Speech by Senator the Hon Concetta Fierravanti-Wells

Advancing Community Cohesion Conference, University of Western Sydney, Parramatta Campus, Parramatta

Location: University of Western Sydney, Parramatta Campus, Parramatta


Well, thank you very, very much Sev.

Can I start by acknowledging UWS Chancellor, Professor Peter Shergold AC; Acting Vice-Chancellor Scott Holmes; Conference Convenor, Dr Sev Ozdowski OAM; many other distinguished guests; ladies and gentlemen.

As Parliamentary Secretary to both the Attorney-General and the Minister for Social Services, it is my great pleasure to be here today to represent the Australian Government and most especially, Scott Morrison.

Can I thank you all for participating in this important conference and most importantly, to the many distinguished guest speakers.

Over the next two days, the conference will explore the critical question of community cohesion in Australia and how this can be advanced. And for this reason, the Government has been very pleased to support this conference.

Fortunately, Australians enjoy community cohesion within rich and diverse economic prosperity. This is a combination that is the envy of the world.

So do we need a conference like this? It would be easy to rest on our laurels and think it will last forever without any further examination, input or effort on our part. If only.

Community cohesion, or social cohesion, does not happen by itself. Australia’s successful multicultural society did not happen by itself. As a nation, we have found unity and prosperity in our diversity and respect in our differences.

And while our cultural diversity is a source of great social and economic strength, the contributions of migrants and their families spanning generations have helped create the Australia we enjoy today.

The Australian Government supports a culturally diverse multicultural Australia. We are a welcoming nation where rights are balanced with responsibilities.

Since 1945, we have welcomed 7.5 million migrants, including 800,000 under our humanitarian programme and we continue to welcome people to the Australian family.

Our success as one of the most culturally diverse and socially cohesive nations in the world stems from our adherence to the values which underpin Australian society and culture and to which Australian citizens adhere:

  • respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual;
  • the equality of men and women;
  • freedom of religion;
  • our commitment to the rule of law;
  • our parliamentary democracy;
  • that spirit of egalitarianism that embraces mutual respect, tolerance, fair play, compassion for those in need and pursuit of public good; and
  • equality of opportunity for individuals regardless of their race, religion or ethnic background.

And for decades, we have worked hard to establish a consensus around the merits of our cultural and ethnic diversity and building community harmony.

Let me state categorically on behalf of the Government that intolerance has no place in our society and we condemn all acts of violence against civilians, whoever is responsible.

All our communities are valued and are an integral part of contemporary Australia. We are committed to working with all groups to provide the best possible opportunities for all Australians.

Our success has been built through the efforts and commitment of millions of Australians, unified by our goal of wanting a prosperous future for everyone.

Our sustained success takes effort, from individuals, from civil society and Government who join together to build this prosperity. We work best when we work hand-in-hand.

Every day, Commonwealth, State and Territory agencies are engaging with communities and forming vital partnerships and we need to continue these partnerships to strengthen and support all Australian communities.

The Australian Government will continue to work with communities and individuals to resist and challenge intolerant ideologies through early intervention, education and capacity building. But it is not up to Government alone to meet this challenge. Governments cannot do everything.

This is also a most timely conference, coming at a critical juncture of multicultural Australia’s history when we face the challenges posed by terrorism and extremism.

Security is vital to all of us and whilst the focus has been on national security spending, I would also like to highlight that over the next four years, the Government, through my Department of Social Services, will spend about $660 million on multicultural affairs, assisting migrants to settle, social cohesion, countering extremism and assisting young people at risk.

Our role is to work with culturally and linguistically diverse communities to strengthen civil society through well-settled migrants and strong and cohesive communities.

The great thing about Australia is that we are a free, open and fair society and we have to continue to be a free, open and fair society because after all our freedom, our fairness, our tolerance, our welcome to people from all around the world, of all different faiths and cultures, is what makes us such a great country.

However, this is being threatened by those who hate our freedom and our decency because it is a reproach to their extremism and their fanaticism and for this reason, we must continue to be the kind of welcoming country that we have been.

It is important that anyone who is in danger of becoming radicalised is diverted into a different path as early as possible before they harm themselves or harm others.

We cannot afford vulnerable young people to disengage from society. Disengagement poses broader risks to social cohesion, especially when young people are concentrated in particular geographic areas in major cities. That’s when they become targets for extremist predators in their communities seeking to indoctrinate and radicalise them.

I believe that strong resilience of our social cohesion will help us meet the challenges that we are facing today.

So how has our social cohesion been achieved?

