KEYNOTE ADDRESS TO THE FECCA 2019 NATIONAL BIENNIAL CONFERENCE GALA DINNER - HOBART

10 October 2019

I acknowledge the traditional owners on the land on which we meet, and pay my respects to elders, past and emerging.

Australia is a proud multicultural nation, built on migration – but we must never forget that this country is home to the oldest cultures in the world.

This always was, and always will be, Aboriginal land.

I am honoured to be speaking at tonight’s Gala dinner and thank both FECCA and the Multicultural Council of Tasmania for organising this event – and for inviting me here.

I’d like to acknowledge:
        • Ms Mary Patetsos – FECCA Chairperson;
        • FECCA CEO – Mohammad Al-Khafaji;
        • Multicultural Council of Tasmania Chairperson – Mr Waqas Durrani;
        • Palawa Elder – Mr Rodney Dillon;
        • Liberal Senator for Tasmania – Eric Abetz;
        • Tasmania’s Minister for Communities – the Honourable Roger Jaensch MP;
        • SBS managing director – Mr James Taylor;
        • From SBS and our MC – Anton Enus;
        • Comedian Nazeem Hussain;
        • And most importantly every single community leader, stakeholder, representative, supporter, friend, family member or neighbour in this room.
I’m a Labor Senator for New South Wales and the Shadow Minister for Home Affairs and the Shadow Minister for Immigration and Citizenship.

As I assume you know – in case the accent wasn’t a giveaway – I myself am a migrant.

Last month marked 25 years since I left Toledo, Ohio and arrived in Australia as a permanent resident, on a skilled visa.

I applied for permanent residency through the old point system and back then it was pretty straightforward.
 
I filled out a few forms, documented my entire life, wrote a cheque for $450, and sent it off to the Embassy in Washington, DC.
 
I was granted permanent residency based on that.

I moved to Australia in 1994 after meeting my now-husband Ben at World Youth Day in Poland in 1991.

Australia is also where my American grandfather met his wife – a war bride; my grandmother – in Brisbane during World War II.

Migration is integral to my life story.
 
It is the story of so many in this room and it is, indeed, the story of Australia.

In 2016, almost half (49 per cent) of all Australians were either born overseas or had a parent born overseas.

Some three years later, I hazard a guess that this has surpassed 50 per cent by now.

In 2016, more than a quarter – 28 per cent – of Australians were born overseas.

You only have to look to the new mobile-first website from SBS to grasp how diverse Australia truly is.

The site, available in 68 languages, is targeted at multicultural Australians who want to access news and content in their first language.

According to the OECD, Australia is considered one of the most attractive countries for highly skilled migrants to call home – particularly given our way of life and the opportunities available here.

Migrants build, they contribute – they’re entrepreneurial and they’re resilient.
 
You don’t need me to tell you this – because you are those very people or, at the very least, you interact with them every day.

Multiculturalism and the contribution of migrants is one of Australia’s greatest strengths.

Regrettably, this strength is facing new threats in this modern era.

I want to address these because we cannot be ignorant; we must be vigilant.


We have seen these threats on the rise in other countries – particularly the likes of Hungary, Italy and Greece – and we are seeing them in Australia.

Indian-born – now New York based – Professor of Journalism at New York University Suketu Mehta unpacks the rising fear of migration in his recent book This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant's Manifesto.

He says-
“Where does this fear and loathing of migrants come from? It didn’t start with the yobs on the street, the skinheads marching in leather, the torch-bearing white supremacists. The hatred has been manufactured.”

The manufacturing of hatred has happened in various ways – through purposeful language of political leaders to the proliferation of fake news on Facebook.

Mehta says of Facebook-
“The social network aids the dissemination of rumours, such as that all refugees are welfare cheats or rapists; and, unmediated by gatekeepers or editors, the rumours spread, and ordinary people are roused to violence.”

He cites research by the University of Warwick in England which recently studied every anti-refugee attack in Germany– a staggering 3,335 over two years.
 
Wherever Facebook usage rose to one standard deviation above normal, the researchers found, attacks on refugees increased by 50 per cent.
 
When there were internet outages in areas with high Facebook usage, the attacks dropped significantly.

This is just one of the covert ways a fear of migrants and migration has the potential to undermine one of our biggest national strengths.

A recent survey found that 82 per cent of Asian-Australians have experienced discrimination, along with 81 per cent of Australians of Middle Eastern background and even 71 per cent of Indigenous Australians.

This discrimination damages individual lives, and it diminishes all of us.

From these covert undercurrents – we are facing overt displays of nationalistic sentiment.

This year alone, Australia had a former Prime Minister address crowds in Hungary and declare that migrants were “swarming across borders” in Europe.

