Shayne Neumann MP
Federal Member for Blair

Australian Labor
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POLITICS & FAITH: RECONCILIATION, RACE & REFUGEES

01/10/2016

Speech to the Australasian Christian Legal Convention

I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

I would also like to acknowledge my friend and former business partner, Mark Fowler for inviting me along today and Paul Holdway for the introduction.

I know there are a number of leaders of the Christian community here this morning from Australia, New Zealand and other countries. 

I would also like to acknowledge all of you, as leaders in law and your Church, your community and your faith.  I’ve attended these Conventions before in my previous occupation as a lawyer.

I note the theme of this conference “redeeming the law for the kingdom of God” and it is an honour to be asked to speak at the Australasian Christian Legal Convention about politics and faith, and how they impact on the issues of reconciliation, racial discrimination and refugees.

Politics, like business and the law, is filled by people possessed with good intentions. 

Political parties may disagree on the best way to do things, but I believe that no one goes into politics intending to make life harder for those whom they represent.

It would be fair to say that in politics, we’re faced with situations testing those good intentions.  Recent public debates on policy including issues of conscience are examples of this.

As a Shadow Minister in the Federal Labor Opposition, I’m responsible for holding the Turnbull Government to account for the decisions made. But I must also contribute to the national discussion, support good ideas and propose alternatives for the betterment of Australians.

In Opposition, I have been responsible for the areas of Indigenous Affairs, Ageing, Northern Australia and now Immigration and Border Protection. 

Before I became a politician, I was a lawyer specialising in family law with particular focus on child protection. I worked as a Partner at Neumann and Turnour Lawyers in the Brisbane CBD. Some of my former business partners are in this room.

No one can practice law without knowing (or indeed learning) a thing or two about compassion, justice and sacrifice.

As a lawyer, I subscribed to the core statement of values summed up by Micah 6:8 What does the Lord require of you?  To act justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.

It’s a simple, often over-quoted Bible verse, but its simplicity belies its profundity.

Imagine Governments dedicated to justice, defined by mercy, and where the leaders demonstrated humility.

Some may say that the work we do as elected representatives often contradicts our faith, but I argue that for those who believe, faith should be the compass – that we must act justly, humbly and with mercy.

Today I would like to talk about three current political issues that should be matters of interest for people of faith and the law.

Reconciliation with our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; the current racial discrimination debate about 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act and Refugees and the role Australia can play as a compassionate nation.

Reconciliation

Australia has a long history of institutionalised discrimination and marginalisation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

As a nation, we need to be truthful about the telling of our history.

And the truthful telling of our history must acknowledge more than 200 years of dispossession of land, the destruction of cultures and languages and the entrenched disadvantage of the First Peoples of this land.

We have made significant strides in the journey towards reconciliation but there is much more to do.

Australians gave overwhelming support in the 1967 referendum to allow the Commonwealth power to pass laws for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and to include them in the census.

We all remember the poignant moment in Australia’s reconciliation journey, when Prime Minister Gough Whitlam poured sand through Vincent Lingiari’s fingers, handing the Wave Hill Station back to the Gurindji people.

There was the High Court’s historic Mabo decision and Native Title; the end to the fiction of terra nullius and the recognition of prior traditional ownership. 

In 2008 the then Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, said the words that many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had been waiting their whole lives to hear in respect of the Stolen Generations.

He said “sorry”.

The National Apology was necessary for healing and it was long overdue.

But reconciliation doesn’t stop with sorry.

We have a responsibility to learn about and from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples concerning their cultures and histories.

Only through understanding will we continue to build the respectful relationship that underpins our efforts to achieve a truly reconciled nation.

The overwhelming majority of Australians believe that racism has no place in 21st century Australia.

And yet, there is racism in our founding document.

The Constitution does not recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first occupants of this continent.

It doesn’t acknowledge their special and ongoing connection to traditional lands and waters, and has no mention of their cultures, languages and histories.

I’ve travelled our country as the former Shadow Minister for Indigenous Affairs, and in those travels, I found strong support for change in the Constitution.

I was a member of the Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Recognition whose reports enjoyed multi-partisan support and consensus from Liberal, Labor, National and the Greens: all agreeing that the Expert Panel got it right with its recommendations.

The Expert Panel and the Joint Select Committee both recommended a constitutional prohibition against racism.

The Expert Panel, led by now WA Labor Senator, then Professor Patrick Dodson and distinguished lawyer Mark Leibler, recommended that constitutional change must be substantive and meaningful.

It must get rid of racist provisions such as section 25, which contemplates that the States may exclude people from voting on the basis of their race.

