Speech by Senator the Hon Concetta Fierravanti-Wells

Opening address at the AMES conference

Location: Melbourne Convention Centre, South Wharf, Melbourne

Thank you Cath for that very warm welcome. Can I also add my acknowledgment of the traditional owners.

Can I start by acknowledging my friend and parliamentary colleague, the Hon Luke Hartsuyker MP, Assistant Minister for Employment; Graham Sherry OAM, Chair of the AMES Board; Cath Scarth, AMES CEO; many distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

Thank you for inviting me here this morning to speak at the 2014 AMES Conference, an important event which brings together more than 800 AMES staff and key partners.

The main theme of the conference is “Better Together”– a particularly fitting theme, given the track record of AMES and the results it has achieved by working cooperatively.

Last year, as Parliamentary Secretary I was very pleased to undertake a site visit to AMES in western Melbourne and the purpose of the visit was to observe and familiarise myself with AMES settlement operations, particularly at your facility in Maidstone, Community Guide program and the operation of your Service Hub in Footscray.

I witnessed first-hand the professionalism and dedication of your staff. I sensed the real pride in the work that you do within a positive environment of engagement, especially with some of the young people I met.

Can I once again pass on my thanks and appreciation to you all for your warm welcome.

AMES is a very good example of how to successfully build partnerships with other community-based organisations to deliver government-funded programmes such as Humanitarian Settlement Services and employment programmes.

Working in partnership with service delivery agencies and funding bodies better delivers quality services more efficiently and with more sustained positive outcomes for clients.

The partnership is essential if Government programmes are to be implemented effectively and with the best possible outcomes.

In AMES’s case, these clients are almost invariably the most vulnerable members of our society–newly arrived refugees and humanitarian entrants.

The theme, “Better Together”, in the context of the work AMES does for migrants and refugees, means developing a framework for social and economic participation of clients that combines four vital elements.

These elements are: health and wellbeing; safety and security; employment; and education. They are all interrelated and are the essential ingredients of successful settlement.

The provision of support, orientation, early skills identification, placement of clients in relevant programmes, effective mentoring backed up by English language training, are all things that AMES does through its multiple programmes.

They all work towards a common goal–the successful settlement of clients so they can fully contribute to Australian society and participate in the daily life of our community.

I understand first-hand the importance of this highly valuable work that you all do and I know that this conference will help prepare the grounds on which your future efforts are built.

For 25 years prior to becoming a Senator, I was actively involved in a wide variety of community activities. Since 2005, given my various portfolio activities, I have continued this involvement across the broader community.

I have seen that community organisations and the wider settlement and multicultural affairs sector is filled with dedicated, hard-working people who want to help others and make a real difference.

For more than 60 years, AMES has been a vital part of the Victorian community assisting migrants and refugees. You have directly helped build the modern and vibrant state that we know today.

I would like to thank both AMES staff and volunteers for the knowledge, skills and time that you contribute to help settle people, who in turn contribute to creating a better Australia.

The Government has a strong interest in strengthening the emphasis in settlement services on fostering employment, English language and educational outcomes for migrants and refugees.

I call this the 3 Es!

We are especially committed to improving employment outcomes for refugees, given the key link between employment and successful refugee settlement and I am sure that Minister Hartsuyker will have more to say about this area in his address to you.

Research has continually shown that English language proficiency is one of the most important factors for refugees and other migrants in achieving employment.

Assistance to develop professional skills, information, links, resources and assistance should also be provided early. In this regard, AMES’s Skilled Professional Migrants programme is particularly noteworthy.

As you know, the administration of Settlement Services and Multicultural Affairs has transferred to the new Department of Social Services (DSS).

DSS will continue this wonderful work towards ensuring the successful entry and settlement of migrants and refugees, addressing social cohesion and shaping Australia’s multicultural community in positive ways.

The addition to the portfolio of the AUSCO programme–which is provided to humanitarian entrants before they leave for Australia–recognises that it is the first step for clients in their settlement journey, and links closely with onshore orientation elements of HSS.

Through the transfer of responsibility, DSS aims to improve the wellbeing of all people and families in Australia.

It will do this through policies and services that respond to people’s needs, encourage independence and participation, and support a cohesive society.

I am sure you can see the potential synergies here with many of the settlement issues that your clients grapple with every day.

There is significant scope to build on the synergies between the social policy functions and services that have been brought together under the new department, especially to improve employment, English language and educational outcomes.

In addition to programmes now managed by DSS, AMES also delivers several programmes managed by other departments, including the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, the Department of Employment and the Department of Industry.

This places your organisation in a strong position to deliver connected services that meet the individual needs of your clients.

DSS will continue to work closely with all departments responsible for delivering services to refugees, humanitarian entrants and other migrants.

I was pleased to recently announce the Australian Government’s ongoing commitment for Humanitarian Settlement Services until 2017 at a cost of close to $275 million.

The Australian Government has extended the contracts of 15 service providers to continue to deliver HSS around Australia.

This funding signifies the Government’s continuing support for the delivery of services equipping newly arrived entrants with the skills and knowledge to contribute to the economic and social life of Australia.

It is about empowerment of our new arrivals with the skills and confidence to contribute to Australia’s economic and social life and to do so as soon as possible.

The Australian Government is committed to providing a world-class settlement service.

From the Government’s perspective, working in partnership with providers is an important part of achieving this service because it efficiently delivers better quality services with more sustained positive outcomes.

These partnerships are essential in achieving optimal outcomes for newly arrived refugees and humanitarian entrants, who are among the most vulnerable people in our community.

