Speech by Senator the Hon Concetta Fierravanti-Wells

National Public Sector Women in Leadership Summit

Location: Hyatt Hotel Canberra

Thank you Lisa. It is truly an honour to be addressing you here today. Having looked at the distinguished keynote speakers in the past, I know that the invitation to speak today was not as a result of my being a politician but because of my public service.

And can I say how truly proud I was to be a public servant before becoming a Senator.

Today my service of the public is different. I come under the umbrella of the Department of the Senate, rather than the Australian Government Solicitor and the Attorney Generals Department, but it still remains service to the public.

As a Senator, my duty is to serve the public. It is a noble service, despite what many may think.

My journey to my position today has been a very, very long one. Prior to becoming a Senator, yes, I was also a lawyer, but with a difference. I was privileged to serve as a lawyer in the Commonwealth Public Service.

And today, that puts me in a unique position of being, I believe, the only government lawyer to be serving in the Parliament.

Having had the opportunity of acting for many government departments and statutory authorities over my career with the Commonwealth, I gained a very unique understanding of how the public service operated and indeed, how public administration functions.

Have there been challenges? Absolutely. But today, I am proud to serve the people of New South Wales as a Liberal Senator. To give something back to the country to which my parents immigrated and which gave them and my family so much.

My journey started when my father came to Australia in 1953. In my maiden speech, I recounted this journey.

My father arrived at 24 years of age, alone on the docks at Sydney having left his home in Italy, all the things he knew, all the things he loved, including my mother, his fianc?e.

My father, at that stage, spoke absolutely no English and his old suitcase carried the dreams and aspirations that had motivated his migration to a land so far away. He first lived in migrant quarters at Port Kembla and then travelled to North Queensland to become a cane-cutter.

He worked hard, saved enough money for a deposit on a home and returned to Port Kembla where he bought a small cottage. My mother joined him in 1959. By that stage, they had been engaged for 13 years.

They were married in Sydney and then went down to Wollongong. I was born a year later in 1960, with my brother joining the family five years later.

My schooling began at St Francis of Assisi in Warrawong. I recall day one at kindergarten with children drawn from the cultural diversity that was Wollongong then, long before we spoke about multiculturalism and cultural diversity.

There were 75 children the day I started school. Only three spoke English and I wasn’t one of them. However, after only about three months, under the guidance of one of the nuns there, we were all speaking English and happily singing along in our new language.

After kindergarten, I went to St Patrick’s at Port Kembla and did my primary schooling under the shadow of the chimney stack.

And so I grew up in Port Kembla, the industrial heart of the Illawarra. My father worked at the steelworks and my mother stayed at home. I am eternally grateful for the sacrifices that my parents made, to make sure that we had everything we needed and that we had the best their hard work and sacrifices could give.

I learnt many lessons, but above all, resilience, dedication and respect.

Today, as Parliamentary Secretary responsible for multicultural affairs and settlement services, we have government support programs to assist our new arrivals. But when my parents came out, there were no such services.

It was simply a question of becoming self-sufficient and ensuring that you got a job and learnt English because they were the cornerstones to building a better life for yourself and for your family.

Indeed, family has always been very important to me and I have always believed in the family being the bedrock institution of our society.

My secondary education was at St Mary’s College in Wollongong. I had a good Catholic education. Its values and beliefs have stood me in very good stead over the years.

Education has been fundamental to my journey.

My parents did not have the opportunity of an education. My father left school at age 12 to help his parents sustain the family. My mother left at about 9 years of age and as the eldest of seven children, she assisted her family in the fields.

For my parents, my education and that of my brother were vitally important. My father’s dream was to ensure that both my brother and I had a university degree. It was mine too.

I was at St Mary’s College and I recall the day we were asking each other what we were going to do in life. I remember vividly turning around to look out the window of the classroom, which looked right down towards the steelworks at Port Kembla, and I said, ‘I’m going into Parliament’.

Well, everyone laughed! I must say that laughter resonated in my mind for many, many years to come.

