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As Coalition figures drum up fears of Muslim extremism, Liberal senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells is trying to reassure a community at the crossroads. By Sophie Morris.

The government’s multicultural guardian

Concetta Fierravanti-Wells with members of the Lebanese-Australian community.
Credit: Facebook

When Concetta Fierravanti wed John Wells, her father suggested her life might be simpler if she shed the operatic Italian name her parents had given her and became, under the cover of marriage, Connie Wells.

The Liberal senator understands the importance of a name. She felt so attached to hers she ignored her father’s advice and added the distinction of a double barrel.

So, when a man approached Fierravanti-Wells at a recent function to tell a story about his son, whose life had been complicated by his name, she instinctively understood. The son – let’s call him Muhammad, she says – had done well at school and in subsequent studies. 

He achieved qualifications in IT and applied industriously for some 30 jobs. Rejection followed rejection. Sometimes there was not even a response. Dispirited, the young man went to see an employment consultant, hoping for tips on résumé writing or the like. The advice was the same simple yet stark message Fierravanti-Wells’ father had given her: anglicise your identity. The lad took the advice. Within a week, he had a job.

“Against this background, you can appreciate why some young people feel disenfranchised,” Fierravanti-Wells tells The Saturday Paper. “If those young men start feeling ‘this country does not want me’, they feel resentful and alienated.”

As parliamentary secretary for social services, Fierravanti-Wells has spent a lot of time in recent months meeting Muslim groups. She reported back to government on their white-hot anger at plans, now abandoned, to dilute the Racial Discrimination Act. Now she is the conduit for concerns about counterterrorism laws, as the government wages war on Islamic extremism at home and in Iraq.

Australian fighter jets this week fired their first shots in the war against the Islamic State. At home, Prime Minister Tony Abbott signalled a tougher approach to “hate preachers” and Muslim groups raised concerns that proposed counterterrorism laws could be used against mainstream Muslims, rather than just extremists. The Muslim Legal Network’s Lydia Shelly told a parliamentary committee that women, in particular, already felt vulnerable. “They simply don’t feel safe anymore,” she said. “We’ve had even prams with children in [them] kicked.”

'Unfathomable' extremism

In Fierravanti-Wells’ senate office, we talk about a less violent but insidious form of racism, or prejudice, that can make it hard for “Muhammad” to get a job. We talk the day after 18-year-old Numan Haider is shot dead while stabbing a police officer.

Tensions are high and it would be easy to lay all the blame on the preachers of hate. Easy and populist. The tougher task is to understand what makes young ears receptive to their message.

“Unfathomable” is how Foreign Minister Julie Bishop described it to parliament: “Australia is a great nation with an open and tolerant society that embraces people from every corner of the globe. We are multicultural, we are multifaith, and that is why it is unfathomable why some Australians, mostly young men, are being drawn to the extremism and violence represented by ISIL and its ilk.”

Unfathomable: incapable of being fully explored or understood. Yet it must be fathomed. Those murky depths must be plumbed as Australia comes to terms with the threat of homegrown terrorism.

Fierravanti-Wells, who is one of several Coalition women seen as candidates to redress cabinet’s severe gender imbalance, is in some ways an unlikely fathomer. From the hard right of the NSW Liberals, she is not exactly a bleeding heart or a feel-good multiculturalist. Political correctness is not her style. Talk to her, though, and there is real compassion for those who feel excluded from society and may be vulnerable to radical preaching. She is trying to understand, to fathom what draws a young man to extremism and violence. Sometimes, she says, it all starts with a name.

“I spoke to business people recently and discussed the scenario that they had two people applying for a job, one with an Anglo name, the other with a Middle Eastern name. Which would they employ? They didn’t answer me, but I knew what they were thinking,” she says.

By citing discrimination as one element contributing to the radicalisation of some young Muslim men, she is at odds with conservative commentators.

“This idea Australia’s treatment of Muslims is to blame for terrorism is so fanciful you would wonder how anyone could believe it,” wrote former Coalition treasurer Peter Costello in a column in The Daily Telegraph this week. “But it is standard-issue opinion with university academics, ABC journalists and Greens senators.”

