Social Cohesion - Speech in Parliament

This week in the parliament, we have some especially important reasons to be concerned about questions of social cohesion. We saw the release of the Scanlon Foundation's 2014 report in that regard. That paints a mixed picture, which shows there are real challenges facing many in our community. There have been significant experiences of discrimination and there has been some concern that elements of our multicultural fabric are not as strong as they have been or as they should be.

 Today, the House will shortly be debating significant provisions in relation to national security, which also gives reason for all of us to think about how we maintain a socially cohesive society in which all members have a real and equal stake.In that regard, I rise to draw the attention of the House to the important work undertaken by settlement service providers in my electorate. Australia has a proud history of resettlement—a very proud history. While we have had difficult and fractious debates about immigration—and asylum policy generally—it has been pleasing to me, and I know to many others, that we have maintained a humane and decent approach to resettling people in Australia. We have well integrated programs with a very high level of cooperation between agencies and services, and we have wonderful, caring workers and volunteers who support people in need.

But this system, its workers and volunteers, are under significant strains. In that regard I was very pleased to welcome the member for Corio, the shadow minister for immigration, to my electorate to meet with a group of service providers at Whittlesea Community Connections, a service organisation in Epping. These issues are particularly important to the Scullin electorate because in the City of Whittlesea, most of which is contained in Scullin, there are 960 humanitarian entrants and 4,353 family visa holders eligible for settlement services. This is a very large number of people. Service providers also estimate there is the better part of 1,000 people on bridging visas or in community detention. Again, this is a very large number of vulnerable people in need of support.

I am particularly conscious of highlighting the needs these people have. I was fortunate to be visited yesterday in my office in Parliament House by Timothy Martin, a representative of the Australian Medical Students' Association, a group which has been doing some terrific work highlighting the health impacts of people who have had the experience of immigration detention. He drew my attention again to the very significant mental health issues for people, even when they are released into the community, and the challenge of supporting these people so that they can contribute to the community as they wish to. That is why think it is particularly important for people like me and the shadow minister to listen to the actual experience of those providing these services and to understand the real impact these services make on people's lives.

The case studies we were talked through were both challenging and inspiring, where we saw the workaday struggles of people—often with very limited English, often women with young children feeling very isolated, having a limited understanding of the social security system and often an inability to drive a car, which is difficult in many areas of my electorate where public transport provision is limited—and we saw the way in which volunteers, of whom there are over 250, many of them former asylum-seekers, are able to support them in navigating their way through their lives.

I spoke briefly about the challenges. A big challenge is that, within this community of people being helped, there are now two classes. There is also the very significant issue of the denial of family reunion. This is an issue of concern to mental health experts. It has been highlighted as a particular concern, as something which is particularly damaging to people's ability to find their feet and to resume their lives in Australia, in the community. From listening to these people's stories, I developed a much better understanding of how the system has been working, how it has been engaging volunteers and how it has been building social cohesion and social integration. It is of concern to me that this work has not been sufficiently highlighted. So I am pleased to have had this opportunity to raise some of the work that has been done by Whittlesea Community Connections and its many volunteers, and to take this opportunity to say thank you to all at that organisation, in particular Kate O'Sullivan, Peta Fualau and the wonderful volunteers. Your work is vitally important and deserves to be better understood and better supported.


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