Labor is preparing to launch a proposal to invite all federal parliamentarians to sign up to a code of race ethics, echoing an initiative advanced by the ALP and the Australian Democrats during the period Pauline Hanson was last in parliament.
The code is yet to clear Labor’s caucus processes, but the shadow attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, has told Guardian Australia it would be an important gesture for the 45th parliament. “It would send a message about what sort of parliament we want to be,” he said.
The previous code of race ethics was pursued by the then Labor senator Margaret Reynolds and the Democrat senator John Woodley in 1996, prompted by concern about the debate about racism that erupted in that year’s election campaign.
The code required parliamentarians to sign on to a set of principles, including respect for religious and cultural diversity, supporting tolerance and justice within a multicultural society, and “to speak and write in a manner which provides factual commentary on a foundation of truth about all issues being debated in the community and the parliament”.
Dreyfus indicated that the wording for Labor’s proposal would be similar to the Reynolds/Woodley initiative, which won support from 54% of parliamentarians. He said assuming that the proposal cleared Labor’s internal deliberations, he would invite all parliamentarians to sign on.
Labor’s move follows Hanson’s declaration in her first speech in the Senate that Australia was in danger of being “swamped” by Muslims. It comes as new polling suggests 49% of Australians support One Nation’s call for a ban on Muslim immigration.
Australia’s race discrimination commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane, used a speech at the Australian National University this week to warn about the dangers of politicians fanning xenophobic sentiment.
In an interview with Guardian Australia’s Australian politics live podcast, he warned the country was approaching a tipping point in race relations. “Make no mistake, we are in a time when our values and our harmony are being tested, and we need to rise to this test and ensure we live up to the best of our traditions as a nation of immigration,” Soutphommasane said.
“Some of the political rhetoric we are hearing at the moment is taking us down a very different path.”
He said people declaring in the parliament that Muslims weren’t welcome, or people arguing for a watering down of protections in the Racial Discrimination Act, needed to focus on the consequences of their statements, rather than think they were engaged in an abstract philosophical debate.
“If people are worried about Muslim immigrants integrating into Australian society they should remember that telling Muslims they are not welcome is going to do nothing to aid migrants of a Muslim background becoming acquainted with Australian culture, or feeling that they belong to our society – and that’s the best way to integrate migrants, to ensure they receive a fair go, and they get the time they need for them and their families to settle in and contribute to our country,” Soutphommasane said.
“We are a largely cohesive, harmonious and stable society, so to see these explosions of anxiety is concerning. I wouldn’t want to see it deteriorate.
“And here we need to think about the effect it’s going to have on our daily lives. When you see or hear hostility being vented against Muslims in our political debate that’s going to affect how the young Muslim schoolboy or schoolgirl is going to experience life in the schoolyard. Having that kind of exclusion is no recipe for societal cohesion.”
The race discrimination commissioner said people who want to remove the words offend and insult from the Racial Discrimination Act often failed to point out that the legislation was not some broad-ranging prohibition, but a specific form of protection. The commissioner said section 18C of the act was about nipping racial hatred in the bud, and preventing it escalating into actual violence.
“The Racial Discrimination Act covers acts which offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate on the basis of race,” he said. “This is a very different thing to offending or insulting on the basis of the football team you support.
“Pogroms have never been organised, as far as I know, on the basis of the football teams you support. But pogroms have been organised against people on the basis of race and their background.”
He also responded to the Essential poll that found 49% support for banning Muslim immigration. “I was surprised and very concerned … because we’ve had a non-discriminatory immigration policy for many years.”
He said the poll was out of sync with other field evidence which confirmed there was broad-ranging community support for a non-discriminatory immigration policy.
“The numbers may reflect where the debate is at the moment. We have seen about two months of blanket coverage of Ms Hanson, not a week goes by when you don’t see or hear her views about immigration and Islam, and there’s a real danger that we are normalising what might otherwise be unacceptable ideas, beyond the bounds of a liberal democracy.”
Again, Soutphommasane urged people to focus on the practical consequences flowing from their statements.
“Consider what the full implications of discriminating on the basis of religion will mean. If this is carried out, our immigration officials at our airports and ports are going to have to make calls about who is going to pass and who isn’t.”
“Sound familiar? Well this is what we did during the white Australia policy.”