Speech by Senator the Hon Concetta Fierravanti-Wells

Address to the Settlement Council of Australia, Canberra, 18 November 2013

Location: Parliament House, Canberra

Thank you very much Cedric.

Can I start by acknowledging the Ngunnawal people, the Traditional Owners of the land on which we are gathered and pay my respects to their Elders both past and present.

Can I acknowledge: Cedric Manen, Chair of the Settlement Council of Australia and also members of the Council’s Executive Committee; Professor Andrew Jakubowicz, Professor of Sociology at University of Technology Sydney; Dr Felicity-Ann Lewis, President of the Australian Local Government Association and South Australian People of Australia Ambassador; my Parliamentary colleagues, I am not sure if Michelle Rowland and Senator Sarah Hanson-Young are here yet; and can I also acknowledge my predecessor Senator the Hon Kate Lundy.

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen – thank you for inviting me to the Annual General Meeting of the Settlement Council of Australia (SCOA) and for the opportunity to speak today. I am delighted that I am able to meet with you early in my tenure as parliamentary secretary.

As the national body representing settlement service providers, SCOA plays many important roles. These roles include bringing together service providers, supporting dialogue within the sector, collaborating with the government and sharing information and best practice. Through its members, SCOA has strong links to Australia’s diverse communities at the grass roots level and has a history of providing evidence-based advocacy and advice.

For 25 years before becoming a Senator, I was fortunate to serve in different ways in a range of community activities including most particularly my representative positions in the Australian-Italian community at both a national and international level and some of the various positions that Cedric mentioned earlier.

I have seen first-hand that community organisations and the wider settlement and multicultural affairs sector are filled with dedicated, hard-working people who help others and make a real difference to people’s lives.

My many years of involvement in the community sector have given me a valuable insight into the expertise and capacity of non-government organisations to think outside the square and focus on getting the job done.

We are here today because we share an ongoing commitment to a culturally diverse society. Over the last few decades, successive governments have invested in this sector–to ensure new arrivals can learn, work and fully participate in Australian community life.

As the daughter of migrants myself, I understand very well the hard work and sacrifices that millions of migrants have made to build a better life for themselves and for their children. Having lived the migration story myself, I understand it first-hand. For example, on my first day at school there were 75 children at St Francis of Assisi School in Warrawong – only three spoke English. I did not speak a word of English the first day I went to school. But within three months I and my fellow pupils at St Francis were busy singing in English and speaking almost fluent English. So therefore, for me, education and the importance of the English language remain paramount.

We have a long and proud history of welcoming migrants and new settlers. With more than a quarter of the current population born overseas, the process of building a new life in a foreign country is a lived experience for many of us.

I was pleased to recently attend the launch in Melbourne of the Scanlon Foundation’s Mapping Social Cohesion 2013 Report. The Mapping Social Cohesion surveys are funded by the Scanlon Foundation and directed by Professor Andrew Markus of Monash University, in partnership with the Australian Multicultural Foundation. The findings this year show that Australians feel respect for our diversity, and that they have embraced it.

The results showed strong levels of support for Australia’s approach to multiculturalism. Survey respondents agree that multiculturalism benefits economic development and encourages immigrants to become part of Australian society.

However, the research shows that the level of social cohesion in Australia has fallen from what it was in 2012 and records high levels of discrimination in comparison to the findings of previous years. These issues warrant the attention of both the government and the wider Australian community. It is recognised that while migration brings some short-term challenges, overall, in the longer term, it brings enormous benefits for Australia socially, culturally and economically.

The success of Australia’s Migration and Humanitarian Programmes rests largely on the successful settlement of new arrivals. In considering this success, we examine how well new entrants are able to establish new lives for themselves and fully participate in Australian society. Every new migrant or refugee wants a solid start on the path towards full inclusion in Australian society.

Settlement service providers play a key role in ensuring that refugees and eligible migrants have access to high quality settlement support, which helps develop the knowledge and skills they need to become active and contributing members of Australian society.

We welcome people to our country who have lived in refugee camps for many years. Many have low literacy in their own language, no English skills and little or no education. Many have experienced trauma and others arrive with health needs.

Over recent years, settlement service providers have demonstrated great flexibility and adaptability to the varying needs of clients. It makes for dynamic and challenging work, but places a strain on both service providers and budgets.

Today, I would also like to take the opportunity to briefly outline the changes to departmental structures recently announced by the Coalition Government. Our aim is to simplify the management of government business, create clear lines of accountability and ensure that departments deliver on the government’s key priorities.

