“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.
“When I first started I really didn’t quite understand who was who
at the factional zoo,” she says.
“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.”
“[The ALP] may have been able to mould the older members of the migrant community who didn’t speak English very well, and who depended on the union to protect them. But now it’s a different ball game.”
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.
But Fierravanti-Wells does not 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.