Speech by Senator the Hon Concetta Fierravanti-Wells

Canada-Australia Symposium on Countering Violent Extremism and the Radicalisation of Youth

Location: Griffith University South Bank Campus, Brisbane


Thank you very, very much High Commissioner Maddison, it’s a great pleasure to be here.

Can I start by acknowledging the presence of Ambassadors and High Commissioners from Belgium, the United Kingdom and Pakistan – Your Excellences, welcome to you.

Can I also acknowledge the police officers, academic experts, departmental officers here today, ladies and gentlemen.

As the Assistant Minister for Multicultural Affairs I am very pleased to be here today to represent the Government in the capacity of three different portfolios. In my portfolio responsibilities I have responsibilities in the Attorney-General’s portfolio, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection and also the Department of Social Services.

Today, in particular, I am here to represent Attorney-General Senator the Hon George Brandis QC, to share with you some of the work the Australian Government is doing to countering extremism and particularly to countering violent extremism.

We know this is not a problem unique to any one country. Countries around the world are grappling with the challenge of extremism and violent extremism.

Recent terrorist events have confirmed the need for us all to work closely together, to better understand what drives people to commit senseless acts of violence and what strategies work when it comes to safeguarding our communities.

As I said at the Regional Countering Violent Extremism Summit last year, the Australian Government’s primary focus is on prevention and early intervention. A strong, educated and empowered community is the key to long term success.
Community engagement is my passion, but it’s also been my experience over thirty years. I started my community activities in the early 80s and over many, many years, particularly 25 years before becoming a Senator, I worked alongside diverse and emerging communities as they settled here in Australia.

As the daughter of migrants myself, I have not only had a lot of exposure in the social policy and multicultural space but I have actually lived the settlement journey that many, many of our migrants have lived. And so, in that respect it has given me a deep understanding of the issues that we face.

We know that young people go off the rails for all sorts of reasons, and when they do, they become disengaged and disenfranchised. And at that point of vulnerability, they try to find answers elsewhere.

In my previous life I was Chairman of Father Chris Riley’s Youth Off The Streets. We looked after street kids. We saw firsthand what disengagement amongst young people can do.

But I also have the experience of having lived, as I said, the settlement journey. When I went to school I didn’t speak English even though I was born in this country, and as a consequence on my first day of school there was 75 children in that class and only three spoke English – and I wasn’t one of them.

So therefore, not only have I had this experience, but I too can understand what it feels like to be born in this country but not actually at times be to be part of this country, and the prejudices that do go deep in some areas.

Now I grew up in multicultural Wollongong, so therefore many of the things that some of our young people particularly from different backgrounds may experience wasn’t so pertinent in a place like Wollongong. But nevertheless it is really important to understand what we face today, but understand this also in the historic context of a migration country and how other communities have fared with challenges and how those experiences of those communities can now assist those communities at risk.

So what happens when kids go off the rails? Well, they might turn to alcohol, they might turn to drugs and they might join gangs all towards the sense of belonging for them. So at that most vulnerable point if the person that befriends them is a drug dealer then that person will turn to drugs, if the person that befriends them is in a gang then that person will join a gang.

So therefore if the person that befriends them is somebody who is trying to deliberately target that young person by offering them a solution to their problems or simply an adventure, then that young person will be vulnerable to the message that the person on behalf of Daesh is selling them.

We know that Daesh is seeking to recruit with promises of weapons, slave girls and drugs.
Now, I’ve had the opportunity in my work to speak to people who are assisting young people who are vulnerable. I’ve also had the opportunity in my work as I’ve travelled around Australia to speak with young people who have been brought back from the brink.

So therefore as I speak to particularly people who are assisting these young people, it’s very clear that the message that is being sold to them is: “sure it’s part of an adventure, this world is not giving you want you want and come and join us.”

And for many of these young people as on Imam said to me, these young people think that they are actually going over to fight during the day and in the evening do what they would do here in Australia and go off to McDonald’s – that’s actually come from someone who has spends a lot of time talking to young kids who are in this situation.

And so therefore in my position as Assistant Minister for Multicultural Affairs I appreciate very much the national security component of the issue we are facing. But this is not a national security issue alone – it has a social component and that’s really where as a Government we need to focus our activities and look at it from a social perspective.

Look at the reasons for the disengagement. What are the reasons that trigger disengagement and therefore ultimately the vulnerability that can lead to radicalisation.

So if we look at it from a social perspective, and like all social problems, it needs a wide range of actions and responses to address different stages and aspects of that social problem.

