JIM MIDDLETON

Good to have you with us this Christmas Eve. Joining me now is Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, Minister for International Development and the Pacific, until recently though, quite recently, Assistant Minister for Multicultural Affairs. Senator Fierravanti-Wells thank you very much for joining us this Christmas Eve, very assiduous of you. No doubt about it!

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:

Thank you Jim, thanks very much.

JIM MIDDLETON

I hope you get some brownie points from the Prime Minister in a moment or two …

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:

I hope so too … (laughter)

JIM MIDDLETON

I’d like to get to your portfolio in a moment but first, as I mentioned, until recently responsible for multicultural affairs. Back in 2015 we had that terrible incident outside the Parramatta Police Headquarters, police accountant Curtis Cheng killed by a 15-year old. At that time you suggested and you’ve just reminded me of this that we should look at these issues not just from a national security perspective but from a social perspective. Had we done that, do you think there is a chance that the terrible incident we saw outside Flinders Street Station last Thursday might not have happened?

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:

Well Jim, I think that, my point at that time was that yes, it’s very important to look at these issues from a national security perspective and to undertake the necessary spend and the necessary policy framework to address national security issues. But it’s also important to look at it from the social perspective and that’s what I was raising back in October 2015. The reason why I said this is because I think that when you start looking at the circumstances where a young person, a young man or a young woman, decides to undertake, whether it was travel overseas to fight with Daesh or to turn their back on their own country and to undertake the sort of act that we saw in Parramatta or potentially that might see once the investigations in relation to Flinders Street come more to light. You have to ask yourself why? Why does a young person do that? And so that’s really why I believe that it’s important not just to sort of look at these issues from the national security perspective but also look at from a social perspective; go back, step back, understand the why.

Now, having come for many many years involvement in our multicultural communities and also having come from a community background – I was a former chair of Father Chris Riley Youth off the Streets - so I’ve had a lot to do in this space particularly with young people at risk – and we know Jim that when young people go off the rails, they either turn to drugs, they turn to crime, they turn to being susceptible to being radicalised. When you throw drugs into the mix and you throw a drug like ice into that mix, it becomes a potentially lethal combination.

So when you do look at these issues, particularly now, we need to look at it as a multi-pronged issue not just from obviously the national security, not just from a criminal perspective but also from that social perspective and start stepping back and asking why these things are happening in 2017, 2018 in Australia.

JIM MIDDLETON

Now, the Victorian authorities are in the midst of establishing what they’ve termed something like a fixated persons unit which would be a multi-headed unit involving policing, forensic, psychiatric health people and also that they’re looking at paying attention to something like 300 fixated persons as they term them. Is this a step along the way to what you were thinking about back in 2015?

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:

Well, back in 2015 after my comments I was really pleased to see that we had a national summit and can I congratulate the work that Greg Moriarty did in his role as co-ordinator. And we started to see work by different governments, we started to see work in my own state of New South Wales; the NSW government starting to look at ways that we can effectively and more deeply engage with communities.

In the end Jim, you can have whatever structure you may have but if you do not have effective community engagement, especially with communities at risk, so that you can identify the issues, you can identify people who do have problems, you can afford whether its mothers, its sisters, its families, its schools, or whichever organisation is close to young people at risk, if you cannot afford them the tools to enable them to identify and then seek the necessary help to assist that young person, then I think that we are not doing the right thing by our society. I strongly believe that. And I think that until we do that much more effectively, we will continue to see these issues.

Now can I say it’s really important we’ve now set up a Department of Home Affairs and I am sure that Peter Dutton will do a fantastic job bringing together the different intelligence, national security, all of those areas including multicultural, including settlement, including all of these things under one umbrella and I strongly support that.

But as I said before, it does come back Jim to effective community engagement. You’ve got to know what is happening at the grassroots of our communities, especially our communities at risk.

JIM MIDDLETON

What about the problem here though? The alleged offender does seem to have been a bit disengaged from his ethnic community. He was getting psychiatric attention so to that extent he was being watched but then missed an appointment. Doesn’t that mean it’s always going to be difficult with people like that they’re going to slip through the cracks.

