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Sydney University Graduation Ceremony

8 June 2007

    Image of Stepan Kerkyasharian addressing the graduating Ceremony at Sydney University

Chancellor, Vice Chancellor, distinguished guests, graduates, ladies and gentlemen.

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we are gathered today and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

I feel greatly privileged to receive this honorary degree in your presence.

I know that each of you graduates feel a sense of pride and gratification for your achievements which are being recognised today. In my case it is an honorary degree which recognises my life’s activities which as some of you may know, in the last 30 odd years, has been dedicated to the promotion of mutual understanding among people of different races and religions.

It is also a recognition of the work of the Community Relations Commission and its predecessor, the Ethnic Affairs Commission, in guiding respective governments, the public service and the community through the many changes in the composition of our population over the past twenty years.

I do feel a sense of pride standing here today with this degree in my hand when I think of my past and how different my childhood was.
I was born in Cyprus in what was essentially a neighbourhood where survivors of the Armenian Genocide of 1915 had found shelter. Those survivors had a single-minded determination to succeed, not for their own sake but for the sake of their children and for the community at large.

I learned first hand from my father about the evils that can flow from hatred based on race and religion. Racism knows no national or religious boundaries and, by sheer logic, it can only be satisfied with the ultimate extinction of its object of hate.

As graduates, having worked very hard within the academic world, you will now be facing the stark reality of Australian society. In the hustle and bustle of every day life we generally overlook the fundamental public policies which underpin our society and which make Australia such a dynamic and exciting place in which to live and work.

Australia is an island nation occupying a vast continent where, for tens of thousands of years, people have lived together in harmony, speaking many languages and following many distinct customs. However the people who have shared this continent have always had a common set of values which includes respect for the environment and respect for each others’ rights to share that environment.

Apart from a brief interlude, following European settlement of Australia, when in 1901 we tried to create the last bastion of Anglo Saxon purity, we are generally recognised by the world as leaders in managing cultural and religious diversity, in a way which benefits the whole of society.

For example, the arrival of Chinese gold seekers in the colonies created great resentment. Many regulations were put in place to stifle their progress, both in mining and in settlemnt, including banning the arrival of women. However, this was not out of a sense of supriority on the part of the colonial leaders. Quite the opposite, they were afraid of the power and ability of the so-called Asiatics. Australia’s most formidable colonial politician Sir Herny Parkes, dubbed by history the Father of Federataion, as premier of New South Wales was opposed to the arrival of more Chinese and took action to frustrate their immigration. He is on the record as saying:

"They are a superior set of people . . . a nation of an old and deep-rooted civilization. . . . It is because I believe the Chinese to be a powerful race capable of taking a great hold upon the country and because I want to preserve the type of my own nation . . . that I am and always have been opposed to the influx of Chinese".

In spite of some discouragement from the British government he succeeded in passing an act raising the entrance tax to £100 per head, a completely prohibitive amount of money at that time.

Meawhile in the early days of the newly established Federal Parliament there were statements by some of our founding fathers which were very clear on these issues.

Deakin was also aware of the potential economic subjugation of the state by people not of the chosen race, when he stated;

“The Japanese require to be excluded because of their high abilities. It is the business aptitude, and the general capacity of these people that makes them dangerous and the fact that while they remain an element of our population, they are incapable of being assimilated.”

These are hardly the sentiments of a people who consider themselves, or for that matter their own race, superior. Deakin and others simply reflected the views of the day, where the colonialists wanted to create and preserve forever, their values and way of life.

Some of those attitudes continued unshaken at least until after World War Two when refugees from Europe from non-traditional migration sources began to be accepted here. But it was after 1966 that changes were more dramatic.

First the Indigenous people were recognised as human beings and counted in the population survey and were given the vote. Although to our shame, Section 25 still remains in our constitution, forty years on from the referendum, giving any State the right to disenfranchise people of a particular race, thereby denying them the vote nationally.

In the 1970s and 80s we had dramatic changes with the introduction of policies on multiculturalism.

Multiculturalism was welcomed by all Australians as a realistic public policy to deal with our cultural diversity.

Where a significant majority of the population of a country is of different cultural backgrounds, Governments really have three options:
They can do nothing. You might be able to think of some countries where racial or religious unrest has been endemic and those would probably be examples where governments have done nothing.
Secondly they can prescribe an identity with all its consequences of alienating those that do not fit. History is full of such failures usually ending in bloodshed and genocide.

Or they can promote the concept of a culturally diverse society making acceptance and respect matters of public policy. Thus enhancing a feeling of security and belonging in the people.

