Labor for Refugees AGM

Keynote Address

I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today, the Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung and Boon Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation.


I pay my respects to their elders past and present.


We are a migrant nation.


We all came either by boat or by plane, except for those who were here first.


That migration has built a vibrant, thriving, and diverse country.


But as you all know, there are deep scars that exist for our first Australians.


We have an important and historic opportunity this year to change this.


We can begin the healing.


As a migrant nation, we must – in order to build an Australia that recognises the past as part of our shared future.


We have an opportunity to begin implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart to ensure that our national parliament has the benefit of the Voice.


To further the self-determination of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples by giving them greater say in matters that affect them.


And I urge you all to be active in the campaign for a Yes vote in the referendum.


I know you are all excellent and passionate campaigners. For years, you’ve used your voices to advocate for the humane and fair treatment of people who have been persecuted and displaced.


As I know it is for many of you, this issue is deeply personal for me.


Like most Australian Jewish families, my family has a refugee connection.


My grandmother, Gerda Cohen, arrived in Australia as a consequence of international recognition of the need to resettle Jewish refugees displaced from Nazi Germany and occupied Austria.


In July 1938, the President of the United States, Franklin Roosevelt, sponsored a conference at Evian in France to consider this issue.


Australia was represented by Colonel Tom White, Minister for Trade and Customs in the Lyons government, and Member for Balaclava – part of the same area I now represent.


Unfortunately, the Australia of that time was not known for its outward generosity towards those seeking passage from continental Europe or most other parts of the world.


At the conference, White announced: “It will no doubt be appreciated, that as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one by encouraging any scheme of large-scale foreign migration.”


Fortunately, Australia was actually a little more generous than might have been expected from White’s words.


The government agreed to resettle 15,000 Jewish refugees over three years.


Proportionate to our population, that was higher than the number of people accepted by the United States and many other countries.


Regrettably, the outbreak of war in 1939 meant than in fact only about 9,000 Jewish refugees came to Australia.


But among them was my grandmother, Gerda Cohen.


And my family are forever grateful to Australia for this opportunity and beautiful home.


And maybe just a fun fact for you.


In the same refugee intake as my grandmother was George Dreyfus, the father of my colleague the Attorney-General.


As is so often the situation when our country is open to resettlement for people in need, in this case Germany’s loss was Australia’s gain.


Similar to the story of Gerda and George, Australia has welcomed nearly 5,000 displaced persons from Ukraine since the start of Russia’s brutal and illegal invasion a year ago.


Communities around Australia have welcomed these people, most of them women and children, into their lives, and have helped them find homes, find work and settle into schools.


This has shown Australia’s response to those in need at its best.


But I don’t have to tell anyone here that in recent years we have seen examples of Australia’s response to refugees at its worst.


We have seen refugees from Afghanistan and Iran used as a wedge issue against Labor in several federal elections.

We have seen nasty media campaigns and a thinly veiled attacks on refugees from South Sudan and Somalia for domestic political purposes.


We have seen vandalism of mosques and temples.


And unfortunately, the fear mongering and public slogans have crowded out a reasoned and compassionate exchange of ideas, and the voices of those whose lives are directly affected by the policy choices we make.


But I do think that public sentiment is shifting.


I believe that most Australians recognise that the policy-making challenges here are complex, but are being made more so by a politics of false binaries.


We have to give Australia’s hopeful side a fair chance to prevail over the politics of fear, and division.


And this is what Labor in government is trying to achieve.


In Andrew Giles, the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs, we have an energetic and principled minister who is determined to fix these problems.


He has already made a series of reforms that are designed to fix years of neglect in our migration system and problems that have been compounded by ideological disregard of people’s rights.


Most recently, Andrew has enabled temporary protection and safe haven enterprise visa holders to apply for a permanent protection.


This will affect people who have lived under a shadow of uncertainty for too long – and unnecessarily so.


As a consequence of this decision, the lives of 19,000 people already living in our community will change for the better.


To put this into context, this is more than the entire number of places that was provided for under the 2022-23 Humanitarian Program.


These people deserve the opportunity to participate in all aspects of Australian life and the Australian economy—and now they will. They can gain secure employment, grow businesses, more easily study, sponsor eligible family members to Australia and benefit from a pathway to Australian citizenship.


This makes our community, our economy and our nation stronger.


When we made this announcement, I received these words from an Iranian refugee named Arian. Arian runs a small business and with his family has been in Australia since 2012. He volunteers for an amazing organisation called Welcoming Australia – of which I hope you are aware, helping other refugee and migrant families. He said:


It's hard to put into words what this means.


We came to Australia with so much hope for a safe and bright future.


Instead, we were met with a decade of cruelty and limbo, unable to build our future here with any certainty.


This change will gift a new life to so many people in our community, the opportunity for them to start their lives again.


I'm glad we have people like Arian in our community, and I'm glad to be part of a government that has given him and his family that opportunity.


People from all around the world, who have fled war-torn countries and will now be finally given an opportunity to properly start their lives and contribute to the unique multicultural makeup of our wonderful country.



I realise that often when Labor comes to government, our supporters and members are eager and impatient for change.



I feel this too.



It can be easy to focus on the not-done, rather than the differences we have made.


Certainly, I always want Labor people to have greater aspirations for what Labor governments can achieve – this is what spurs us on.


But we must also take the time to recognise how the decisions we do make have the capacity to affect many lives for the better.


Since coming to government, we have almost halved the population of the people remaining on Nauru and we will work until each every person is given a pathway to a better future.


In addition, we are delivering on 5,000 Community Refugee Integration and Settlement Pilot (CRISP), places, on top of existing resettlement places.


We have also supported the implementation of third country resettlement arrangements with the United States and New Zealand to ensure that eligible people are resettled as a matter of priority.


Through our foreign policy and the work of Penny Wong, we have begun engaging with Asia like an as key partners, and commenced rebuilding our relationships with our Pacific family.


This provides our nation with greater standing right where we need it the most – within our own region.


We have made significant progress, but as you know, there is more work to do.


And your voices and advocacy will continue to be important.


I know we need to ensure that the remaining small number of people in immigration detention with refugee status are resolved as quickly as possible.


Our words in the 1930s fortunately did not match our eventual deeds, but it is true that at various times in our history we have failed to be the nation we could be when it comes to migration and refugee policy.


Australia at its best is strong, courageous and big-hearted, and Labor’s approach to migration strives to be just that.


I join with you all in participating within our party and our government so that compassion and generosity, not division and demonisation, are at the heart of our approach to those who come across the seas.


Let it be true that we really, in the words of our national anthem, have boundless plains to share.








24 March 2023