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:

It’s always a difficult situation with young people and no young person is the same. But I think Jim it comes back to point that particularly in communities and particularly in communities where issues such as drugs, issues such as identity, issues such as language are barriers, it’s important that those communities do have available somewhere where they can go to tap into help, to tap into assistance and to tap into the sort of assistance that people like Professor Pat McGorry have been talking about. I worked very closely with Pat McGorry when I was Shadow Minister for Mental Health and I think some of the things that Professor McGorry has been saying are very important.

JIM MIDDLETON

Do you agree with him then that unless governments both state and federal get real about mental health, we’ve seen plenty of commitments, some promises over the years, but he was pointing out here on Sky News on Friday that in Victoria, two out of three people with mental health problems don’t get any attention at all and that can only encourage a situation where you’re going to have murders and crimes that are a consequence of their state of mind.

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:

I think with mental health one of the important things is that we have to destigmatise mental health. It is still a very, an issue in our society that carries with it a lot of stigma. It carries a lot of stigma in mainstream Australian society but it carries even more of a stigma in multicultural communities. And when you look at multicultural Australia where 50 per cent of us were either born overseas or have at least one parent born overseas, this is an even more complex issue in communities, in multicultural communities, where often, and I’ve seen it, I’ve seen it, I’ve talked to mothers, I’ve talked to families where their children clearly have issues but there’s a stigma associated with it and so that until we deal with that stigma, until we deal with having more readily available services, not just in the mainstream but also in our broader multicultural societies, we will continue, I think, to have these problems.

JIM MIDDLETON

Just before we get off this subject Senator Fierravanti-Wells you are the daughter of Italian migrants, one of those very typical second generation successes. Do you think though that the profile of immigration to Australia in more recent years, the different communities from which they have been sourced, that there is a bigger problem now in developing that kind of incentive for the sons and daughters of migrants to do the kind of things that you and many other people of Italian, Lebanese heritage have done?

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:

Well immigration, we are a country of immigration, it’s has been a feature of our past, it will be a feature of our future. The important thing is that when people do come to Australia they have opportunities. Having myself also worked in the settlement space I know that often people come here, and particularly our humanitarian entrants do come to Australia, they come here with great ambition, but unfortunately, whether through circumstances, whether through stigma, whether through other circumstances, they are not able to effectively work. And so therefore when you do look at the employment levels of many of our humanitarian entrants, you do find that they don’t have jobs, and I think that to some extent, and I think, I really want to be blunt here, and we are talking of communities at risk, but if your name is Mohammed in this country, it’s very difficult to get a job.

Now I think that as a society, if we are to continue an effective migration program, we need to have, when migrants do come to Australia they need to be able to know that that the country of their, their new country accepts them but they also are afforded opportunities to be able to work. Just like my parents came here, they came here, they wanted to work, they were given the opportunities to work. We have about a third of our migrants starting small businesses and often they do that because they aren’t able to get jobs in their chosen professions or their profession isn’t recognised in Australia and indeed, I think when you look at some of the longitudinal studies that have been done in the past that do look at the cohorts of our humanitarian entrants and our refugees, or our asylum seekers who have then become refugees you start looking at those cohorts and you do find that regrettably, less than 10 percent of those people do end up getting jobs. And that does not augur well I think for good integration and good social cohesion.

JIM MIDDLETON

We’ve spent a long talking about this subject but it’s both important and interesting the things you had to say are really quite significant I think. I want to get to your portfolio now, Pacific and overseas development, very important. The White Paper, Foreign Affairs White Paper came out very recently and a marked change in the language from the last White Paper which was back in 2003 where the talk was of what we could or could not do for the Pacific, for example. Now the language and I’m quoting here, it says, that Australia, the Government is delivering, delivering a step change in our engagement with the Pacific Island nations and this must include helping to integrate Pacific countries into the Australian and New Zealand economies and our security institutions, that’s essential to long-term stability and economic prospects of the Pacific. This is quite a change and it sounds a bit like China is the motivation.

