Speech by Senator the Hon Concetta Fierravanti-Wells

Address to the National Imams Consultative Forum

Location: Old Parliament House, Canberra


Can I start by acknowledging distinguished guests and presenters at this forum and all participants and organisers of the National Imams Consultative Forum.

Given my responsibility for multicultural affairs and settlement services, I am absolutely delighted to be here this morning to welcome you to Canberra and to this important gathering.

As Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Social Services, I wanted to speak about some of the work done by the Department in the social services area – work which I know is of interest to you and the communities you look after.

As the daughter of migrants myself, I understand very well the hard work and sacrifices that many of you have made to build a better life for yourselves and your community.

You may also be aware, there have been many changes instituted by the Government in recent times. We are working hard to ensure that Australia’s future remains prosperous for all.

As an example, we have moved some of the areas of the Immigration portfolio such as settlement services and multicultural affairs to the Department of Social Services.

We believe that these changes have allowed us to deliver programmes and services to the community in a more focussed and efficient way.

Our view is that the Department of Social Services will be in the best possible position to help migrants along every step of their settlement journey.

The portfolio is one of the largest within the Coalition government accounting for 35% of government expenditure and includes Human services, aged care and disability services, pensions and family payments.

As part of this change we are currently simplifying the arrangements around grants, including moving 18 programmes from 5 different government departments into 7 new programmes.

Where appropriate, successful applicants will now receive a 5-year grant agreement, providing certainty and allowing for long-term planning, which will in turn, improve the services they provide.

Another improvement in grants funding is the introduction of online applications which will save organisations a significant amount of time and effort and allow them to focus more on their core business.

Applications opened on 19 June covering a wide range of social services.

This arrangement will also allow for organisations to work in partnership with the government and encourage greater innovation and growth across the sector. I would be happy to take more detailed questions afterwards in relation to areas where you would more specifically want to ask me.

On the subject of partnerships, I would like to acknowledge the partnerships we have around faith.

Practising a faith is an important part of the lives of many Australians and we have a broad diversity of faith communities, including our esteemed Islamic community.

All of our faith communities are valued by the Government and Australians are free to practice any faith of their choosing, according to Australian law.

We place great pride in the fact that here in Australia, our faith communities are cohesive and that we do not experience the divisions that some other countries do.

It indicates that Australians of all faiths are committed to our nation and people of different faiths frequently find common ground as a platform to work together for the benefit of all.

I know that there are many Australian Muslims who have been very active in the space of interfaith work and I would like to acknowledge their wonderful efforts.

Can I especially mention the work of Dr Hass Dellal whom I have known over many years.

Islam has enjoyed a long history in Australia with Muslims from many different backgrounds helping to enrich and diversify what has become one of the most cohesive and prosperous societies in the world.

I recently attended the official opening in Melbourne of the Islamic Museum of Australia and was captivated by the long and fascinating history of Islam in Australia, going back to the cameleers in the 1800s.

You have made, and continue to make many valuable contributions to our society. Today’s work is another stage of that contribution.

I would like to thank you all for gathering here today to work on this important forum. This is a wonderful initiative and it is great to see the Australian National Imams Council (ANIC) and the National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies (NCEIS) working together.

I cannot overstate the importance of the work that we do here together.

It is vitally important that actions are undertaken on community safety, radicalisation and violent extremism is both reasoned, informed and constructive.

I would like to thank you all for your efforts and commitment in working towards the future well-being of Australia, most especially for working together with us to help prevent radicalisation.

Your advice and your assistance are invaluable.

I would also like to particularly commend Australia’s Muslim communities for the understanding and empathy you consistently display in instances where you face adversity or a lack of understanding from segments of the community.

It is unfortunate that there is a small element of the community who are perhaps fearful of those from other faiths or ethnicities. The Attorney General, whom you will hear from later, in an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2011 wrote:

With each new wave of settlement there has been, from some among the established population, suspicion and resentment. Equally there has been, among those newly arrived, fear of the new and unknown, and a desire to cluster together to preserve the traditions and customs of their homeland. Both of those reactions are as predictable as human nature.

I know this very well from my own experience as the daughter of migrants.

I wanted to quote Senator Brandis, because he then goes on to make the point, which in today’s discussion, is very pertinent:

Some of the protagonists in the debate on the role of Muslims in Australian society have forgotten that, for every new wave of immigrants, the story has been the same. Today it is Muslims who are targeted, but a decade ago it was Asians, a generation before that it was Greeks and Italians, and before that it was the Irish.

Let me assure you in the strongest terms that the Australian Government fully recognises the value and the contribution of our many Muslim communities, and we support you.

One of the reasons Australian Multiculturalism has been so successful is our high level of social cohesion.

As a society we work together every day for the well-being of all. I acknowledge that we do have pockets of intolerance, but let me state categorically that this intolerance has no place in our society.

It is not who or what we are as Australians. We are a highly cohesive nation of people from around 300 different backgrounds who speak as many languages.

Our successful multicultural society has been built through the efforts and commitment of millions of Australians, unified by the goal of a prosperous future for all.

That work goes on, and today’s forum will be one of the ingredients of our future success.

Each small and careful step we take is another great stride towards a better future for all. I am pleased to see that we are taking these strides together. That is why we have succeeded thus far, and why we will continue to grow and thrive into the future.

As the spiritual leaders of your various communities you have demonstrated care and great wisdom.

The guidance that you offer to Muslims, and through this forum, the Government and other Australians, is of the most significant value.

The steps you have all taken to build understanding across the community as well as emphasising the duty of care we all have to protect Australia and our people are vitally important and greatly appreciated.

The Government shares your goals for a safe and prosperous future for each and every Australian.

Everything you do in encouraging constructive dialogue based on mutual respect or in preventing community tensions helps to reinforce our social cohesion.

The Muslim community is a valued and integral part of the wider Australian community. Community and religious leaders play a critical role in instilling the values of tolerance, respect and harmony.

As religious leaders of faith communities, your leadership is integral to the Government’s attempts to resist intolerant views.

The religious freedom that we all enjoy in Australia is a testament to the strength of our democracy and values.

As many of you may know, I have had a long involvement in community activities which started in the early 1980s as a founding board director of a nursing home to assist older Australians of Italian background in the Illawarra where I was born and raised.

I am a proud member of the Italo-Australian community.

Today, the community is lauded as one of the shining examples of success in multicultural Australia. But it was not always so.

The assassination of anti-drugs campaigner Donald Mackay in 1977 and the subsequent conviction of mafia figures for his murder led to an avalanche of stories that the Italian community in Australia was infiltrated with organised crime figures.

They were difficult times for a community still smarting from prejudices following the post-war migration and descriptions such as “dagos” and “wogs”.

But the community rallied. The bad elements were weeded out. Every community has its bad apples. You cannot let the rotten apples spoil the good fruit. It needs to grow and go on to prosper and flourish.

Before I conclude, I wanted to share these thoughts with you.

I know that there are challenges, especially given recent events in Syria. I know your communities consist of thousands of law abiding men, women and children, who have come to Australia to build a better life for themselves.

They have made sacrifices to come here. So 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.

Can I conclude by saying that we are committed to working with you to provide the best possible opportunities for all Australians, from all walks of life.

Again, I would like to thank you all for your efforts and I wish you all the very best for the forum. It has been an honour and a privilege to be among you this morning. Thank you.