We have seen right-wing extremists share the stage in Australia with Government MPs and Senators – an event where the crowd chanted “send her back” in relation to yours truly.

Dispersions have been cast on vulnerable asylum seekers in offshore processing with labels like “murderers” and “rapists” being loosely thrown around without consequence.

And at the same time there are still politicians who want to see protections under 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act rolled back or watered down.

It’s unfathomable to me that any Australian politician would want this.

This is unacceptable, it is indefensible – and the idea of repealing 18C should be dead, buried and cremated by now… with no chance of resurrection.

At an event such as this, people can often be tempted to remain apolitical.

We’re being polite. We’re all friends. We all celebrate multicultural Australia.

At the same time, I know there are many friends in this room who, despite political differences, value honesty.

I need to say – the Department of Home Affairs is a department in disarray when it comes to matters of migration and asylum seekers.

As the responsible Shadow Minister, I am calling this out tonight because it’s what I am expected to do.

It’s what the media expects me to do and indeed they themselves should do.

It’s what migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and indeed what this room and wider Australia would and should expect me to do.

I believe we need to listen to the alarm bells ringing – or the canary in the coalmine – to ensure that integrity, transparency and fairness are maintained in the Department of Home Affairs.

Two significant alarm bells were ringing this week – citizenship processing and asylum seekers arriving by airplane.

I’ll begin with citizenship processing.

A citizenship application is something that takes place at the end of the process.

I know – I have been through it myself.

It takes place after people have migrated here, met the requirements, become permanent residents and made an application all in their endeavour to pledge allegiance to Australia, our people, our values and our way of life.

As one particular person might say… they have “had a go”.

For some migrants from certain countries, this means sacrificing the citizenship of their birth country… and, as we have learnt, the same applies to politicians.

On Monday this week it was revealed that as of 30 June 2019, there were still over 210,000 people in Australia waiting to have their citizenship processed.

To put things in perspective, that’s the size of two Federal electorates’ worth of people.

The average number of days from lodgement to approval of a citizenship application has blown out to an astonishing 410 days.

When you factor in the time it takes for citizenship to be granted at a ceremony, people are waiting over 16 months to pledge allegiance to Australia because of go-slow citizenship processing in the Department of Home Affairs.

This compares to just five months for citizenship to be granted in 2012-13.

The ongoing blowouts in citizenship application processing under the third term Morrison Government are cruel, callous and are preventing people from pledging commitment to Australia.

There are close to 30,000 Indians waiting to pledge allegiance to Australia, over 27,000 Brits and over 17,500 Chinese nationals.

They make up just some of the 221,000 people who have “had a go”… so why aren’t they being given a go?

Why were these people denied the opportunity to vote at the last Federal election whilst their applications for citizenship in the Department of Home Affairs?
 
And as all of this has happened within the Department  – even more concerningly – the number of people making new citizenship applications decreased by more than 100,000 in 2018-19.

This is the largest ever decline in citizenship applications as would-be Australians despair at having to wait more almost a year-and-a-half to become citizens.

All of this has occurred as the Government were, as they announced in November 2018, quote:
“investing in the processing of citizenship applications, boosting resources within the Department of Home Affairs to meet growing demand.”

I share these statistics because so often they are kept hidden or veiled to hide the failures of this Government.
 
If you want to witness frustration personified, speak to a journalist trying to gain access statistics from the Department of Home Affairs – or access documents under Freedom of Information laws.

These issues ultimately pose the question…

How are we supposed to have faith in a Department responsible for our national security, our economic prosperity and all the elements of our migration program when they can’t perform these functions?

Another issue that has been at the fore this week is the record number of people arriving by airplane seeking asylum.

Over the last five years, 95,000 people have arrived at our airports and claimed asylum – often being forced to do so by the criminal syndicates and labour hire companies that traffic them here.

Over 4000 plane arrivals have made a claim for protection between 1 July and 19 August this year.

That’s 80 people per day.

At this rate, the Government is on track for a record-breaking 29,500 claims for asylum this year.

This would be the highest number of asylum claims in any year ever.

I understand that when some people are uncomfortable if I reflect that some asylum seekers may not be owed protection.

They might be uncomfortable when they hear the words “airplane people”.
 
Don’t worry – I read the tweets of people sharing their thoughts over such a phrase.

There’s nothing wrong with claiming asylum – it’s an important right.
 
However, in 90 per cent of these particular cases, the individuals are not legitimate refugees and are often being trafficked to Australia for the explicit purpose of being exploited. 
 
In the last Parliament, in a report by the Joint Standing Committee on Migration Government MP Jason Wood, wrote, and I quote:
“Organised crime and illegitimate labour hire companies are using this loophole to bring out illegal workers who are often vulnerable and open to exploitation.”