And so it was at age 17, I made the decision that one day I would go into Parliament. I was 45 when I was sworn in and the intervening years were, I must say, at times, very challenging.

After high school, I went to the Australian National University where I did Arts/Law, and as Lisa indicated, with the Arts major being in European Languages and Political Science.

My father wanted me to be a doctor and was mortified when I told him I was going to be a lawyer. His concern was that I would eventually end up having to deal with criminals! My public service career as a lawyer dispelled that concern, much to the relief of him and my mother.

The journey was a long one and at times, a painful one. I was blessed in 1990 to marry John, a former naval officer, who has been my rock. He is my best fan but at the same time, a staunch critic when required.

For 25 years prior to entering the Senate, I had effectively three careers, all very diverse. One was community oriented, the other was professional and of course there was the political career.

Let me start with the professional. My legal experience commenced in 1984, having graduated from the ANU. Back in those days one third of the graduates were women.

I did articles here in the ACT with a major law firm, which provided a very useful and practical start to my career. In 1984, I joined the Australian Government Solicitor.

My time at the AGS gave me an excellent grounding and equipped me with skills that have helped me in my present career. Over the years, I had the opportunity to work through complex and challenging issues.

This taught me to absorb details and get across a brief, to work collaboratively, often over long periods, to achieve an outcome. Through the process, I often juggled many issues at once.

I learnt to be self-sufficient. At the AGS, we did our own research, kept our own files and mostly did our own typing. In short, I learnt multi-skilling.

But above all, I gained an appreciation of the hard work and dedication of the many men and women who proudly serve in the Australian Public Service and who work behind the scenes for little recognition to uphold the public interest.

I learnt how to keep good file notes. I am a meticulous keeper of lever arch folders, as my staff all know well. Organisation in paperwork has stood me in excellent stead over the years.

I thoroughly enjoyed the work I did as a government lawyer. I conducted mainly litigation on behalf of the Commonwealth, including major claims for damages. The range of claims people sought to make never ceased to amaze me, especially when the defendant was the Commonwealth of Australia with it’s perceived deep pockets.

But I also undertook other work such as insolvency. When acting for the Commissioner of Taxation, I had a very good track record in Court winding up companies that had failed to pay their tax. Once I even wound up the holding company that ran a rather infamous piggery, for failure to pay fringe benefits tax.

I also did my fair share of immigration work. I recall on quite a number of occasions being in Judges’ Chambers with prospective deportees seeking last minute injunctions against deportation with the plane sitting on the tarmac as the lawyers deliberated.

These were often the cases that one read about in the papers. The AGS had many highly skilled and brilliant lawyers who were some of the best in their fields. They were extraordinarily versed in the most obscure and complex tax provisions or customs law or constitutional law.

During my time at the AGS, I was privileged to work with some thoroughly decent and talented individuals who chose to earn lesser salaries but do important and valuable work for the public interest.

Whilst many of our support staff were women, so too were many of the lawyers. So it is interesting to note that today almost 58% of the APS workforce are women.

But not unlike the 1980s, the representation still declines as women move to the senior ranks. Like many women in the service, I never made it through to the SES level. My focus on other activities, especially in the voluntary sector, meant that I was unable to pursue senior promotion.

Regrettably, it was not until 1985 that we saw the first woman appointed as a Secretary of a Commonwealth Department, in the Department of Education and Youth Affairs. Today, I understand there are about 5 out of 18 Departmental Secretaries who are women.

And so it was in the early 1980s that I commenced my second career as a volunteer. Volunteering had been very important to me. As the daughter of migrants, I was frequently called upon to help my parents and their friends with translating and providing other assistance.

And consequently, over the years, I became very privileged to work in many different organisations and associations as a volunteer, spanning across the Italian-Australian community and the not-for-profit sector.

Probably the service that influenced me most before becoming a Senator, was serving on the board of Father Chris Riley’s Youth Off the Street for four years, including two years as it’s chairman.

