In this place we are all leaders and what we say matters. That is why I welcome this opportunity to place on the record the reality of multiculturalism 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.

We must never appeal to the worst in people. That is why, as the Leader of the Opposition said, it is disappointing that we have been hearing such divisive comments from some in this building on what people can and cannot wear, and what level of racist hate speech should be acceptable. 

Our diverse and vibrant multiculturalism is a demographic reality. The community recognises and supports it. As the Scanlon Foundation’s research into attitudes towards multiculturalism Mapping social cohesion national report 2013 demonstrates, 84 per cent of respondents agreed that ‘Multiculturalism has been good for Australia’, and more than seven out of 10 respondents agreed that ‘Multiculturalism benefits the economic development of Australia’. 

As well as this, an Access Economics fiscal impact model commissioned by the former Department of Immigration and Citizenship examined the impact of migration on the Commonwealth budget. Is 2009-10 figures show that the net economic contribution of around $880 million in the first year of arrival will rise to about $1 billion to $2 billion after 10 years, demonstrating that as migrants settled into their new home their capacity to build our economic prosperity rose. 

It is in light of this evidence for these economic and social reasons that we must continue to foster this cohesion and unity and reject any efforts that work to drive us apart. It is this positive growth, economic and social, that we should always seek to foster. 

That is why I am proud the Labor Party is unwavering in its commitment to multicultural Australia, and so should this parliament be too. It is at the heart of our national identity and intrinsic to our history and character. 

Contrast this with the ignorant opportunism we have witnessed of late. Those advocating a ban on certain religious garments only work to strengthen the resolve of extremists and inflame tensions. 

Our words and actions should be uniting influences to bring our diverse communities together, never to pit them against one another. I would urge all leaders in this place to be a uniting force—to stop seeking to divide the community with inflammatory or ignorant remarks about what people can and cannot wear. To conflate security matters with issues of prejudice should be called out for what it is. 

When this issue arose in Victoria in 2011, Nazeem Hussain wrote in the Herald Sun:

“To pass this proposed legislation would serve only to send a message to the broader community that until the introduction of these new laws, Muslim women have had the ability to exploit a (nonexistent) loophole in the law. This would be a grossly inaccurate picture to paint of such a tiny group of Muslim women who choose to cover their faces. 

To put it bluntly, the only gains to be made by some with these laws would be political. Not law and order or greater social cohesion.” 

And, as Andrew Probyn succinctly writes in today’s The West Australian:

“Let’s call it for what it is. The ban-the-burqa movement is largely a rallying cry for anti-Islam campaigners, born out of prejudice and fear.”

On top of this, some in this place are intent on pushing ahead to weaken protections against racist hate speech in the very same week that we were debating important national security legislation. 

Now more than ever we need this community harmony, and every one of us has a responsibility to promote inclusiveness and respect. As the social cohesion report also found there was, unfortunately, in 2010 a marked increase in reported racial discrimination. This increased reporting was maintained in the next year’s survey. 

Disturbingly, this research also highlighted the lack of awareness of most Australians about the challenges faced by our first peoples. 

That is why we cannot tamper with these precious laws, and Labor will fight any move to weaken protections against racist hate speech. We urge all to join with us to stop this once and for all. 

In closing: we must cherish our multicultural society in word and deed. We must celebrate our diversity and realise we are all stronger united than divided. I am reminded of the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who said: “Differences are not intended to separate, to alienate. We are different precisely in order to realise our need of one another.”