I suspect there is not an ethnic group that has escaped a pressing of the hand, a nod, a wink, a wave, or other form of salutation, from Concetta Fierravanti-Wells.
The federal assistant minister for Multicultural Affairs courts Poles and Bhutanese, hugs Latvians and Lebanese, liberally dispensing the government’s good wishes.
In the Australian temple of multiculturalism the Liberal senator is an ornament familiar to all. The rest of the country would struggle to pick her in a line-up.
“I don’t normally get lobbied in this place”, she says, which is no mean feat considering she has been in this place – the Senate – for over a decade.
The conservative Liberal senator, of Italian origin, is known for her forthrightness. “I think in politics it’s good to be upfront about what you believe in”, she says, surrounded in her parliamentary office by family photos and pieces of her grandmother’s handcraft.
In Canberra, the 55-year-old Fierravanti-Wells stays active by shooting goals for a parliamentary netball team. In addition, as a senior Liberal conservative from NSW, a party division where the Left holds the organisational upper hand, she arm wrestles the party’s feral factions.
The senator does not shrink from the declaration of unpleasant truths. As a colleague and confidante of the most recently dispatched Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, she reportedly spoke truth to true power, that is, to chief of staff Peta Credlin – the woman who reputedly both made, and unmade the man. When Abbott was gone, Fierravanti-Wells pacified the furious and comforted the shell-shocked as conservatives mourned their loss. She tells me threatened departures were averted through her entreaties.
“That’s taken a lot of effort”, says Fierravanti-Wells, with the sleeves-rolled-up practicality of a weary mortuary attendant.
Even though the cutting down of Tony Abbott was a calamitous blow to her sect of the party, Fierravanti-Wells was never going to down tools. She was not about to let the party – a party she had fought for years to represent – break out into factional insurrection.
“It is really important in the Prime Minister’s home division, that there be at least peace and harmony”, she declares, pledging her services to the new leader.
“As the senior conservative, it is incumbent upon me … to ensure that the Prime Minister – and me, as a member of his team – has the best chance next time around of winning as many seats as possible in New South Wales.”
Throughout our conversations Fierravanti-Wells, who finds herself in the outer ministry, makes frequent references to her political seniority and experience. She emphasises the depth of her exposure to ethnic communities: “I actually lived it; I grew up in it… I’d been involved in all sorts of committee work, volunteering work. I was exposed to ethnic politics, which can be absolutely brutal.”
She underlines her social policy interests, and public roles before entering politics. Among the credentials she presents are becoming a founding board director of a nursing home at age 23 – which was the beginning of a long-term interest in health and aged care, as well as her chairmanship of Father Chris Riley’s Youth off the Streets. Now as assistant minister, she works with the ministers in three key portfolios: Attorney-General; Immigration and Border Protection; and Social Services.
It took the senator from Wollongong – the steel city in the Illawarra region south of Sydney – a long time to arrive. She offered herself for preselection no fewer than five times, beginning in 1993, and waited 11 years until the door finally opened to her.
I really didn’t quite
understand who was who
at the factional zoo,”
“I wish that in my early years in politics people had been a bit more open with me.” Directness, she believes, might have saved her the effort of contesting seats where political patronage had already decreed the result, that is, where the fix was in.
As for her junior ministerial standing, she is beset by disappointment. Despite her expectations, Tony Abbott failed to promote her to the ministry after winning the 2013 election. “I found out from a series of sources that there had been leaking against me.” The leaking, she believes, came from the then leader’s office.
Nor did Malcolm Turnbull deliver on Fierravanti-Wells’ ministerial hopes. At the swearing in of the gleaming new Turnbull ministry in September, Fierravanti-Wells looked like a party guest struggling with bereavement.
Fierravanti-Wells always knew where she was going. Her father, Giuseppe, a working class immigrant from the southern Italian town of Calitri, east of Naples, arrived in Australia in 1953. He worked in the old steelworks at Port Kembla and was joined in Australia after six years of hard work by Antonia, his fiancée of 13 years.
The pair married and as their two children grew, Giuseppe was keen to see Concetta, the elder, study medicine. When the time came for her to choose a field of study, Concetta instead settled on law. At 17, discussing future plans with the other girls at St Mary’s Catholic College in Wollongong, Fierravanti-Wells announced her intention to go into politics.
