John Paul College Unity Council message to Parliament

26 October 2014

Dr CHALMERS (Rankin) (19:30):  In the great arguments and debates of this chamber, we too easily forget just how much we share in common as members, and as Australians; not least of which is the good fortune to be citizens of a nation that draws tremendous strength from its diversity.

For me, the outstanding group of students, teachers and parents who formed a unity council at John Paul College in my electorate, and who I acknowledge here in the public galleries today, serve as a reminder of that fundamental truth. They have asked me to stand and share their message of unity and understanding with the people's house of the Australian parliament. I thank them for that privilege.

My colleagues here know that I often speak in this place of my pride in representing one of the most diverse communities in Australia; with people from 189 different homelands living in our electorate alone. Thirteen of these backgrounds are represented on the unity council that I met with at JPC in Daisy Hill a few weeks ago, and again today.

The unity council sprang from the initiative taken by two fine young men—Faruk Bilgin and Raghe Abdi—who were concerned about the impact of events overseas on the way we treat each other here at home. It is a tribute to them and to the student body at JPC that they were soon joined by Gareth Clark, Rohan Daniel, Stephanie Hoang, Chloe Mo, Himanthi Mendis, Harris Nikwan, Jack Smith, Luke Van Wijk, Shannon Widrose, and Nereadine Wolmby. And it is a tribute to the school's leadership that they were immediately supported by their dedicated principal, Peter Foster, who is here; as is Julia Martinez Garcia, a teacher; Jessica Fern, a kindy parent, who also formed a unity club with other mums and dads; Helen Weissenberger the chair of the board; Allan Dennis, the head of the senior school; and other parents. They are all in on the secret, that achieving unity and understanding between people of different faiths, cultures and backgrounds is critical to unlocking the full value of Australia's multiculturalism.

I cannot share all of their stories in the time I have tonight, but let me share a few, because their experiences are pivotal to their understanding and compassion. Nereadine, a member of the Wik people from Far North Queensland, was brought up on teachings that pre-date European settlement, 'that every person is valuable' and should 'live together in harmony'. Stephanie, a Vietnamese-Australian, is from the first generation in her family not to have grown up experiencing conflict in her home country. Himanthi, a Sri Lankan-Australian, grew up in a country stricken with civil war and unrest. Gareth left South Africa two and a half years ago, a country still scarred by years of apartheid and segregation. All the students have their own stories. They are here in Canberra to share them with honourable members and senators.

Tomorrow they will host a roundtable with members from both sides of the House, to deliver and discuss these main points: that we must embrace multiculturalism; that knowledge is the key to understanding and respecting differences; and that the media needs to play a more positive role in getting this message out there. I am proud to see local students leading the charge to promote unity and understanding, not just in my community—as important as that is—but here in the parliament as well; the meeting place of our nation.

If we are serious about building a country which looks out for each other and looks after each other, we should follow their lead and example; because, as Rohan wrote, 'when we alienate our own people, we move the world from beneath their feet'. Or as Chloe reminds us: 'conflict is not caused by the fact that there is more than one religion, but by the spirit of ignorance and fear, the spread of which can only be regarded as the total eclipse of reason and justice.' And Shannon is right to say that, though our efforts may seem 'only a small step in advancing our world, it is a start, and why not start right now.

Thank you again to the unity council from John Paul College for your passion and your commitment and for the honour of representing you in this place.