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Congratulations to all SA students who entered the Australian Greens Makepeace Prize

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 24 Sep 2014

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (19:52): "I think we should keep having peace in Australia because of many reasons. Firstly, we are lucky to be able to go to school safely. I am allowed to go to school and learn. It does not matter if I am rich or poor. Even poor children can go to school. It does not matter if I believe in god or not. I don't mind if anyone believes in god or not. I like certain people for who they are. It is good that we don't have guns. Guns kill people, adults or children. Let's live in peace."

This beautiful reflection was written for me by a year 3 student, Marcus, from Eden Hills Primary School in South Australia, who entered the Australian Greens Makepeace Prize in 2014.

I started the prize to raise awareness about the important work of Australian peacekeepers and their contribution to a more secure and peaceful world. Students from schools across my home state in South Australia entered artwork, poetry, short stories and digital pieces, all centred on the theme of peacekeepers and peace more broadly.

I found their interpretations of peace and the role of peacekeepers in our world is thoughtful and inspiring. 'Out of the mouths of babes', as they say, came some poignant observations that we as adult could do well to ponder more deeply, especially at a time when we cannot help but feel that the dogs of war are gathering again. I believe it is vital that we encourage learning about peace and nonviolence. Given our current global context, teaching about peace is now more important than ever. I do not want students growing up in a world where military might is seen as the only solution to complex global issues.

Last Sunday, 21 September, was United Nations International Day of Peace. At a time when we are commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War and Australia is on the brink of yet another Middle East war, it seemed a timely occasion to focus on the hard work of peace building and peacemaking. On Sunday I had the pleasure of attending a service and festival, the Communities of Peace, at Scots Church in Adelaide, which attracted over 20 organisations which are all dedicated to 'waging peace', including the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and Amnesty International. They came together to discuss and see what can create conditions peace on the level of individuals, within communities and around the world.

As we think about ongoing conflicts in Syria, Iraq and the Democratic Republic of Congo; sectarian violence in Nigeria; and violence in the Central African Republic and in so many other places around the globe we realise that peace is incredibly fragile and incredibly precious. As Marcus wrote in his entry to the Makepeace Prize, peace enables children to go to school and to get an education-a basic right-which is not yet a reality for so many who live in constant conflict.

There are also the many post-conflict states, like Rwanda, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Cambodia and Timor-Leste, where the wounds of war are ever present in the stories of those who have lived through the conflict and in a country's ongoing-and sometimes a never-ending-journey towards a stable peace. Healing from war and conflict and achieving reconciliation are also crucial.

The Australian Greens Makepeace Prize enabled me to visit schools to talk to students about the proud history of Australia's peacekeepers, who have played a crucial role around the world since 1947-providing support in some of the world's most dangerous conflict zones. I found that the students were so receptive, inspired and moved by the courage and service of our peacekeepers. There was one group of students who were asked to reflect on the discussion we had in the class and what the most salient things were that they took away from it. One young person said that he was so impressed that we in Australia were involved in the first peacekeeping mission ever in 1947. Another child explained that they found it really fascinating to know that an Australian peacekeeper has been serving somewhere in the world every day since then.

Certainly, there were those students-and these were students of 12 and 13, who were mature-thinking children-who were really interested in the fact that Australian peacekeepers are subject to rules of engagement, which means that they have to be extremely disciplined in the way they defend themselves and others. In fact, it is this discipline which sometimes causes the stress and the post-traumatic stress in dealing with the conflict that they have experienced, when they sometimes have had to stand by and see terrible things done to civilians.

As well as writing, the students provided me with artwork and some of that is going to be available on my website if anyone would like to have a look at that. One student, Shakiela, from Crossways Lutheran School, is 13. Her theme was reconciliation and she talked about the importance of learning from past mistakes in her entry to the Makepeace Prize. She said:

It is when we don't try to fix the mistakes that things get worse. We can look back at history, but we can't take it back. It's gone. What we need to do is look towards the future to make sure mistakes are not repeated.

Another student, Odette, is in year 6, and she wrote a beautiful poem about peace:

Red as the blisters on our hearts

Orange and yellow as the burning sun

Green eyed for the other side

Washed in an ocean of tears

Purple ruined as your power is thrown

Black and burned as the fire rises.

We also received a wonderful short story from a student called Amber, who attends Bridgwater Primary School. Amber is 12. The main character dreams of becoming a peacekeeper, and after a great deal of hard work achieves this goal. It was a long and very rich story. As the peacekeeper protagonist in Amber's story reflects:

We wanted to change things, and make everything better. Fair. Equal. We all wanted to bring peace ... being a peace keeper was quite appalling at times, but you'd didn't just stop. You kept on going. Because you couldn't abandon your goals, and most importantly, you couldn't abandon innocent people.

It was certainly a big weekend for me when it comes to peace. I also had the pleasure of attending the 25th anniversary dinner of the Graham F Smith Peace Foundation in Adelaide.

Graham was a teacher, a maker, a bringer and a worker towards peace who died far too young. Since then there has been a dinner every year. The peace foundation supports and sponsors grants for art and artists to promote the building and maintaining of peace. The guest speaker at the dinner was Sophie Hyde, who is the South Australian director and cowriter of the innovative film 52 Tuesdays, which has been feted at film festivals around the world.

Sophie's theme was the importance of telling stories from diverse viewpoints-diverse writers, diverse characters and diverse directors. She made the really compelling point that reading stories and watching stories on the screen enables us to get inside someone else's skin. It enables us to walk in someone else's shoes. It enables us to develop empathy, insight and understanding, which means that it is far more difficult to see people as 'other' and to not understand them and it is much easier to be able to celebrate and embrace diversity and live together with understanding and peace.

At a time like this, when our community is, I think, being increasingly divided by fear and suspicion because of the circumstances that we are finding us in, it is even more important that we have the opportunity to develop that empathy and insight and reach out and connect with each other. I think anyone watching Q&A last night would have been moved to hear about the experiences of Muslim people living in Australia at the moment and the antagonism, distrust, suspicion and fear that they are receiving. From people who are Australians, who have been living here throughout their lives-living here for generations, indeed-they are experiencing suspicion and exclusion.

In the end, I think it comes down to a really important choice for us. Especially as we are living in a very, very troubled time, it is very easy for people to end up being driven by fear, anger and hostility-which, in the end will damage all of us. In Amnesty International there is a saying that I really cherish. It basically says that when things are bleak it comes down to a choice: we can either light a candle or we can curse the darkness. I always think that in situations like this it is far, far better to light a candle-however, small a thing that may seem to be. In doing so, I think we can all work for a community that is far more peaceful and inclusive. Part of that can just be reaching out to understand our neighbours and the people we are meeting every day.

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