Speech by Senator the Hon Concetta Fierravanti-Wells

‘How conservative is contemporary Australia?’ National Press Club of Australia

Location: National Press Club of Australia


Thank you Laurie.

Can I thank Maurice Reilly and the Board of the National Press Club for the opportunity to address you today.

Today, I pose the question – how conservative is contemporary Australia?

To answer this question, you first need to understand the makeup of contemporary Australia in all its social, religious and cultural diversity.

Importantly, we must examine the values that this cultural diversity brings.

Today, over 45% of us were either born overseas or have at least one parent who was.

We come from about 300 different backgrounds and we speak over 300 different languages, including indigenous languages.

Since 1945, we have welcomed 7.5 million people, including over 825,000 under our humanitarian programme.

I would like to point out some key statistics from the 2011 Census:

  • Almost 5.3 million people or about 25% of our population was born overseas;
  • Of those, 3.3 million or almost 16% were born in a country where English was not the main language;
  • Of our overseas born, almost 64% come from countries where English was not the main language.

We are one of the most culturally diverse nations on earth.

Furthermore, the Census data indicates:

  • that almost 20% of our population speaks a language other than English at home; and
  • 3% do not speak English well or do not speak English at all.

Census data from 2001 continues to show upward trends for each of the figures I have just cited.

From 2006 to 2011, we have seen an increase of almost 25% in languages other than English spoken at home. The top ten languages are: Mandarin, Italian, Arabic, Cantonese, Greek, Vietnamese, Spanish, Hindi, Tagalog and German.

When you look at English language proficiency, especially for the 65 years and over, the percentage of those not speaking English well or not at all are especially high in the Mandarin, Cantonese, Arabic, Greek and Italian speakers.

This explains why my ethnic media distribution list is about 550 outlets!

The 2011 Census data on our main religions also demonstrates diversity and significant changes since the 2006 Census:

  • Christianity leads with just over 61%, increasing by 4%;
  • Buddhism with 2.5%, an increase of over 26%;
  • Islam with 2.2%, an increase of almost 40%;
  • Hinduism with 1.3%, an increase of 86%;
  • Judaism with 0.5%, an increase of almost 10%.

All of this reflects the rich and changing social, religious and cultural fabric that is contemporary Australia in the 21st century.

Whilst times have changed from when my parents came here, the aspiration of our migrants remains the same – to work hard, and build a better life for yourself and your family.

I am a product of that migration story.

My father came out to Australia in 1953 and my mother joined him in 1959.

Like millions of other migrants, they came here to build a better life for themselves and for their children.

They came from Italy bringing with them a fierce determination to succeed. But they also brought with them a set of values and beliefs based on family, faith, thrift, and a hard work ethic.

Hugh Mackay, in his 1993 book Reinventing Australia, in outlining “traditional values”, refers to certain words, which though capable of “shades of interpretation”, nevertheless are indicative as signposts of conservative thought.

They include: responsibility, morality, integrity, simplicity, discipline and the family.

To me, these words encapsulate the basic tenets of so many of our migrant stories.

Hard work, self-reliance, home ownership, respect, and the family unit became the cornerstones of success for so many migrant families.

Call it traditional values or conservative values, they are the building blocks upon which millions of migrants have built their successful stories.

For me, they are the values that shaped me as I was growing up, the daughter of migrants in working class Wollongong.

Those who seek to dismiss conservative values and beliefs in contemporary Australia fail to take into account the influences of our diversity.

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

The Scanlon Foundation’s Mapping Social Cohesion reports have consistently found high levels of support for the proposition that multiculturalism has been good for Australia.

However, I do not believe that we have yet realised the full potential of our cultural diversity and social cohesion. It is not all about the food, great though it is!

Our migrants want to work, they want to contribute, and we will be a better country if we embrace the benefits of this productive diversity.

Our workplaces make an important contribution to our social cohesion.

Diversity can result in greater innovation, encourage creative problem solving and help a business reach its fullest potential. In short, diversity adds value.

With our increasing diversity, it is important that we maximise the benefits to Australia to enable us to recruit and train talented people and enable businesses, whether small, medium or large, to attract a broader range of clients and customers.

This will all contribute to enhancing Australia’s productive diversity.

Through an increasingly globalised economy, this offers Australian business an unprecedented connection to overseas markets and opportunities.

Often, our dual citizens or Australians of a particular background have formed close business and trading ties to their country of birth or origin. They are best placed to understand the customs and language of our trading partners.

They can act as an important bridge to furthering Australia’s trade ties and build on the benefits of trade agreements.

However, I do not believe we have fully understood the potential that the people to people links that migrants have with their country of origin can have for Australia’s economic future.