The grounding that I had in my 25 years of community service gave me enormous experience and the opportunity to develop a range of so many different skills.

But most importantly, it gave me an utter respect for the millions of volunteers in this country who make up the not-for-profit sector, and without whom, our economy and our society could not survive.

Over the years as a Senator, I held various shadow portfolio responsibilities – in immigration, ageing and mental health, as well as representing the health portfolio in the Senate. I have had the privilege of serving in many Senate Committees, but most especially in the Community Affairs Committee.

Today, I serve as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Social Services. The skills and experience I have harnessed over my 30 years, especially in the community sector, stand me in great stead in my current role.

Having been involved for those 30 years in multicultural affairs, I am especially experienced to deal with my current portfolio responsibilities.

Indeed, many of the people I regularly deal with in this portfolio, I have known for many many years. It has enabled me to enjoy a degree of trust and respect in a complex area which includes issues such as social cohesion, interfaith and racial tolerance.

And of course, parallel to my community and professional careers, was my political career which began in the early 1990s. In 1990, I wrote to various politicians to join their staff and I was fortunate to gain a job working for the Honourable Jim Carlton, a former health minister.

I took a pay cut of 50% to go and work for Jim, but it began the political career that I now have.

I worked for the Coalition in Opposition from 1990 to 1993. It was there that I first met Tony Abbott when he was working for then Leader of the Opposition, John Hewson. Indeed, when I look around both Chambers today, I see quite a number of people who I met during my years as a staffer.

And during the early 1990s, I also commenced my political activities. In 1991, I was elected to the General Council of Italians Abroad and began a decade of representation of this community at an international level and in the ACT and NSW.

I became a frequent flier to Rome to attend meetings. This was not only invaluable experience, but I learnt politics at the grassroots of ethnic politics which at times proved to be very brutal.

In 1993 I also joined the Liberal Party and so began my journey of pre-selections. I stood for not one, not two, three or even four, but five Liberal pre-selections before I successfully unseated a sitting Senator in 2004. It was not an easy road in the Liberal Party but suffice to say, I was determined!

And so in 2004, I was pre-selected and it really was then that the convergence of the previous 25 years of community, professional and political activity came to fruition.

With hindsight, I am sure having a name like mine added to the challenge, particularly in a conservative environment. I recall when I married my husband John Wells, my father said, ‘Why don’t you change your name to Connie Wells? It will be easier for you.’

I refused to do that and instead chose to go by my full name of Concetta Fierravanti-Wells.

I recall the day I was sworn in, the font size at the bottom of the screen had to be changed to fit ‘Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells’ in. A small change, but an important one I thought on day one!

As I alluded to earlier, service for me has been fundamental – community service with 25 years as a volunteer, public service in the Commonwealth public service for 20 years, and civic service today. To me, service is what the Senate is all about.

My journey might have been a long one but having started under the shadow of the chimney stack at Port Kembla, I wanted to give back to the place that gave me a strong foundation to embark on my life.

And so, when I was elected, I chose to locate my office in Wollongong, even though I resided in Sydney. I chose to do that for a number of reasons.

One, because that’s where I was born and I was very proud of having come from Wollongong.

But secondly, the two seats in the Illawarra, Throsby and Cunningham, were the only seats south of Sydney that the Liberal Party didn’t hold. I am very pleased that I made that decision because today, Labor’s margin in both those seats is now down to single digits.

So having now given you an outline of my journey let me focus on my journey in the public service. I not only found my work to be very interesting and rewarding, but I was also afforded different opportunities through periods of secondment.

My three years with Jim Carlton were on a secondment followed by about 15 months when I was Senior Private Secretary to then Premier John Fahey. An earlier period of secondment had been as Acting Principal Legal Officer in the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service.

It was there that I learnt about the joys of subordinate and delegated legislation. I came to terms with Orders pertinent to a wide range of plant and animal species. It was an education that served me well, especially on the Regulations and Ordinances Committee and in disallowance motions!