With further analysis and the benefit of hindsight, it can be said that there are three distinct and separate constituents of supporters of multiculturalism. What has happened in Australia in the last 20 years, to my way of thinking, is that two of these constituencies became ardent supporters, practitioners and promoters of multiculturalism, while the third adopted a laissez fair attitude. The two active constituents can be described as having diametrically opposing ideologies.

The first group saw multiculturalism as a public policy which would redress social injustice. They saw it as a policy which could be pursued and used to promote the broader interests and objectives of a welfare state.

The second group were attracted by those aspects of multiculturalism which promoted Government-sponsored retention of cultural heritage. They used multiculturalism as a piece of public policy to underpin ethno-specific and ethno-centric initiatives.

Multiculturalism should have been supported as a matter of public policy which provides security for All Australians. Not a policy to deal with disadvantage, nor a policy to perpetuate a separate ethnic Identity. The majority of Australians who are accepting of the benefits of diversity of language and culture regrettably remained silent leaving the way open for xenophobic forces to pursue a destructive jingoistic campaign of hatred of that which did not fit their prescribed identity.

National identity, as we know is dynamic. It reflects the values of the people of a land with a common commitment to it. It is not a carbon copy of days gone by, or a reality which can be manipulated into a straight jacket of values.

The only State to realise this development and take corrective action was New South Wales, when in 2000 the Government introduced ground- breaking progressive legislation in Parliament, abolishing the Ethnic Affairs Commission Act and replacing it with the Community Relations Commission and the Principles of Multiculturalism Act.

In New South Wales Multicultural Policy applies to all people. It is a policy which clearly sets the limits as defined by the rule of law and our parliamentary systems and institutions. There is no conflict since ultimately it is the rule of law which override customs and traditions.

So the questions to be addressed are these: Has multiculturalism failed? Can we continue as a multicultural society? What will your function as graduates be in a society which, regardless of public policy, will continue to comprise people of different ethnic, linguistic, religious and racial backgrounds?

No other society on earth has undertaken the settlement of such a diverse range of people from such a diverse range of situations with such success. I have had the privilege to work in this area and see at close quarters the challenges and the resolution of those issues.
From the same stand point I can see the steady growth of a new and rich society quite unique in human history. I say that because I am seeing this evolution each and every day as I meet with leaders and their supporters from over a thousand community organisations. I have watched those communities grow and prosper and integrate, and, more importantly, become great contributors to the culture, the economy and the society. It is all about the passage of time, but success is only guaranteed by having the correct measures, or management plans, in place, and having them constantly under review. In this context, what is then the alternative to Multiculturalism?

Today however, Australia faces a new challenge not necessarily of its own making. It is the challenge of accepting Islam as one of the religions of Australians. Accepting it to a level where it becomes inconsequential whether a fellow Australian is a Muslim or not, just as it is inconsequential now in this hall, whether the person sitting next to you is a Buddhist, Sabaen Mandaen, Zorastrian, Baptist or even someone who attends the High Church of England.

International events have instilled a sense of insecurity among all Australians and some of the measures undertaken by Governments have contributed to this sense of insecurity. Comments made by some Australian Muslim leaders or high profile overseas Muslim preachers have also contributed to this sense of insecurity, sowing the seeds of suspicion and distrust among fellow Australians.

Comments derogatory of Islam and Muslims have, in turn, instilled a sense of insecurity and alienation in Muslim Australians. One of the outcomes has been a loud cry for the defence of Australian values, but more importantly, highly vocal commentators have pointed an accusatory finger at multiculturalism as being the cause of the undermining of Australian values and by implication of the potential for violence, bloodshed and terrorism.

So how do we confront and overcome those trends, those forces, those influences?
It is too simplistic to say this is just another phase in immigration. Too simplistic to say that we have had other waves of immigrants who were initially ostracised and are now part of our society.
There are international forces at play. The war on terror is seen as the war on Islam, though it is not. Global Terrorism, which in the main is carried out by criminals acting in the name of Islam. The need to maintain support for the involvement of our armed forces in international conflict make it more difficult to promote harmony and acceptance of Islam in Australia.

Therefore a responsibility rests on every single Australian. You as young bright graduates will invariably assume leadership roles in whatever career path you take.

My message to you today is that you have an important role to play in maintaining the harmonious democratic way of life of Australia which has given and should continue to give you the best of life-choices. You cannot leave that responsibility to others. Day in and day out you will be presented with situations which have undertones of prejudice. You have a duty to confront these and promote the values of mutual understanding and respect.

The need to accept diversity and respect each other with one and only onequalification. An unswerving commitment to great democracy, Australia.

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