Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane has raised questions about Tony Abbott’s term “Team Australia” and warned that the “tone” of leadership matters.
The Islamic Council of Victoria this week boycotted a meeting with the Prime Minister after he said on Monday that everyone had to be part of Team Australia and “you don’t migrate to this country unless you want to join our team”.
In a speech today, Soutphommasane said that he had earlier been asked whether this term – which the PM had used when announcing new security measures – was a divisive concept and could be interpreted to mean that there were some groups who were not part of the team.
These were fair questions. “Those who have coined the phrase are best placed to elaborate upon exactly what they mean,” he said.
“If ‘Team Australia’ is simply shorthand for an Australian liberal democratic community, for a community of equal citizens, I don’t think any of us would have an issue with it. Signing up to this is already part of the contract of multicultural citizenship. All of us are already signed up. We are all proud to be Australians.
"But if ‘Team Australia’ is meant to suggest something else, we are entitled to ask for an explanation. Manufacturing patriotism can sometimes do more to divide than to unite. Genuine civic pride comes from within; it is not something that others can command us to display.”
Soutphommasane said the debate was never strictly about concepts. “Much of it also has to do with tone. The tone of leadership matters.
"And it has been a strength of our multicultural experience that political and civic leaders have understood the importance of ensuring that all Australians, regardless of their faith or cultural background, can feel that they can indeed belong to the family of the nation.”
He said the conversation about Muslim Australians had been muddied by the way that Abbott’s (welcome) abandonment of changes to the Racial Discrimination Act had been announced in tandem with the security proposals.
“We were told that it was necessary for bolstered counter terrorism measures,” he said. Yet there was never a suggestion from any community that retained racial vilification laws was necessary for fighting domestic extremism.
It was inaccurate to suggest that Muslim communities were somehow the most vocal or influential in opposing the repeal of 18C of the act. And to suggest that a decision not to repeal 18C was motivated by a special concern about Muslim Australians missed one basic fact - that the law didn’t specifically protect religion.
So it was understandable that many Muslim Australians and Arab Australians would have felt bitter sweetness about the RDA announcement.
“This hasn’t eased during the past fortnight” with the “sustained talk about the need for a commitment to a so-called Team Australia. I have heard from many Muslim and Arab Australians a serious concern that their communities are being singled out – that they are having their national loyalty unfairly questioned”.