It must retain the integrity and purpose of the 1967 referendum result.

The Commonwealth must retain the capability to make laws for the benefit of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

It must recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; their prior occupation and continuing relationship with land and waters; their cultures, languages and heritage.

Change should address the challenges of racism and racial discrimination experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.  

Racial discrimination remains an important and challenging issue for our nation.

In the context of constitutional recognition, it’s a difficult discussion to have.

I know the role churches played in the 1967 referendum. 

There were a lot of people in clerical garb and in the laity advocating for constitutional change. 

It was a cathartic moment in Australia’s history but also a poignant moment in the Church’s story.

We need your help again.

Constitutional recognition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is the right thing to do.  It goes hand in glove with one of the greatest Christian principles, loving your neighbour as you love yourself.

We should pursue Constitutional recognition because it is fair, just and necessary to not only eliminate racism from our hearts, but also our laws.

Racial Discrimination

Racism in all forms has no place in Australian society.

There has been a lot of alarmist speech about freedom and the need to make changes to 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

Let’s look at what 18C actually says.

18C Offensive behaviour because of race, colour or national or ethnic origin

(1) It is unlawful for a person to do an act, otherwise than in private, if:

(a) the act is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people; and

(b) the act is done because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin of the other person or of some or all of the people in the group.

It is interesting that people who have a barrow to push about personal freedoms often seem to forget about 18D of the Racial Discrimination Act which says:

18D Exemptions

Section 18C does not render unlawful anything said or done reasonably and in good faith:

(a) in the performance, exhibition or distribution of an artistic work; or

(b) in the course of any statement, publication, discussion or debate made or held for any genuine academic, artistic or scientific purpose or any other genuine purpose in the public interest; or

(c) in making or publishing:

(i) a fair and accurate report of any event or matter of public interest; or

(ii) a fair comment on any event or matter of public interest if the comment is an expression of a genuine belief held by the person making the comment.

I can appreciate the enormity of the Jewish and Muslim communities coming together on any issue, and I have been heartened to see their firm joint opposition to any changes to the Racial Discrimination Act which would water down protections from hate speech.

The opposition has come in quick and fast from people of all faiths and backgrounds, Christian and Catholic, Muslim and Jew, third generation Australians, recent migrants and refugees – they have all stood as one against changes to the Racial Discrimination Act.

As men and women of faith and as lawyers you know that words have meanings. 

The Executive Council of Australian Jewry put it best when they said, “acts of violence begin with words.”

Under questioning, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has refused to rule out changes to 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, saying that it is not a priority for his Government.

But protecting 18C is certainly a priority for those people who have experienced offence, insults, humiliation or intimidation based on their race, colour, nationality or ethnic origin.

In 2014, the National Congress of Australia’s First People wrote:

“Congress is concerned that a change to these provisions would send a signal that racism is acceptable. 

We cannot justify racial vilification as a freedom. 

The actual harm caused by racial vilification should not be dismissed. 

Belonging to a group which is racially vilified in public can undermine and ultimately destroy the sense of safety and security with which members of the group go about their daily lives.”

At the same time, Attorney-General George Brandis went on the defence and proclaimed that “people do have a right to be bigots.”

It is concerning that SA Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi has tabled a Private Members Bill to water down 18C protections from the Racial Discrimination Act with the support of every Coalition member in the Senate and some crossbenchers. 

In 2014, when he scrapped Coalition plans to support changes to 18C, then Prime Minister Tony Abbott said “I don’t want to do anything that puts our national unity at risk at this time and so these proposals are now off the table.”

To be clear, changes to the Racial Discrimination Act should never have been on the table, but in what he described as a leadership call, Tony Abbott said “In the end, leadership is about preserving national unity on the essentials and that is why I have taken this decision.”

It is essential to our national unity, our national cohesion and our national story that we do not remove legal protections.

Refugees

I turn now to the third issue and an issue I deal with each day: refugees.

The definition of a refugee is defined in 5H of the Migration Act.

5H Meaning of refugee

(1) For the purposes of the application of this Act and the regulations to a particular person in Australia, the person is a refugee if the person:

(a) in a case where the person has a nationality—is outside the country of his or her nationality and, owing to a well-founded fear of persecution, is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of that country; or

(b) in a case where the person does not have a nationality—is outside the country of his or her former habitual residence and owing to a well-founded fear of persecution, is unable or unwilling to return to it.

A well-founded fear of persecution is defined on 5J of the Migration Act.

