Speech by Senator the Hon Ursula Stephens

7th International Dialogue Australasia Network Conference

Location: Old Parliament House, Canberra

Senator the Hon Ursula Stephens
Parliamentary Secretary for Social Inclusion

The 7th International Dialogue Australasia Network Conference

Members Dining Room
Old Parliament House, Canberra
(Entry via Rear Entrance, Queen Victoria Terrace)

10.00 a.m.
Wednesday 15 April 2009

*** CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY ***

Acknowledgements

  • The Ngunnawal people
  • International guests
  • Principals, teachers, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen

Introduction

I would like to welcome you all to Canberra and to Old Parliament House.

And for those who have come from afar-from beyond our shores-I’m sure you will feel at home and enjoy Canberra’s brilliant autumn colours.

It’s a great pleasure to be here to open the 7th International Dialogue Australasia Network Conference on behalf of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. He sends his best wishes for the success of this conference.

Given Australia’s history, it’s not surprising that we have such a range of religions in this country: 20 million people, half of whom claim overseas heritage, 200 languages, 34 religious groups. We hear a lot about Australia as a multi-cultural society- which is a great thing. I love the diversity and distinctiveness of different cultures and the ways they reveal themselves in our everyday lives. But the emphasis of multiculturalism is on distinctiveness, on difference-and our purpose here is to acknowledge that but also, and importantly, to focus on points of contact, on shared values, on ways of understanding and communicating with each other as well as merely respecting and even admiring each other’s differences.

Because we only have to look into our own individual lives to recognise that it is easier by far to move in your own cultural circle, to speak of spiritual matters with people of your own faith, and to find comfort, when necessary, from those who can really understand the pain you’re suffering because they approach it from the same starting point. I think we need to acknowledge this, as we begin this dialogue, and then set it aside in our important efforts to really talk and listen to each other.

And I think we need to approach this dialogue in a spirit of optimism that the problems arising from fundamentally differing faith bases can be overcome-a “yes we can” approach, if you like! As a politician, I often hear the claim that solving entrenched problems of cultural and religious difference is “impossible”; for instance that the Israeli conflict with the Palestinians – and the Muslim world – has no solution.. “Too hard,” people say, “where do you start?” Or worse “They’re never going to make peace. Too much blood under the bridge and besides, they hate each other”, and so on.

Well, scepticism has no place at this conference.

I am an Irish Catholic. My family came to Australia when I was too young to understand what being a Protestant or a Catholic meant, and as I grew up in Australia I listened to a lot of talk about the trouble in northern Ireland, the violence and mistrust on both sides, one rock thrown or one bullet fired being met with retaliation that itself demanded a response. The Irish in our community used to sit around the table sighing at the waste of life, many of them sceptical that a resolution would ever be found. Some engaged in dialogue-discussing the role of the British army, or arguing that the Irish should take a leaf out of the Aussie book and send Catholic and Protestant kids to school together and breed a new generation that didn’t demonise the other side. I remember sitting there listening to one such conversation and wondering to myself, who were “the other side”-weren’t both the other side? And was reconciliation really hopeless while they both thought in this way?

Young people need help when they begin to think about such things, so I’m very pleased to support you all as educators in this important undertaking. When I was growing up I didn’t really have anyone to discuss such things with, and if I tried, the advice was to pray. Fair enough! But I think, not enough.

Of course, my parents prayed hard for peace in Northern Ireland. In fact my mother was determined not to die before they got it! That wasn’t to be, but I wonder what she thought, sitting up there in Heaven, when she looked down and saw that Protestant stalwart Ian Paisley forming a power-sharing agreement with Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams. Just before she died she was listening to a radio broadcast about the so called Peace Process and it was announced that these two men refused to be interviewed not just in the same studio, but in the same building! And I often think of her now, as I read about how the fledgling new government is talking its way forward. Yes, there are still sectarian problems in Northern Ireland, as we saw recently on the news, but wasn’t it just wonderful, just consoling and uplifting, to see how the people as a whole, including the MPs of all persuasion, banded together to denounce the violence and spoke out as one for a way forward based on dialogue, not physical force?

So one of the most vital messages for the youth of the world is that it is possible to change entrenched attitudes, by using our minds instead of our fists. But really using our minds isn’t always easy. And may I say, I hope the dialogue between Christianity, Judaism and Islam in this conference isn’t easy and I also hope that the feeling of goodwill that I can sense this morning doesn’t lead us to platitudes and clich├ęs for fear of offending, confronting or seeming to disrespect each other. Let’s make a conscious decision to avoid the short-circuitry that Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney describes in his poem, “Whatever you say, say nothing.”

