SENATOR THE HON PENNY WONG

LABOR SENATOR FOR SOUTH AUSTRALIA

SPEECH

21 August 2014

EMBRACING OUR COMMON HUMANITY – 2014 ANGELO RONCALLI LECTURE – CANBERRA

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THE LEGACY OF ANGELO RONCALLI

Thank you Damien and Bronte for that introduction.

And thank you to John XXIII College for inviting me to speak tonight.

I would like to congratulate the organisers for reviving this annual lecture and for their aspiration that it should play an important role in the intellectual life of the College.

It’s an event – and a topic – that I think reflects the Dominican tradition and its commitment to learning and service.

But I have to confess that it is more than a little daunting to be asked to give this address.

For Angelo Roncalli was one of the outstanding figures of the 20th century.

A man born in humble circumstances in the north of Italy, the son of sharecroppers, who rose to become Pope Saint John XXIII.

A Pope seen at the time of his election as a stop-gap figure, who went on to make sweeping reforms to the Catholic Church.

A spiritual leader of hundreds of millions, and a world figure, whose demeanour was nonetheless gentle and modest, simple and serene.

The topic for these lectures – embracing our common humanity – reflects one of the enduring themes of Roncalli’s papacy, and of his life.

When he was elected as Pope, he said to the cardinals assembled in conclave: “My children, love one another. Love one another because this is the greatest commandment of the Lord.” [i]

On his first Christmas Day as pontiff, he went to Rome’s two children’s hospitals, and talked to the sick children at their bedsides.

The next day, he visited Rome’s Regina Coeli prison.

He told the inmates: “You cannot come to me, so I came to you.”

A convict sentenced to life for murder, asked if a man like him could find forgiveness.

John took the prisoner into his arms and embraced him on both cheeks.[ii]

For John XXIII, the notion of embracing our common humanity had profound consequences – not only spiritually and for individual relationships, but also for social, economic and international relationships.

His first encyclical, Mater et Magistra, states that Catholic social teaching rests on one basic principle: that individual human beings are the foundation, the cause and the end of every social institution.[iii]

His second encyclical, Pacem in Terris, draws out the implications of recognising the universal dignity of every human being.

He says that while individuals may differ widely in knowledge and wealth, this does not mean the powerful can impose their will on the weak.

On the contrary, it means the powerful have a greater share in the common cause of achieving social progress and helping others to realise their natural dignity.[iv]

Writing less than two decades after the defeat of fascism in Europe, and at a time of heightened tension between the West and the Soviet Union, he teaches that individuals are the real measure and purpose of social organisation – not tribe, not blood, not soil, class or the State, but individual human beings.

I believe this goes to the heart of what makes a civilised society: a conception of dignity which recognises the other as a person of equal value to the self.

And the most revealing test of a society’s commitment to dignity is how it treats people who are at the margins – those who are weak and vulnerable; those who are different or in the minority; those without a voice and without power.

This is a test for people in leadership, whether in government, business, or other community organisations and institutions.

It is a test of our social policies and our political institutions.

But it is also a test of what I call our everyday ethics: the decisions we make, the things we say, and the way we behave towards others in everyday life – on the streets, in workplaces, in schools, universities, and colleges, and in cyberspace too.

And this is why I want to talk to you tonight about prejudice – to make the case that prejudice is corrosive of human dignity and has no place in a just society.

 

PREJUDICE DENIES HUMAN DIGNITY

Mistreatment of the marginalised often starts with prejudice.

Indeed the reason many groups of people in our society are marginalised is because of prejudice on the part of others.

Prejudice is a bias against someone simply because of who they are.

It’s a bias against an aspect of a person’s identity like their race, their gender, or their sexuality.

It’s a bias against a person because of their heritage, what job they do or which religion they practice.

It means prejudging people rather than bothering to find out who they are – in the words of Martin Luther King Junior, judging them by the colour of their skin rather than by the content of their character.

