Speech by Senator the Hon Concetta Fierravanti-Wells

Australian Cultural Orientation (AUSCO) Training Workshop, Brisbane


Well, thank you very very much Kris.

Perhaps if I can start by saying this: I am very fortunate to be in this position as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Social Services, responsible for multicultural affairs and settlement services.

I am also now Parliamentary Secretary to the Attorney-General as well as a third hat that I recently acquired in relation to leading a consultation along with my colleague Phillip Ruddock on citizenship and potential citizenship changes in Australia.

So my comments to you this morning are really given to you not just with my hat as responsible for settlement services but in the broader context of what is a changing environment in Australia.

I also add that I too have had my settlement journey. Whilst I was born here in Australia, my parents emigrated to Australia in the 1950s.

When I went to school, I did not speak a word of English even though I was born in Australia so I do understand very much the settlement journey and the challenges that can be faced in terms of settlement journeys.

I grew up in Wollongong, of course very much a steel town. My father was a steel worker, my mother was a housewife.

And so if I can go to the question of can anybody you know whatever you want to do. This is the beauty of Australia, it does not matter who you are, where you are, where you have come from, you can be anything, you can be anyone, you can do anything. And that is really the important message. And it is interesting, it was one of the questions that was asked, I think that that is very much the long-term message that we should give our humanitarian entrants who are chosen to come to Australia.

But we also have to be realistic in our messages. And we also have to be realistic in our messaging in the context of 2015 in Australia and the challenges we are facing, particularly against the backdrop of an international situation which is a very difficult one – particularly in terms of national security, terrorism and extremism in Australia.

And I say this because, regrettably, in that broader context the position of our humanitarian entrants is not perhaps as well understood as it could be. And that is that each year we take 13,750, and that is going to go up to 18 000, and they are humanitarian entrants under a particular programme.

Since 1945 we have welcomed 7.5 million migrants to Australia, including 800,000 under our humanitarian programme. They are the citizens of tomorrow, they will be citizens within potentially five years.

But it is not as well understood in Australia and so therefore the negativity that is often associated with messages surrounding asylum seekers and other negative migration issues, we have to be very careful that those negative messages do not, but regrettably I think we are seeing that they are, tainting a positive message of the humanitarian programme to Australia.

For example, many of our employers do not understand that our humanitarian entrants come to Australia with full working rights. So there are some pretty important issues that in the context of where we are at the moment we do need to be realistic about.

This is a programme that assists a lot of people. Our settlement services are very good in comparison to other countries but that does not mean that we cannot do better. The AUSCO programme, $6.5 million over four years, and just last year in terms of settlement services $78 million. But we have to ensure we are accountable to the Australian public, particularly in these difficult financial times. So we have to ensure that we maximise these programmes.

Now, if I can put my three hats on and make these observations. I make them in the context of what is to be two days of realistic assessment of where we are and where we can look at improving these programmes.

We know that there is growing unemployment in Australia and regrettably some of our humanitarian entrants do not find jobs. And I think that there can be any number of reasons for that.

But I do want to raise something with you this morning and it has been raised in different scenarios by the Secretary of the Department of Immigration. And he raised it even yesterday at a security conference that I attended and if I can – just bear with me – I’d like to quote him:

We have to be especially alert to the long-term trends which are the consequences of globalisation and transnational mobility and communications. Earlier, periods of isolation from family, friends and culture and language compelled migrants to integrate. The Global Engagement National Model which has been brought about by globalisation could, if we are not careful, perversely see the accelerated emergence of virtual transnational communities which are built around ancient bonds of race, ethnicity, religion, language and so on, and a parallel disengagement from Australian civil society. At the extreme, such virtual communities could see a frame of allegiance to the national state.

We have to be watchful of these trends without in any way being alarmed. We have a cohesive civil society which is built upon a foundational, social and political order which is durable and resilient and which protects and enables that cohesive civil society.

I say this because it is so important that that message that when you do come to Australia – yes, we are a multicultural society but at the moment, particularly given the processes that I have gone through in terms of citizenship and consultation with the very very wide cross-section of people in the Australian community: there are some issues about allegiance; there are some real issues about citizenship; and there are some real issues that have been raised, particularly where you do have this potential for transnational, as the Secretary has correctly pointed out, transnational community. So we can have in Australia, regrettably, communities that do not speak much English and basically their allegiance is not to Australia but is to their clan overseas, it is to another entity but not primarily to Australia.

And the reason I raise this is because regrettably some of our communities, some of our humanitarian entrants, we are seeing these trends emerging. So therefore I say this to you because it is vitally important that the messages people receive at the very beginning of this process, the very beginning of their settlement journey, has to not only be a realistic one but it has to be realistic one in the context of where Australia sits today so that we can ensure that our humanitarian programmes going forward will achieve, as they have in the past, will continue to achieve the results and the benefits to Australia that have been obtained in the past and we hope will continue to be obtained in the future.

And so it is not just that beginning of that journey, it is then continuing that journey by our HSS provides in Australia to reinforce those messages that are given to people right at the beginning of the settlement journey.

Now when my father came to Australia in the 1950s, we were a manufacturing-based economy. Today we are a service-based economy. So therefore, it means that – and today and tomorrow you will talk about the focus of our government – what we call the three Es, English, Education, Employment.