I do not believe that we have yet realized how significant an asset to Australian business and our economy that our diversity can be.

Last year I launched the Workplace Cultural Diversity Tool through the Australian Human Rights Commission in the hope that it will help Australian business to use diversity to innovate and expand.

The workplace is a microcosm of our nation – people from different backgrounds working together for a common good. It is an important place to further assist in developing understanding between cultures – something that we need now more than ever.

We also should stop and think about the amount of time we spend at work – and think about the workplace as a forum for exposure to cultural diversity.

Cultural diversity in the workplace means people feel more included at work.

For business, it opens up new opportunities, and for customers it will be a case of buying from businesses that understand and cater to their needs and wants.

It is sad that for a migration country, we still need to launch such a tool in 2014.

Many migrants with qualifications also find it hard to get Australian recognition for their skills and hence, prefer to open their own family business.

They use their professional, occupational and language skills to provide goods and services in their own communities. Many have gone on to become very successful.

I believe this is one of the reasons that 30% of small businesses (Inquiry into Migration and Multiculturalism in Australia, 2013, page 208) are owned by migrants in Australia.

I have been attending the Ethnic Business Awards run by Joseph Assaf for many years. The awards are a testimony to the achievements of our diversity.

I have been involved in social policy areas for over 30 years, particularly with multicultural and community activities.

Over those years, traditional marriage, family values and hard work are what resonate the strongest amongst our culturally and religiously diverse communities.

For this reason, I believe there would be strong opposition to changing the definition of marriage between a man and a woman.

Same-sex marriage is not a priority but if made a priority, it would raise strong opposition to the faith of many Australians including especially our migrant communities, who consider marriage a bedrock institution.

Hence, I argued strongly that a Coalition policy that directly supports same-sex marriage could place under threat some of our most marginal seats which have disproportionately high religious and migrant communities.

When you look at the religious, ethnic and language breakdown of some of our most marginal seats, comparative to Australia wide statistics, including those with high culturally and religiously diverse populations, you can see why I believe that the silent conservative majority view would prevail.

As I indicated to my colleagues in the Party room during our marathon meeting, if we think that the deployment of key religious figures, especially key figures in our culturally and linguistically diverse communities, will not affect the debate, then we would be kidding ourselves.

The deployment of key Christian, Orthodox, Maronite Christian and Muslim faith leaders in these seats will have an impact.

The proponents of same-sex marriage refer to polling. I would doubt that such polling captures the view of our culturally and religiously diverse community members, especially the older ones, who are very likely to take heed of the advocacy of their religious leaders rather than their local politician or answer a phone call from a pollster.

In public policy, the diversity I have outlined is commonly referred to as culturally and linguistically diverse, the acronym being CALD.

Our CALD communities make up almost half of contemporary Australia. They must be considered mainstream.

So when policy is discussed, generated and developed, it is important to consider its impact and how this is going to roll out into all of contemporary Australia, including our CALD communities.

Traditionally, policy makers have simply translated a few pamphlets in different languages, and presto, we have taken care of that one.

It’s an afterthought, a footnote or a box that needs to be ticked.

It rarely gets considered as an integral component of policy development and assessment.

Often, there is little or no understanding of the cultural imperatives that may influence the thinking and attitudes of this sizeable component of our society, be they those born overseas with limited language or their children and families who are also bound by cultural ties and traditions in these communities.

Migration is a feature of our past, our present and our future. Indeed, we often talk of waves of migration – from the post-war European migration to our latest cohort, the 12,000 from the Syria/Iraq conflict.

We need to understand the cultural overlays if we are going to properly deal with the issues affecting our CALD communities.

I have lived my life across the diversity that is contemporary Australia. I am bilingual and bicultural. I was born here but I did not speak English until I went to school.

On my first day at kindergarten, there were 75 children from different backgrounds in my class. Only three spoke English, and I wasn’t one of them.

This has meant that often, I know what I want to say in Italian but I can’t quite recall the English word! Hence the “uming” as my brain translates!

As I have said, I have been actively engaged in social policy issues since the early 1980s.

Over these many years, I have seen how government decisions have negatively impacted on our CALD communities, simply because governments have not fully appreciated their impact and how implementation needs to be appropriately considered.

Let me share some practical examples of where understanding of CALD issues in government decision making is so vitally important.

With an ageing population, aged care issues are amongst the most important in our CALD communities – not only to the elderly in those communities, but their families as well.

I have seen this first hand. Earlier this year my father died after a 4-year battle with dementia. My mother is currently in aged care. I can honestly say that I shudder to think how my parents would have coped had I and my brother not been there.