Our success as one of the most culturally diverse, multicultural nations in the world is the result of a long and sustained effort to lay solid foundations for community harmony. These include:

  • a long history of migration, with migration and diversity embedded in our national identity;
  • an orderly and effective, managed migration programme;
  • an inclusive approach to the acquisition of Australian citizenship;
  • articulated policies and priorities to guide Australia’s approach to multicultural affairs, which balances respect for diversity with a commitment to national unity and community harmony;
  • broad political consensus on the core direction of both Australia’s migration programme and approaches to multicultural affairs; and
  • strong and effective civil society involvement in integration, community cohesion and productive diversity.

In short, our strong social cohesion is the product of millions of successful settlement journeys integrated into a uniquely Australian way of life.

By any measure available, Australians live in a highly cohesive society. A cursory scan of the news from around the world shows that displacement, division and unrest is an everyday reality for so many people.

Australia’s rich diversity and economic and political stability makes our cohesion appear all the more remarkable. And indeed it is. But it didn’t happen by accident.

Today, one in every four Australians was born overseas. About 45% of us were either born overseas or have at least one parent who was. We identify with about 300 ancestries and we speak almost as many languages, including indigenous languages.

The Scanlon Foundation’s annual Mapping Social Cohesion report demonstrates the entrenched, strong public support for our unique Australian multicultural nature.

About 85% of people surveyed agreed that cultural diversity is good for Australia. 92% felt a sense of belonging and 88% expressed pride in the ‘Australian way of life’.

Of particular interest – and highly encouraging – was concern about immigration was at its lowest level since the survey began in 2007. That is a very good outcome.

About 58% of those surveyed said the immigration intake was ‘about right’ or ‘too low’.

Reports like this show that our policy settings are very much in alignment with public expectations and sentiment. It is good to get it right.

But there are still challenges. The Scanlon report also found that there are increases in the reporting of racism and most particular, one in four Australians surveyed had negative feelings towards our Muslim communities. We have seen this played out in examples of harassment.

Like any society we have pockets of intolerance, but they are sporadic and have no place in a modern and diverse community such as ours.

As the daughter of migrants myself, I understand the hard work and sacrifices that have motivated millions of people to come to Australia to build a better life for themselves and their children.

But with each wave of settlement, there can be unfounded suspicion and resentment among established populations. The cycle repeats itself, as cycles do.

As part of the cycle, communities face challenges and crossroads.

We have seen this since the early days of European settlement, when the Chinese, Irish and Germans were victims of intolerance and misunderstanding.

From the post-war migration boom, Italians and Greeks were targeted, followed by Vietnamese and Lebanese communities in the 1970s. More recently, Muslim communities have been subject to prejudices.

But with understanding and integration comes acceptance and belonging.

In addition, the resentment against the latest wave can come from other migrant groups themselves. Hence, inter-faith and inter-cultural relationships remain very important.

It is also vital that the positive narrative of the contribution of individual communities to Australia is not overshadowed by the negative publicity generated by the actions of a few.

Indeed, more importantly, we cannot allow the recent challenges facing Australia to taint the positive migration legacy of millions of successful migrant stories. Otherwise, our social cohesion will be at risk.

Let me state, on behalf of the Government, that intolerance has no place in our society and we condemn all acts of violence and intimidation against our citizens.

All our communities are valued and integral to contemporary Australia. We want to work with all of them to provide the best possible opportunities for all Australians.

As I have said, our success has been built through the efforts and commitment of millions of Australians, unified by our goal of wanting a prosperous future for everyone. Those who have not wished to participate in this future have chosen alternatives and as the cycles of settlement have shown, some have chosen not to remain in Australia. This is the beauty of our free and open society.

We have built our modern nation on the idea that people can get ahead if they are prepared to ‘have a go’.

However, increasingly there is concern that recent events may pose a challenge to multicultural Australia. We need to remain vigilant to ensure that the benefits that our cultural diversity have brought us are not undermined by the negative actions of a few.

And this includes openly challenging those who do wish to put at risk this positive legacy of our migration history.

As I said, we are a welcoming nation where rights are balanced with responsibilities.

We respect the rights of all Australians to celebrate, practice and maintain their cultural traditions within the law and free from discrimination.

At the same time, we share a responsibility not to infringe on the rights of others and to respect Australia’s laws, democracy, and basic values such as freedom of speech and religion and equality of the sexes.

As I indicated earlier, since 1945, we have welcomed about 7.5 million migrants. About 4.5 million have taken out Australian citizenship.

As you know, I was recently tasked, along with my colleague the Hon. Phillip Ruddock MP, to lead a national conversation about the role of citizenship in shaping our future.

Australian citizenship is a privilege which requires a continuing commitment to this country. Australian citizenship, whether by birth or acquisition, enjoys privileges, rights and fundamental responsibilities.

But we need to ask ourselves some questions:

  • Are the responsibilities of Australian citizenship well enough known and understood?
  • Do we do enough to promote the value of citizenship, particularly amongst our young people?
  • Have we got the balance right between the safety of our community and the rights of the individual?
  • And how do we deal with citizens who act against the best interests of our country?

