SUBJECT/S: Push to weaken the Racial Discrimination Act; Cory Bernardi’s call to ban the burqa in Parliament House.

MICHELLE ROWLAND, SHADOW MINISTER FOR CITZENSHIP AND MULTICULTURALISM: Good morning. The events of the last 24 hours or so have been deeply concerning for Australia. It’s important that we have national leadership on this issue which is why it was pleasing to see here yesterday that the Parliament was united in calling for harmony, tolerance and understanding. That is why it is so disappointing that we have learnt that Senator Bernardi amongst others is co-sponsoring a Bill to reintroduce measures to repeal Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. It’s especially disappointing that this comes at a time when we are also debating important national security legislation. This is a time when everyone in this building as elected representatives needs to be leaders. Senator Bernardi in proposing to reintroduce measures to repeal Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act is not helpful. The community has very clearly spoken on this issue some time ago. It was thought that this matter had been put to rest for now. It is therefore very disappointing to see that this is back on the table.

JOURNALIST: Reports this morning that Senator Bernardi and others want to ban the burqa, anyone wearing the burqa from Parliament House. Do you think that’s constructive at all?

ROWLAND: I don’t believe this is constructive at all. I also don’t believe this is conducive to the harmony we expect in this building. I also note that members of the government have also made very similar comments to that effect. If we are concerned about security in this building we know that our security agencies are doing everything that they can. I also note for example in New South Wales and other jurisdictions where identities need to be confirmed, there are measures to ensure that that happens with a minimum of fuss. So I don’t believe that his comments in this area have been helpful.

JOURNALIST: What do you think is driving their push for 18C and the ban of the burqa? Is it ignorance, intolerance, being racist?

ROWLAND: I cannot explain this, all I can tell you is that this has been an issue, the 18C issue in particular is one in which the community has spoken very loud and clear, that this is a matter that could potentially be a great divisive force. We should not be lending way to any such measures that are divisive at this time.

JOURNALIST: If that is the case, wouldn’t there be a resounding vote against it in the Parliament and that will send a message as loud as any?

ROWLAND: One would hope that this would not even be making it to the floor of the Parliament. In many consultations I and my colleagues took when Senator Brandis released this for public comment, the message was loud and clear. If this proposal did make it to a Bill in the Parliament then we would see this as a failure of the Parliament. Now it is up to the Senators who are introducing it to formulate it as they see fit. It is up to the Senate to choose when this gets debated. I have no visibility or control over that. All I can do is reiterate that the community is extremely concerned about this issue. They thought this proposal had been put down at least for now and to see it coming up at this time when we need cohesion from our leaders is very disturbing.

JOURNALIST: Senator Bob Day said this morning that he feels the Muslim community was not getting on board with Team Australia and that’s why he acted in this way. How dangerous are comments like that?

ROWLAND: I don’t believe that those comments reflect the majority view of faith leaders in this country. I have spoken to a number of them – I constantly speak to them but I spoke to a number of them over the last couple of days – and you would have seen some of them making very pertinent points in multi-faith press statements on these matters. It’s very clear that these are people who have no tolerance for people who seek to promote extremism. These are people who are Australian, either by birth or by choice, and they are as patriotic as we are and they are doing all they can in their own communities to make sure that people do not fall into extremist traps, that people are deterred from doing what would harm their country. And I would say again that this is simply a divisive move which will not in any way promote tolerance in our community at this time. Thank you very much.