As part of these new arrangements, the area known as settlement and multicultural affairs will transfer from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, becoming part of the new Department of Social Services. This new department will be responsible for settlement and multicultural policies and will administer most of the settlement and multicultural affairs programmes including:

  • the Australian Cultural Orientation, or AUSCO, programme;
  • Humanitarian Settlement Services;
  • the Settlement Grants Programme;
  • Complex Case Support;
  • the Diversity and Social Cohesion Programme; and
  • the Multicultural Arts and Festivals Grants.

The purpose of the new Department is to improve the well-being of people and families right across Australia. It will do this by designing policies and services that will help achieve independence and active participation actively in our society. This is a really exciting time for social policy and the new department will work towards a number of objectives. These include looking after families and children, providing a safety net for people having difficulties supporting themselves, assisting people with disabilities or those who may be experiencing hardship.

Of course the Department will also be encouraging and promoting a diverse and harmonious society. Under the auspices of this new Department, I very much look forward to working closely with the Minister, the Hon Kevin Andrews MP, to promote the cultural diversity that is Australia today. I am sure that by working together, we can do a great deal to improve the well-being of people and families right across Australia. Empowering the individual to reach their full potential and contribute towards a better society is vitally important.

We will also continue to have strong links and collaborate with the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, which will manage Migration Programme intakes. Importantly this will include the Humanitarian Programme and the management of the Unaccompanied Humanitarian Minor Programme.

Can I take this opportunity to start what I hope will be a free-flowing conversation with the sector about the future directions of settlement policy and programmes. Through decades of successful service delivery and evidence based policy, Australia has a wonderful reputation for its settlement services. However, we can always improve. We can do more, and we can do better.

Achieving the best possible settlement outcomes for new arrivals is a continuous and collaborative effort. I would like for us to examine and consider how current settlement service delivery models could be improved. I am thinking with a particular emphasis on cutting red tape and reducing administrative overheads to ensure the provision of the highest quality services in an effective and efficient manner.

The move of settlement services and multicultural affairs to the Department of Social Services provides an opportunity for us to consider developing better models for service delivery, potentially bringing together grant programmes to enhance effectiveness. I very much look forward to working with the sector into the future and I am keen to hear your views about these issues and others at today’s forum.

Already I have benefited from undertaking site visits with a number of your agencies. More visits are being scheduled and I am looking forward to seeing firsthand the good work being done. My observations and exchanges with the new migrants during such visits show parallels to that of my parents. Like all newcomers to Australia, they have come with hope in their hearts. They seek opportunity and they look forward to just reward for their efforts. This has been the story of our migrant history for decades. The times may have changed, but the hopes and aspirations remain the same.

The successful settlement of new arrivals involves many parties working together to provide services. This includes all levels of government, service providers, as well as community organisations and volunteers. Only by working together cooperatively can we ensure that there is effective and efficient use of limited resources. Collaboration is the key. It will help identify opportunities to improve what we do, respond to service gaps or barriers in our programmes and help ensure we can use limited resources in the best ways.

We are also working to strengthen partnerships across all levels of government. It is important that all spheres of government work in partnership in the delivery of settlement services. Planning is essential–we need to ensure services match needs and are not duplicated.

Increasing our knowledge of settlement processes and outcomes is also critical for improving our policies and programmes. The department is committed to building the evidence base around settlement and multicultural affairs in order to inform policy and improve programme design and delivery. As some of you may be aware a study titled Building a New Life in Australia has recently started. The survey is the first comprehensive study of refugee settlement in more than a decade and is designed to trace the settlement journey of humanitarian migrants from arrival in Australia through to citizenship.

Settlement services are pivotal to ensuring refugees and migrants become self-reliant quickly, to gain employment and fully participate in all aspects of Australian life. As I said, collaboration is essential to the work we do. Strategies for including migrants and refugees and embracing new arrivals as part of Australian society are a critical investment into our future.

The Government needs a strong settlement sector, and in this respect, an organised, collaborative and representative body with clear direction is critical. SCOA is this body and I thank you for your continued efforts and commitment. You make positive difference in people’s lives and I know there can be no greater incentive to continuously strive for the best possible results. The government and the Australian people value the work you do.

Today I hope I have also provided insight into the value that the government places on the work we do with each of you. When harnessed effectively, the social, cultural and economic benefits which flow from migration and the settlement of new arrivals are enormous. Your expertise together in partnership with the government will create a more prosperous nation and a brighter future.

This is critical and essential work.

This is nation building.

Thank you very much.