Speech by Senator the Hon Concetta Fierravanti-Wells

Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia


Thank you Peter, Can I start by adding my acknowledgement of country.

Can I also acknowledge my parliamentary colleagues, The Hon Tanya Plibersek MP, Deputy Leader of the Opposition, representing the Leader of the Opposition and my Senate colleague Senator Richard Di Natale, Leader of the Australian Greens.

Can I also acknowledge FECCA Chair, Joe Caputo; Ethnic Communities’ Council of New South Wales Chair, Peter Doukas; many distinguished Guests; Ladies and Gentlemen.

As Assistant Minister for Multicultural Affairs, I am pleased to be here to represent the Prime Minister of Australia, the Hon. Malcolm Turnbull MP.

Can I firstly thank FECCA for your work and most especially, the work that you have done in the culturally and linguistically diverse or CALD ageing space which as you know, is very dear to my own heart.

This morning I have been asked to reflect on the achievements of multicultural affairs in Australia today and importantly and timely, the vision for its future.

Since September, I now ‘straddle’ three Government portfolios.

As Assistant Minister for Multicultural Affairs I have responsibilities within the Department of Social Services, the Attorney General’s Department and the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

This is a unique hybrid that presents an opportunity to harness the innovation and ongoing support that our Prime Minister wishes for our diverse and socially cohesive country and is the direct result of our rich multicultural legacy.

All three portfolio responsibilities are very relevant to the delivery of a new multicultural affairs policy in Australia in 2015.

Australia is one of the most culturally diverse nations yet socially cohesive nations on earth.

Migration is a feature of our past, our present and our future. We have had 7.5 million migrants come to Australia since World War II and that has included 825,000 under our humanitarian programme.

And we will continue to demonstrate this legacy with the arrival of the first of the 12,000 Syrian refugees in Australia at the end of this year.

As you would be aware, two families have already received visas. The process is methodical, for some not as fast as they would like, but this is essential to ensure security and health checks are precise.

Migration in Australia today is very different to when FECCA was established in 1979 as the national peak body representing Australians from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

In Australia we talk of waves of migration. Today, the top three countries of birth for humanitarian entrants are now Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran. Humanitarian entrants are young with about half under 24 years of age.

In 2013-14, the leading country of birth for immigrants was India with 21%, followed by China with 14%. Seven of the top ten countries of origin are from Asia and only 27% of the total migrant figure is from OECD countries.

The CALD constituency that FECCA has to represent to Government and the broader community has changed.

In 2015, our country is more diverse than ever and yet it remains socially stable and economically sound. Today, almost half, 47% of Australians were either born overseas or have at least one parent born overseas.

Today, I represent the face of contemporary Australia as indeed do Tanya and Richard, both the children of migrants to Australia.

We identify with about 300 ancestries and we speak almost as many languages, including indigenous languages. Most of the world’s religions are practised in Australia, with increasing numbers evidenced in the 2011 Census.

Diversity can result in greater innovation, encourage creative problem solving and help our businesses — small, medium and large — reach their full potential. In short, our productive diversity adds great value.

The Joint Standing Committee on Migration Inquiry into Migration and Multiculturalism in Australia, 2013 found that 30% per cent of small businesses (Inquiry into Migration and Multiculturalism in Australia, 2013, page 208) are owned by migrants in Australia.

Our dual citizens or Australians of a particular background have formed close business and trading ties to their country of birth or origin. They act as an important bridge to furthering Australia’s trade ties and build on the benefits of trade agreements.

Our cultural and linguistic diversity is considered an asset and source of great social and economic strength.

The latest Scanlon-Monash Index of Social Cohesion released recently confirmed that social cohesion in Australia is at an eight year high. The Scanlon-Monash Index of Social Cohesion has been mapping social cohesion since 2007.

This is a good result in difficult times and I am pleased that Australia remains a stable and cohesive society. The report also showed that Australians continue to overwhelmingly support a multicultural Australia.

Australia’s approach to bringing out the best in our cultural, linguistic and religious diversity – ‘a multicultural Australia’ – has bipartisan acceptance.

However the index does confirm challenges for contemporary Australia.

One major one is concern for ‘national security and terrorism‘ has significantly increased from less than 1% in 2014 to 10% in 2015.