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:

Well can I take that in two parts Jim. Yes it is effective step up. When we talk about Indo-Pacific and we talk about our assistance, our humanitarian program, our overseas development assistance program is about $4 billion of which 90 per cent is spent in our area and a third of that is actually in the Pacific. So when we talk about Indo-Pacific, the Pacific is very much where our allies and our friends look to us to take the lead and we are really doing that. I have certainly spent the last two years as Minister, almost two years as Minister in the Pacific and for International Development really ramping up our engagement in this area. I’ve done 24 trips to the Pacific and I have certainly sought to raise the profile of our engagement and now our engagement in the Pacific is right across different sectors.

Following on from the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands which was a very good engagement by Australia, a very successful engagement, I think that RAMSI well and truly earned us a place at the Pacific family table and that’s really where we now sit Jim. So years on, we are a member of the Pacific family, a well-regarded member of the Pacific family but also a member of the neighbourhood that always comes in when there is need and we’ve seen that repeatedly after Cyclone Pam and after Cyclone Winston.

We are there to support but we’re also there to ensure the economic viability and economic growth of our Pacific neighbours. And that’s really what step up is about. It’s about Pacer Plus and the work that we’ve done in terms of not just a trade but a development framework there. We’re talking about security. Today security in the Pacific is about transnational crime, it’s about unregulated, unreported and illegal fishing, it’s about surveillance, it’s about a whole range, drug trafficking, it’s about a whole range of different areas. And the Pacific Island nations, following on from RAMSI, have wanted themselves to enter into a regional security framework which is being referred to as Biketawa Plus. Biketawa was the framework under which we engaged in RAMSI. Biketawa Plus is what we’re looking at now in terms of a regional security framework.

So on different levels, we are working with our Pacific Island countries on labour mobility. Really important, we now have a seasonal worker program which has worked quite effectively. We are now looking at a labour mobility framework which we piloted with three countries in the Pacific and now we are expanding our labour program to areas of health and aged care, tourism and accommodation and we are now going to see a marked increase of people coming to Australia, not just to work but to take those skills back into the Pacific and to make a valid contribution to their own country.

So Jim what we’re doing now is at different levels, all geared towards our one objective and that one objective is the stability, security and prosperity of our region which is second only to the defence of Australia.

Now on your issue about China, certainly China, we know that China’s influence is growing in our region. I myself see it at the very grassroots of the very countries where I spend a lot of time visiting not just in terms of international development but most especially in the Pacific. But we work and we work co-operatively with China, we encourage China to utilise its development assistance in a productive and effective manner. In other words, don’t just build something for the heck of building it, don’t just build a road to nowhere, but ensure that the infrastructure that you do build is actually productive and is actually going to give some economic benefit or some health benefit or some education benefit to the people of our region.

JIM MIDDLETON

One final question if I may on that, you talked about a regional security framework, might that involve or alongside that might there be a possibility of economic and security compacts with some of our nearer neighbours, Kiribati, Vanuatu for example, or along the lines of what the US has with the Federated States of Micronesia, New Zealand has with Niue?

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:

Jim, at this point in time we are talking about a regional engagement, broader regional engagement. We have aid investment plans, programs with all our Pacific Island Forum countries and we work very effectively on a bi-lateral basis. And we will continue to work on a bi-lateral basis with them. What we’re talking about in terms of greater regional integration is much much more broad than just the bi-lateral work that we do. And that will continue.

Our engagement with our Pacific neighbours is multifaceted, it’s in different areas and it is at different levels and we look forward to increasing that engagement. In the end, as I said, it’s about prosperity, it’s about security and it’s about stability of our region. Those are the three key drivers of everything that we do and which is second only to the defence of Australia.

JIM MIDDLETON

Concetta Fierravanti-Wells I really do appreciate you coming in this Christmas Eve. I’ve still got some Christmas shopping to do, I’m sure you’re more efficient than that!

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:

Well I now have to go home and cook Jim. Of course, I, I love cooking. It’s one of the things that I do and I think I do quite well. So, I’m cooking the family lunch for tomorrow so that’s what I’m off to do. But can I take the opportunity to wish you and all your viewers a very, very Merry Christmas, a Happy New Year and a very safe one and God Bless.

JIM MIDDLETON

Indeed, and I’d love to be at your place for Christmas. I’m sure the food would be delicious. Won’t be bad at my place either. Concetta Fierravanti-Wells thank you very much indeed.

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:

Thanks Jim.

[ENDS]

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