Ethnic leaders demand sacking of Multicultural NSW boss Hakan Harman over ‘airbrushing’ of war atrocities

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Minister for Citizenship Victor Dominello (left) forced the head of Multicultural NSW to withdraw divisive guidelines regarding public memorials. Photo: Dominic Lorrimer
Ethnic community leaders are demanding the resignation or sacking of their most senior representative in the NSW government, claiming he pushed the agenda of his Turkish homeland to resist public memorials for genocides by the former Ottoman Empire as well as Japan’s war crimes and other atrocities.

Hakan Harman is under intense pressure to quit as chief executive of Multicultural NSW, just seven months after his predecessor, Vic Alhadeff, resigned over a perceived conflict of interest when he defended Israel’s right to strike Gaza as a defence against Palestinian militants.

Armenian, Greek, Cypriot, Korean and Assyrian leaders have united to sign a statement saying Mr Harman’s position is untenable after he issued guidelines to local governments – without first telling his minister, Victor Dominello – that they should be careful not “assign blame” when considering memorials or public monuments to “contentious” historical events.

Under pressure: Hakan Harman, chief executive of Multicultural NSW.Under pressure: Hakan Harman, chief executive of Multicultural NSW.

Mr Dominello forced Mr Harman to withdraw the guidelines when he was alerted by the aggrieved community leaders. And Mr Harman told Fairfax Media on Sunday: “In hindsight, I made an error of judgement by not consulting more widely,” but he said his door was open to his critics so they could work together on “what unites people as Australians”.

The signatories say Mr Harman’s unilateral action makes him unsuitable to lead an agency with a charter “to promote and advance community harmony”.

In 1997, the NSW Legislative Assembly unanimously acknowledged the genocide of 1.5 million Armenians between 1915 and 1922 and it erected its own garden memorial the next year. The monument includes the parliament’s resolution that it “condemns and rejects all attempts to deny or distort the historical truth” about this and other genocides of the 20th century.

Vandalised: The Assyrian Genocide Memorial at Bonnyrigg.Vandalised: The Assyrian Genocide Memorial at Bonnyrigg. Photo: Supplied

But the Foreign Affairs Minister, Julie Bishop, assured her Turkish counterpart last year that the federal government does not recognise the “tragic events” as genocide.

Armenian Australians plan to erect another memorial in Willoughby when they mark the centenary of the genocide on April 24 this year – the day before Anzac Day, when Australia will also commemorate 100 years since the bloody landing at Gallipoli in Turkey.

Korean and Chinese Australians also have plans for a statue called Three Sisters in Strathfield to pay respect to 200,000 so-called “comfort women” – sex slaves abused by Japanese soldiers during World War II.

A concept drawing for the proposed "comfort women" sculpture.A concept drawing for the proposed “comfort women” sculpture. Photo: Supplied

“This made us very angry,” said Luke Song, president of the Korean Society of Sydney, adding that any attempt to block the memorial would deprive future generations of the truth about the abuse, especially while Japan refused to admit blame or apologise to the surviving women.

Turkey vehemently denies there was genocide of Armenians, or of Assyrians and Greeks, who say they lost 750,000 and 500,000 people respectively.

While Mr Harman’s guidelines did not mention Turkey or Japan, he had received a letter last October from the Japan Community Network and the Australian Turkish Advocacy Alliance, lobbying him to introduce guidelines that would restrict public money or space being devoted to “specific ethnic groups” and their “own interpretations of historical events”.

“We do not believe that it is appropriate for government, at any level in Australia, to ‘weigh in’ on those historical matters,” the letter said, arguing it could jeopardise community harmony.

On February 3 this year, the Turkish alliance issued a press release applauding Multicultural NSW for its guidelines and pointedly criticising Mr Dominello and Prime Minister Tony Abbott for having attended the unveiling of memorials such as the “so-called” Assyrian Genocide Memorial at Bonnyrigg. (That memorial was vandalised with graffiti – “f— Assyrian dogs”  – soon after its opening in 2010.)

In a newsletter last year, the Turkish alliance admitted that donors’ pledges had not been forthcoming, so: “We are currently running on $0 and are entirely reliant on campaign specific assistance from the consulate.”

The signatories against Mr Harman said Multicultural NSW could not be “led by an individual who engages in unilateral action – in this case, by adopting divisive guidelines that were drafted by a body backed by a foreign government”.

Some of the leaders told Fairfax Media they regarded Mr Harman’s “conflict of interest” to be worse than that of Mr Alhadeff, who had continued to act as chief executive of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies while he headed the Community Relations Commission, recently renamed Multicultural NSW. His dual roles, they said, had at least been transparent.

They feared stopping the construction of monuments was an attempt to “airbrush”  war atrocities.

While the board of deputies was not a signatory to their protest, its president, Jeremy Spinak, thanked Mr Dominello “for his swift action in quashing these guidelines which, if implemented, would have caused significant division and disharmony. It is concerning that policy in such an important and sensitive area could have been shaped in this manner”.

Stepan Kerkyasharian, a long-serving head of the CRC, and an Armenian Australian, did not sign the document either but said he was saddened that “the processes followed by the commission have created disharmony, reflecting on its reputation”.

“The apparent selective consultation by the commission raises serious ethical questions which need to be addressed by the government,” he said. “The commission is duty-bound not only to be impartial, inclusive and transparent but also be seen to be so.”

A spokesman for Mr Dominello said he had “asked Mr Harman to work with the relevant organisations to address their concerns”. Mr Harman said he welcomed that opportunity and “we exist to build peace and harmony in the community”.

The signatories to the protest letter were the Korean Society of Sydney, the Assyrian Universal Alliance, the Australian Hellenic Council of NSW, the Greek Orthodox Community of NSW, the Cyprus Community of NSW and the Armenian National Committee of Australia.