Speech by Senator the Hon Concetta Fierravanti-Wells

Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia 2013 Conference Speech

Location: Gold Coast

Can I begin by also adding my welcome to country.

I would also like to acknowledge the following people: Minister Glen Elmes; Pino Migliorino, Chair of FECCA; Agnes Whiten OAM, Chair of the Ethnic Communities Council of Queensland; Mr Ricardo Viana, President of the Multicultural Communities Council of the Gold Coast, and your respective Executives; Mr Les Malezer, Co-chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples; other distinguished guests; ladies and gentlemen.

It is my great pleasure to be with you here today representing the Prime Minister of Australia, the Hon. Tony Abbott MP. The Prime Minister is unable to attend today however he has asked me to pass on his best wishes and read the following message on his behalf:

I am pleased to provide this message for the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia on the occasion of its 2013 National Biennial Conference.

For over three decades, the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia has done important work representing Australians from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and promoting multiculturalism to the broader community. This work has served our ethnic communities well.

I pay tribute to the significant contribution migrants from many different countries have made to Australia.

Since 1788, Australia has been an immigrant society. Successive waves of newcomers eager for a better life have enriched our culture and added a heroic dimension to our national story.

I send my warmest wishes to everyone attending this year’s conference and am sure it will be a successful event.

The Hon Tony Abbott MP, Prime Minister of Australia

I would like to take this opportunity to add my own reflections to those of the Prime Minister.

I am delighted to join so many of you here on the Gold Coast at the 2013 FECCA National Conference. I congratulate FECCA, in partnership with the Ethnic Communities Council of Queensland and the Multicultural Communities Council of the Gold Coast, for organising what is widely regarded as Australia’s leading multicultural conference.

Since 1979, FECCA has established itself as the national peak body representing culturally and linguistically diverse Australians. Through its members, FECCA has strong links to Australia’s diverse communities at the grass roots level and can be relied on for evidence-based advocacy and advice. This event is just one of the many activities FECCA undertakes each year to get people thinking and talking about multicultural Australia.

I would like to take a moment to particularly acknowledge Mr Pino Migliorino and the role he has played over the last four years as Chair of FECCA. Pino has been a passionate and tireless advocate of multicultural Australia for many years, and certainly over the 30 years that I have known him. His skilful and energetic leadership of FECCA has been of tremendous value to all Australians. I thank him for his significant contribution to the nation and look forward to his continuing support of our diverse society.

We are here today because we all share an ongoing commitment to a culturally diverse society which is unified by an overriding commitment to Australia. This commitment is reflected in my role as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Social Services, having special responsibility for multicultural affairs and settlement services. I look forward to working closely with the Minister, the Hon Kevin Andrews MP to improve the well-being of people and families right across Australia.

I am excited by the opportunity to focus on the government’s commitment to building a prosperous, cohesive nation, and to emphasise that multicultural Australia is about all Australians. As the daughter of migrants myself, I understand very well the hard work and sacrifices that millions of our migrants have made to build a better life for themselves and their children.

Today is a good opportunity to share with you my own background within our multicultural sphere of engagement. Before being elected to Parliament, I was fortunate to serve the Australian-Italian community as both a national and international representative through the General Council of Italians Abroad and on Com.It.Es. both in the ACT and in NSW. For 25 years prior to entering the Senate, I had also been actively involved in a wide range of community activities. I was also appointed as ministerial adviser to the Global Diversity Conference in 1995 and served with Pino and others as a member of the SOCOG Multicultural Advisory Committee. In the four years before becoming a Senator, I served on the Board of Father Chris Riley’s Youth off the Streets, including two years as its Chairman. My experience over many years has given me a great insight into the expertise and capacity of non-government organisations.

Through these roles I have seen first-hand that community organisations and the wider settlement and multicultural affairs sector are filled with dedicated, hard-working people who want to help others and make a real difference. I would like to thank you for the knowledge, skills and time that you contribute to help create a better Australia.

