Speech by Senator the Hon Concetta Fierravanti-Wells

Australian Partnership of Religious Organisations forum, Building a community where we all belong

Location: New South Wales Parliament House


Thank you Josie, thank you very, very much. Can I start by adding my acknowledgement of country. Can I acknowledge Minister John Ajaka and Sopie Cotsis and Walt Secord.

As Assistant Minister for Multicultural Affairs, I am really pleased to join you here today. I know there are many, many distinguished guests here today – can I acknowledge you all. Ladies and gentlemen.

Can I thank the Australian Partnership of Religious Organisations for organising this forum.

This ‘Building a community where we all belong’ forum is a great example of Australian organisations, communities and individuals continuing to take social cohesion very, very seriously.

We are one of the most culturally diverse nations in the world. With almost half (47%) of Australians either born overseas or have at least one parent born overseas. We identify with about 300 different ancestries and we speak almost as many languages, including indigenous languages.

Most of the world’s religions are practised in Australia, with the 2011 Census showing increasing numbers, according to those statistics.

We are a multicultural society, contemporary Australia is multicultural Australia; and we are demonstrating that is so many ways – and in the most recent situation with the additional intake of 12,000 people over the next 18 months under our humanitarian programme – families, women and children that are fleeing the conflict in Syria and Iraq.

The latest Scanlon-Monash Index of Social Cohesion released recently confirmed that social cohesion in Australia is at an eight year high.

The report showed that Australians continue to overwhelmingly support a multicultural Australia and that we have a high sense of belonging.

This is a good result, but the report does confirm some challenges for contemporary Australia. For example, about 22% of respondents expressed negative attitudes towards Muslims – down from 25% last year. However, this is still too high.

And while it is important that we continue to celebrate and promote our social cohesion, we must recognise there are also challenges.

Overseas conflicts such as the violence in Syria and Iraq, and the weekend attacks in Paris, have the potential to cause tensions in Australian communities and threaten our community cohesion.

As I mentioned in my address to the National Press Club recently, I believe that the tragic Parramatta incident is a turning point -a crossroads moment. And now we will wait to see the fall-out and responses from the Paris attacks.

Now, perhaps more than ever, we need to draw on our reserves of goodwill, of respect that is so evident in our community when we are faced with challenging times. We will meet these challenges if we meet them together.

Interfaith dialogue, in forums such as this, plays a role by enabling common, cooperative and positive interactions within and between different religions.

Strong social cohesion is critical in combating extremism and providing a framework for our national unity. Faith is an important part of the lives of many Australians, providing meaning, purpose and inspiration to their daily lives.

The Commonwealth Government values all our faith communities. They are an integral part of our diverse and accepting society, enriching and enlivening our society.

We want Australians of all faiths to continue to be free to express their beliefs and practise their religion without intimidation and interference. We take great pride that our faith communities are cohesive and we don’t experience the divisions of some other countries.

One of the most important things in Australia that have made us, not just one of the most culturally diverse but one of the most socially cohesive nations on earth is the social glue that binds us together.

Those important things that we share as Australians – values and beliefs, are underpinned by a strong and practical interfaith framework.

Recently, I attended the Great Synagogue where Archbishop Fisher was delivering the Nostra Aetate address along with the Chief Rabbi Dr Benjamin Elton who joins us here today.

Sitting in the second pew was the Grand Mufti of Australia who was joined by the Melkite Bishop, by the Armenian Bishop, by other interfaith leaders in this country. This is a strong practical example of interfaith at work in Australia today.

Can I conclude by thanking the Australian Partnership of Religious Organisations for hosting this important event.

A harmonious multi-faith dialogue is a significant part of our social fabric and will continue to be so in the future – indeed I think it will be more so in the future.

Can I wish you all the best for this todays deliberations.

Thank you.