In a service-based economy, English is vitally important. I cannot underestimate its importance. That is not to say people should not continue to speak their languages, should not continue to adhere to their cultural heritage. Goodness, I am bilingual. I was brought up completely bilingually. I speak a number of different languages. But the reality is that English is now, more than ever, very important.

And one of the things that has emerged in the consultations of citizenship is the importance of English. And when I talk about this consultation, it has pretty much come from just about everybody that we have spoken to and very much the responses that we have received the strong focus on English.

So particularly given that three fifths of HSS clients are aged 29 and under, it is very important that that message is clearly promulgated – the importance that our Government places on what we term the three Es.

Now, the settlement journey, and that is so many, as I have said, so many people in Australia have lived that migration, we are a country of migration.

Our social cohesion today is the sum of millions of settlement journeys to Australia, millions of successful settlement journeys to Australia.

And that is why today we are one of the most culturally diverse, yet socially cohesive nations on Earth. We have not had the problems, or we do not have some of the extreme problems that other countries do have.

But social cohesion does not come about per se, it comes about because there is a lot of hard work that goes into achieving the socially cohesive society that Australia enjoys today.

And the challenges that we are facing today particularly, in terms of extremism and terrorism, is a direct consequence of disengagement. Now yes, we do have an issue with radicalisation, there is no doubt about that.

Now, as we know, young people can become disengaged for any number of reasons. And particularly in the HSS space, many of our young people have had traumatic histories and so the prospect of disengagement is very very high. So therefore young people can become disengaged and they can turn to any number of illicit activities.

I think what we are seeing today is radicalisation is another form of that activity. But what we do not want is disengaged young people because disengaged young people, disengaged people, affect the social cohesion of our country.

And so therefore, it is really important in the messages that we do give that we do manage those expectations. It is very difficult when I go out and about, and let me be very blunt, I find it very difficult when I go out and about and I speak to people who are involved in the HSS space and who say to me ‘oh, Centrelink is the place to get money’. Now, you know I think we need to be realistic that that regrettably is an issue. We are also seeing levels of crime. These are issues, we need to deal with them. And an important component of that is the messaging that is given to people both before they leave for Australia and when they are here in Australia.

Now the settlement journey is a two-way journey. As I have said in terms of citizenship, many of our humanitarian entrants, and again the questions that the lady has put to us before, very very clearly you know the citizenship question is high on their agenda.

Because for many humanitarian entrants that is the important goal and that is to live the time in Australia before they can get their citizenship and at times, become citizens in a relatively short time compared to other people who do become citizens. So therefore, as we do focus on citizenship, as we do focus on not just the rights of citizenship, we also focus on the responsibilities of citizenship.

And again, I cannot say strongly enough how important the concept of responsibility in citizenship has been highlighted as a consequence of my recent engagement on this issue.

And indeed, one of the things that is emerging is the importance of valuing, valuing what Australian citizenship and what being an Australian resident actually means. Because as an Australian resident you have certain rights but you also have responsibilities. When you become a citizen, you have rights but you also have responsibilities.

And so therefore, I am very pleased to be here. I am very pleased to share these thoughts with you but I really do ask you to look at what you are doing but also do so with the optic of what are the priorities of the Australian Government in 2015, particularly against the backdrop of what we are facing at the moment.

Now the HSS review that has been done does reinforce I think the message of the need to properly and accurately manage expectations.

And so what I would like to do in the remaining time that I have is pose a number of questions to you. And I would really appreciate if you could consider these as part of your deliberations over the next day or so.

I know that AUSCO is voluntary. How many do take up the option? If not, why not? And do you consider that participation should be mandatory for all people, all humanitarian entrants coming to Australia?

Can I ask you individually if you like to, at the end if you are doing some evaluation Kris at the end of this. I would appreciate if all of you could give me your three pieces of advice to the Australian Government in this space.

Given the age groups that we are talking about: how can we better target our AUSCO services and our HSS on the ground in terms of follow up to the younger age group?

Can I ask you to outline for me also what you consider to be the three top expectations of your AUSCO clients?

And also, I am really interested to understand in terms of on the ground and I am sorry I did not have the opportunity recently to visit one of the AUSCO sites which I was intending to do but which I hope to do at some stage in the near future.

But one of the things that I am really particularly interested in is to understand how better we can harness from our AUSCO clients, their history. What did they do? Now yes, they may have been in a camp for a long time but what did they do before that? Did they take apart motorbikes? Do they have an interest in something mechanical? Can we look at, can we better look at what their history has been so that we have a better understanding of what their history has been, so that we can better assist them in terms of their settlement journey and not have situations where people regrettably do get disenfranchised and disillusioned because they cannot do what they were doing in their country.

And so this is the reality because if we do not manage those expectations early in the piece and if our HSS clients do not manage those expectations properly, then we will have problems down track, we will have disengagement, and as a consequence thereof, my concern is the long term.

So with those thoughts, can I thank you for listening and can I thank you for the work you are going to do over the next couple of days. Can I thank you for the work that you already do.

And I look forward very much to receiving your feedback.

Thank you.