SPEECH - GOLDEN DRAGON MUSEUM BENDIGO - KEYNOTE ADDRESS - THURSDAY, 16 APRIL 2015

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I begin by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the Land on which we meet and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

 

 

I am honoured to have been invited to speak to you today and to be in the company of President Charles Lougoon, Vice-President Russell Jack, and all those associated with the historic Bendigo Chinese Association.

 

I also thank my parliamentary colleague, the extremely hardworking Member for Bendigo, Lisa Chesters for bringing me to this wonderful city.

 

We gather today in a place of great significance - tirelessly preserved to tell a story of healing and hope.

 

It is here, surrounded by a vibrant and world-renowned display of cultural artefacts, that every Australian can learn about and draw strength from a story which not only speaks to the Chinese-Australian experience, but also lies at the heart of our national identity.

 

Because this precinct and your outstanding community have been central to our nation’s history and uniquely illustrate two sides of the Australian narrative.

 

One a dark yet defining chapter of our nationhood. The other, a bright and enduring legacy of culture, progress and inspiration.

 

For it was here, long ago, that thousands of Chinese men and women were lured to abandon old ties and familiar surroundings, wave goodbye to families and kinships, and venture into the unknown in search of fortune in the mythical “Dai Gum San” or “Big Gold Mountain” of Bendigo.

 

But it was also here that they were met with violence and hostility.

 

In 1854, Bendigo miners declared a "general and unanimous rising should take place… for the purpose of driving the Chinese off the goldfield". And only 3 years later, just a few hours east of this city, this declaration tragically came to fruition with a shameful race riot occurring in the goldfields of the Buckland Valley.

 

It was here in 1855, that Victoria became the first colonial government to enact specific anti-Chinese legislation - levying taxes against the Chinese for residence on the goldfields and for entry by land or sea.

 

And it was here in Victoria that the first Parliament of Australia was formed - a Parliament stained by the disgraceful Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 which limited immigration to Australia and formed the basis of the repulsive White Australia policy.

 

Under such oppressive legalised discrimination and in the face of overt prejudice, it would have been logical for these Chinese settlers to be overcome by a sense of bitterness and despair and simply resign themselves to being ostracised by the community at large.

 

But instead, they chose to embark on a different path. 

 

In the face of hatred, they chose to maintain an abiding faith in the possibilities of this nation and undertook to actively ingrain themselves in the Australian identity.

 

Indeed, in the National Library of Australia there is a photograph which tells this powerful story.

 

Taken only two days before the Duke and Duchess of York opened our first national Parliament in 1901, it depicts the Federation street celebrations in Melbourne.

 

And there in the middle of the photograph, in between the two towers of an arch, is a banner welcoming the monarchs to Melbourne which reads: 'Welcome by the Chinese Citizens‘.

 

The photograph demonstrates that in spite of being unfairly deemed as ‘outcasts’  and suffering countless daily indignations, these Chinese settlers rightly understood that citizenship rests not on a person’s race or ethnicity but rather on a firm commitment to the social and moral values which underpin our society.

 

The welcoming banner, and the arch it hung across, which the Chinese community had raised the funds needed for its construction, served as a poignant symbol of this lived citizenship.

 

And yet, we cannot examine this moment in isolation; for the Chinese celebrations in Melbourne were just a part of a much broader campaign to promote racial equality by integrating their culture peacefully within the Australian way of life.

 

Here in Bendigo, the Federation celebrations came at a time when the Chinese community was already firmly established within this city’s traditions – namely, through their participation in the Easter Fair and Procession since 1871.

 

Indeed, such was the commitment of the Chinese community to the Procession that by 1879, the Bendigo Advertiser was moved to state that: “the fair this year has been such a success is entirely due to the exertions of the Chinese, and we cannot too, highly praise them for their noble conduct".

 

By 1883, the Advertiser noted that "the gorgeous display of colours and Chinese silks…eclipsed anything previously seen", and had become, "the principal feature of the procession".

 

And so, because of the peaceful persistence of those Chinese settlers here in Victoria, and right around the country, bit by bit, political, economic and social barriers came down.

 

Because of their efforts, Chinese Australians like Caleb Shang, Billy Sing and Jack Wong Sue were inspired to serve with distinction in Gallipoli, Flanders and Borneo, earning a hallowed place in our history as war heroes.

 

Today, the change those early trailblazers wrought is visible in the countless Chinese Australians who run successful businesses, who continue to make medical breakthroughs in our hospitals and who serve as elected officials from local councils all the way to our Federal Parliament.

 

That I stand before you today as a member of the same Caucus as the Honourable Penny Wong, the first Asian-born member of an Australian cabinet, is a source of great pride and highlights that Labor was the first political party to  stimulate our awareness of Asian societies and improve our standing in the region - epitomised by Gough Whitlam being the first Australian Prime Minister to visit the People’s Republic of China in 1973, establishing what Gough labelled a "relationship of equality"  - a relationship which continues to grow to this day.

 

In my electorate of Greenway, in Western Sydney, I am privileged to represent an extremely diverse part of Australia, and the Chinese community comprises a significant portion of this. A big part of this falls in Blacktown City, a city that shares sister city status with Liaocheng in China and boasts the beautiful Chang Lai Yuan Chinese Gardens, located in Nurragingy Reserve.