Prejudice is driven by ignorance, fear and hatred.

It can be whipped up by those who want to foster social divisions for political ends, or who believe the only way to maintain their own position in society is by victimising and rejecting others.

At its heart, it diminishes the value, the worth and the integrity of the other.

That is why it is felt so keenly and so personally.

That is why its wounds are real.

When a society tolerates prejudice it is sending a message that it is acceptable to have groups who can be abused or mistreated.

And that contradicts the very notion of a just society.

 

WHAT KIND OF SOCIETY DO WE WANT?

In discussing the principles of justice in society, the philosopher John Rawls famously proposed a thought experiment using a device known as the veil of ignorance.[v]

In this experiment, we are asked to work out the rules for our society before we know what our own station will be.

We get to design a society but must do so from behind a veil of ignorance – as if we are about to be born without knowing what our sex, race, religion, family background, intelligence or physical capacities will be.

What this device does is to remove individual interests from the equation and place the focus on the fundamental justice of the situation.

In this scenario, would you choose to live in a society which embraces diversity or in a society which embraces bigotry?

In a society where majority groups have more power than minority groups?

Or in a society which places limits on the power of the majority and protects equal rights for the minority?

Where the right to free speech is absolute or where limits are imposed on speech which abuses, insults, or humiliates others based on the colour of their skin?

From behind the veil of ignorance, I would argue, people will choose to be born into societies which celebrate difference rather than into societies where prejudice flourishes.

Because tolerant societies are more just societies; they accept the inherent dignity of every individual.

As I have said on other occasions, prejudice and distrust cannot build a community but they can tear one apart.

This is why we must not turn a blind eye when we see prejudice.

Prejudice is not just a matter of nasty attitudes and thoughtless remarks that can be ignored.

It causes real harm to real people.

The primary harm is caused to the victims.

But, like all bullying behaviour, prejudice also diminishes and reduces those who dispense it.

And it has a corrosive effect on the wider society.

 

A CONTINUING CHALLENGE

We are sometimes inclined to think of prejudice as something which characterised other places, other times and other policies – segregation in the American south or apartheid in South Africa; or our own policies of the past like the White Australia immigration regime or forced removal of Indigenous children from their parents.

But regrettably prejudice is not a relic of the past.

It may not be as overt or blatant as it was in earlier times, but it remains alive and well, prevalent and potent, in modern Australia.

You will see prejudice in the teenager in a footy crowd who shouts racist abuse at an Aboriginal player.

You will see it in residents protesting against mosques being established in local neighbourhoods; and in anti-Semitic slogans which vandals daub on the walls of Jewish school buildings.

You will see prejudice in the manager who passes over a woman for promotion because he thinks she will be more focussed on her family than on her career.

Or in the employer who rejects a job application from someone with a disability without asking whether they can do the job as well as an able-bodied person.

And you will see darker manifestations of prejudice in gay bashings on the streets of our cities; in sexual harassment and intimidation in some workplaces; and in racially-motivated incidents of violence.

 

IMPACTS AND INCIDENCE

What is it like to experience prejudice in Australia today?

A few years ago the Australian Human Rights Commission conducted a survey of those who had experienced racism in this country.

People said it diminished their sense of worth.

It made them feel sad, angry, afraid, anxious and intimidated.

One respondent said: “It makes me feel like I am a lesser human being.”

Another said: “I feel so much revulsion that I sometimes feel physically ill.”

A Chinese immigrant said: “I came to Australia for freedom. However, racism makes me feel my liberty is incomplete.” [vi]

Prejudice can hurt children as they are growing up, coping at school and forming their own beliefs about what they can and cannot achieve in life.

A recent survey of nearly 600 high school students in Sydney found that half of all students from Indigenous, Pacific Islander, Asian, Middle Eastern and African backgrounds had experienced racism.

Students who had been the targets of racism were more likely to feel a sense of hopelessness about their academic abilities and future prospects.[vii]

Prejudice also influences people who witness such conduct.

