Speech given at Maribyrnong College Assembly
To Principal Scott, staff, your new school captains, your Year 11 leaders: congratulations on your appointments, I hope this year is a very fulfilling one for you. You certainly have a big responsibility in leading this school. Looking out today at your leaders and looking at you, I can see that Maribyrnong College is an embodiment of modern Australia.
We are a multicultural and diverse country. We have people from all corners of the world. People with English, Scottish, Irish, Italian, Greek, Chinese, Vietnamese Lebanese, Sudanese backgrounds, I could go on, but you get the idea. We are a country where people come from hundreds of different backgrounds and ancestries, but we are a successful society. We have strength in our diversity; we can be united even though we have our differences.
Now, I first began thinking about these questions when I was a high school student. I grew up in Sydney, as Mohamed mentioned, in the 1990s and there was a good deal of debate about race, immigration and national identity – much as there is continual debate about these issues today. There were times when I had to ask myself: “what does it mean to be Australian?”, “am I Australian?”, “how do I express my Australianness?”
In thinking about this question, I always went back to my own family history. We came as a family to Australia from France, though I am not French as you may guess. My parents were refugees from Laos and after the communist takeover in Laos, they went to France where they lived for 10 years and where I was born. They then moved and settled here and within three years of living here we became Australian citizens. I remember the citizenship ceremony where we were officially made Australians. It remains one of the more vivid memories of my childhood. I remember one thing in particular was the pride that my parents had in being able to tell me that we were now Australians.
For those who were born in Australia, citizenship is your birthright; but for those who were not born in Australia, citizenship is something you need to take on. In other words, becoming Australian is not a birthright for such people; it is a choice. A choice that they make. Now when we think of what is happening today and the debates we have about immigration, I believe we are in a strong position to ensure we remain a strong society. Very few countries could boast the diversity we have today. Almost half of our population was born overseas, or who has a parent who was born overseas, and yet for the most part we are harmonious and people get on. Regardless of your race or background, anyone can become Australian if they choose.
You can be Australian in more than one way. There is no one authoritative or definitive way that you can be Australian. What really matters is that you are committed to this country and to certain values that define us as a society - our liberal democratic values. Everyone should have the right to express who they are, to be comfortable in their own skin, and not be judged because of their background, provided they commit to our parliamentary democracy, the rule of law, to values of fairness and equality. I would say that is the very definition of our social contract as a society. It is the basis on which we can offer mutual respect and understanding.
I think about what is happening in the world today, you can look at the United States with President Donald Trump and the debates about restricting immigration there. You can look as well to Europe and the debates you have in many countries on the European continent that are dealing with immigration and you can feel that there is cause for concern and anxiety. In my own work today, my job is to be an advocate for racial tolerance and to fight racism, but it takes me to many communities like I am here with you today where I get to talk to different groups, organisations and parts of our society. I hear very frequently from those vulnerable to racism that there is a lot of concern. People are worried.
So, in the years ahead we are going to have a really important task to ensure that we stay true to our values as an Australian society and that we remain a success story as a nation of immigration and as multicultural society. And here is where you all come in to the picture. I believe that young people have an important role in taking part in these debates and conversations.
Some of your student leaders are already doing this. Last year, I had the pleasure of awarding Mohamed Semra my inaugural Commissioner’s student prize. Every year here on in I will invite students in Years 10 and 11 to submit an essay or speech on racism. We tried this for the first time last year and Mohamed submitted an essay reflecting on his experience with racism. A very thoughtful and eloquent reflection, which earned him the prize. That is an example of taking part in this debate.
But if you do wish to take part in this debate, I think there are a number of values that should guide you. Let me name three of them: you need clarity, first of all. Clarity can be a funny thing. People often refer only to moments of clarity, the implication being that most of the time you are unclear or you can muddle through things without knowing what to do.
You can also hear people talk about a clarity of purpose or a clarity of mission: this idea that some of us are born in life knowing exactly what we want to do with ourselves. I think such forms of clarity are pretty elusive. I think of my own experience for example and think of the times I’ve changed my mind about what to do with my life and my career. Maybe it is just me justifying my choices but perhaps clarity is a bit overrated if we are talking about clarity in that sense. And yet there is a form of clarity that matters - it is the clarity of values.
You should always be true to your values not only as a citizen, as a member of our society, but also as a person. Values are what define our aspirations; they define who we are when we are at our best. You should be clear about what your values are.
You should also have compassion. By compassion, I mean having concern for those who are less fortunate or less privileged. Ensuring that you understand suffering when you see it. This is what defines civilised humanity. An ability to help others, to ease suffering. Where we have no compassion, we lose part of our civilised qualities.
There is a third thing that I think can guide you when you become advocates, citizens and adults and that is courage. Courage comes in many different forms. You can talk about physical courage, being able to hold your ground but then there is moral courage as well. It requires courage for you to dream big, to think about what you want to be and to pursue your dreams. It also requires courage for you to stand up for what is right. To go to those who may require help, chip in, maybe suffer along the way, but know you are doing the right thing and sticking by that.
If there is one thing I want to convey to you today, it is that youth has an integral role in all of our democratic conversations. When you become citizens, when you exercise your vote, when you exercise leadership, I hope that you can remember those three C’s – clarity, courage and compassion. If we can get those things right in our society, I believe we have every chance and prospect of remaining the successful and cohesive society that we are today.
To all of you thank you for having me at your assembly, it is a great pleasure to join you at the start of your school year, I hope it will be an exciting one.