Also, about 22% of respondents expressed negative attitudes towards Muslims — down from 25% last year. However, this is still too high.

A lower number of respondents had ‘experience of discrimination‘ which was 14.5% in 2015, down from its peak at 19% in 2013 and 18% in 2014.

Of course, despite our efforts and best intentions, challenges will always arise.

While social cohesion remains strong at the national and local levels, there are issues which warrant ongoing attention, including experiences of social disengagement and marginalisation.

Overseas conflicts such as the violence in Syria and Iraq are causing tensions in Australian communities and threaten community cohesion.

Our social cohesion is the glue that holds us together and makes us the envy of the world. I believe that it has shielded us to some extent from recent challenges, but we must not ignore the issues which need attention.

Strong social cohesion is critical in combating extremism and providing a framework for our national unity.

As Parliamentary Secretary to the Attorney-General my responsibilities have included community engagement in support of the Government’s efforts to counter violent extremism.

In recent weeks, I have called for efforts in countering violent extremism to adopt a greater focus on the social policy end of the CVE spectrum — not just concentrating on the national security end, important though it is.

I am pleased that the CVE summit last month recognised that greater efforts in this space are needed.

As the Prime Minister indicated earlier this week in welcoming the NSW package of measures, our most effective defence against terrorism is to prevent people from becoming terrorists in the first place.

In short, prevention is better than cure. We need to stop the feeder cycle of young people to the airport.

Regrettably, while we have seen young people of different backgrounds preyed upon by those bent on radicalising them, the most affected cohort have been our young Muslim Australians.

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.

We need to deal with the reasons for the disengagement of young Australians.

To meet these challenges, we need to understand the cultural complexities of the problem. With hindsight, I do not believe that we have done so in the past, but we very much need to do so if we are to succeed in the future.

We also need to ensure that recent challenges do not undermine the positive legacy of our migration story. The legacy of successful waves of migration must be protected.

Indeed, interaction between established and emerging communities is important, not just as a means of understanding how to deal with challenges, but as a continuation of this positive legacy.

Interfaith dialogue is also essential. Last week I attended the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetata, the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions of the Second Vatican Council.

The keynote addresses were given by Archbishop Anthony Fisher and Rabbi Dr Benjamin Elton at the Great Synagogue in Sydney. Joining us on this occasion was the Grand Mufti of Australia Dr Ibrahim Mohammed, Melkite Bishop Daniel and many other faith leaders.

This is the important interfaith framework that we have in Australia and it’s continuance is vital to good social cohesion.

Citizenship is also a key foundation of multicultural policy.

Another measure of our migration success is that a recent OECD report found that Australia has one of the highest levels of citizenship uptake in the world, with over 80% of eligible migrants becoming citizens.

The recent consultation on Australian citizenship that I led with Philip Ruddock found that Australians hold dear their citizenship.

However Australians are concerned that citizenship is undervalued by some in our community. This concern is most acute in the cases of Australians who by their conduct have chosen to break with the values inherent in being an Australian citizen.

There was also a strong theme of the consultations for the importance of English language to being a citizen and full integration in Australian society.

There was support for raising the minimum standard of English required to sit the Citizenship Test from ‘basic’ to ‘adequate’.

Indeed, our consultation has reinforced the importance of the Government’s focus on the three E’s – English, education and employment.

Australians also see citizenship in a deeper sense – of having a stake in our future as a prosperous and diverse nation and in the values that underpin this.

The Government has been developing a multicultural policy. There has been consultation with the Australian Multicultural Council.

Like citizenship, we believe public input is very important, especially at this time. Accordingly, we will shortly be releasing a draft multicultural policy for public comment.

This will ensure that Australians have the opportunity to provide their views on this important issue.

Our social cohesion is the sum of millions of successful settlement journeys. They have combined to form the rich fabric of contemporary multicultural Australia.

Whilst it is important that we continue to celebrate and promote our social cohesion, we must be cognisant of the challenges we face today.

I would like to conclude by encouraging FECCA to consider more broadly the contemporary character and needs of our cultural and linguistic diversity.

I trust that they will ensure a positive difference in people’s lives in contemporary Australia as they have done to earlier migrants.

I know there can be no greater incentive to continuously strive for the best possible results.

Thank you.