Until this significant departure from the future mapped out by her parents, Fierravanti-Wells had adhered willingly to the traditional role of daughter of Italian migrants. She was raised appreciating the domestic arts of sewing, cooking, and back garden cultivation of the food that ended up on the dinner table. “All the trees were fruit bearing” says Fierravanti-Wells. “The garden had a purpose… We had to be self-sufficient. We used to make all our own clothes, my mother and I.”
She shows me a couple of her own creations hanging in the wardrobe of the parliamentary office. “I cut very precisely,” she insists, and I am impressed that she can make dresses and knit sweaters for her elderly mother, attend to legislation, juggle Balts and Turks, and attend the Miss Lebanon Beauty Pageant without missing a beat.
An advisor arrives announcing that the boss, unexpectedly, will be required to usher a legislative amendment through the Senate. Not long after a hasty briefing, Fierravanti-Wells is on her feet in the chamber attending to the considerable detail of the amendment and waging battle, Boadicea-like, against the braying opposition.
She is imperturbable, a disposition that may have something to do with the senator’s very low blood-pressure. She throws down four or five espressos a day hoping to fend off a faint.
Immediately before her Senate stand, Fierravanti-Wells joined Social Services minister Christian Porter at a committee meeting of ethnic representatives and business leader Tony Shepherd to discuss offers of work for incoming Syrian refugees. The senator addressed the meeting with the air of an old hand, sceptical of grand new promises.
Now comes the bit about Concetta Fierravanti-Wells that in ‘progressive’ circles gives rise to gastric churning. If you count yourself a member of such a group then your Connie doll will likely be cratered with pin-holes already. Fierravanti-Wells views marriage between a man and a woman as a “bedrock institution”. She believes that in any plebiscite on same-sex marriage, the “silent conservative majority” would prevail. She believes that “CO2 is plant food” and not the cause of global warming. She supports Australia’s constitutional monarchy. She believes in God.
When progressives ridicule the ‘right-wing warrior’, the senator adopts the expression of a regally immovable object. She restates the socially conservative views which have held her “in good stead” for decades.
“In the end”, she says, “people may not agree with you, but they will respect you more if you stand up for what you believe in.”
Presumably it was this philosophy that last October moved Fierravanti-Wells to put her beliefs up in lights at the National Press Club. By her reckoning, what would flow from the speech would be a whole lot more respect. Either that or the address constituted the political equivalent of cutting one’s own flesh.
The senator restated her conservative core beliefs – traditional marriage, family values, hard work – with a twist in the tail. These same beliefs, she insisted, are common to many migrant families. Based on years of interaction with such groups, she stated bluntly that the immigrant community was essentially conservative. Message to the progressive beltway audience: get that through your heads.
For the benefit of liberal colleagues, she pointed out that some of the most marginal seats in the country were home to large migrant populations highly influenced by their Christian, Orthodox, Maronite Christian and Muslim faith leaders. Despite the fact most polls show majority support for same-sex marriage, these people, she argued, were unlikely to speak to pollsters about their views, but highly likely to heed the words of their religious leaders. Meaning, a world of political pain was in store for any political party that supported same-sex marriage.
For good measure the assistant minister decried the condescension of a social services bureaucracy that reduced the needs of culturally and linguistically diverse communities to an afterthought. She told the Press Club how much it hurt to watch her father slip away with dementia in an aged care facility, with no one but a handful of family members able to communicate in his native dialect. She finished off by swinging a punch at the NSW Liberal party machine and announced herself relieved to have survived the federal “purge of the conservatives from ministerial ranks”.
It is November and Fierravanti-Wells is before me wrapped in a dramatic silver-embellished purple sari. She wears it well, like an Australian Sonia Gandhi. The senator is making her way to the parliament’s Great Hall. She is to grace the stage as one of the honoured guests at the extravagant celebration of the Indian festival of Deepavali.
Her raven hair, worn long and straight, recalls the first political cartoon drawn of her six years ago, as Morticia to Tony Abbott’s Gomez. Back then, the Liberals were in opposition and Fierravanti-Wells was shadow minister for Ageing and Mental Health.
At the Deepavali function she speaks to the gathering of festively-attired Indian-Australians as the representative of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Her familiar connection to key people in the room is plain for all to see. A Labor MP at the gathering mournfully remarks that such closeness used to be the preserve of the ALP.
Fierravanti-Wells makes the issue a matter of first generation migrant pride: “The values and beliefs that moulded me and millions of other children of migrants like me are not to be simply dismissed with, ‘Just because they’re migrants, they’re all going to vote for the Labor Party’. It just doesn’t work that way.”
