Speech by Senator the Hon Concetta Fierravanti-Wells

Muslims Australia 51st Annual Congress Dinner, Greenacre NSW

Location: The Malet Fahd Islamic School


Well thank you. Salam alaikum. To my many Parliamentary colleagues here, both Federal and State; members of the Diplomatic Corp; Mayors, councillors; Hafez Kassem, your incoming re-elected President, to your incoming Board; community leaders, many distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

It’s my pleasure this evening to be representing not just the Minister for Social Services, the Hon. Scott Morrison MP but also the Attorney-General, Senator the Hon. George Brandis QC. Both have asked me to pass on their very best wishes for this Annual Congress Dinner.

Given my responsibilities for Multicultural Affairs and Settlement Services, I had the pleasure of attending the 50th anniversary dinner at the Great Hall of Parliament House last year and am pleased to again join you tonight to focus on your invitation theme of “Hand in hand for a brighter Australia“.

You continue to be a key voice for Muslims in Australia representing groups and councils across the country and providing assistance to mosques and Islamic Centres and serving our diverse Muslim communities and in turn, helping to add to the rich fabric of our nation’s social, cultural and economic wellbeing.

Yours is an important influencing role, especially in these difficult times. Indeed, more than ever, working hand in hand is imperative.

Faith is an important part of the lives of many Australians. We have a broad diversity of faith communities where we not only enjoy freedom of religion, but respect for other religions and your continuing work and participation in regular inter-faith dialogue, both in Australia and in our region, is essential in promoting understanding and tolerance.

All of our faith communities are valued by the Government and we take great pride that in Australia, our faith communities are cohesive and we do not experience the divisions that some other countries do.

The Australian Government supports a culturally diverse multicultural Australia. As a nation, we have found unity and prosperity in our diversity and respect in our differences.

We are a welcoming nation where rights are balanced with responsibilities and 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.

Our multicultural society is reflected in many different ways. For example, we support diversity and choice in education, which includes a thriving non-government sector with strong and transparent governance arrangements operated in accordance with community expectations and standards and this is reflected in the support that the Government gives to schools such as where we are tonight.

Islam has enjoyed a long history in Australia and Muslims from many different backgrounds helping to enrich and diversify what has become one of the most cohesive and prosperous societies in the world and as a society we need to work together every day – hand in hand – for the well-being of all.

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.

However, with each wave of settlement, there can be unfounded suspicion and resentment among established populations. We have seen this since the early days of European settlement, when this was targeted at Chinese, Irish and Germans. From the post-war migration boom, it was the Italians and the Greeks, followed by Vietnamese and Lebanese in the 1970s, and more recently, Muslim groups.

In addition, the resentment has come from other migrant groups, not necessarily from those established communities. Hence, inter-faith and inter-cultural relationships are very important and and it is vitally important that the positive narrative of your contribution to Australia is not overshadowed by the negative publicity generated by the actions of a few.

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.

Your communities are valued and an integral part of contemporary Australia. We are committed to working with you 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.

As educators and community leaders, your role is pivotal to ensure your younger people are protected from exposure to extremism while ensuring the teaching and influences they receive will guarantee that they will go on to make valuable contributions to Australia’s way of life.

Security is vital to all of us and whilst the focus has been on national security spending, I would 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.

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 CALD (culturally and linguistically diverse) communities to strengthen civil society through well-settled migrants and strong and cohesive communities.

And that’s done through Multicultural Community Liaison Officers and the work that we do in communities to identify and help identify the potential drivers of social conflict and where divisions can arise.

We have grants for Diversity and Social Cohesion through Strengthening Communities aimed at building resilience and social cohesion. They are provided to support communities under pressure.

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

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 Daesch and its supporters 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 warm and welcoming country that we have been.

Sadly though, some Australians, hard to believe in some respects, but nevertheless, people who have grown up, born and bred in this free and open society, do seem susceptible to the lure of the hate preachers and their allies and some of them are tempted to go overseas.

Daesch is a threat to its region and it is reaching out to us and that is why we have joined more than 60 nations, many from the Arab world, to disrupt, degrade and ultimately defeat Daesch. It’s also why we have contributed millions of dollars in humanitarian relief to victims of the conflict in Syria and opened up 4,400 places for refugees from Iraq and Syria.

Earlier this year, we announced new measures to challenge terrorism propaganda online through investment of more than $21 million over four years. We have increased spending in Countering Violent Extremism from around $3 million per annum to more than $40 million over four years.

It is also clear that some of the young people being brainwashed are not aware of the basic tenets of Islam and are susceptible to being influenced by an extremist version of Islam which is not reflective of the basic tenets and it is important that anyone who is in danger of becoming radicalised is diverted onto a different path as early as possible before they harm themselves or they harm others.

The people who are most likely to be able to get through to someone at risk will be people close to them – parents, friends, teachers or community leaders. It is these people who can detect changes in behaviour and influence their decision course and change the decision and the course of someone’s life. As educators and community leaders, your role is a vital one.

We want to work with you to develop the necessary materials to deliver support to you in this role.

Just as parents and families have gained greater understanding of the dangers posed by online sexual predators, there needs to be increased awareness of the threat from online terrorist propaganda which seeks to groom young people to brain washing vulnerable and susceptible Australians.

Unfortunately anyone with a computer can encourage others to undertake reprehensible acts of hate and violence and it is particularly concerning that these very young people are both perpetrating and becoming targets of this sort of hate and violence.

The online environment regrettably has no borders and terrorist on-line propaganda is reaching directly into our homes and families through simple online searches.

Recently, we committed $21.7 million to challenge terrorist propaganda to Australia, especially on-line, funding community organisations to produce videos and other online content that challenges the appeal of extremist narratives and promotes Australia’s inclusive values.

The Government has also committed about $14 million specifically to the Living Safe Together programme which supports both individuals and communities to address the radicalisation of Australians against violent extremist ideologies and builds on the experience of previous work.

The radicalisation to violence process is unique in each person and responses need to be flexible and meet the individual’s need. Therefore, tailored individual plans have to connect young people to services such as mentoring and coaching, counselling, education and employment support.

Our programmes can only go so far and that is why we value the efforts of families and spiritual and community leaders.

We have provided over $1.6 million recently to 34 community organisations from across Australia under the Living Safe Together Programme to help develop skills to work with individuals and divert them away from these ideologies.

The Government recognises and values the integral role of local communities in building resistance to violent extremism and creating strong community networks.

To this end, this morning Minister Morrison and I announced that the Australian Government will invest over $22 million to assist humanitarian entrants and other vulnerable migrants under 25 to participate in education and a successful transition to work.

This is the sort of thing President Hafez that you were talking about earlier.

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

Racism, discrimination and events overseas can create an ‘us and them’ mentality for these young, marginalised, vulnerable people. There is no excuse for young people making the choices that put them on a deathly path.

We need to act to ensure that they make the right choices to be in study, to be in work, to create a positive future for themselves in Australia, which is their home.

We need to stop the journey to radicalisation even before it begins.

In closing, I would like to again thank and congratulate Muslims Australia for over 50 years of effort, commitment and work for the betterment of all Australians.

With the challenges we face today, your organisation’s motto is as pertinent as ever. We look forward to working ‘Hand in hand for a brighter Australia’ with you.

Thank you.