5J Meaning of well-founded fear of persecution

(1) For the purposes of the application of this Act and the regulations to a particular person, the person has a well-founded fear of persecution if:

(a) the person fears being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion; and

(b) there is a real chance that, if the person returned to the receiving country, the person would be persecuted for one or more of the reasons mentioned in paragraph (a); and

(c) the real chance of persecution relates to all areas of a receiving country.

Australia’s story is one of multiculturalism and migration.

As a nation we have resettled 7.5 million migrants since World War II.  A considerable number of whom have been refugees from conflicts and wars in their countries.  

Migrants are contributing to the growth of our nation.  They run businesses, their children are in our schools and their cultures have enriched our society.

As Shadow Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, I’m responsible for holding the government to account on border protection, the processing of visas, management of Australian funded offshore detention centres and the treatment of people seeking asylum.

It is in these matters that our good intentions can be tested.

I respect the Australian Border Force and the job they do. 

I’ve found Border Force staff to be dedicated, diligent and compassionate people – they have to be because for many they are the first impression of Australia – working at our international airports, our ports and our cargo holds.

They take their jobs seriously and they work day-in, day-out on the front line of our country.

I know current asylum seeker and refugee policy is unpopular in some circles.

I’m acutely aware of the criticisms. 

Labor is committed to a combination of measures that include offshore processing, regional resettlement and turning back boats when it is safe to do so; because we can prevent people smugglers from exploiting vulnerable people.

Because we know this combination of measures saves lives at sea. 

In this respect we support the Turnbull Government.

Australia should be strong on border protection, but deep in compassion also.

Labor does not believe that people should be allowed to languish in indefinite offshore detention on Manus Island and Nauru.

Labor firmly believes that people living in Australian funded offshore detention centres should have access to appropriate healthcare, education and their claims for asylum should be processed in an orderly and efficient way.

There should be transparency in the processing of asylum seeker claims.

Labor took to the recent election a policy which would increase Australia’s annual humanitarian intake to 27,000 people by 2025, up from 13,750 annually; we would establish an Independent Children’s advocate to protect the interests of unaccompanied minors; we would support mandatory reporting of abuse allegations.

When it comes to resettlement there is scope to be compassionate. 

The Bible is full of stories and warnings about the need to be compassionate towards those less fortunate and to foreigners.  The Parable of the Good Samaritan is one such story.  I note the warning given to the Israelites in ancient days.

Leviticus 19:33 “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall do him no wrong.”

Leviticus 19:34: “You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I am your Lord your God.”

The Turnbull Government has been failing people in offshore detention by not finding a third country or countries in which to settle these people. 

We need to get people off Manus Island and Nauru and resettled in durable third countries.

Australia needs to resolve the future of these people.

I have met many people in my electorate and elsewhere who have come here by boat in an irregular maritime way.

Last week I had the opportunity to meet another family who came to Australia by boat. 

We talked about their experiences on Christmas Island and Nauru.  We talked about how indefinite detention had impacted on their lives.

Labor has initiated a Senate Inquiry to investigate serious allegations of abuse, self-harm and neglect outlined in “the Nauru files” as reported by The Guardian Australia.

Without a doubt, the Nauru files represents the largest leak of documents detailing the reporting of and responses to allegations of mistreatment of individuals residing in offshore detention centres.

Like many Australians, Labor was concerned by the contents of those reports and we moved quickly to ensure these allegations would be investigated.

The Senate Inquiry will look at how notifications of self-harm are investigated, the factors that have contributed to abuse and self-harm where this is found to have occurred and the support services offered to those people.

The Inquiry will be asked to specifically give consideration to the role an independent children’s advocate could play in protecting the rights and interests of unaccompanied minors.

The Inquiry will investigate the Government’s attempts to negotiate third country resettlement of asylum seekers and refugees and any additional measures that could be implemented to expedite third country resettlement.

The Senate Inquiry has a deadline to report back to Parliament by the last sitting day in March 2017.

We must do better in this country on these matters.

Last week, the Prime Minister and Immigration Minister flew to New York to attend the UN and President Obama’s Leaders’ Summit on Refugees.

They failed to announce third country resettlement options or a genuine increase in Australia’s annual humanitarian intake.

They merely re-announced existing Coalition policy.

There are 65.3 million displaced persons in the world according to the UNHCR.  We can do more and should do more.

In conclusion, I come back to the first principles I outlined at the beginning, to Micah 6:8 What does the Lord require of you?  To act justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.

I hope this conference challenges you in your thinking, your faith and your law practice.  I’m confident you will renew old acquaintances and make new friends.

Thank you for inviting me to speak at your conference.  I appreciate the opportunity to talk about just a few of the issues that challenge all parties and to offer some of my thoughts in these areas.