Australians Ask What it Means to Be Good Neighbours
26 January 2007

Nearly 300 community leaders and activists from Australia and the Asia-Pacific region, including 22 from Fiji, attended the 'Australia as a Neighbour' conference 12-16 January looking at the twin themes of relationships between communities in Australia and the role Australia plays in the region.

'In its breadth of diversity, Australia is a microcosm of the world,' read the invitation. 'No one said it was going to be easy living together; but if we can get it right we have something precious to offer a divided planet.... We share a vision for a compassionate and fair-go Australia as a community of diverse ethnic and cultural communities at peace within and working for peace on the world stage; as a nation willing to look at the shadows of its past, moving towards healing and proud of its indigenous cultures; and as a nation acting with integrity and responsibility to those who share the earth's resources.'

The conference started with a gala dinner on Friday 12th, with words of welcome from Melbourne's popular Lord Mayor, John So, and from George Lekakis, Chairman of the Victorian Multicultural Commission which had given funds towards the conference. Bishop George Browning, Anglican Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn, gave the keynote speech which emphasised 'righteousness' – right living – as a necessity for our survival on the planet, and spelt out what this means in terms of right relationships with each other, with our environment and with God. Bishop Browning criticised the ideology of individualism which lay behind many current government policies: 'Individualism is the enemy of righteousness, because individualism does not take into account the relationships which undergird the wellbeing of all human kind.' He also touched on the need to find healing from past wrong-relationships. 'We need to deal with the pain of the past in order that it can be sufficiently remembered so that it can be safely forgotten. Whether it’s in the Middle East, or the Balkans, or Northern Ireland, or with the indigenous people of Australia: if pain is not dealt with appropriately, it is forever remembered.'

The conference used plenaries, workshops, small-group discussions, and times of silent reflection. A daily series of four 'Heart of Transformation' sessions spelt out with songs, slides and skits the links between the 'macro' – big conference themes – and the 'micro' – the personal decisions we each make in our daily lives. 'If you want to change the world, or anything in it... start by changing yourself' was the message. Well-known aboriginal singer-songwriter Johnny Huckle interspersed plenary sessions with his passionate and poignant songs, and the healing sounds of the didgeridoo featured throughout the conference, allowing the messages of the conference to reverberate deep within those who listened.

The theme of the first full day was 'Living with the Neighbour who is Different'. Phong Nguyen, Chairman of the Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria, told how he had dealt with a difficult neighbour in his apartment block – a racist white Anglo-Saxon woman who was angry to be living in a mainly non-white neighbourhood. Overcoming his fear, Phong took her some spring rolls to celebrate Vietnamese New Year. This simple act of kindness started a warm relationship which completely changed her attitudes

The conference heard from Trung Phan and Phuoc Minh Ho from Vietnam, and Vathnak Chhoeurm from Cambodia about an on-going grass-roots dialogue between their countries. While many Cambodians feel deeply that Vietnam has caused their country much pain and suffering over the centuries, most young Vietnamese are unaware that Cambodians feel this. The dialogue started in 2004 at an Asia-Pacific Youth Conference in Cambodia organised by Initiatives of Change when two Cambodians spoke of their decisions to forgive Vietnam. The young Vietnamese present were shocked to hear these perspectives and as a result three dialogue sessions took place at the conference. Out of this grew a team of young people in both countries determined to keep the conversations going. Over the past two years they have organised several visits and exchanges to each other’s countries and the process continues.

At a public meeting in the afternoon, leading Muslim commentator Waleed Aly spoke of the need to overcome our ego-centricity if we were to live with diversity. 'Most of us, if we are really honest, believe the world would be a better place if only everybody else was just like me'. This assumption made us 'hard-wired for conflict'. An example of this was the attempt to introduce American-style secular democracy in Iraq. This form of government evolved as a result of European struggles to free themselves from the tyranny of religion and religious wars. 'Most people in the Middle East are conditioned by a different history where secular regimes have been the oppressors and religion is seen as liberation.' The meeting concluded with a presentation from two young Sudanese from North and South who had been part of a 'youth dialogue for reconciliation and hope' to support the fragile peace in Sudan after decades of civil war. For the North Sudanese student, being victim of a racist attack in Australia had forced him to confront his own racism regarding Southern Sudanese. 'The people who attacked me used the same words that I used to call the people from the South,' he said.

“All of us have a healing journey to make” said Trish McDonald Harrison, chairing a plenary session on “Healing journeys”. Aboriginal Elder Reg Blow spoke of the devastation that had been visited on Australia's indigenous peoples since White settlement, and invited the conference participants to say 'sorry' as part of the healing process. Dr Penny Ramsay, who has worked as a doctor in indigenous communities in Northern Territories, spoke of the complex factors contributing to poor health in those communities and the need to listen and work with aboriginal peoples rather than trying 'quick-fix' solutions which were not sustainable. Both she and Ron Lawler, a director in NSW public service, pointed to the practice of searching for God's direction in times of silence as something which helped them in their work.

The theme of the third day was 'Beyond the bottom line' – looking at the impact of business and economic life on our relationships. The plenary session started with a reminder that we are all on this tiny planet together and, in the words of Martin Luther King, “we must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools”. Novelist Arnold Zable said that as an author he had learned that the 'bottom line' was entering into relationships over a period of time, and he challenged participants to 'look each other in the eye' and engage in meaningful conversations.

Denis Tracey, author of Giving it back – in praise of philanthropy spoke of the many ways that the organisations we are part of can become involved in giving back to society – and that it is actually good for business. As an example he cited the “Bakers Delight” chain where their commitment to a breast-cancer charity gives the company its' soul, and is, for many employees, the reason why they come to work in the morning.

Grahame Leonard and Joses Tuhanuku, directors of Transparency International in Australia and the Solomon Islands respectively, spoke of the human cost of corruption – that it is the poorest who suffer the most – and the ways they are fighting corruption. Ron Lawler gave examples from his own professional life which led him to the conclusion that good leadership is about integrity, which inspires trust and confidence, which in turn gives leaders the power to lead.

Phil Jefferys, a farmer from New South Wales, spoke of the challenges of living sustainably so that we can feed future generations. Global warming is making less of the world's land productive at a time when there more people than ever to feed. To meet this challenge will require a change in lifestyle, particularly from those in affluent countries. Sandi Noble, a former fashion designer, spoke of her own decision to quit the industry and 'live with inegrity' after seeing the poverty in India, where many of the clothes she helped design were made. She now works supporting people with mental illness.

The final morning was a chance for participants to share decisions they had made and voice what the conference had meant to them. Many, including several of the Fijians, spoke of the new hope they had found, and a renewed commitment to keep working to build trust across the divides. The conference ended, as it had started, with the sounds of the didgeridoo.