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Honour those who fought for Australian democracy
Steve Bracks (Victorian Premier) - The Age - Thu 2nd, March 2006
Australia has always been a land of many faiths, many languages and many cultures. Before European settlement, indigenous Australia was not a homogeneous country, but a land of about 600 different tribes and nations speaking in the vicinity of 200 languages.

Likewise, the convicts of the First Fleet were not all pre-Dickensian Londoners, but hailed from across the Empire. They were European, but also African. They were Protestant and Catholic, but also Jewish.

Nowhere is our multicultural heritage more apparent than at the Eureka Stockade - the rebellion that became the birthplace of Australian democracy. Of the 101 miners officially counted at the Stockade on December 3, 1854, only four were Australian-born. The 97 other miners came from 18 other countries.

Consequently, our heritage does not belong to any one individual or group. Every man, woman and child is equally Australian.

We may come from different parts of the world, have different racial backgrounds, speak different languages at home or practise different faiths, but we are all Australians - and, as such, we each have equal rights and responsibilities.

Rights to practise our faith, speak our mind, celebrate our cultural diversity and live without discrimination or vilification. And responsibilities to respect the rights of our fellow Australians and respect the democratic and legal principles of our nation.

That is the bargain that Australia strikes with all its citizens, new and old. Live as you choose, wear what you choose, speak your mind, practise your beliefs - and allow your fellow Australians to do the same.

Thousands of Muslim Australians - working men and women - are fulfilling their part of that bargain.

Our national leaders must ensure they live up to their side of the compact.

That is not to say we should give a free pass to extremists. On the contrary, those who break the law should face the full force of the law. But neither should we characterise an entire community by the actions of a few. After all, as the Prime Minister has said, the criminal action of a mob at Cronulla does not mean all Australians are racist.

The same standards should apply to Muslim Australians.

No community should be alienated and segregated on the basis of the faith they practise or the clothes they wear. To suggest otherwise sets a dangerous precedent - and runs the risk of inviting a new era of sectarianism at a time when, if anything, our nation needs to be more open and tolerant, and learn from its history.

For instance, on March 12 it will be 138 years since an Irish Catholic, Henry O'Farrell, shot and wounded Prince Alfred, the first member of the royal family to visit Australia. Prince Alfred recovered almost as quickly as O'Farrell was hanged, but this unprecedented act of terrorism sent Australia into a frenzy of sectarianism that did not abate for generations.

One of the reasons for the backlash against Catholic Australians was a notorious speech by one of the leading politicians of the day, Sir Henry Parkes. Sir Henry - later to be known as the father of Federation - ignored all the evidence and claimed the shooting was an Irish Catholic conspiracy, rather than the lone act of a mentally unstable individual. As a result, the Catholic Australian community would continue to be viewed with suspicion as a nation within our nation for decades - a state of segregation that would not begin to be rectified until after the Australian Labor Party was formed.

We must not repeat this mistake.

To do so - to turn away from the open and accepting approach of multiculturalism and give in to a new sectarianism fed by fear, ignorance and intolerance - would not just be anathema to the great Australian ethos of the fair go.

It would be a betrayal of the generations of multicultural Australians - going back to Eureka - who have fought for our democracy.

Steve Bracks is Victorian Premier.
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