Studies by psychologists have shown that when prejudice is expressed in social settings there can be “bystander” effects.

Bystanders who hear a slur against a colleague are more inclined to express prejudiced attitudes themselves or to treat the target of the abuse less favourably.[viii]

In one study, where people heard another person give racist responses to a questionnaire, they provided more racist responses of their own, compared to people who did not hear the prejudiced remarks.[ix]

Social norms have a powerful influence on individual attitudes and behaviour.

This is why it is important to take a stand against prejudice, in our words and our actions, so that silence is not taken for tacit approval or consent.

 

THE STORIES WE TELL

In last year’s Angelo Roncalli Lecture, Gareth Evans recalled his early childhood, growing up in Australia in the 1950s, when the prevailing environment was one of casual, endemic, almost universal racism.

He told the story of how his father, a Melbourne tram driver, routinely used the vocabulary of racial prejudice.

Yet every time Gareth’s father actually met a fellow worker from an immigrant background on the trams, an interesting thing would happen.

Gareth’s father would come home and declare that Angelo from Italy, or Spyrou from Greece, or Freddie from Sri Lanka was “a bloody good bloke.”

As Gareth put it:

“My father died a long time ago, back in the mid-60s, without ever really getting over his prejudices in the abstract. But when you’ve never met a wop or a wog or a boong or a Balt you didn’t actually like, you go a long way towards instilling in your kids a sense of difference between stereotype and individual reality.”[x]

The contrast between prejudice in the abstract versus the concrete experience of meeting, working and living with people from different backgrounds is instructive.

One of the best antidotes to prejudice turns out to be simply getting to know people.

But wouldn’t it be better to find respect and understanding before rather than after the fact?

Overt prejudice on the grounds of race may be less evident today than it was in the 1950s.

Yet negative attitudes persist and they can be all the more insidious for being covert.

As new waves of migrants have come to Australia from different parts of the world, each has faced hostility, suspicion and discrimination.

There were the southern Europeans of the post-war migration boom in the 1950s and 1960s; then the Asian immigration of the 1970s and 1980s, including the original “boat people” – Vietnamese refugees fleeing conflict and communism in their home country; and today, there are migrants from the Middle East and Africa, many of them Muslims.

It seems every new group arriving on our shores has to traverse the same journey, “from threatening stranger to fellow citizen”, in the words of the Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane – or from wog to bloody good bloke, in the words of Gareth’s father.

This suggests that some base level of fear of outsiders has remained constant over the decades.

Surely we can learn from history rather than repeat the injustices of the past; mature as a tolerant and confident society rather than force each newcomer to run a gauntlet of suspicion.

I want to tell two stories that suggest we can.

*****

The first is about my friend Hieu Van Le.

Hieu arrived in Australia in 1977 in a small, flimsy boat with his wife Lan and dozens of other refugees from Vietnam.

He has spoken movingly of his arrival in Darwin Harbour, and I would like to quote this story at some length:

“We approached nervously and hopefully. After many horrific experiences with coastguards in Southeast Asia, we were apprehensive as to what kind of reception we would now receive. We chugged clumsily into the harbour, then heard the approaching buzz of an outboard motor. It’s the coastguard again, we thought, and we braced ourselves, while some even said a little prayer.

Gradually, emerging out of the morning mist, we saw a “tinnie”, with two blokes with shorts and singlets in it, sun hats on, white zinc cream on their noses, fishing rods primed and sticking up in the air, and the first beers of the day were in their hands. They waved at us and steered their boat very close to ours, and one of them raised his stubby as if proposing a toast.

“G’day, mate,” he shouted, “welcome to Australia!” Then he revved up the motor and sped off to get on with the fishing trip they set out to do. We have never seen them again.

We were stunned by the warmth and good nature of this laconic welcome. And that one moment in time has left a lifelong impression on me.