Submissions closed on 30 June and we are in the process of analysing the responses. It is clear though that there are some important trends emerging, namely the need to value citizenship, increasing civics understanding for all Australians and the importance of learning and speaking English.

The Australian Government is committed to maintaining and building a cohesive and harmonious multicultural Australia.

And we have in place a range of initiatives across Government to support community cohesion and build the capacity of communities in need.

As I indicated earlier, over the next four years, the Government, through the Department of Social Services, will spend about $660 million on multicultural affairs, assisting communities to settle and building community cohesion.

We have an extensive range of mainstream and targeted programmes to support children and families and their participation in community life. Our role is to work with culturally and linguistically diverse communities to strengthen civil society through well-settled migrants and strong and cohesive communities.

For example, our Humanitarian Settlement Services programme provides support to humanitarian entrants in their first five years in Australia.

Grants for settlement services provide funding to organisations to assist humanitarian entrants and other eligible migrants settle and participate in Australian society.

We also have grants for Diversity and Social Cohesion through Strengthening Communities aimed at building resilience and community cohesion. And these are provided to support communities, especially those under pressure.

We support the Australian Multicultural Council, which advises Government on matters relating to multicultural policy and programmes.

We also support the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia.

We have a Multicultural Access and Equity Policy to ensure that all Australians, regardless of cultural or linguistic background, have equitable access to services.

We also provide Translating and Interpreting services, including funding the National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters Ltd.

But fundamental to good settlement has been what I call the three”Es”-English, education and employment. All three are critical to an inclusive society.

The key factors in being successfully employed are speaking English and gaining the necessary education or training.

We know that having a job is an important part of seeing yourself as belonging to society and wanting to contribute to its cohesive resilience.

And few locations better demonstrate, regrettably, the difficulties faced by new arrivals than the great migration melting pot of Western Sydney. Across Western Sydney there are pockets of vulnerable communities for whom educational and employment outcomes are below those of the national average.

The most recent ABS Census (2011) found that in Western Sydney participation rates are 54.8% which are lower than the national average of 65.6%.

The census also showed that unemployment rate in this area was also significantly higher than the national average, namely ranging between 7.3% and 8.1% compared to the national average of 4.9%.

And while there are many reasons for this unemployment rate, it is worth acknowledging that during the same time period, 22% of people in Western Sydney do not speak English well, or at all.

This compared to the national average of 3% of people who do not speak English well.

Speaking English today is a critical success factor in allowing people to increase equality of opportunity and general social mobility in Australia.

As such, English language skills are critically important in increasing social cohesion and to wider integration into Australian society. English, as the national language, is the currency of effective communication and social integration in contemporary Australia.

Given the shift in focus of Australia’s economic activity from a manufacturing base to a service based economy, English language skills are ever more important.

Appropriate English language training gives people greater opportunities to access further education and secure a sustainable, meaningful work.

We have seen that, for an inclusive society, language and employment are critical.

In our knowledge-based economy, employment, education and English language proficiency are key factors helping migrants take part fully in Australia’s economic and social activity.

They are priority outcomes for the long-term settlement. They are equally important and integral to each other.

And the Government’s recent Budget announcement of over $22 million to support young humanitarian entrants and other vulnerable young migrants build employment readiness, establish strong connections to education, build strong social connections and confidence through engagement in sport, and increase vocational opportunities is a practical example of our commitment to the three Es.

But let us not forget that social cohesion and diversity brings economic rewards alongside social ones.

Our diversity means Australia can be more productive, invent new ways of doing business with the world, create new opportunities and boost our trade and investment enterprises.

Migration has and will continue to deliver social and economic strength, prosperity and unity and will continue to contribute to a thriving and cohesive society.

In a globalised economy, our diversity has become an advantage. It means we can confidently shake hands with far more of the world and its peoples.

A recent study on the economic impact of migration to Australia went some way in measuring the strengths that our diversity presents.

The study, undertaken by the Migration Council Australia and Independent Economics, estimated that by 2050, migration would contribute $1.6 trillion to our economy.

Moreover, because of the emphasis on students and skilled migrants in our migration programme, the report estimates that by 2050, migrants would add about 10% more to Australia’s economy than existing residents.

This underscores the strengths that Australia’s diverse population presents and the importance of continued efforts to strengthen a cohesive and harmonious Australia into the future.

Our rich cultural, religious and linguistic diversity is part of our everyday experience in modern Australia.

It is our lived experience — more than simply legislation or words on paper.

But our journey continues. It is our lived experience that now comes very naturally to us.

But this opens up the risk that we can take our cohesion for granted. As I said at the start, we cannot rest on our laurels.

The work continues for us all — Governments, communities, individuals.

I wish you all the best for your conference and look forward to your outcomes.

Thank you.