This conference is a great step forward in helping to provide an important link in interfaith and intercultural education, building the bridge between global citizens and I commend the efforts of the Dialogue Australasia Network.

In the next two days, you will be sharing ideas that will give educators the knowledge, practical strategies and resources to help their students understand the common ground between Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Promoting interfaith and intercultural education will help young Australians appreciate different belief systems and different cultures, traditions and customs.

Intercultural understanding creates strong and vibrant communities and also helps foster social inclusion, a key priority on the Australian Government’s nation-building agenda.

Lessons from history

From history, we know that centuries of faith-based conflict and mutual hostility gave rise to enduring mistrust and fear among the peoples of the world.

But history also tells us that all ‘peoples of the Book’-Muslims, Christians and Jews-shared the common monotheistic vision of a belief in one divine God, lived and worked side by side amicably and peacefully in several great cities.

Young and talented Christians in 10th Century Spain, in Cordoba, one of the most civilised cities in Europe, were known to have developed significant interest and knowledge in Arab theology, philosophy and language extensively. There were a thousand who could ‘express themselves in Arabic with elegance, and write better poems in this language than the Arabs themselves1.

Influenced by their respective belief systems, these Christians, Jews and Muslims shared many values: respect for knowledge, justice, and parents; the significance of family life; and compassion for the poor and disadvantaged.

The Australian Government’s social inclusion agenda

A lack of understanding of other cultures and belief systems can lead to social exclusion, inequity and economic disadvantage. The Australian Government recognises this. Our social inclusion agenda is about enabling all individuals, regardless of their faith, background or circumstances, to fully participate in the economic, social and civil life of their local community. It will also open up a ‘social space’ to discuss issues of concern to individuals and their communities, such as those being examined here.

Promoting interfaith and intercultural education in Australian schools

The Australian Government shares the ambitious and noble goal of this Conference-that of helping to build knowledge, understanding and respect for each other, and has been pursuing this goal in schools through its Promoting Interfaith and Intercultural Understanding in School Settings Pilot Program.

This pilot was designed to promote interschool cooperation, educational resource development by teachers and support for teacher professional learning in teaching interfaith and intercultural understanding more confidently.

Through the program we’ve seen a strengthening of the interconnectedness between students, their parents and community leaders. The pilot program is a fantastic example of social inclusion in action.

A forum held last month to showcase strategies and achievements in promoting interfaith and intercultural understanding in schools exceeded all expectations. The forum attracted 280 participants from 30 schools-more than the original 16 pilot schools-and representatives from all levels of governments and education sectors – both government and independent -, parents and community leaders.

The student presentations said it all: their shared values and experiences came straight from the heart! Students, teachers and the wider community shared many heartfelt and meaningful learning, ideas and experiences.

The teachers saw the work of the Interfaith Pilot as more than just education. As they pointed out, it’s about life; it’s what their schools need. The Interfaith pilot was a fantastic exercise in collaboration. To their credit, the participating school principals, teachers, students and parents worked together to achieve a common objective.

Their efforts have served to inspire other schools around the country. Their efforts have served to highlight our social inclusion vision for all Australians-one where all can participate in the social and economic life of our country.

Conclusion

The message of peaceful co-existence through developing an understanding of other cultures and faiths is one that we should spread among our young people.

The Government shares Dialogue Australasia Network’s commitment to promote respect and understanding of other cultures and belief systems through education.

We believe it’s all about social inclusion-creating a better and fairer Australia.

It’s now my great pleasure to declare the 7th International Dialogue Australasia Network Conference officially open.

Appendix:

Brahmanism: This is the sum of duty: Do naught unto others which would cause you pain if done to you.: Mahabharata 5:1517

Christianity: All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.: Matthew 7:12

Islam: No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself. Sunnah

Buddhism: Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.: Udana Varga 5:18

Judaism: What is hateful to you, do not to your fellowmen. That is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary.: Talmud, Shabbat 31:a

Confucianism: Surely it is the maxim of loving-kindness: Do not unto others that you would not have them do unto you.: Analects 15:23

Taoism: Regard your neighbour’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbour’s loss as your own loss.: T’ai Shag Kan Ying P’ien

Zoroastrianism: That nature alone is good which refrains from doing unto another whatsoever is not good: for itself. : Dadistan-i-dinik 94:5

  1. Maria Rosa Menocal, 2002, The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain, New York, Little, Brown and Company, p. 66.