My personal navigation to Australia had been a combination of dark circumstance, accident, fear, despair, but most of all, of hope. Like most other migrants and refugees, I arrived on this silver shore with nothing but my invisible suitcase of cultural heritage and dreams. At another time, another place, a traveller such as me might have been greeted with fear or hostility. But at that time, in this place, I was given the unfettered wish and opportunity to show gratitude. What greeted me was a remarkable generosity of spirit.” [xi]

Over the next few years, Hieu and Lan did not always experience the same laid-back attitude.

They were sent to a migrant hostel in Pennington in Adelaide where they saw “Asians Out” graffiti on walls in the neighbourhood.

They listened to talkback radio callers accusing Vietnamese refugees of taking jobs away from Australians and claiming that they would introduce exotic diseases into the country.

But they settled in to their new community.

Hieu studied economics and accounting and earned an MBA.

He had a successful career as a senior officer of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, and played a leadership role in South Australia’s community, including serving as Chairman of the SA Multicultural and Ethnic Affairs Commission.

In June this year, the South Australian Premier named him as the State’s next Governor.

Hieu’s story is a tribute to his own personal qualities and to Australia’s willingness to extend a helping hand to refugees.

He has said: “The nationality of my childhood was Vietnamese … The nationality of my adulthood is tolerance … The nation of my adulthood is Australia.”

*****

The second story I want to tell is about my parents.

My father grew up in poverty in Malaysia.

My grandmother, Madam Lai Fung Shim – or Poh Poh as I called her in her language – didn’t finish primary school.

When the war came to Malaysia, she lost most of her family and was left alone to endure extraordinary hardship simply to survive and to protect her children.

The harsh conduct of the invading Japanese imperial forces is well known.

As a young child during the Japanese occupation of Malaysia my father was asked to mind some coconuts to protect them from starving dogs.

He ended up being bitten on the face by a dog and, with no medicines to treat the wound, it became seriously infected.

One day he was sitting near a road and a Japanese soldier passing by noticed his swollen face.

The soldier put Dad on his bicycle, took him to a clinic, treated the wound, gave him a meal and took him home.

The soldier came back several times over the following weeks to dress the wound and make sure it healed.

But for that act of random kindness, my father may not have survived.

As he likes to say: “God can send an enemy to save you.”

He went on to finish school after the war and won a scholarship under the Colombo Plan, the regional development initiative spearheaded by Australia and Sri Lanka in the early 1950s.

That brought him to Australia where he studied architecture at the University of Adelaide in the 1960s.

Yes, he experienced prejudice during his time here as a student.

But he also experienced kindness, friendship and the life-changing opportunity of education – and he married an Australian woman, my mother Jane, a descendant of Samuel Chapman, one of the first boat-load of English settlers to arrive in South Australia in 1836.

After graduating from university, Dad returned to Malaysia, where he has been part of a generation of Australian-educated professionals who helped shape and build a new society, lifting millions of people out of poverty.

He survived the war due to the fierce love of his mother and an individual act of humanity in the midst of collective inhumanity.

And he was able to fulfil his potential as a human being due to a national act of generosity by the Australian people.

*****

I’m very proud that South Australia will have Hieu Van Le as its next Governor – that we live in a country where you can arrive as a boat person and become the Governor of a state.

I also feel immensely privileged that South Australians have elected the daughter of Francis Wong and Jane Chapman, the grand-daughter of Madam Lai, to the Australian Parliament – the same Parliament which debated the Colombo Plan and relations with the emerging post-colonial nations of Asia in the 1950s.

Aren’t these better stories for Australia to tell about itself than the appeals to fear, anxiety and suspicion of those harbouring prejudice in their hearts?

Stories about extending a helping hand to the developing nations in our neighbourhood; changing people’s lives; providing refuge for victims of poverty, persecution and conflict; and benefiting in turn from their hard work and their contributions to our society.

 

PLAYING OUR PART

So how can we play our part in ensuring the Australian story is one of tolerance rather than prejudice?

