Speech by Senator the Hon Concetta Fierravanti-Wells

Ethnic Communities’ Council of NSW Annual General Meeting


May I start by adding my acknowledgment of the traditional owners of this land. Can I also acknowledge Minister Dominello, John Robinson, Mehreen Faruqi, Peter Doukas, Chair ECC, Joe Caputo, I am not sure if Joe is here yet, Chair of FECCA, Mr Hakan Harman, CEO NSW CSC, many distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

As the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Social Services, with special responsibility for Multicultural Affairs and Settlement Services, I am very, very pleased and honoured to be able to be here today.

Today I would like to actually focus on the practical – how the Federal Government’s policies aimed at promoting harmony and productivity will be realised, in practical terms of services, education and employment.

As friends in this room appreciate, Australia is one of the most culturally diverse nations in the world, identifying with around 300 ethnicities and we speak about 300 different languages, including indigenous languages.

Since 1945, more than 7.5 million people have migrated to Australia, including about 800,000 under our humanitarian programme.

Australia has managed to balance a respect for cultural diversity with a commitment to community harmony and national unity.

Our cultural, linguistic and religious diversity brings economic and social benefits for all Australians and is a big part of what makes our nation strong, secure and prosperous.

Given my particular responsibilities can I reiterate that the Australian Government remains committed to our unique model of Australian Multiculturalism.

As part of that commitment we want to ensure that we continue to reap the benefits of our diversity and maintain the high levels of social cohesion we enjoy today.

I want to stress the benefits of that diversity and the extent of that diversity and the advantages that it has brought to the Australian family. They are wide-ranging and include:

  • increased economic productivity and investment;
  • the injection of fresh ideas;
  • innovative entrepreneurship;
  • the provision of skilled workers and the rejuvenation of regional areas;
  • a robust and diverse civil society; and
  • a rich and vibrant culture.

The Australian Government believes that learning English, having a secure job and gaining a quality education are critical to migrant participation. The 3Es as we refer to it.

And to achieve this, the Federal Government works towards supporting all Australians to participate, through improved English language services, better pathways to employment and improved education outcomes.

We recognise the significant and transformative contribution that migrants make to our country.

We are a highly cohesive nation, despite the current climate of political and social tensions around the world.

The Scanlon Foundation’s 2013 Mapping Social Cohesion National Report notes that in terms of international comparisons, Australia remains highly cohesive.

The Foundation defines social cohesion as “the willingness of members of a society to cooperate with each other in order to survive and prosper.”

For the first time, the Scanlon Foundation survey that informs their Report asked a series of questions on multiculturalism in Australia.

The findings indicate a strong level of support, of 84% of respondents agreeing that multiculturalism has been good for Australia.

Positive responses were not restricted to those traditionally favourable to cultural diversity – urban, young and highly educated, but were consistently high across demographics.

This high level of social cohesion and the high level of support for Australian Multiculturalism reflect the recognition of its inherent benefits to our nation.

And of course this should not be a surprise to anyone as today around 45% of us were born overseas or have at least one parent born overseas.

Our success has been founded on our commitment to our values and to our Australian laws.

A central element that is important in sustaining public support for Australian Multiculturalism is the Federal Government’s continuing commitment to Multicultural Access and Equity.

This is about ensuring that all Australians receive equitable access to government services regardless of their cultural or linguistic background.

As a result, Multicultural Access and Equity also helps to ensure that all Australians are able to participate fully in the social and economic life of the country – again, regardless of their cultural or linguistic background.

At its core, this approach is about public service. It is about Australian Government departments and agencies respecting and properly serving its citizens.

An example of this is the Federal Government’s Multicultural Community Liaison Officer network. A network which supports productive and collaborative engagement with culturally and linguistically diverse communities and Government.

It helps ensure that communities are supported to strengthen their independence, economic and social participation and general wellbeing.

The Australian Government is a world leader in the provision of settlement services for new migrants and humanitarian entrants to Australia.

Our settlement policy and programmes address the needs of new arrivals to help them to develop the skills and knowledge they need to become self-reliant and to engage and participate in Australian society.

Key principles underlying our services are: providing a welcoming community, providing support based on need, and maximising opportunities for migrants and humanitarian entrants to participate and to contribute to Australian society.

Importantly, settlement services are tailored to meet the needs of different groups of arrivals.

Our humanitarian arrivals are provided with specialised assistance through our Humanitarian Settlement Services programme and may also receive additional intensive assistance through the Complex Case Support programme.

As well, the Adult Migrant Education Programme provides 510 hours of free English language tuition for those eligible migrants and humanitarian entrants. Of course additional tuition is available for higher needs.

An example of the success of the Government’s policies, and I hear stories all over Australia as I travel, is the story of Sara who for 3 years was in war-torn Baghdad, and her family fled to Syria where they applied for a visa to come to Australia. A year and a half later, this happened.

A Humanitarian and Settlement Services provider assisted them in the initial stages with family and basic furniture.

This is an extract of her story:

“What stands out for me on that day we first walked through the door, was the attention to detail and the careful consideration that had happened before we arrived.

“It sounds silly now but I remember noticing and appreciating that we all had our own toothbrush, our own pillow, our own towel, all laid out for us”.

Sara was also given a second-hand computer and she went on to complete year 12, had two jobs and studied at TAFE and ultimately expressed her joy of owning her own car.

She then went on to gain a diploma and is now studying at university. Her natural impulses exemplify the spirit of our nation’s success in our settlement services programs and indeed, as I have said, stories like that abound all over Australia.

Can I conclude today by mentioning briefly the Federal Government’s current agenda of evaluation and research activity in this area.

It is focused on gaining a better understanding of the needs of individual migrants and their families.

The Building a New Life in Australia’ longitudinal survey of humanitarian migrants aims to help us better understand the factors that aid or hinder the successful settlement for humanitarian migrants in their first five years in Australia.

This is a study commissioned by the Department of Social Services and is being managed by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, with fieldwork undertaken by Colmar Brunton Social Research in conjunction with Multicultural Marketing and Management.

We aim to ensure that people coming to Australia get the best possible start and this study will be very, very valuable to us.

Can I take the opportunity to commend and acknowledge the Ethnic Communities’ Council of NSW for your many years of leadership and passionate advocacy towards the development of a culturally inclusive society.

As the daughter of migrants, I have lived my life across the diversity that is contemporary, mainstream Australian society. I am proudly bilingual and I am proudly bicultural. I am proud to publicly defend those values.

I thank you for your commitment to Australian multiculturalism and wish you well in your deliberations. Thank-you.