Thursday, 10 August 2017
Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Requirements for Australian Citizenship and Other Measures) Bill 2017; Second Reading
The Nick Xenophon Team cannot support the Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Requirements for Australian Citizenship and Other Measures) Bill 2017 in its current form. The government has not shared with us the critical documents that will allow us to properly consider the proposed changes. We have not received a copy of the Australian values statement that the minister proposes to introduce via legislative instrument, nor have we received examples of the sorts of tests, English or otherwise, that prospective citizens would be required to pass. We cannot support a bill without being provided with all the relevant information.
The Nick Xenophon Team is also particularly concerned about the very high bar that is being set for English language proficiency. We do not believe that it is reasonable or in the best interests of Australia if we are to continue to attract the best international talent to this country. The proposed IELTS band 6 English test requirement is higher than the entrance requirement for some Australian universities, and it's doubtful that many Australians who have English as their first language would ever be able to pass this test, let alone migrants who have English as their second or possibly third language.
The language proficiency requirements of comparable nations to Australia do not require higher-than-university-standard English. The United States, for example, requires an ability to read, write and speak simple words and phrases in ordinary usage in the English language. In Canada, applicants must be able to demonstrate adequate knowledge of English or French, for which acceptable evidence includes completing of a secondary or postsecondary language program, or achieving level 4 out of 12 in the Canadian Language Benchmark test. The sorts of things that a level 4 can do include 'understand short social exchanges containing introductions, casual small talk and leave-taking', 'give a set of simple, common, routine instructions and directions to a familiar person', and 'understand short descriptive or narrative communication on topics of personal relevance'.
Obviously a certain proficiency in English is necessary in order to enhance the contribution that every Australian and every new Australian can make to our country. You do need to be able to speak English in order to functionally communicate in this country—we understand that—and you need it to contribute meaningfully as an Australian citizen. But, as my colleague Senator Griff has said, many of us would know of migrants who have been amazing contributors to our community who have functional English but whose writing, grammar or spelling means that they would never be able to achieve the IELTS band 6 result. Furthermore, my colleague Senator Griff questioned whether all members of parliament would be able to pass such a test and said that they should also deeply consider whether their parents and grandparents would have been able to pass such a test—or, I might add, whether they would be able to pass the test now.
Increasing the language test threshold would also create the perverse outcome that Australia would lose prospective high-quality migrants, entrepreneurs, professionals and hard workers, who want to come here and could contribute so much to our migrant country. Don't get me wrong: there is no greater gift that a country can give to a person than citizenship, and it must be something that we respect, we value and we treasure. But, in the citizenship ceremonies that I participate in, I can tell you: the migrants in my community most definitely respect, value and treasure the citizenship that they are offered. In fact, our whole community respects, values and treasures this. They are celebration times in my community. One of my local mayors enjoys our citizenship ceremonies so much and sees them as such a celebration that she ensures that there is a professional photographer to take family pictures of people who are receiving their citizenship, and she even bakes Anzac biscuits for all of the people attending.
But I feel that a shadow has fallen over our community with this proposed legislation—certainly, there was not so much of a feeling of celebration at the last citizenship ceremony that I attended—and that is simply because of this legislation that is sitting here in this parliament. Australia has built its success on being a model, open society and, since the end of the White Australia policy, our country has drawn on the best talent from across the seas, not based on their skin colour, from people who seek to share in our democratic values—those values that make Australia a strong, pluralist and prosperous society.
My colleagues in the Senate reserve their position on this bill, but the Nick Xenophon Team, at this point, cannot support this bill in its current form.
This is an important debate. I am glad to have the opportunity to speak as a representative of a place that is resolutely multicultural, a meeting place and a place of arrival—a place that has welcomed new Australians from all corners of the world for more than a century, and a significant meeting place for thousands of years before that. I am glad for this opportunity because Fremantle is a community that has struggled with questions of identity and inclusion in the past and has sometimes got those things wrong in the past—most grievously in relation to Indigenous Australians, but also in relation to new migrants. That struggle and that effort goes on, as it should. The need for greater inclusion and especially for reconciliation with Indigenous Australians continues, and it would be better for this parliament and this government to focus on those challenges rather than to seek to change our approach to citizenship in a way that is exclusionary.