Notwithstanding my long experience, I still found the system difficult to navigate. It still baffles me how we can expect someone who speaks little or no English to navigate the complexity of the system and deal with the My Aged Care website or have to book an interpreter to talk to someone.

Furthermore their children, especially the females, bear the cultural responsibilities of looking after mum and dad at home as long as possible.

Today, about 370,000 people have dementia and over 250,000 are in residential aged care. A quarter of those are from CALD background. Every week, another 1,000 people turn 85 years of age.

When our CALD elderly speak little or no English, it is even harder. They not only lose the English they had, but they revert to the language of their birth, which is often the dialect of their home town. This makes caring for them difficult.

With my own father, he rarely conversed with someone who understood him. He too reverted to his native dialect.

Only mum, my brother and I were able to properly communicate with him. It was heartbreaking to watch.

But this is the sad reality for thousands of our ageing migrants and their families.

They are the ones that helped build Australia and today, we owe it to them to ensure our aged care programs are designed and developed such that our CALD elderly have dignified and appropriate care that takes into account their cultural and linguistic needs.

On 26 May as you know, I was “double hatted” and became Parliamentary Secretary to the Attorney-General, and my responsibilities included community engagement in support of the Government’s efforts to counter violent extremism.

As Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Social Services, I continued my responsibilities in multicultural affairs and settlement services.

In recent weeks, I have called for efforts in countering violent extremism to be revised with more focus on the social policy end of the CVE spectrum rather than simply concentrating on the national security end, important though it is.

I am pleased that the CVE summit held last week recognised that greater efforts in this space need to happen.

Regrettably, whilst 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.

Young people go off the rails for all sorts of reasons – they rebel.

They may have problems at home; they may be being bullied at school; they may have qualifications but can’t get a job; their education has been poor and they can’t get a job; they have suffered discrimination; they may have no family or come from a broken home; there may be no proper father figure.

Add to that religious and cultural overlays, and you have a very complex dynamic. But to solve the problem, you need to understand and work through that complex dynamic.

I have spent recent months visiting Muslim communities around Australia.

I believe that the tragic Parramatta incident is a turning point. I have called it a crossroads moment. Our Muslim communities now need to own the problem and own the solution.

This will only occur with close co-operation between government and communities in the design and implementation of programs that can work.

As part of this process, we need to deal with the reasons for the disengagement of young Muslim Australians.

As many community leaders around Australia told me, if their young people had jobs, they wouldn’t be vulnerable nor have the inclination or the time to be radicalised. But if your name is Mohammed, it is very hard to get a job in Australia today.

Recently, I attended my neighbour’s wedding. I was chatting with a group of people, all of whom ran businesses, some quite large.

I asked them this question – if you had to hire someone and you had three CVs in front of you, all three with equal qualifications, one was named say Fred, one Mario and the other Mohammed, who would you employ?

No one spoke, but the looks on their faces answered my question.

To meet these difficult 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.

I now turn to another difficult area, namely CALD women experiencing domestic violence. This is not just about the children and the women. It is about family; it is about heritage; it is about culture; it is about tradition.

Those ties that CALD women have to their families, to their traditions, to their community, are very, very strong. Therefore we need to understand these complexities when developing policy to counter domestic violence.

Policies and programmes should be developed in the context of how they affect all Australians, regardless of language or ethnicity. Regrettably, this is not the case.

As I indicated at the domestic violence conference a few months ago in Sydney, CALD issues are still siloed. All too often CALD problems are band-aided.

The simple solution seems to be, “well, we translate a few pamphlets, put a CALD person on our board. That should tick the CALD box.”

I was roundly applauded for my frankness.

Whatever the issue is, the CALD component kind of gets tacked on at the end, a bit of an after-thought, a sort of footnote.

Even today, I still have leading organisations come to me seeking advice on how to “deal with” CALD issues and whether I know someone from a CALD background that they can put on their board.

We have to move beyond this tokenistic approach.

Unfortunately, I do not believe that these attitudes will change until there is a visible change in the make-up of our decision makers and the different levels of the public institutions to which they belong. I speak from experience.

When I married John Wells, my father said to me – why don’t you change your name to Connie Wells, it will be easier for you to get on. I chose not to and instead, chose to be known by my full name – Concetta Fierravanti-Wells.

I did that because I was proud of who I was and where I came from.

I did so to send a message that in public life, you can have a wog name and still get on. I wanted young people like me who aspired to a political or public career, not to feel that they had to change their name in order to progress.

Many regrettably have felt the need to do so. I know, I have met many of them over the years.

Regrettably, cultural diversity is spoken about but it is not played out in our public institutions.

For example, of the 136,000 on-going Australian Public Service employees, less than 20,000 or about 14% come from a non-English speaking background.

