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The importance of the Lunar New Year to Canberrans

As the Shadow Minister for Multicultural Affairs, I am delighted to speak on the matter before us this afternoon: the importance of the lunar new year to Canberrans.

Canberra justifiably prides itself on being a city with a richly multicultural population. Residents of the ACT literally come from every continent and most of the world’s nations, all with a wonderfully diverse array of cultural expressions, languages, beliefs and practices. I myself am a migrant from a tiny Pacific Island, where I grew up speaking Tongan as my first language.

As already pointed out by Mrs Jones, amongst those residents of the ACT who, like me, were born overseas, China and Vietnam are the third- and fifth-most common nations of origin, and in Chinese and Vietnamese cultures, the beginning of the lunar new year is the most important day of the year. The observance of this same date is also important to those whose cultural identities come from Korea, Mongolia and Tibet.

Lunar new year this year fell on Saturday, 28 January, and it was my privilege that evening to attend the new year’s celebrations held at the Sakyamuni Buddhist Centre in Archibald Street in Lyneham. Together, my three daughters and I enjoyed bowls of the most delicious noodle soup I have ever tasted, generously provided to the whole community. My girls also received beautiful red envelopes with a 50-cent coin in each, a common new year’s tradition. Prayers for everyone’s ancestors were followed by another new year’s tradition, the Lion Dance, and other cultural performances. Participants also enjoyed an address by Thich Quang Ba, the abbot of the centre’s Buddhist temple.

Exotic and delicious flavours, colourful costumes, beautiful dances, and traditions designed to bring smiles to the faces of children are all important parts of enjoying the multicultural experience. This weekend’s 21st annual National Multicultural Festival will give all of us the opportunity to experience so much of Canberra’s diverse cultures in one place. I love this event!

At the same time, I sincerely hope that we get more from joining in each other’s celebrations than just the new and exciting sights, sounds, smells and tastes.

Discovering what people celebrate – and experiencing how and why they celebrate – can be an important window into understanding who they are, how they see the world, what they value, and what they believe. This process can enrich and improve our society as new insights and values reshape how we see and interact with each other. Our communities all have so much of substance to share, and we have so much that we can learn from each other as we spend time together and open ourselves up.

For example, the noodle soup and other foods served at the Sakyamuni Buddhist Centre a couple of weeks ago were vegetarian because many Buddhists eat no flesh owing to the strong emphasis in their faith on refraining from taking life. The gifts to my daughters helped to teach them the importance of being kind and generous. The prayers on behalf of ancestors reinforced for us an important principle that my husband and I have tried hard to teach all five of our children: it is important to know who you are by knowing and honouring those whom you have come from. We do this in our family by actively researching and writing about our Tongan, Jewish, Dutch and Irish ancestors and telling and retelling their stories so that their experiences and wisdom are hopefully not lost.

We can also be enriched by the stories of our fellow Canberrans. Abbott Quang Ba is a remarkable man with an important story. A Buddhist monk in Vietnam, he suffered years of religious persecution, served two jail terms because of his commitment to his faith, and eventually was ordered by the socialist government not to return to his temple, leaving him homeless. The only way to be true to his conscience was to leave Vietnam and seek a refuge where he could practise his religion without obstruction.

Thankfully, in 1983 Abbot Quang Ba was able to escape the country and was accepted into Australia as a refugee. He settled in this beautiful city of ours in 1984 and immediately went to work building up the Buddhist Centre in Lyneham. We can learn much about quiet strength and determination from someone like the abbot and from his experiences. The things we value most in our hearts, for example, are worth defending – but only if we do not violate our values in the process.

The 28th of January this year was the beginning of what is known as the Year of the Rooster. Abbot Quang Ba and so many of our neighbours and friends who have come from the four corners of the world to make Canberra their home exemplify the best traits associated with the rooster in Chinese tradition: confidence, intelligence, energy, honesty and loyalty.

I wish much prosperity, health and happiness to my fellow Canberrans who celebrate the lunar new year. May the Year of the Rooster bring much better things for each of you: success in all your endeavours, the fulfilment of your deepest wishes, and harmony and joy for your whole family. May every step take you higher, and may you have reasons to smile often!

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