Fighting the ‘racist underbelly’

Josh Burns delivering his maiden speech in Federal Parliament on Monday. Photo: Auspic

AUSTRALIANS need to take pride in their country to help eradicate antisemitism and other forms of hatred. That was the message from Josh Burns, the 22nd member of the Jewish community elected to Federal Parliament, in his maiden speech on Monday.

Addressing fellow MPs, the Labor Member for Macnamara recalled his grandmother Gerda Cohen, who was forced to leave her homeland when she was just four years old because of the Nazis.

She arrived in Australia “as an asylum seeker”, Burns said, adding that her experience of persecution and prejudice etched into him a fierce opposition to bigotry in all forms.

“In more recent times, we’ve seen the rise of something new,” Burns reflected, “A sinister element that argues that this nation belongs only to a core few, and that by virtue of nothing more than background, birthplace, race or religion – others must reside on the outer.

“Only months before the election, in the heart of my electorate we saw that racist underbelly march on St Kilda beach. Of course, it’s not the only instance – with a rise in bigotry seen the world over. 

“The question for us then, here in this place, is how can we fight what feels like a rising tide?”

Burns said the answer is for Australians to take pride in Australia.

“While continuing to be persistent in our defence against discrimination and ignorance, it is up to all of us in this place to ensure Australia is a country that celebrates our differences and our diversity.

“It is up to all of us to say, strongly and without fear, that no matter your gender, sexuality, race or religion, here in Australia, you are one of us.”

The newly elected MP also spoke about his inspiration for a life in politics, his grandfather Jerry Burns, who grew up in the poorest suburbs of London and who lived in Israel before moving to Australia.

It was Jerry, who died on the same day as the 2013 federal election when Burns was campaigning for his predecessor Michael Danby, who urged his grandson to run for Federal Parliament.

“My grandfather taught me to work hard and he taught me to look after hard-working people.

“He came to this country with very little. And it was this great nation that gifted him not only a good life, but the possibility of building a better life for his children too.”

Burns also paid tribute to Danby, who he said loved Parliament.

“He loved being here and he loved talking about big ideas. Many didn’t agree with Michael, which is probably a sign of his willingness to challenge the status quo, for Michael’s time in this place was full of courage.”

Dave Sharma addressing the Zionist Federation of Australia in 2015. Photo: Peter Haskin

Also delivering his maiden speech this week was former Australian ambassador to Israel Dave Sharma, whose seat of Wentworth has the highest number of Jewish constituents in the country.

Addressing Parliament on Wednesday, the newly elected Liberal MP spoke about how his experience in the Jewish State would help boost the Australian economy.

“If my time as ambassador to Israel taught me one thing, it is how valuable a thriving technology sector can be for the dynamism and health of the rest of the economy,” Sharma said.

He said that he left Israel with a high degree of admiration and respect for the Jewish homeland and the Jewish people, and all they have achieved under tremendously trying circumstances.

“It also gave me a deep affection for the Australian Jewish community, which has made an outsized contribution to all spheres of Australian life, and the nation we are today,” Sharma added.