In the Senior Executive Service, only 138 out of 1,918 are from non-English speaking background.[2]

Notwithstanding that almost half of us are born overseas or have at least one parent who was, our Parliament, our Governments and public institutions do not reflect the cultural diversity that is today contemporary mainstream Australia.

I fear that it will be a long time before they actually will.

I have sought to promote cultural diversity through positive mentoring and sharing successful migrant journeys and how they achieved positions of leadership and influence.

But if you have a funny name, it is still hard in this country.

The number of times my staff are asked how to pronounce my name – the response is, as its written!

The reality is that prejudices and racial stereotyping still prevail.

It was highlighted very forcibly to me when I first became a Parliamentary Secretary. I was required to provide a declaration of interests to Prime Minister Abbott. I duly noted that John and I had a house in Umbria.

A person assisting then Prime Minister Abbott on transition matters, was not satisfied with this and sought “clarification” of our interests. When I asked him why, his response, though said in jest, astounded me – ‘we want to make sure it was not through ill-gotten Mafia gains“.

Of course, I smiled and took it on the chin. I duly provided the “clarification” sought. Even though Mafia jokes about Italians may be said in jest, it still hurts to hear them.

Indeed, my husband here has often reminded me that were it not for my ancestors, the Romans, his side of the family might still be living in caves running around in animal skins and exhibiting very poor personal hygiene!

For the record, John and I worked hard to buy a property in Italy. The fact that I, as a member of the ministry, was subjected to that sort of racial backhander indicates that regrettably, we still have a long way to go!

This sort of attitude perhaps explains why it might take a generation of new migrants to make their mark in public life.

I expect as the second and third generations of migrants use the higher education qualifications they have attained, they will increasingly make a far greater and much more publicly recognised contribution to contemporary Australian life.

Finally, I would like to make some comments on conservatism in the current political climate.

Conservatism is still a dirty word for some.

If you believe in God, there is a cross against your name.

If you believe in the traditional family and oppose same sex marriage, another cross.

If you support our current constitutional arrangements, another cross.

Goodness, if you believe that co2 is plant food, two crosses.

It’s as if those of us who have conservative views should have a big “C” branded on our foreheads.

My political journey was not an easy one. Unlike many of my colleagues, I did not have the benefit of political patronage that comes from the backing of political pedigree, wealth, or family connections.

I found my home in the Liberal Party on the conservative side. As Prime Minister Howard repeatedly said, the Liberal Party is a broad church made up of two streams, the Liberal philosophy and the Conservative philosophy. It works best when the two work together.

Over the years, I have been criticised in the media as being a conservative warrior or worse still, from the “hard right” with its extremist overtones.

It is fair to say that because I believe in conservative values, I have had my fair share of criticism.

But it has been the conservative side of the Liberal Party who valued my diversity and with whom I share common values of family and tradition.

In politics, people often try to be all things to all people. That doesn’t work. I have always sought to respect other points of view, even though I have experienced a lack of tolerance for my own conservative point of view.

In my maiden speech, I made it very clear what my values are and the beliefs that underpin them. Some of them have proven to be controversial, but there is one thing that people do know about me in political life – they know where I stand.

I have not been afraid to be in the minority. Indeed, sometimes I have done so in the knowledge that my views have been those of the silent majority.

And so I come to recent events and what some have described as the purge of the conservatives from the ministerial ranks. I am pleased to have survived.

As the senior conservative from NSW, I have spent a lot of time talking to our base. In NSW, it is well known the Left control the Division, but the base is mostly conservative.

Many are devastated by the change, some have left and many have threated to down tools. I have done my best to talk people into staying for the good of the Liberal party that we all serve.

The change of leadership will have an impact on our party. Unlike the ALP, we do not have the heavy arm of the union movement to come and hand out how to votes and do the grunt work at elections.

We rely on a volunteer base, mostly of older members, some who have simply had enough.

Former Prime Minister Howard and his committee proposed reforms to the NSW Division which included plebiscites, changes to special powers provisions and other important changes.

Those reforms would also have ensured a more equitable treatment for conservatives in the Division. One little thing if I may share which highlights my point. Recently, I celebrated 10 years in the Senate.

The process, including the invitation, went through the usual vetting by the NSW Division. Perhaps had the same degree of scrutiny afforded to my function been exercised in relation to the invitation to Dyson Heydon, I do not believe we would have bled the way we did on the issue.

But above all, these reforms would have opened up the NSW Division to much greater grassroots involvement and brought it into line with other Divisions of the Liberal Party around Australia.

So, can I conclude by saying that yes, I believe conservatism is alive and well in multicultural contemporary Australia and it is alive and well in the Liberal Party.

Thank you.