Since becoming the responsible Shadow Minister, I have been raising the plight of asylum seekers arriving by airplane not to perpetuate a stereotype, but rather highlight a concerning, egregious and, quite frankly, unacceptable reality.

How can we talk about having a fair go in this country when the fruit we put in our children’s lunchboxes has been picked by a 19 year-old trafficked by people smugglers who is being paid $4 an hour and treated like a slave?
 
This has no place in Australia.

The Government has claimed that – boasted even – that “no one dies on a plane” but this is a distraction from the reality that’s taking place.
 
The truth is these people are being trafficked here by plane and are facing widespread exploitation in Australia – akin to slavery.

The Department’s go-slow processing is at the heart of the people smuggler’s business model as people are stuck in the system for years as their exploitation is perpetuated.

They end up working on farms, in hospitality and even in sexual servitude as their mostly unsuccessful claims are sluggishly processed.

The truth is the Government has no idea how many airplane arrivals may have been critically injured or even died because of exploitation that is taking place.

This week the Immigration Minister could not even say how many people there are remaining in Australia after failing their asylum claim or exhausting their appeals at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

This situation is unacceptable – just like allowing vulnerable people to risk their lives at sea on leaky boats.

It’s unacceptable – just like the close-to 30,000 people already in Australia who arrived by boat living in a state of limbo – either on Temporary Protection Visas or waiting for their claims to be processed.

It’s unacceptable – just like the Government’s cuts to Status Resolution Support Services that have left thousands of men, women, children and entire families without the safety net they need.

I thank the many in this room that have stepped up to fill that shortfall – through their sheer goodwill and conviction to help their fellow woman and man.

And it’s unacceptable – just like the Government’s plans to repeal Medevac – laws Labor passed, with support of the crossbench, to ensure sick people on Nauru and in Papua New Guinea can get the medical help they need when recommended by doctors.

It’s simple – if you’re sick, you should be able to see a doctor.

With a looming Senate Inquiry into the Medevac repeal due to report next Friday, I will take this opportunity to say – Labor strongly supports Medevac and will not be changing its position. 
 
These laws should not be repealed.
 
In the coming week you will hear all the mistruths about Medevac.

People will claim it is flawed or slow or legally fraught or expensive.

They will claim it undermines Australia’s border security.

They will continue to claim it has allowed criminals into Australia – even though they have not been able to provide evidence proving this.

I urge you to continue to use your voices and make strong representations as we fight against the attempts to repeal Medevac.

Over the next term of Opposition, I am certain I – and we, together – will face many more challenges that we consider unacceptable.

In addition to holding a third term Government to account, I want to take this opportunity to make clear Labor’s commitment to you and to multicultural Australia.

In one of the ways to ensure Labor effectively communicates with, engages and listens to multicultural Australia, we recently established a new Multicultural Affairs Caucus Committee.

Similar to our Status of Women and First Nations Caucus committees, this group of MPs and Senators are committed to progressing the cause of culturally and linguistically diverse communities from across Australia.

The committee exists to champion their voices within our party as we form our positions and policies.

Good policies will only be possible if they are underpinned by a robust immigration system.

Confidence in the migration system is underpinned by its integrity, security, predictability, and efficiency.
 
I want to see Australia – as a developed, generous nation – to take a leadership role in our region and internationally to improve our humanitarian response to the global displacement of people.

I believe we can build community support for a Community Refugee Sponsorship Program, similar to what has worked exceptionally well in Canada. 
 
Labor believes that many communities want to offer help to refugees, but are stymied by red-tape in a poorly designed community sponsorship program.
 
We need local councils, churches, and community groups as well as peak bodies involved in this project.
 
Labor will help the Government get out of the way to facilitate groups like Australian churches, councils and others to sponsor additional refugees through community sponsorship.

We must ensure refugees are treated with dignity and compassion.  
 
Because Australia’s reputation has been tarnished – particularly by the way vulnerable refugees have been left to languish in indefinite detention.

This is a matter that must be resolved and resolved as quickly as possible by the current Government.  I regrettably cannot do this from Opposition.

I want us to work together on these priorities to ensure we can deliver that – both for our international reputation and for the wellbeing of vulnerable asylum seekers and refugees in Australia and around the world.

And I want those migrants already settled in Australia to be valued for their true worth – regardless of their race, religion or country of origin – and promise to call out any attempts to undermine this strength.

Together – like Australia has done so many times before – I believe we can do that.

Once again, thank you for having me here tonight and, more importantly, thank you for championing modern, migrant, multicultural Australia and all that it stands for.

ENDS
 
MEDIA CONTACT: TIMOTHY DUNLOP 0428 043 110