In his second reading speech on the Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Requirements for Australian Citizenship and Other Measures) Bill 2017, the minister said:
Australians come from every culture, every race, every faith and every nation. Together we have built a modern and prosperous Australia. The success of our nation is based on our shared values, rights and responsibilities.
We might each express the elements of our multicultural success slightly differently, but I don't think any of us would fundamentally disagree with that statement. The minister also said that we should never take that success for granted, and I agree, yet that is exactly what this bill does, by introducing changes that add nothing and that create nothing but instead are exclusionary, unwelcoming, discriminatory and distrustful. They are changes that will licence intolerance, especially in relation to people whose first language is not English.
Changes to Australian citizenship should not be pursued or brought forward in this way, through an approach to lawmaking that is partisan, bad in process and bad in spirit. Australian citizenship should not be knocked around by changes that are substantially purposeless, changes that will do harm and will likely have an effect that is the opposite of the bill's stated intention, and changes that are contrary to our values. You cannot make something true simply by saying it, irrespective of the language in which it is said. This bill is not about strengthening Australian citizenship; it is about this government, in a time of weakness, using our citizenship to make a show of being tough.
Citizenship is not a matter of administrative efficiency or service delivery or the allocation of resources. Citizenship is about identity and culture. Citizenship is a matter of profound significance to the individual. It's not too difficult to understand that. I would hope that all of us in this place, in addition to understanding it intellectually, might make an effort to understand it emotionally too. I know of people for whom achieving Australian citizenship has been a life saver, for whom crossing that threshold meant passing into a state of long-awaited and almost unimaginable security, peace of mind, acceptance and belonging. Of course, that brings with it thankfulness and even, I think, a secular experience of grace, a sense of the world as a place in which peace and freedom and equality and wellbeing can be a normal, stable, state of affairs. Not surprisingly, from this experience there often springs a desire to be involved, to contribute, to bond and to give back.
In my former role as Deputy Mayor of Fremantle, I had the privilege of presiding over citizenship ceremonies from time to time, and I regularly attend those ceremonies now. I think it is characteristic of Australia that our civic rituals are quite plain and relaxed with little in terms of pomp and usually a line somewhere along the way of good humour and even self-deprecation. At the city of Cockburn, the Reverend Sealin Garlett always gives a wise, down-to-earth and moving welcome to country. Naturally, he has a perspective that gathers all of those who have come to this continent from across the water into a sequence of relatively recent arrivals. He always speaks to the new citizens in the language of our country, the language of the Noongar people of the Wajuk nation, and he translates into English too, which is helpful for us those of us who don't speak one of the many Australian languages.
Like all aspects of our national identity, our citizenship evolves. While citizenship carries with it a set of mutual rights and obligations, and while it rightly presumes a commitment to common values, it is also an ever-changing sum of all those who share in it, and every person who takes citizenship is equal in holding that status. I think it is worth observing that the nature of having and the process of acquiring citizenship are rich with ironies. For Indigenous people, the idea that a fourth- or fifth- or sixth- or seventh-generation Australian might regard their citizenship as going miles deep into the bedrock of this nation probably seems to lack a certain amount of temporal perspective. While there might be a tendency to regard a person born into Australian citizenship as possessing a more fundamental Australian character than a person who migrates to this country, in reality it is the new arrival who has made an active decision to be a member of this community. It is the new citizen who has made an explicit commitment to citizenship. No-one who has it from birth takes a test or is required to make an oath of allegiance.
On the surface, this bill is about extending the time frame in which citizenship can be sought and achieved. It is about making the language requirements more difficult. It is about changing the way we test and assess the values and allegiance of prospective citizens. On that question of delay, no particular reason has been given as to why this change is for the better. There is no evidence or advice from security agencies that argues for this change. It is already the case that citizenship processes have been slowed down administratively under this government. I am sure that every person in this place has been approached in the last year by people who cannot understand the delay that exists between completing the requirements and having citizenship granted.
As a result of the government's posturing on migration and citizenship policy, people around this country have been put into a state of anxiety. People are worried that they won't be able to become citizens. They're worried that the government will further change migration law, which is a fair concern based on recent experience, and that their place here, their safety here, in this, their new home, will be imperilled. Again, I would encourage people to imagine what that anxiety must be like.