As I indicated earlier, I did not seek promotion and instead, concentrated my efforts on political activities although I was afforded short-term higher duty roles when colleagues were away.

I am equally privileged today to serve in the Senate, which is one of the most powerful upper houses in the democratic world. It truly is a house of review, especially with its committee system of inquiries and Estimates.

I am sure that there are some of you in this room whom I have had the opportunity to grill at Estimates. Nothing personal, but I must say that my work as a government lawyer gave me absolutely fantastic grounding to understanding how the administration of the public service operates and as a consequence, understanding how to tackle questioning at Estimates in particular.

As a Senator, I represent the whole state of New South Wales and so therefore, I also have constituents who come and see me in my electorate office in Wollongong, or in Sydney, or for that matter in other places as I travel around. Over the years I have learnt that all politics are local.

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 came from working class Wollongong, the daughter of Italian migrants.

And having said that, I found my home in the Liberal Party on the conservative side. As Prime Minister Howard and now Prime Minister Abbott have indicated, the Liberal Party is a broad church made up of two streams, the Liberal philosophy and the Conservative philosophy.

I have been privileged to have many friends on the conservative side of the Liberal Party and over the years, I have been criticised in the media as being a conservative warrior. I have had to be, otherwise I would not have been able to get where I was, where I have been.

It is fair to say that because I believe in conservative values, I have had my fair share of criticism. But it was the conservatives in the Liberal Party who valued my diversity and with whom I share common values of family and tradition.

Today there is criticism about there not being enough women and certainly not women from culturally diverse backgrounds, whether it be in the public service, in politics, or in the boardrooms of Australia. The answer is not a quota-driven one.

I have never wanted to be a ‘quota girl’. I know when I sit in the Senate I am not there just to make up the numbers. I won my pre-selection fair and square against a sitting Senator and after five pre-selections.

You have to play the game, you have to know how to play the game, whether it’s in the public service, whether it’s in politics, or in any other field of endeavour.

You have to be strong and you have to persevere and stand your ground. You have to play the game to win.

When my counsel has been sought, I say to people, ‘You can either go through the wall, you can go over the wall, or you can go around the wall.’ Often, going around the wall not only produces the result in the long run, its less skin off the old knees!

I have also adhered to another old adage and that is if you don’t succeed, try, try, again. After any defeat, you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and move on. Know your abilities and your limitations.

I have always lived by two other mottos. Always have a ‘what if’ plan. Be flexible. And always have Plan B. Plan B is very important in case Plan A doesn’t work out.

The other adage, of course, is that women have to work twice as hard to be considered half as good. Women do have other challenges to face because we are the nurturers and the carers.

In my case, for example, over the past five years, I’ve had to cope with my husband having cancer, a father with dementia now in full time care and a mother now also in care. I’ve had to draw on all my inner strength to deal with this and not miss a beat.

Given the journey that I have had, I have not been afforded the opportunity of having a female mentor. But there are women in political life that I greatly admire such as Maggie Thatcher. She was sniggered at and demeaningly referred to as the ‘grocer’s daughter’. Her handbag economics theory of not spending more than you earn, putting something aside for a rainy day and not selling the silver was disparaged.

But history has shown her to be a remarkable woman. Her strength of character and her determination to achieve against the odds was truly remarkable.

Having shared my journey with you, you might appreciate I have had the opportunity to observe at close range a number of leaders, including a number of women leaders in Australia and derived some insights.

So let me conclude by sharing with you what I think are important leadership qualities. They have stood me in good stead and helped me to achieve my position today.

Firstly, retain your values and beliefs and always stand up for what you believe in. People may not agree with what you say, but they will respect you for standing up for what you believe in.

In politics, I have found that 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.

Secondly, I have always been prepared to be frank and to state where I stand. I have always been grateful to people who have been honest with me, rather than gilding the lily. As one long standing whip’s clerk once said to me, “why be honest when you can be brutally frank.”

