 22 of the 37 proscribed organisations are linked with Muslims. The other example given is that many in the Muslim community believe that they are seen and portrayed as the enemy or as people to be viewed with suspicion. We need to counter those perceptions and views. They are saying that the legislation and the actions that have happened since then have led to a feeling of paranoia and fear permeating their communities. Of course they are not asserting that every is a law-abiding citizen. As in any community there are some who are involved in criminal activities. But the legislation should not be seen to be targeted specifically at them. That is very important.


I believe that the key thing to be emphasised, even for those who believe such laws are necessary—and I am one of those who are still not convinced that we need the extra powers; I think we still need to do more to make sure that the existing powers are being used appropriately—is that, whatever powers we give to agencies like ASIO, there is still an issue of how they are implemented. We all want all powers to be exercised appropriately and fairly, but in a way that is as effective as possible against potential terrorism. They are going to be far more effective if people such as those in Muslim communities are of a mindset where they feel that they can cooperate with groups like ASIO and the Federal Police rather than fear them. The very small number of people who do need to be focused on are far more likely to provide information to highlight areas where there may be concerns if there are good links with the Muslim community and they feel connected with the rest of society rather than fearful of it. So, from the point of view of getting maximum productivity out of the existing laws and ensuring that groups like ASIO can work effectively, we need to counter this fear, apprehension and suspicion. Unless we do that not only are we as a whole community missing out on the value that Muslims can bring to Australia but also the laws will be less effective. (Time expired)


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