Australia has a strong record of developing effective policy responses that do address comprehensive social challenges. Over the years we’ve taken multi-pronged approaches to address social issues like childhood immunisation, smoking, and more recently, you’ve seen the National Drug Campaign designed to combat Ice.

What we do also know is radicalisation and extremism require unique and individual responses – we know there is not one pathway to radicalisation, it is different for each young person.

That is why we, as a Government, have placed our support behind activities that strengthen the Australian community and work to address that disengagement long before a security or law enforcement response is necessary.

A vital pillar of a successful countering extremism strategy is an Australian community where there is a strong sense of belonging and where people feel that they have equal opportunity to contribute their worth.

To ensure our future prosperity, the Australian Government is committed to ensuring that all Australian students, for example, have access to a high-quality education. We have national policies and programmes that help Australians find and keep employment, and we promote and share citizenship values which provide the basis for Australia’s free and democratic society.

But we also recognise that we need to do more for those individuals who are going off the rails. And who better to notice those early warning signs when a young person does become isolated or disengaged, than those around them – those communities and families who have direct influence and are able to see the early warning signs and able to offer practical solutions.

This is why our approach needs to focus not just on the sharp end; it needs to focus on the softer end, the prevention and early detection.

We have developed a range of training and educational projects for families, institutions and frontline professionals to build awareness and provide advice on how to support at-risk individuals. The current focus of this work is on schools and the most vulnerable communities. And that’s the work we are doing in conjunction with the States and Territories and most recently through the COAG process.

We are seeking to help students through initiatives: to empower them to raise concerns and discuss complex issues like extremism in a safe and structured way; to promote understanding the values of our multicultural society of inclusion and respect for one another; and also to build cyber safety awareness and digital resilience.

We know the digital world is providing extremist groups with communication platforms to connect with and recruit vulnerable people around the world.

For this reason the Australian Government has committed over $20 million to understand and undermine the appeal of extremist propaganda to our domestic audience.

We are working with social media companies including Google, Twitter and Facebook and with operational agencies like the Australian Communications and Media Authority to limit access to extremist material.

There is an important role for all of us to act against extremist material. The Australian Government has established the ‘Report Online Extremism’ website for this purpose.

We are also working with communities to help connect young people through their digital world with positive leadership and engaging messages that challenge the extremist beliefs.

And we continue to strengthen community capacity by offering support and advice about digital technology and production, to enable community groups and individuals to improve their social media profile, and promote positive stories.

While Australia’s initiatives focus on addressing the factors that make people susceptible to extremist influences and terrorist recruitment, there is also support for individuals who have already been radicalised to violence to reconnect with their community. Changing the way an individual views the world, addressing their specific grievances, and shifting their pattern of behaviour is a long and complex process.

My colleague, the Minister for Justice is overseeing intervention programs being rolled out focusing on supporting troubled individuals before a law enforcement response is required. The objective of this intervention is for the individual to disengage from violence and reconnect with the community.

These intervention programs involve developing individually tailored case management plans to connect individuals with services such as mentoring and coaching, counselling, education and employment. These support services seek to provide real opportunities and mechanisms to positively empower.

While some of these services are offered through mainstream government programs, we know they are best delivered through credible and influential members within their own community.

The professional and community sectors need to be crucial partners in delivering these services and as I’ve travelled around Australia I have seen many good things that are being done and that is why in this fight, that we have those communities as our strongest partners.

We also see that research has identified that without effective prevention strategies and interventions, prisons can become a breeding ground for radicalisation.

Australia has a small but increasing number of prisoners incarcerated for terrorism-related offences; and of course these terrorist offenders pose risks to society, including contributing to the radicalisation of other inmates, and eventually leaving prison and re-entering the community, with many still supporting extremism and violent extremism ideologies.

The Australian Government has funded a number of programs in Australian prisons to address radicalisation. More than 3,500 prison staff nationwide have been trained to recognise and respond to indicators of radicalisation.

Can I conclude with these comments. Australia is one of the most culturally diverse, yet socially cohesive nations on Earth. Our success as a culturally diverse yet one of the most socially cohesive nations in the world stems from the democratic values which underpin our society, including adherence to the rule of law, parliamentary democracy, freedom of speech and religion, respect and equality of the individual.

This is social glue that binds us together and will help us face the challenges posed by extremism and terrorism.

In my role as Assistant Minister for Multicultural Affairs, it is to ensure that our multicultural policy compliments our national security and social cohesion agendas.

The work that we do to counter extremism and in particular violent extremism cannot be achieved without the dedication of passionate, committed community members across this country. And together with our global partners, we will resolve to improve the wellbeing of those who need it most and recommit ourselves to a future that is free of violence and extremism.

Thank you.