In my maiden speech, I set out my values and beliefs and what underpins them. Some of them have proven to be controversial issues, but there is one thing that people do know about me in political life – they know how I will vote on a particular issue.

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 of course, the third quality for me has been my adherence to hard work, determination and dedication and the will to succeed. You can do anything, you can be anyone, and you can go anywhere in this country.

This has been truly one of the great gifts that this country, as a great migrant country, has given to so many.

Since 1945, more than 7.5 million people have come to Australia including over 800,000 under Australia’s humanitarian program.

Today, we speak over 300 different languages, including indigenous languages. We are one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world. And so this country has enabled me and my family to have a blessed and wonderful life. I know if my parents had not come to Australia, I would not have been afforded the opportunities along my journey.

And so can I say to you all, be true to yourself, but above all, believe in yourself and know that you can and will succeed.

Before I conclude, I would like to share a couple of my views in relation to cultural diversity in the public service and in Australia generally.

Regrettably, cultural diversity is spoken about but it is not played out in our public institutions. Today, one in four people were born overseas, and 45% of Australians, almost half of us, were born overseas or have a parent who was born overseas.

Our Parliament does not reflect the cultural diversity that is today contemporary mainstream Australian society and I fear that it will be a long time before it actually does that.

Nor for that matter does it reflect the gender balance. Females make up half our population, yet this is not reflected in our Parliaments or in the senior echelons of our public service.

Regrettably, I think it will take a long time before this imbalance is naturally redressed. There has been some progress in the ten years since I left the public sector, but there is still a fair way to go.

We should not forget however that it was only in 1967 that the bar against married women in the Commonwealth Public Service was removed. Bit by bit the glass ceiling can be smashed, but only when merit prevails.

In the early 1960s there was the more opaque marriage barrier. As women, we are no longer having to choose between our love of work and our love of another.

I believe the way forward is that there needs to be more women who are prepared to strategically set a plan or goal and seek a mentor to help them to achieve that goal.

I would encourage you all to identify talent in those you work with and act as a mentor to help them advance. I did not have that benefit but in hindsight, it would have been of great help to me.

Regrettably women can be their worst enemies in a competitive environment. As I said earlier, women still have to be prepared to work twice as hard to be regarded half as good. Hard work is not the only answer – we need to reach out to build supportive networks.

As more women work their way up in their chosen careers, we will be in a position to see more and more women succeed rather than fight for the crumbs off the table of the men who, it is fair to say, still tend to dominate the decision making process.

This will take time but we have come a long way as more women rise up the ranks. There are two ways we can do this – by mentoring women and hearing the stories and heeding the lessons from women that have made a difference.

In my position I take pride in the fact that staff I have trained and mentored have been sought and gone onto careers including in the Prime Minister’s office. I have also mentored men and women who have succeeded in winning pre-selections and taken seats in Parliaments.

Back in 2005, then Senator the Honourable Helen Coonan, held a celebration to mark the occasion when the Liberal Party had achieved a milestone of ten Liberal Women in Cabinet, a first for an Australian political party.

We should draw on the experience and initiatives of women that have gone before us. It is why I will, in coming months, be recommending the Women of Influence speakers series. An initiative of my adviser Mary-Lou Jarvis and others in the NSW Liberal Womens Council, the speakers series built on the ideals that Helen Coonan promoted.

Given my portfolio responsibilities for multicultural affairs, I am equally interested in promoting cultural diversity. I have seen evidence of success where similar principles are followed – leaders who mentor others in their community and share stories as to how they achieved positions of leadership and influence.

It perhaps explains why it might take a generation of new migrants, especially those who arrive under our humanitarian program, to make their mark.

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.

Ladies and gentlemen, can I conclude by congratulating the conference organisers who are helping us all by creating a platform for so many of us to share our stories and offer guidance.

Once again I want to say what a great honour it has been to be with you here today. I wish you all the very best and I am confident that sitting in this room, there are more of Australia’s future Secretaries of Departments.

I wish you all well in your endeavours.

Thank you.