Laurie Ferguson MP

Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs and Settlement Services


Eastern Religions Youth Interfaith Conference

Sydney, 14 June 2008

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land, the Wangal people. On this subject I would refer to the conference in Kuala Lumpur to which I will return at a later stage. There I experienced sustained applause at my mention of the recent apology of the Australian Prime Minister and Opposition to the Indigenous people. Australia’s diplomats and politicians have experienced this reaction around the world and there is perhaps not enough knowledge of this phenomenon in Australia.

It’s a pleasure to be able to join you this evening and to say a few words at the opening of this interfaith conference.

It’s a particular pleasure to be amongst so many young people from such a diversity of spiritual and religious backgrounds here in my own electorate.

As you are no doubt aware, this electorate, Reid, is one of the most culturally diverse in the country, in what is arguably one of the most successful multicultural countries in the world.

Part of that success is due to the kind of activity for which you are gathered together tonight. I would note my support of tonight as I have previously advocated an expansion of interfaith work to friends outside the Abrahamic faiths.

That is, to engage in open and productive dialogue with each other in the interests of ensuring that this success will continue into the future.

The success of Australia’s system of multiculturalism was highlighted to me earlier this week in Malaysia where I was representing the Australian Government at a conference which sought to explore issues around bridging the gap between the West and Islam.

During the conference I was approached by numerous representatives from a number of countries wanting to make comment about Australia’s success in integrating so many people from around the world.

To quote from the Affinity Intercultural Foundation’s website:

When people know and try to understand each other in the other’s frame of reference, a natural affinity emerges between them.

I also note that the SAI Youth Network, the partner organisation for this conference, is based on the principle of ‘Unity in Diversity’ and a dedication to understanding others.

As the Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs and Settlement Services, it is my role – as well as a personal commitment – to promote this quest for mutual understanding and respect among all Australians.

As I mentioned before, we as Australians have so far managed to achieve a remarkable level of cohesion in the midst of our diversity.

In Malaysia I had the opportunity to meet with the Assistant Minister for National Unity. Again in that meeting it was emphasised to me that Australia really is quite united given that we have more than a hundred nationalities, ethnicities and religions living here. It was interesting to contrast with Malaysia which does not have Australia’s level of diversity, yet nevertheless is constantly reassessing strategies on how to deal with its non-Malay minorities.

Malaysia’s idea of having a Ministry for National Unity seems like a necessity which I do not believe is required here in Australia. The advent of multiculturalism as official government policy in the 1970’s heralded a social, cultural and political sea change whereby we no longer viewed citizenship as being linked to ethnicity and religion.

The recently released report from the Scanlon Foundation, Mapping Social Cohesion, indicates that 96% of people in this country feel a strong sense of belonging as Australians, and around 70% support the view that immigration makes Australia stronger.

In a country that has undergone profound and constant change in terms of its population over the past couple of hundred years, these are astonishing statistics.

Again I refer to my trip to Malaysia where I was also very pleased to meet with a delegation of Muslim Australians from Turkish, Kazakh, Anglo, Lebanese, Indonesian and Sudanese backgrounds. Having spent a couple of days looking at issues surrounding diversity in Malaysia and other parts of the world, there is virtual unanimity that we all have something to learn from one another, the reality is that Australia is just so far ahead of the game.

Australia continues to undergo change, and part of that change is a resurgence of religious faiths.

This is a phenomenon which is also being experienced in other post-industrial nations.

In a book published last year entitled Social Cohesion in Australia, a couple of experts in this field Gary D Bouma and Rod Ling point out that religion in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has re-emerged as a substantial force in human social life.

They report that the secular press in Australia has been doubling their coverage of religious issues each year since 2001.

This is not simply a reflection of the aftermath of the events of that year: they also report that there are more religious groups in Australia than ever before.

For some, a rise in religious participation and diversity poses a potential threat to social cohesion, and indeed, as these authors point out:

While increased diversity does not by itself threaten social cohesion, the differences between religious groups are real and can become sources of conflict.

However, they go on to say:

Social cohesion is threatened when one group convinces itself that it does not need another, producing conflict that shreds the social fabric.

All of us here tonight are aware of the rich contributions of Islam to world civilisation. Naturally we are also aware of the role that Muslim Australians have in continuing to build this country. At its most successful, Islam has been open to difference and for many centuries led the world in science, philosophy and most fields of learning. The Iberian Peninsula prospered as Muslims and Jews lived together and built a diverse and highly cosmopolitan society. It was a remarkable example of how societies prosper when they embrace and respect difference.

From my point of view, Malaysia’s relative success as a diverse and cosmopolitan society is built on a foundation of acceptance of difference and a respect for the other. It’s not surprising that it is prospering and democratising whilst so many Muslim countries remain struggling with issues around acceptance of difference and a resistance to transparency and democracy.

Muslim Australians are prominent in fields including finance, sport, academia, medicine and other fields. Those who have succeeded have done so through a process of integration. To this end, they have not so much discarded their original cultures; rather, they have immersed themselves in the spirit of Australia’s diversity and have emerged as being integral to Australia’s diversity.

Whilst Malaysia is an Islamic country with large numbers of Christians, Buddhists and Hindus, I was most impressed that of all the people I met, the person with seemingly the greatest level of understanding of Islamic traditions and mores is a Christian pastor of Chinese heritage who had spent significant time in the Middle East. It was clear that an understanding of the dominant cultural tradition of the country was essential for his community. Naturally the same applies elsewhere and especially here in Australia.

Australia has always been a diverse country, from the many Indigenous nations who successfully cohabited in this land for so long, through the successive waves of immigrants who have come since.

While the shaping of this new nation has not been without conflict and error, in the end it has emerged that we have always needed each other, and it is our interdependence which has enabled us to survive and flourish.

It is through endeavours such as this conference that you demonstrate both your recognition of this fact and your leadership skills as young Australians in ensuring that our lines of communication are kept open.

I believe this bodes well for our future.

To the host organisations, the Affinity Intercultural Foundation and the SAI Youth Network, I commend you on your initiative in convening this conference.