In late August, shortly after the Liberal’s ousting of Malcolm Turnbull as Australia’s Prime Minister, Labor’s Tony Burke MP, granted Manarul Islam, representing AMUST, an exclusive interview. Mr Burke is the Federal Member for Watson, which includes Sydney suburbs of Bankstown, Lakemba, Canterbury and Strathfield and, amongst other positions, is the Shadow Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Australia.
AMUST: How does Labor differ in its policies and approach towards minorities and the multicultural communities compared to the Coalition and others parties.
TB: I never accepted that multicultural Australia is somehow a minority. Multicultural Australia and modern Australia are the same thing. Australia is a nation of more than 25 million different stories and each of those stories is as Australian as the other. They’re all stories that have either a link to this land all the way back to the first sunrise or they’re stories that at some point have involved immigration.
Any attempt, which has been made too often, in particular by the coalition and the far-right parties, to claim that somehow the British immigration story is more legitimate than any other immigration story simply fails to understand modern Australia.
AMUST: We’re already seeing a bit of a change in terms of who the prime minister has now allocated for immigration and multicultural affairs. Does Labor differentiate in terms of the policies?
TB: Okay, let’s not be any doubt about what Scott Morrison’s done. Peter Dutton is still the cabinet minister in charge of immigration. The policy decisions at the cabinet table are still made by him. The government is trying to send one message to one part of Australia and a different message to other parts of Australia.
Nobody should be conned by what Scott Morrison is doing. They are still a party where every single one of them voted to amend section 18c to allow for more racial hate speech. They are still a party where every one of them voted to introduce a university level English test which had exceptions based on whether or not you came from a country that was predominantly white.
There is nothing that the most recent reshuffle has done that changes their voting record or changes the contempt within which this government has held people from Non-English speaking backgrounds and multiculturalism in Australia.
Scott Morrison is now Prime Minister, and is the same person who was reported to have taken to the Shadow Cabinet a proposal that they should capitalize on anti-Muslim sentiment in Australia. There are no excuses for this sort of behavior.
In the next few months I have no doubt there’ll be a series of party members turning up to community functions and saying the exact opposite of what they’ve been doing for the last two and a half years and people should see through their attempts as political spin and nothing more.
AMUST: Is labor complicit in the dehumanisation and mistreatment of refugees considering it was the party that established the offshore detention centers we have currently?
TB: When Labor took the decisions on immigration in government there was a very clear and decent reason why we made those decisions which was to stop people from drowning. We made clear that people had to be resettled and our priority at the time was clear in that with both Nauru and Papa New Guinea they were 12-month agreements. Our intention had been that everyone would have been processed and resettled in as close to that timeframe as possible.
What the government’s done is to approach the issue completely differently. They have wanted to use people’s pain and people’s treatment as a direct deterrent. That is never how Labor operated. We did take action and we were right to take action to try to stop people from drowning on their way here. Some of those decisions were extraordinarily difficult but they were the right thing to do. There is no way of comparing those decisions with the indefinite detention and five-year delay that has happened under this government.
AMUST: Population and immigration levels and the infrastructure to support them are issues for many Australians. How can Labor address these issues without xenophobia and scapegoating migrants specially Muslims?
TB: On the occasions that members of the Liberal Party have sought to demonise the Muslim community, Labor has always stood firm. In fact, more often than not, I have been the person who on behalf of the Labor Party has stood up and made clear that the behavior of the Liberal Party has been completely unacceptable.
The way some in the government have sought to use the population debate is completely transparent. They failed to invest in infrastructure, for years refused to give any money to public transport at all and then wanted to blame immigration for the fact that our infrastructure wasn’t up to scratch.
I understand completely when people complain about how crowded the roads are and how crowded the public transport is. I use the roads, I catch the train every week. I know exactly what that congestion is. The cause of it has been Liberal government cuts and a federal government refusing to invest properly in infrastructure. They shouldn’t be allowed to use population as cover.
The immigration program will always need to be varied and responsive to the needs of the nation at different times. When there are particular jobs that we can’t fill locally, we will always turn to immigration to provide this short term availability of labour and that won’t change but it is desperate politics in the extreme to have a government that has refused to invest in infrastructure all this time to now say it’s the immigrants fault rather than their own.
AMUST: What will Labor’s first priorities be if it wins office in the next Federal election?
TB: Look, there’s a whole series of announcements still to come from Bill Shorten. The simplicity of our priorities are that we want better schools and better hospitals not bigger banks.
A whole lot of additional promises will continue to come out between now and the election to give form to all of that. The other thing you’ll get from the Labor government is that our central objective will be to bring Australians together not to divide them against each other and that is a fundamental difference in the language that comes from government and the Islamic community know better than anyone else that the language that comes from government has a significant impact on how people treat each other in the street.
AMUST: Why should Muslims vote for Labor?
TB: Muslims want somebody who, on the toughest day, will still stand firm and stand with them. Over a lot of years I believe my party and me as the spokesperson have shown that we don’t go missing on the tough days. We haven’t, we don’t intend to and our approach will always be to bring people together not to divide them.