28 January 2021

On Australia Day in 1988 as we celebrated our bicentenary, then prime minister Bob Hawke addressed the people of Australia.

He did not seek to claim grandiose accolades for our nation, though we deserved them, nor did he lament our failings, though we have had our share of those too.

Instead, Hawke asked us to commemorate our past and sought to grapple with the decades-old question of what is our national identity?

“In Australia, there is no hierarchy of descents. There must be no privilege of origin … the commitment to Australia is the one thing needful to be a true Australian,” he said.

Hawke told the crowd it was our common purpose of freedom, fairness, justice and peace that would bind together Indigenous Australians and all those born in the more than 190 countries from which our nation is drawn.

In his short but moving speech, Hawke laid out the most coherent statement of Australian identity I’ve had the privilege to hear. He put multiculturalism at the heart of our nation, celebrated the richness of our diversity and made a profound call to collective national commitment. Now, more than three decades later, we still must hark back to Hawke’s words.

This year’s Australia Day theme has been The Story of Australia, focused on our thousands of years of history and our proud multicultural community. But Australia Day requires more than just a nod to mateship and mere lip
service to multiculturalism.

My parents were born in Italy and came here in the ’60s. I can’t help but compare the Australian government’s words to its actions — cuts to our humanitarian visa program, changes to the partner visa program, the inaction on the backlog of people seeking citizenship, and the failure to invest in settlement services, culturally appropriate aged care and a migrant skills framework.

As my colleagues and I laid out in federal Labor’s 2020 Multicultural Statement, we need a renewed focus on initiatives that foster social inclusion. We must ensure existing services adequately serve diverse communities. Removing barriers to participation for culturally and linguistically diverse Australians is critical.

Migrants have played a significant role in building our nation into the thriving, prosperous place it is today and continue to make an enormous contribution.

Let us, in Hawke’s words, make commitment to our nation “the quality that best defines what it means to be an Australian.”

This opinion piece was originally published by the Herald Sun

Featured image: Trove