ACT News

'Team Australia' label not for everyone, says Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane

`Team Australia' call by Prime Minister Tony Abbott has stirred concerns over its effect on racial harmony in some quarters. Tom McIlroy reports.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott's calls for the country to sign up for membership in "Team Australia" could be unhelpful to racial harmony in the community, Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane says.

Distancing himself from Mr Abbott's calls for everyone to "be on Team Australia", Dr Soutphommasane used an address at the ACT Legislative Assembly to argue some citizens preferred a quieter form of national identity.

He told delegates at the ACT government's One Canberra Symposium that there was no single way to prove patriotism. 

A first-generation Australian of Chinese and Lao heritage, the author and political philosopher said rising anxiety about terrorism was having an impact on racial tolerance and harmony, leading some in the Muslim community to have genuine fears for their safety.

"I think it is only fair that we ask what Team Australia must mean," Dr Soutphommasane said.

"If Team Australia is to mean an Australian, democratic community, then I think no one would object to it. In fact we are all members of that community, whether we are born here or have come here as migrants." 

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Some of the most genuine civic pride in Australia "comes from within", he told representatives of ethnic groups, community organisations and police. 

"We should remember as well that patriotism or a love of country is something that isn't always worn on your sleeve and isn't something that is always expressed explicitly," he said. 

"It is not something that you have to express every day, overtly or beat your chest about. You can be a lot more humble, you can be quieter and in many ways it is more powerful that way as well." 

In August, Mr Abbott said radicalised citizens leaving Australia to join extremist groups operating in conflicts in the Middle East posed a risk and migrants should show loyalty to the nation. 

"You don't migrate to this country unless you want to join our team," Mr Abbott said.

He has regularly used the phrase since coming to government and has previously attacked multiculturalism, however, Mr Abbott used his 2009 memoir Battlelines to argue diversity was no longer threatening to conservatives. 

Dr Soutphommasane also questioned rhetoric from former prime minister John Howard, echoed by Mr Abbott.

Australians had every right to be "relaxed and comfortable" about their multicultural society, which had the potential to be a powerful uniting force.

"It stands for the proposition that there is no single or authoritative way that you can be Australian," Dr Soutphommasane said. 

"Our multiculturalism has involved an ongoing project. It requires constant effort and it demands our vigilance."

ACT Chief Minister Katy Gallagher and Multicultural Affairs Minister Joy Burch used the event to launch a new reference group to co-ordinate activities promoting cultural harmony in the ACT.

Ms Burch said the group wouldwork on issues identified during the forum to ensure "multiculturalism continues to be a mainstay of our city".

Canberra Islamic Centre representative Azra Khan told the forum that Muslims in Canberra were facing worsening conditions. 

She said harassment and intolerance had been present since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. 

"The narrative clearly has not helped the Muslim community at large," she said.

"It is impacting a number of people on a day-to-day basis ... we've heard reports of people being abused. It is not to the same extent people are experiencing in Melbourne and Sydney, it is a lower level of discrimination and harassment." 

Attorney-General Simon Corbell and Opposition Leader Jeremy Hanson also addressed the gathering, which included delegates from ACT Policing, youth representatives and the Canberra Interfaith Forum. 

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