Tens of thousands of Australians have called on Prime Minister Scott Morrison to condemn a Liberal senator’s questioning of three Chinese Australians at a Senate committee hearing.
Petitions were delivered by Osmond Chiu, GetUp! and the Asian Australian Alliance to Kirribilli House, Mr Morrison’s official residence in North Sydney.
Osmond Chiu, Wesa Chau and Yun Jiang say they were questioned about their loyalties by Senator Eric Abetz and asked to “unconditionally condemn the Chinese Communist Party dictatorship”.
More than 25,000 people have signed the petitions by GetUp! and Colour Code, criticising Senator Abetz’s comments as “discriminatory” and “unacceptable” and urging the Coalition leadership to break its silence.
“The silence is extremely disappointing,” Osmond Chiu, a research fellow at think tank Per Capita told the ABC.
“It sends a signal of tolerance for his behaviour that is damaging to Australia’s social cohesion and validates singling out Chinese Australians solely on the basis of their cultural backgrounds.
“The message it sends is that Chinese Australians are automatically under suspicion and need to prove themselves before they can participate in our democracy.”
Senator Abetz rejects claims
In a response to the ABC, Senator Abetz said the question to Mr Chiu was not based on race or ethnicity and there was no “loyalty testing”.
“Firstly, the condemnation sought was not of the CCP as asserted but the CCP dictatorship. Studiously avoiding this element is disingenuous,” he said.
“It is correct that no other witnesses were questioned about the dictatorship which included other groups of witnesses of Chinese ethnicity.
“It was based on the presentation as representing thought leaders/academia and think tank contributors. They presented as China experts.
“I make an absolutely clear distinction between the Chinese people and the dictatorship.”
However, former prime ministers Malcom Turnbull and Kevin Rudd have both condemned Senator Abetz’s remarks.
So far, no Coalition MPs or senators have directly criticised Senator Abetz.
Tessa Pang, a spokesperson from GetUp!, said the silence from the Coalition leadership spoke volumes.
“For Morrison to stay silent in this moment effectively condones Senator Abetz’s behaviour, and paints a chilling picture of a Government content to foster prejudice against people based on the colour of their skin,” she told the ABC.
“We want to put Morrison on notice that people in our community, voters, aren’t happy to let him stand beside discriminatory comments.
“This is a fiercely multicultural country and our diversity in backgrounds is something to be celebrated, not questioned.”
NSW Greens MP Jenny Leong agreed.
“The actions of Senator Abetz towards [Osmond Chiu, Yun Jiang and Wesa Chau] were unacceptable and we must not allow them to go unchallenged,” she told the ABC.
The incident has stoked racial tension in the diaspora community.
Tim Lo Surdo, the national director of the Australian anti-racism group Democracy in Colour, has a Chinese-Australian background.
“It just reinforces that people like me and my background and other people of colour, they’re not welcome in decision-making spaces,” he told the ABC.
“When we decided to take an interest in political spaces and decide to help shape what the society could be, we’re shut out, we are subject to cruel discriminatory and frankly abhorrent behaviour.”
Open letter signed by prominent Labor, Greens MPs
The petitions coincided with an open letter which was sent to Mr Morrison and Acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge on Thursday, calling for Senator Abetz to apologise to the three witnesses at the hearing and repudiate his actions.
The letter was signed by more than 130 Australians including politicians, union leaders, community groups and individuals. About a third of them have a Chinese-Australian background.
Federal Labor frontbenchers Tanya Plibersek and Andrew Giles, and Greens leader Adam Bandt were among the signatories.
Senator Abetz said the letter “repeats the false narrative by Labor members”.
A spokesman for Mr Morrison would not comment on the petition, but pointed to Mr Morrison’s remarks last month about the controversy.
“There is only one pledge that any Australian citizen should take and that’s the pledge they take when they become an Australian citizen.”
Mr Abetz also didn’t directly address the petition, but echoed the Prime Minister’s comment.
“Australia has welcomed migrants from China for more than 200 years and Australians of Chinese background have added immensely to our nation,” he told the ABC.