Can I also take this opportunity to thank FECCA for the work you have undertaken in various areas. I would particularly like to acknowledge the work FECCA undertook in relation to CALD ageing issues, a subject dear to my heart.

The ageing of our population is the biggest social issue facing Australia. Australia has a rapidly ageing population that is living longer with more complex health conditions and changing disease patterns resulting in increasing and changing aged care needs. Additionally, we are experiencing a shift in the size and composition of households. The implication of an ageing population, including an increasingly larger culturally diverse ageing population, creates challenges.

One in four of our older Australians needing care come from a culturally diverse background. It is important to cater for language needs in aged care, both in aged care facilities and in-home care, because those from non-English speaking backgrounds often revert to their native language or dialect and lose much of their English language skills as they age. In addition, linguistic needs are often overlaid with the need for cultural and religious understanding.

This week my own personal family experience has crystallised in my mind the challenges that we often share. My 84 year old mother looks after my almost 85 year old dad who has dementia. Her own deteriorating health resulted in dad needing to go into respite just this week. He, like his friends, will require the appropriate level care which is tailored to meet their cultural needs. Fortunately this was made possible with a respite bed becoming available in Wollongong in an aged care facility where there are many Italians. But this will not always be the case. We will need to be cognisant that services will have to be delivered across a broad spectrum to address the needs of a culturally diverse society. I particularly wish to commend FECCA for its innovative thinking in this regard.

For generations, people have come to Australia for a better life. Since 1945, more than 7 million people have permanently migrated to our country, including my parents who came to Australia from Italy in the 1950s. They were part of a post-war immigration boom in Australia that was driven in large part by people from Europe whose lives were left devastated by years of conflict. For many migrants who arrived in Australia at this time, it was a period of separation and hardship trying to fit into a new and different culture.

It is difficult for those of us who have not experienced migration personally to understand the feeling of leaving behind all you know and love in search of new opportunities. Yet despite the challenges, migrants who came to these shores after World War Two made immediate and lasting contributions to the well-being of our nation. And they did so mainly without the benefit of the modern support structures we now offer to our newest arrivals.

These structures, such as settlement services — which aim to help refugees and migrants become self-reliant and fully participate in all aspects of Australian life as quickly as possible — are the result of decades of work and constant improvement in the ways in which we welcome migrants into Australian society.

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 4 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.

What is remarkable is that from this diversity, our nation has achieved great strength and unity that continues to drive our prosperity. Australians are united by an overriding loyalty to Australia and our values. As Australians we respect the Australian Constitution, parliamentary democracy and the rule of law. We support the freedom and dignity of the individual, equality of men and women and freedom of speech and religion. We embrace mutual respect, tolerance, fair play and compassion for those in need. We understand that English is the national language and that it is an important unifying element of Australian society.

The Scanlon Foundation’s Mapping Social Cohesion 2013 Report, indicates that Australians have embraced our diversity–they respect our diversity. It indicates strong levels of support for Australia’s approach to multiculturalism, with respondents agreeing that multiculturalism benefits economic development and encourages immigrants to become part of Australian society. It indicates Australians continue to have a strong sense of belonging to their country, and take great pride in our way of life.

However, the research also shows that the level of social cohesion in Australia has fallen from what it was in 2012. The research also records the highest level of reported discrimination when compared to findings of previous years, especially amongst Australians of non-English speaking backgrounds. These are issues warranting government and community attention, and I would like to acknowledge the Scanlon Foundation and its partners, the Australian Multicultural Foundation and Monash University, for their important work to enhance social cohesion within Australia and identify barriers to its success.

During his vote of thanks at the 2012 inaugural Australian Multicultural Council Lecture in recognising the achievements of Mr Frank Lowy AC, Tony Abbott made the following worthwhile observations.

He noted that:

“there’s no doubt that our country has been amongst the world’s most successful immigrant societies and this reflects the welcome that the Australian people have traditionally extended to newcomers including those from a vast variety of backgrounds. As well, it reflects the efforts that migrants have made to contribute to their new home.

