Senator Penny Wong considers today’s politicians have failed to isolate the extremism of One Nation as effectively as in the 1990s.
Perhaps a contributing factor is that few political leaders have any interest in the history of their profession, because their focus is too often on the next opinion poll or election.
Back in 1996, many Australians were shocked when parliamentary newcomer Pauline Hanson used her first speech to launch an attack on Asian immigration. Media and political comment was loud and intense ,but a lesser known initiative in response to her intemperate rant was the Federal Parliamentarians Code Of Race Ethics , which had the potential to be an effective tool in combatting hate speech.
Yet for twenty years successive parliamentary leaders were oblivious to its existence until October 2016 when Shadow Attorney General, Mark Dreyfus resurrected the almost forgotten Code of Race Ethics to be signed by all members of the Labor Caucus that year .
This week Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has written to the Prime Minister urging him to also see this Code as an important way to tackle racism in the parliament and the community.
It is significant that the Code of Race Ethics was developed as a result of a complaint brought by the Ipswich indigenous community in 1996 when their newly elected Member of Parliament announced she would not represent them or their issues. This was unprecedented for an MP to publicly refuse to work with a group of constituents .
As a result a delegation of Ipswich elders went to Canberra calling for Parliamentarians to “represent all of their constituents without racial discrimination, fear or favour “
The issue was debated in the Senate in May 1996 and a unanimous motion led to a Code of Race Ethics being developed by Senators Reynolds (Labor ) and Woodley (Democrat ).
Over the next few months various consultations were held with Parliamentarians and with community groups. There was no precedent for such a document but the final Code of Race Ethics was influenced by “Politicians and Citizens Roles and Responsibilities” (John Warhurst,1995 ) and “Code of Practice for Parliamentarians “(Kevin Rizzoli 1991 )
The eight principles of the Federal Parliamentarians Code of Race Ethics includes respect for religious and cultural belief of all groups living within Australia in accordance with the United Declaration of Human Rights . Parliamentarians commit “to speak and write in a manner which provides factual commentary on a foundation of truth.”
The Code recognises and values diversity as an integral part of Australia’s social and economic future.
In 1996 there was political resistance to the Code of Race Ethics being passed by either the Senate or the House of Representatives, but over several months a large number of individual elected members officially endorsed the Code, including then Deputy Prime Minister , Tim Fischer, Brendan Nelson, Marise Payne and several other prominent members of the Coalition Government.
A majority of Labor Opposition Members and Senators committed to the Code .
The Code was also debated in some state parliaments and a majority of Labor and Liberal leaders of the time became signatories.
In Tasmania the Code was enshrined in Standing Orders of the House of Assembly.
In December 1996 the Australian Council of Churches hosted an event in Canberra’s Parliament House where Church Leaders came together with community organisations and Parliamentarians to endorse the need for the Code of Race Ethics.
Father Frank Brennan addressed the audience reminding everyone that “ this voluntary code does not place any limit on freedom of speech but is a democratic enhancement of it “
In September 1998 there were 1435 candidates for the Federal Election and all candidates received a copy of the Code of Race Ethics suggesting that as potential elected members or senators they consider becoming signatories and 553 did so .
The newly elected parliament of 1998 included 121 Members and Senators who had given a commitment to abide by the Code of Race Ethics.
At the time it was stated: “ as Parliamentarians approach a new century ,we will be addressing significant issues relating to multiculturalism, reconciliation and Australia’s place in the Asia Pacific region so by the Centenary of Federation there should be 100% of Parliamentarians committed to this code.”
Unfortunately interest and commitment to the Code of Race Ethics lapsed for twenty years , but it is good to know that a substantial number of Labor parliamentarians in the May election are already signed on to support its principles.
There is still time for the Prime Minister to take up this initiative and ensure the potential strength of an all-party Australian Code of Race Ethics becomes a national statement, which could start to repair the damage racism in our parliament has created in our communities.
Margaret Reynolds was Labor Senator for Queensland 1983- 1999