Earlier this same day, Fierravanti-Wells outlined to the minister of Finance, Mathias Cormann, a pitch to move the navy fleet base from Sydney to Port Kembla in her home region. It is a project for which she mustered cross-party support.
Leaving Cormann’s office, Fierravanti-Wells encountered a group of Italians, naval officers and the Italian deputy defence minister. Stopping for a good-humoured chat, she promised to join the men for dinner that evening. When it comes to bringing Australians together with Italians, she is, she says, come il prezzemolo, dappertutto (everywhere, like parsley). She is also a Cavaliere, a Knight of the Order of Merit, an honour bestowed on her by the Italian government. All in all, the Senator could be seen as a well-connected member of the political class.
miss an opportunity
to underscore that her status,
such as it is, has been
the result of her own
and nobody else’s efforts.
A persistent theme in her public declarations is the lack of old school tie connections and the patronage that flows from them. “Look at somebody like Michaelia Cash”, she said in 2014, about her Senate colleague, who is now minister for Employment, and minister for Women. “Her father was president of the Legislative Council in Western Australia.”
She tells me: “People like me do not have the benefit of patronage. I don’t have the benefit of [an influential] family; I don’t have the benefit of connections; I don’t have the benefit of wealth. So that everything I’ve done, I’ve had to do myself.”
“Thank God. And I thank God that I have John, and that I have my family,” she says, her eyes clouded with tears.
The senator’s husband, John Wells, a retired naval officer, was diagnosed with cancer six years ago. After complex surgery, he is doing well. The two were married in the chapel at Watson naval base on Sydney’s South Head in 1990.
“I met Commander Wells and he looked very distinguished in his uniform”, Fierravanti-Wells recalls, smiling. Her parents were thrilled about the wedding. “It was greeted with glee, I must say. I was hitting 30, and I wasn’t married”, she says.
Two busloads of guests arrived from Wollongong for the occasion. As the couple led the way from the chapel to the reception, the groom told the bride that the scene reminded him of a well-known film. John Wells’ allusion to The Godfather rang true. “I looked back, and I thought, ‘yes!’” says Fierravanti-Wells. “But it was a feature of so many marriages in the little towns where you walked from the church to where the reception was held. It was a sort of a funny moment, a poignant moment, but a moment that was really quintessentially southern Italian.” Later her mother “turned HMAS Watson into an Italian cucina”.
A government solicitor for 16 years before entering parliament, Fierravanti-Wells is as conscious as any lawyer of the importance of precise language. She admits to having to stop to find the right words, and confesses to occasional failure. A byproduct of bilingualism is the random misstep. She is prone to telling people to “close the light”.
In discussing her ability to get on with individuals from different walks of life, she tells me she can move from a conversation with a troubled youngster to one with the Queen, and not “batter an eyelid”. She also readily adopts the trendy babble that renders everything a ‘space’, as in: “What’s happening in the deradicalisation space?”
Fierravanti-Wells’ Italian birthright is the key to her. Discussing the obligations of a daughter of Italian parents, and the sadness of seeing her father decline with dementia, she says: “It broke my heart to watch this. But that effect is on me! Second generation. We wore it.”
Fierravanti-Wells continues, her voice faltering with emotion: “I may be an assistant minister of the Crown but I am still the daughter of Italian migrants, and that doesn’t change – no matter what I do. It doesn’t change for the millions of daughters or sons of migrant families whose parents expect them to do certain things… In the multicultural space there are expectations and those expectations are transgenerational.”
A few days later, looking out over a vast panorama from her second-storey Wollongong electorate office, she recounts an episode from her early days as senator. “One day I came out of the office”, says Fierravanti-Wells, “and my father was just looking at the door, and it said ‘Senator Concetta-Fierravanti-Wells’ with the crest on top... You could tell he was very emotional, and then I got emotional. That moment said it all for me.”
The NSW senator is up for re-election for a third term this year. The Liberal Party’s preselection processes being as arcane as the rituals of monks, it is hard to sift malicious rumour from fact. Will she be re-endorsed in a winnable position by the party? The senator accentuates the positive. As her old boss, Liberal stalwart Jim Carlton, told his young advisor years ago, ‘It’s good when people stand against you at preselection because it affords you the opportunity to tell them what a good job you’ve been doing.’ Fierravanti-Wells has been busy doing just that.