Further Mr Abbott stated that:

“the policy of multiculturalism, which all sides of politics support, expresses our willingness as a nation to let migrants assimilate in their own way and at their own pace, because of our confidence in the gravitational pull of the Australian way of life.

And most importantly, he reiterated that:

“Newcomers to this country are not expected to surrender their heritage, but they are expected to surrender their hatreds.”

To this end we have succeeded like few other nations. We have embraced change and turned it into economic prosperity. We have research and history which shows that migrants are highly committed, hardworking and dedicated to making the greatest possible contribution. Our common threads, such as our dedication to our nation and the desire to build a prosperous future for all, will help us overcome any barriers we identify.

And identifying and addressing barriers to full participation is critical here. The more barriers we can overcome, the more we can connect people to Australia’s economic and social life, the more cohesive and productive we will be.

And I can assure you that the government is committed to addressing issues which impede social cohesion. For some of our newest migrants, these might include a lack of formal education, poor knowledge of the English language, a lack of professional qualifications or a culture and environment which is drastically different to what they are familiar with.

Through decades of successful service delivery and groundwork of evidence-based policy, we have taken great strides to help migrants fully participate in our community. This includes promoting English language skills to position new migrants to contribute to the labour force and strengthen our social cohesion.

However, there is still work to be done to improve, to refine and to further expand upon our successes to date. We will continue to investigate and explore new strategies which foster a prosperous and socially harmonious society where there is a sense of belonging for Australians of all backgrounds. We want to continue to draw out the best from our multicultural society and work towards a better Australia. Although our economy will evolve, people will remain our greatest asset. We need to capitalise on the social and economic dividends that come from our rich cultural and linguistic diversity. Our diversity will provide us with the social capital which will allow us to reach out to the world, maximise the economic opportunities which are available to us, and at the same time create a wealth of new opportunities. Our diversity brings knowledge of markets, trading practises and customs, and provides innovation and insights which might not otherwise be available to us.

When this is coupled with a commitment to Australia’s prosperity, we can only succeed. We know that managing diversity and promoting community harmony takes work, and we are prepared to work hard to achieve this. With a focus on outcomes such as full participation in Australian society, including meaningful employment which benefits both migrants and the wider Australian community, I am sure we can continue to deliver what is best for the future of our nation.

In our knowledge-based economy, we see the key to this as being education and employment. These are valuable goals and at the same time, they are outcomes which make concrete and worthwhile contributions to Australia’s future. Providing opportunities for new Australians to participate in our learning institutions and our workplaces is a means to promote participation, common values and cohesive communities.

This is where all representative organisations, such as FECCA, can help. You have your finger on the pulse of multicultural Australia. You have the knowledge and experience. We will be relying on your input and advice to help us identify and address barriers to our future success as a nation.

As I said earlier, we know that diversity works for all Australians. We have seen it as an ongoing process for generations. Australia’s cultural diversity is a source of great social and economic strength and the contributions of migrants and their families spanning generations has helped forge the unique Australian way of life that we enjoy today. My own experience growing up is a testament to our success. It shows that migrants and their children can, and will, make positive and meaningful contributions to our nation, in many different ways.

From here, I expect that we will roll up our collective sleeves, look squarely at the challenges in front of us and act in the best interests of our nation’s future prosperity. But we will need to maintain our eternal vigilance to ensure that any act of intolerance or racism is repudiated and countered at every opportunity. The recent and deplorable anti-Semitic attacks in Sydney when four men and a woman were attacked while walking home from a synagogue demonstrate that collectively we must always aspire to discourage such unlawful behaviour. As we should also, for example, repudiate any subtle acts in the workplace or on the sporting field which diminishes the self-worth of the individual. With dedication, effort and commitment, we can build on over 65 years of planned migration. This conference is one part of that work, and I hope you will find it engaging and meaningful.

On behalf of the Prime Minister and the Australian Government, can I congratulate your collective dedication towards transforming our country for the better. I look forward to hearing about the outcomes of this conference, and I look forward to working with you to grow a diverse, successful and unified Australia.

Thank you.