With its new multiculturalism policy, detailed by Immigration Minister Chris Bowen last night, Labor has really gone back to its values. They’re values I share. They’re talking about fairness for all people, people from different backgrounds, different cultures. They emphasise the primacy of Australian values and laws, everyone always has, but that doesn’t prevent people from having an affection for the land of their birth, it doesn’t stop them respecting old traditions.

While we were always an immigrant nation it was a somewhat narrower Australia, especially from foundation up to World War II — Ango-Saxon, Keltic Irish, but still with a very sharp sectarian divide. It was not uncommon for people to say that Catholics weren’t true Australians because they had their allegiance to the Pope. After many painful years we’ve grown out of that. In the post-World War II years most parties refused to play politics with race or religion. I think the great wave of migration that has done so much for Australia in so many different ways, improving the quality of life for every Australian, would not have been possible without it.

When the Vietnamese came here if I’d asked Australians before the event if they wanted to have 70,000 refugees from Indo-China that would go into a population of around a quarter of a million, in a public poll people would have said no. But when you say this is what we must do and these are the reasons then people accept it. Melbourne is one of the largest Greek cities outside of Greece — if you’d have asked Melbourne in 1948 if they wanted that they would have said no. But it happened, and everyone would be enormously proud of the contribution Greek-Australians have made to Australia in so many different ways.

In the early 1990s, Pauline Hanson — who was never condemned by either party — emerged and later the Tampa sailed into our waters. The Labor Party should have stood on its principles and opposed John Howard. I think if they had they very likely would have won the 2001 election — there were so many liberals disenchanted with the Tampa-esque policies, so many Labor people enormously disenchanted. But the Labor Party began a competition for the redneck vote — we saw that in the last election, which was really a race to the bottom of the barrel on refugee policy.

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Yesterday, with the comments of Scott Morrison and Tony Abbott, we saw a very narrow and a very mean attitude emerging from the opposition. If you look at the Liberal Party’s comments on asylum seekers over time they were always playing upon the fears of Australians: these people won’t embrace Australian values, they’re drug runners, they’re queue jumpers, they’re illegals, they’re awful people, they’ll turn into pr-stitutes, maybe even terrorists. They campaigned on fear. People took note of that. If you had told the stories of what people had put up with, the dangers that’d run into to try and achieve a better future for their kids, Australians would have a different view of it.

I hope Scott Morrison is just a fringe element in the party. But he certainly exhibits a very unsympathetic, a very hard-line harsh view of people trying to seek a better life. He certainly appeals to the fears of Australians.

When John Howard wanted to get rid of the word “multiculturalism”, in one sense, in a very real sense, he was trying to go back to a past that was totally impossible. If you walk down any street in Melbourne or Sydney or other major centres you see Australians of so many different backgrounds and cultures. Overwhelmingly they regard Australia as home, they love Australia, they respect Australian laws. But that doesn’t mean they can’t also show some affinity, some concern for ancient traditions and concern for where they’ve come from.

Multiculturalism is not a failed idea. I think it’s been an enormous success. All sorts of things are said about multiculturalism: people go to an area, they establish a ghetto; that hasn’t really happened here. If somebody is coming here from Afghanistan they’re going to seek out other Afganis to be near people who can speak their language, etc. But then they get settled, they move out and become part of the wider community. In a very real sense.

Our capital cities have streets with Vietnamese names in the shops as well as English names — so what? There’s no conflict with Australian laws, Australian customs and Australian values, which the previous government made a lot of. If you really look at the values that make for a peaceful world, a prosperous society, one where your kids can have a better future, those values are universal.

I think it’s enormously important to hope that we would have enough wisdom on both sides of politics to get back to a bipartisan policy on matters concerning race and religion, on refugees and immigration. It was that bipartisanship that made the modern Australia.

Politicians must rise above the politics. They need to make sure that there is the best possible understanding of why people who have come from other places and what their own history and culture is like. SBS was established not as a service to refugees or migrants but so that all Australians can learn more about other places that other Australians have come from. That was the underlying motive. As it is in the broader debate.

We’ve got to this state on multiculturalism because the then-Liberal government and the Liberal Party ever since believed they could win votes on the issue, they believed they could create fear in the community. It will remain a divisive issue unless there can be leadership in the Liberal Party that puts these issues beyond politics. In some policy areas we do need a bipartisan policy.

Within that there is room to debate how many people come here, there is room to debate the way you handle boat people and other matters, but there needs to be strict limitations on that debate. It needs to be an informed debate of people who know what they’re talking about.

If we believe in a non-discriminatory world, which I think most Australians do, then we certainly need a bipartisan approach.