We must examine our own attitudes and conduct as individuals along with the policies and performance of the organisations we are involved in, the workplaces, the businesses, the sporting clubs, the churches and the political parties.

The theme your College has nominated for this lecture provides a good test for that self-examination – are we embracing our common humanity?

I acknowledge that this College’s guiding principles include respecting the value of each individual, protecting human rights, upholding human responsibilities, and acknowledging the importance of solidarity and social justice.

We must also understand the reality of prejudice and the wide range of people it affects – millions of Indigenous Australians, immigrants, women, the disabled, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, and those from minority racial or religious communities.

People who are in prominent positions in public life have a special responsibility to consider the impact of their words – the role their speech can play in inflaming prejudice.

The blatantly racist epithets which were endemic during Gareth Evans’s childhood may now be frowned upon in polite company.

Yet the prolific vocabulary of prejudice still thrives on the streets.

And the rise of social media has created a new space for the bigots to spread their views and abuse others – typically from behind a coward’s veil of anonymity.

This is why it is important to make a stand against unacceptable conduct in everyday life.

When you see or hear something that is not right, you should speak up, express solidarity and show compassion for those who are being victimised.

I understand that standing up against prejudice can be hard.

None of us want to get in harm’s way.

But it makes a difference.

Standing up is not just a matter of doing the right thing and supporting the victims.

It can also make a difference to the wider society.

I spoke earlier about what social psychologists call the bystander effect.

The good news is the bystander effect can work in positive as well as negative directions.

Research shows that “bystander anti-racism” – when bystanders speak out against incidents of racism – can have positive impacts on the attitudes of other bystanders and even perpetrators.[xii]

 

A WIDER AGENDA

I’ve spoken about what we can do as individuals to tackle prejudice and support those who are marginalised in our society.

There is also clearly a critical role for collective action – for working through the political system to deliver public policies which remedy these social ills.

Societies which are serious about respecting the dignity of individuals and embracing our common humanity must go further than eliminating the negatives of prejudice and discrimination.

They should also adopt policies which support the disadvantaged, which tackle inequality and which create opportunities for people to improve their position.

If we live in a society where some people want for nothing while others want for the basic necessities of life; where some people have access to the very best education, while for others a quality education is beyond reach, then we are all diminished.

We are all stronger if we don’t leave people behind.

You will be aware that there is currently a debate in federal politics about the federal Budget.

This debate is often couched in managerialist language which talks about the sustainability of the welfare system, or about introducing price signals into the health system, or about ensuring the users of the education system pay for the benefits they receive.

But this is really a debate about the type of society we want Australia to be.

And it is a debate where an unusual form of prejudice has crept in – prejudice against the poor and the disadvantaged, simply for being poor and disadvantaged.

Prejudice which stereotypes and divides our population, characterising people as being either grudging “lifters” or undeserving “leaners.”

Prejudice which trumpets so-called “welfare crackdowns” and which presents a progressive taxation system as part of the problem rather than as part of the solution.

Prejudice which fails to recognise that an unequal society is to the disadvantage of all of us.

For the political party I represent, these are prejudices we reject, and a view of society which is at odds with our values.

In our view, a fair and egalitarian society is part of what defines and identifies us as Australian.

 

CONCLUSION

I began this lecture by reflecting on the legacy of Angelo Roncalli, Pope John XXIII, known in his day as il Papa buono or “the good pope.”

There are many lovely stories about the humility of Pope John.

One that appeals to me is how he would sometimes forget that he was the Pope.

On a visit to a seminary in Rome, he confided that he would sometimes hear people around him saying things like “The Pope should be told this” or “This will have to be dealt with by the Pope.”

“When I hear this,” Pope John told the seminarians, “I still think of the holy father Pope Pius XII, whom I venerated and loved so much, forgetting that the person they are talking about is me, who chose to be called John.” [xiii]

Half a century after Pope John’s death, there is a new Pope in Rome who is displaying all of his humility.