It is surely perverse to describe terror as a handy political development. But politics, of course, can be perverse. As a consequence of years of dealing with ethnic groups, including Muslim communities, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells has accumulated connections, friendships and disclosures. “In many ways, the Middle Eastern way of doing business is very Mediterranean in its approach. And so all those lessons I learned over many, many years have proven to be very useful,” she says.
The assistant minister now finds herself in a position to extend advice to government on the most urgent and bedevilling issue of our time. She moves from Muslim consultation to Muslim consultation, negotiating the blood-infested bog of Islamism, to engage with the representatives of various sects, nodding tolerantly here, privately chiding and prodding into action, there.
an understanding at this point in time
that very few of my colleagues would have,”
she adds, as if her time, at last, had come.
“‘Multicultural’ used to be festivals and those sort of things. It’s now gone way beyond that”, says Fierravanti-Wells. “It is now an area that is at the forefront of national security, and defence and other key areas. It ranges from the soft end of social cohesion, right through to the other end… I’m presenting as somebody with a unique set of not only my experience of 10 years, but a unique set of circumstances.”
ASIO head Duncan Lewis last year rang Liberal MPs to urge the use of moderate language in discussions of Islamist terrorism. Fierravanti-Wells supported the controversial intervention. She thereby delivered a fish slap to both her former leader Tony Abbott and young up and coming minister Josh Frydenberg, both of whom had spoken bluntly about their concerns with Islam.
Her stand won her the role of an Austin Powers girl, if only in the eyes of cartoonist Bill Leak, who drew Fierravanti-Wells in a sexy mini-dress and clinging to Lewis, ‘The Spy who Gagged Me’. On the issue of dampening debate, the conservative senator is at one with the progressive Turnbull. This is an altogether auspicious way to be at a time when the killing season of preselection approaches.
Indeed Fierravanti-Wells’ position on the wider issue of Muslim radicalisation could be seen, in some ways, as out of step with conservative thought. Writing in the conservative journal Quadrant, Anglican theologian Mark Durie questioned her understanding of the hierarchical structures not only of Islam but of Christian churches, and dressed her down for “presenting Islamic dogma as incontrovertible fact”.
The day before a 15-year-old boy shot dead police employee Curtis Cheng in Sydney’s Parramatta last October, Fierravanti-Wells declared: “In my view, we have been dealing with extremism and violent extremism as a national security issue, but what we really need to do is to be looking at it from a different perspective; it is a social issue with a national security angle.”
Fierravanti-Wells’ conservative colleague, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, is at ease with the approach. “The point I’d make about Connie is she lives and breathes this area of public policy and has done for a long period of time. And I think that garners support and respect from colleagues that may not always agree with her on other issues.”
Fellow senator and conservative, Eric Abetz, does not demur. “Having open dialogue, as senator Fierravanti-Wells engages in, I think is a very important part of our overall strategy.” Another Senate conservative, Zed Seselja, does not believe Fierravanti-Wells’ position is in conflict with the government’s tougher punitive approach to extremism. “I don’t see them as competing goals”, he says.
Today Fierravanti-Wells frames the radicalisation problem in local terms within what she views as the realm of the possible in Australia. “The reality is that we will not change the scripture. We will not change the Koran… And I’ve had the opportunity to speak to many learned people in this space,” says Fierravanti-Wells.
“What has evolved over the centuries is the interpretation of the Koran… What we need to focus the debate on is how Islam is taught, how Islam is preached, how Islam is practised, how Islam is interpreted… the modern and moderate interpretation is what we have to ensure prevails,” she says.
At St Mary’s College in Wollongong, when the teenager Concetta Fierravanti announced her aspiration to enter the parliament, her friends laughed. How could the daughter of migrants do that? Surprisingly, the slight still stings, its memory emotionally unmooring the veteran senator. She would, no doubt, be loathe to provide the teenage jeerers with a mid-life victory by losing the hard-won prize of political influence.
Her steadfast colleague, Eric Abetz, who has suffered his own reversals in recent times, reaches for what may be an unreachable star: “She should be, quite frankly, more than just assistant minister… She deserved better both under Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull.”
Political life, as everyone knows, is part service and part self-preservation. The demands of the latter may sometimes distort the former. But the fact Fierravanti-Wells refuses to be confined to the ideological leprosarium to which her progressive opponents would consign her demonstrates unusual grit.
Besides, the assistant minister can whip up a skirt in just three hours, and produce a fine Italian meal at short notice. Who would argue she is not a handy woman to have around?