Working in partnership also extends beyond the relationship between Government funding bodies and service providers.

Other critical factors include engagement with the community, industry and with other services.

This is something that AMES does particularly well, as exemplified by your pilot scheme with Accor Hotels, the Refugee Resettlement Advisory Council, the Department of Employment and the Department of Social Services to support refugee job seekers and their potential employers.

The importance of your work can only be truly appreciated when looking at it in terms of its involvement in Australia’s Humanitarian programme.

This programme is constantly evolving and responding to changing domestic and international environments.

At the end of 2012, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that there were 45.2 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, the highest number since 1994.

Since the end of the Second World War, over 750,000 people from more than 100 countries have been resettled in Australia under the Humanitarian Programme.

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection is responsible for managing the programme, which for 2013-14 has 13,750 places of which a minimum of 11,000 are reserved for offshore places.

On the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan massacres, it is timely to note that we have settled about 635 Rwandans in Australia thanks to the efforts of organisations like AMES.

These are all people who will need our greatest efforts as they try to rebuild their lives that have been shattered by a variety of terrible circumstances.

In response, the Government has announced that they would be providing an increased focus on the Special Humanitarian Programme this year, and for the following programme years.

A significant proportion of the Humanitarian Programme visas will be granted in the last quarter of this programme year. As a consequence, there will be a significant number of Humanitarian Programme arrivals in the first quarter of 2014-15.

The Government appreciates your flexibility in being able to meet these varied demands.

DSS will continue to work closely with you all to ensure people arriving under the Humanitarian Programme are well supported to achieve positive settlement outcomes.

At present, about 80 per cent of all overseas referrals have existing links in Australia and these clients are referred to the relevant service provider in those locations.

I know that, as always, you will adapt and deliver effective outcomes that make a real difference in the lives of our newest arrivals.

As an aside, I would also like to note that the theme of this conference, “Better Together”, corresponds well with the policy of Australian multiculturalism.

It is in the interests of all Australians that we work together in building a positive future for all, through mutual respect, cooperation and understanding.

The success of Australian multiculturalism arises very much from the commitment to the common elements that unite us, combined with a respect and understanding of our social, cultural and religious differences.

The Australian Government is fully committed to this policy.

Australia remains one of the most socially cohesive nations on earth and this success comes from our commitment to Australia, its laws and its values.

It is difficult for those who have not experienced migration personally to understand the challenges faced by migrants, and particularly refugees. This is especially the case for those who come to Australia, with little or no English.

As the daughter of migrants, I have a full understanding of these challenges and the effort required in overcoming them.

I was fortunate to grow up in Wollongong, a vibrant and very multicultural city and like many of the children of migrants, we did not speak English when we went to school.

Some of you have heard me say that on my first day at school, there were 75 children in my kindergarten. Only three spoke English and I wasn’t one of them. But within a few months, we were all on our way to learning English.

Many of the needs of our newest arrivals are also shared with the wider Australian community and these include health, education and welfare.

In light of this fact, all government agencies are responsible for delivering services responsive to the needs of our culturally diverse community.

The Australian Government funds settlement services that focus on building self-reliance, such as developing English language skills and fostering connections with mainstream services as soon as possible after arrival.

These services help new arrivals become accustomed to life in Australia. They include the provision of pre-embarkation and on-arrival information about life in Australia, as well as the more specialised support services for new arrivals in need of greater assistance.

The settlement services we have today are the result of decades of work and constant improvement in the ways in which we welcome migrants into Australian society.

When my father came to Australia, there was little by way of assistance. Dad got off the ship that had brought him to Australia from Italy and within a short time, was on his way to North Queensland to cut cane.

What my parents achieved was due to their hard work and their determination to make sure that everything they did was towards building a better life for themselves and for their children.

This was the motivation for my parents, and it remains the motivation for millions of people like my mum and dad.

But things have changed and AMES and their partners have been an important part of this change. And with each wave of migration, new and exciting layers have been added to the fabric of our nation.

Our culture is a unique mix that reflects both the rich mosaic of migrant communities that have made Australia their home, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who represent the oldest, continuous cultures in the world.

Socially, culturally and economically we have grown through the efforts of all Australians working together for the advancement of our nation.

Australia is now one of the most diverse and socially cohesive nations on earth.

Today, Australians identify with around 300 ancestries and speak as many languages, including Indigenous languages.

More than a quarter of the Australian population was born overseas.

Of those of us born in Australia, one in five has at least one parent born overseas and nearly four million people speak a language other than English at home.

I myself was brought up in a bicultural, bilingual environment. Indeed, I have lived my whole life across the diversity that is today mainstream Australia and it is something I am very proud of.

Indeed, it is this lived experience of the migrant story that enables me to very much appreciate my portfolio responsibilities of multicultural affairs and settlement services.

It is in the interests of all Australians that we work together in building a positive future for all, through mutual respect, cooperation and understanding.

It is pleasing that the results of a recently commissioned AMES survey titled ‘Life in Australia’ of newly arrived migrants and refugees reinforced their positive initial experiences as they earnestly sought to establish themselves in a new homeland.

Their aspirations and values are no different to the rest of us.

There have been a number of policy changes in the settlement sector and I appreciate AMES’s ongoing commitment to deliver high-quality settlement services across a number of Government programmes.

I see great opportunities ahead for us all to work together, particularly to improve employment, English language and educational outcomes.

Indeed, I look forward to continuing to support your organisation’s philosophy to recognise and build on clients’ strengths to assist them to become active and independent participants in their community.

I wish you well as you work through this conference and I am excited about the work we will do together in building a brighter future for all Australians.

Thank you.