And he is also carrying on other central elements of Roncalli’s mission: fostering a new mood of optimism; “opening windows” in the Vatican; emphasising the Church’s pastoral vocation; and reaching out to people including the poor and the marginalised.

Many have remarked on the parallels between Pope John and Pope Francis.

When he was elected as Pope in March last year, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was seen by some as a conventional choice, not regarded as a figure of innovation. [xiv]

Yet Pope Francis has confounded expectations.

On Holy Thursday last year, a few days after his election, he re-enacted Jesus’s washing of the feet of the twelve apostles.

Instead of performing the rite at St. Peter’s, and washing the feet of twelve priests, the Pope went to a juvenile detention centre on Rome’s outskirts.

There he washed, dried and kissed the feet of twelve young inmates, two of them Muslims, and two of them young women.

When one of the detainees asked why he had come to them, the Pope said: “Things from the heart don’t have an explanation.”

Again this year, Pope Francis performed the ritual at a home for the elderly and the disabled, washing the feet of people confined to wheelchairs, victims of spinal injuries and a cerebral palsy sufferer.

The new Pope has also prosecuted the Church’s social teaching, declaring that “inequality is the root of social evil.”

In these gestures, Pope Francis has invoked Roncalli’s example: recognising the universal dignity of all individuals, emphasising what people have in common rather than what divides them, and placing himself at the service of those who are suffering or marginalised by society.

Roncalli’s approach is one we can all learn from.

For we cannot embrace our common humanity without also embracing our human differences.

ENDS

 

[i] Hebblethwaite, Peter (1984), John XXIII: Pope of the Council, p 287

[ii] Johnson, Paul (1975) Pope John XXIII, p 131.

[iii] Mater et Magistra, Encyclical of Pope John XXIII on Christianity and Social Progress (1961), paragraphs 218-20.

[iv] Pacem in Terris, Encyclical of Pope John XXIII on Establishing Universal Peace in Truth, Justice, Charity and Liberty (1963), paragraphs 86-89.

[v] Rawls, J (1971) A Theory of Justice, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, pp 136-42.

[vi] Soutphommasane, Tim (2014) “Two Freedoms: Freedom of Expression and Freedom from Racial Vilification”, Alice Tay Lecture in Law and Human Rights, 3 March 2014.

[vii] Bodkin-Andrews, G. and Cravenn, R. (2014) “Bubalamai Bawa Gumada (Healing the Wounds of the Heart): The Search for Resilience Against Racism for Aboriginal Australian Students” in Australian Council for Educational Research, Quality and Equity: What does research teach us?, Research Conference 2014 Conference Proceedings.

[viii] Goodman, J.A., Schell, J., Alexander, M.G, and Eidelman, S. (2008) “The Impact of a Derogatory Remark on Prejudice Toward a Gay Male Leader”, Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 38(2), pp. 542-55.

[ix] Blanchard, F. A., Crandall, C. S., Brigham, J. C., & Vaughn, L. A. (1994). Condemning and condoning racism: A social context approach to interracial settings. Journal of Applied Psychology, 79, 993–997.

[x] Evans, Gareth (2013), Embracing Our Common Humanity, 2013 Angelo Roncalli Lecture by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans, John XXIII College, Canberra, 15 August 2013

[xi] Le, Hieu Van (2011) Second Annual Address on Immigration and Citizenship, Speech by Mr Hieu Van Le, Old Parliament House, Canberra, 16 June 2011

[xii] Nelson, J.K., Dunn, K.M. and Paradies, Y. (2011) “Bystander Anti-Racism: A Review of the Literature”, Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 11(1), pp 263-84.

[xiii] Hebblethwaite, Peter (1984), John XXIII: Pope of the Council, p 301.

[xiv] Carroll, James (2013) “Who Am I To Judge? A Radical Pope’s First Year”, The New Yorker, 23 December 2013.