This year’s Harmony Day faces new challenges in combating hate

Contributed by Joe Montero

Today 21 March is world Harmony Day and the big day in a week of activities, where we celebrate the gifts brought to all of us by people from diverse Backgrounds. This year the theme is “everyone belongs.” Harmony Day origin can be traced back to south Africa, where on this date in 1960, police fired live ammunition into a crowd of black people in a black township called Sharpeville, who were demanding the abolition of the “pass laws.” These laws had taken away their right of freedom of movement. Sixty-nine unarmed people were killed. Images of what happened reverberated around a shocked world.

Photo from The Journalist – context matters: Burying the Sharpeville dead.

The killing became known as the Sharpeville Massacre. It gave rise to the global anti-Apartheid movement, and this contributed hugely to the advancing the cause against racial intolerance everywhere.

Less than a decade later the United Nations proclaimed March 21 the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

Intolerance still exists in some quarters. It is usually often more subtle than it once was. The fact that it exists shows the cause not yet completely won. at the same time, there are good reasons to celebrate the achievements.

Australia is a good example. The diversity of peoples is building a new nation with a unique and exiting multicultural culture.  We are much better off for it. Hasn’t this change brought about a greater depth and variety of what we eat, enriched overall culture and lives?

I remember what it was like when I first arrived in this country as a youngster. Because of my surname, I was called a Dago. This meant Italian. Although not Italian, I know something of what the Italians went through. I know how intolerance invited derision and sometimes violence. Italians were accused of being a threat to the Australian way of life.

Those who still feel threatened and insist multiculturalism is a policy thrust on them, don’t yet realise that the term is only a description for what Australia has been since the arrival of the First fleet. The emergence of a multicultural identity can be traced back to the goldfields on the 1850’s and the Eureka uprising in Ballarat. Miners from many backgrounds came together against injustice and a better nation.

The matter of intolerance is not just about where new arrivals to this land came from. It’s about the treatment of the original inhabitants of this land. It’s about groups of people with other differences. Here too progress has been made and there is still some way to go.

Map of First Nations show the diversity already here before the First Fleet landed

Harmony Day is therefore an occasion to celebrate the achievements and for preparing to win a better tomorrow. This involves standing against a new headwind threatening to blow us backward. We have seen the intolerant pushing the anti LGBTQ cause and raging against anyone economically or socially disadvantaged as a threat. They are the same who recently railed against anyone who looked of middle Eastern or African background, and are now turning their attention to the Chinese, which in their eyes, means anyone of Asian appearance.

There is a common thread. At times of bad economic headwinds and greater uncertainty and fear about the future, unscrupulous political leaders and their backers tend to head off attention to themselves by means of turning people against each other. We have this today. It’s the old system of divide and rule method.

Making it worse, is the geopolitics Australia is caught up in, revolving talking up war with China. The fallout is being felt by Chinese and other Asian background Australians. They are victims of discrimination. Hate groups, although isolated from the general community, are nevertheless making something of a comeback. Sadly, too many politicians and too much media are adopting the claims of the hate groups and giving them some legitimacy.

Harmony Day must now take opposition to this on board. Our future depends on winning people towards greater tolerance. Together, we must convince those who are scared that there is a better way than a direction that divides us as a people and carries this into the global theatre.

The alternative is to let hate carry us, towards a global war that will destroy us at worst, and an internal conflict,  which will diminish us  at best.

The lesson of the Sharpeville Massacre was the need to unite for the important need to build harmony against intolerance. Today it is the need to build harmony for unity at hoe and for peace in the international environment.

This is a good time to publish in full, the following letter from a concerned Chinese Australian to the Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese. He has given permission to share it.

16 March 2023

The Prime Minister of Australia

The Hon. Mr A Albanese

Parliament House

Dear Prime Minister,

I am writing out of a mixture of deep concern, sadness, and disappointment.

I am a Life Member of the Australian Labor Party Victorian Branch (Member #7412) and was also one of the longest-serving Presidents of the Victorian Branch Multicultural Affairs Policy Committee. My parents were founding members (1951) of the Australia-China Friendship Society (ACFS), and I have served as President for the past six years. I am also the Secretary-General of the Pacific-China Friendship Association (PCFA), where I interact weekly with many from 16 Pacific Island nations.

It was with high hopes that I heard of Senator Wong’s appointment as Foreign Minister. As a Chinese, I was heartened that at the highest level, Australia was being represented by an Asian so clear minded and forthright. I had faith that the sabre-rattling and combative language would cease.

With the rise of anti-Chinese sentiment during COVID, the despicable behaviour reminded me of the dark days of the Cold War: threats, public abuse, and almost comical avoidance of me in the street. And now we see a three-day war-fest of China bashing and fear-mongering, in publications considered to be newspapers of record, the Age and Sydney Morning Herald’s “Red Alert” series.

Prime Minister, I am not asking you to tackle members of the Fourth Estate. My request goes to the heart of truth, impartiality, and evidence, not speculation and partisan rhetoric.

Analysing the backgrounds of all who have commented for these articles, they have links to ASPI or similarly-biased think tanks which are far from neutral. That all five come from the same side is disappointing in terms of transparency and range of opinion.

This is a time for de-escalation and rational discussion, not blind allegiance and bombastic declarations of nationalism and overblown perils. In the cacophony of opinion, there are many respected commentators who argue for a more nuanced and sophisticated policy, such as Keating, Menadue and (Hugh)White. For the sake of our independence and the peace and security of the Asia-Pacific region, we cannot afford inflammatory language and a confrontational approach which was the hallmark of the previous Australian Government.

This goes to Labor’s heart. My mentor was Dr Jim Cairns, a contemporary and friend of my parents at Melbourne University. He and another of my mentors, Tom Uren, did not tolerate injustice, hatred, and bigotry. Permitting commentary by those enmeshed in the parochial field of American politics to run unchallenged, shrieks danger and paranoia. This is not the Australia in which I wish to live, and I truly believe it is not the Australia of which you dream.

Labor is different. Labor is thoughtful and Labor has always stood for peaceful coexistence. Now we must show leadership as we have in other areas and flourish alongside nations rather than preparing for some confected war. I and most Chinese in Australia look to you to salve the wounds and begin the national healing by stopping the words of aggression.

Yours in friendship

Anthony M Leong.

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