 

And yet, the legacy of those early Chinese settlers transcends the gaining of equality of opportunity for just Chinese migrants.

 

Because of their courage and determination, the doors of opportunity were opened for every Australian. 

                                                                              

By fostering their cultural identity within the Australian narrative, they created a beacon of hope and paved the way for future generations of immigrants to come here from every country on earth – in search of the same opportunities that they helped secure.

 

With unwavering hope in the future of this country, they ensured that Australia evolved into a nation which embraces and celebrates multiculturalism, and one which recognises the outstanding contribution different cultural groups have made to forge this country.

 

It was because of these efforts that we all gather here today in one of the most diverse nations on earth.

 

To therefore dismiss the magnitude of our nation's progress would dishonour the courage of all those who strove to awaken our national conscience through faith and perseverance.

 

But it would also dishonour those trailblazers if we were to suggest that our transformation as a nation is complete. 

 

The issues that have surfaced in recent times highlight the challenges that we, as a society, are still facing.

 

We must always remember that the hard-earned progress Australia has made requires constant vigilance and not mere complacency. 

 

Allow me to present to you two quotes which illustrate this point further.

 

The first one reads: "We here find ourselves touching the profoundest instinct of individual or nation—the instinct of self-preservation—for it is nothing less than the national manhood, the national character, and the national future that are at stake."

 

The second one reads: "We are under attack from an extremist force that has declared their superiority and hatred over all human life and democratic freedom”.

 

Whilst I'm sure everyone here would agree on the parallels between both quotes, I also believe it would sadden everyone here to know that whilst the first quote is from a much uglier time, taken from the Parliamentary debates on the 'Immigration Restriction Bill’ of 1901, the second quote is taken directly from flyers distributed during the recent and appalling ‘Reclaim Australia’ protests.

 

The similarities of the quotes highlight that the legacy of racial discrimination and current incidents of racial discrimination, while much less endemic than in the past, are nevertheless real and must be addressed.

 

The fear and anger that the ‘Reclaim Australia’ protests have provoked is understandable, but, in some cases, it has led us to act and speak in a manner which is contrary to our ethics and ideals.

 

Whilst we must be unanimous in unequivocally condemning these protests, it simply cannot be done through increased confrontations in the streets, nor can it be quieted by token actions or empty rhetoric.

 

That is why this museum is so essential to our country, because to understand the journey of Chinese-Australians, and their persistence in gaining equality through moral force and words of education and reason, is to understand the enduring strength of the principles that we cherish as a nation.

 

In this sense, the Golden Dragon Museum is a living entity. It is a call to action, an expression of our citizenship and a constant reminder that our values as a nation must be jealously protected.

 

In coming together today we are therefore saluting not only a wonderful cultural legacy, but we are also renewing our commitment to safeguard the principle of inclusiveness proudly embedded into our laws and institutions.

 

It is worth remembering that those early Chinese settlers were not seeking some sort of special treatment but merely equal treatment.

 

In the same vein, I deeply believe every Australian deserves equality of opportunity, irrespective of race, gender or creed.

 

There is no reason which can excuse not meeting this obligation. Labor is committed to ensuring all our policies are guided by this fundamental maxim.

 

We understand that the challenges of a multicultural society do not simply resolve themselves. Government action — in the form of evidence-based and meaningful multicultural policies — is crucial to advance social harmony, to ensure a fair go and to harness our human resources in the most productive way for Australia’s future.

 

Our democracy must not be defined by perpetuating superficial differences but by a sense of inclusion that welcomes all our citizens and which reflects the reality of the cultural diversity that I live every day in both my local community and my own family, raising a child born of her father's Lebanese heritage and her mother's Fijian heritage.

 

I firmly believe that when we put aside archaic habits and attitudes that keep people apart, when we recognise our common humanity, then we can begin to fulfil the aspirations that we all share. 

 

On this note, I’d like to leave you today by reading a passage from a letter from 1888.

 

In June of that year, the colonies at the time all sent delegates to Sydney to an ‘Intercolonial Conference on the Chinese Question’ – a Conference which would lay the foundations for the White Australia Policy.

 

Although they were not granted a say in the Conference on their own future, the Committee of Chinese Residents in Melbourne decided to make their voices heard by writing a simple letter to the Conference representatives.

 

The words they wrote are as profound today as they were back then:

 

“We consider the ‘cry’ of a great influx of Chinese as one of those poor hollow things that time and reflection will cause the generous British mind to feel heartily ashamed of…[for] injustice, inhumanity, and violence afford a poor foundation to build up the life of a young nation…however popular in the meantime it may be with the unthinking multitude. [This issue] cannot be decided by a wave of the hand, nor by heated public orations…instead we trust that the dictates of humanity and justice may rule your deliberations, and that you will be guided to remember that it is righteousness alone which exalteth a nation”.

 

Let us all reflect on this simple yet powerful message which underlines both the duties and privileges of our citizenship, and reminds us that we can each look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to shape Australia to reflect our highest ideals.

 

Thank you.