Cultural diversity

Fierravanti-Wells is not often lumped in with such alleged lefties. Indeed, as a neophyte senator she made a name for herself by compiling dossiers of complaints about left-wing bias at the ABC.

Now she says she is talking constructively to ABC management about its role in promoting cultural diversity.

“Forty-five per cent of Australians were born overseas or have at least one parent who was born overseas,” she says. “At the national broadcaster, you would hope the management and reporters, like other workplaces, reflect that diversity.”

As we discussed prejudice, elsewhere Coalition MPs were fanning the flames, renewing a push for a ban on women wearing the burqa in Parliament House. Abbott lent credibility to their views, saying he found the head-to-toe clothing “confronting” and wished nobody wore it, though they were free to do so in a democratic society.

A new security directive from speaker Bronwyn Bishop and president of the senate Stephen Parry, a day after the PM’s comments, requires anyone wearing “facial coverings” to sit behind glassed-in areas, normally reserved for schoolchildren, in parliament’s public galleries.

Stung by a swift backlash, including from Coalition MPs, Abbott asked Bishop and Parry to reconsider, within hours of the directive being issued.

Fierravanti-Wells says this debate about women’s attire is “unfortunate”.

“As the foreign minister has noted, it is women and girls in Iraq who have borne the brunt of the conflict over there. It would be regrettable in Australia if women, especially Muslim women, bear any brunt for what they choose to wear,” she says.

She knows that women wearing the niqab, and even the hijab, which leaves the face visible, already feel threatened.

Almost 25 per cent of respondents to a major national survey last year confessed negative feelings towards immigrants from the Middle East.

The survey by the Scanlon Foundation, a philanthropic organisation that promotes social cohesion and cultural diversity, involved 2000 respondents and revealed a marked increase in reported experience of discrimination. The proportion of respondents who said they had experienced discrimination because of skin colour, ethnic origin or religion had risen 7 percentage points since 2012, to 19 per cent.

Experience of Italian stigma

Fierravanti-Wells remembers in the late 1970s and 1980s when her own Italian-Australian community was viewed with suspicion following the murder in the NSW Riverina town of Griffith of anti-drugs campaigner Donald Mackay.

“There was a stigma attached, a stench of Mafia association,” she says. “Today the Italian-Australian community is viewed as pillars of the community and an integration success story, but that wasn’t always the case.”

Some Italian-Australians worked with authorities to weed out troublemakers, just as the police and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation now rely on co-operation from Muslim communities. It’s a delicate relationship at a time when Muslim leaders are warning of rising tensions.

As Fierravanti-Wells talks to Muslim groups, she tells them that they are not alone, that each successive wave of migrants has faced difficulties. “In the end, this is about breaking down barriers,” she says.

She says these communities are “at the crossroads” and urges leaders to make sure the positive narrative of Muslim Australians is not overshadowed by the abhorrent actions of a few.

That’s easier said than done, however, when Muslim communities feel targeted not just by ignorant bigots but also by government policy – when police confiscate a plastic ceremonial knife in a high-profile raid and it is portrayed in the media as a weapon of terror.

In a speech introducing to the senate the government’s counterterrorism laws, Fierravanti-Wells insisted the new powers were “not targeted at one particular community”. But she went on to talk about how the conflict in Syria and Iraq had provided a “fatal allure for predominantly misguided and disenfranchised young Muslim Australians”.

“Whilst this is not about religion, regrettably it is the Muslim communities that feel mostly targeted,” she said, explaining the government will spend $13 million on programs to counter violent extremism.

Labor’s spokeswoman for citizenship and multiculturalism, Michelle Rowland, is sceptical, pointing out that the government previously cut $11 million from multicultural programs, including some Muslim-run schemes. In her talks with Muslim groups, she has observed that Abbott’s use of the phrase “Team Australia” has created a perception of an “us-and-them” approach.

When this is raised, she says she does not try to score a political point but instead attempts to explain the thinking behind it. “I say, ‘Whatever you call it, we’re all on the same team.’ ”

As Fierravanti-Wells knows, the lad who had to change his name to get a job may find the team’s membership rules bewildering. On that note, she must be hoping members of the Coalition can avoid indulging “unfortunate” debates that stir up tensions.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 11, 2014 as "Both barrels". Subscribe here.

Sophie Morris
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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