The proposed change to English language requirements is being justified on the basis of some pretty common-sense observations by the Productivity Commission to the extent that English language skills help people participate more fully in Australian life, which is also good for the economy. There's no evidence that university-level English is needed for that to occur. If the government were genuine about helping new migrants and new citizens to improve their English, it would do better to provide more-flexible and higher quality resources for this to occur. To the extent that a tougher English test will function as a general obstacle and an obstacle that discriminates against people from non-English-speaking countries, against women, against single parents and against people who choose to live in rural or regional Australia, it is ridiculous and it is wrong.
From the contributions of my colleagues—I am thinking specifically of the contribution by Labor's deputy leader, the member for Sydney—and from my engagement with civil society groups that support new migrants, I know that the proposal to seriously toughen the English language test will have the effect of keeping people from acquiring Australian citizenship. I am aware of migrants from war-torn countries who now live in the south-west of WA. They have become close and active members of their local communities, but their opportunity to receive English language education is limited. The only Australian Migrant English Program class in Mount Barker, for example, is available for 3½ hours per week. It covers all levels from pre-cert I up to cert III. That is less than one hour per level.
The fact is that both the curriculum and the current resourcing of the AMEP are not sufficient to enable people to acquire English skills at the IELTS 6 level, and there is no logic in requiring that standard of proficiency. Under this bill, we can be confident that the kind of change this bill proposes will licence the kind of prejudice that sees people shout 'Speak English!' at new migrants, or at people with an accent or at anyone who sounds a little different. It is that kind of conduct, it is that kind of aggression, that is fundamentally un-Australian.
It is hard to know where to start in relation to the changes that are supposed to make people conform more strenuously to Australian values, or else through some test or life assessment trip up those who might have slipped through with incompatible values. I think it is worth observing that you can't make anyone hold a particular value simply by making them say it. If a test requires people to do one thing or another in pursuit of something they want to achieve, chances are they will find a way to give the right answers. But the manner in which any society decides to test or assess—or even assert—national values says a lot about that society's confidence and trust in those values.
I strongly believe that Australian values, which are enduring but not immutable, actually include being welcoming, trusting, open to change and outward-looking. I am personally confident that the Australian way of life speaks for itself, that it is compelling on its own terms and that it doesn't need to be taught or memorised.
This question of pursuing a higher degree of allegiance, for what it's worth, has made me reflect on my experience in other places. I went to junior high school in Long Island, New York, in the mid 1980s, and every morning the school day began with students standing to pledge allegiance to the American flag. I was only in school for less than a year, but I can still recite the pledge, which I am just quoting, not pledging, when I say:
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
As an Australian, I did not stand or take that pledge, but after a few weeks my home room teacher asked me if I would consider doing so. She said that it was making the kids uncomfortable, even though I explained I did not think it was really appropriate as a visiting Australian. I was a 12-year-old, and I agreed to stand out of respect and in order to fit in. But it did make me wonder how much the other students really understood the purpose and meaning of the pledge and why it was that even mild and easily-explained nonconformity created so much discomfort. I have affection for the United States; it is, still, a substantially open and pluralist society. It is increasingly multicultural and it contains multitudes. It is not for me to question how America chooses to practice civic rituals and observances. But I think it is fair to say that notwithstanding that daily pledge, there isn't, demonstrably, more liberty or more justice in the US than in Australia or in other similar social democracies.
Here in Australia, to become a citizen you make a pledge or take an oath. I think that the text of that commitment is a simple and true expression of Australian values and of the rights and responsibilities that come with citizenship. I am quite certain, however, that making such a pledge more frequent, or extensive or vehement will have no particular effect on people's values or their allegiance. At citizenship ceremonies, I have had the honour of reading that text and asking people repeat it after me. I have watched on the faces of men, women and children the joy, and sometimes the enormous relief, as they become Australian citizens. I am quite certain the form of their pledges and the standard of their language skills make them eminently suitable new Australians. Needless to say, I oppose this bill and I will support Labor's amendments.
To finish, I want to return to what I said at the beginning about the ways in which the Fremantle community has previously dealt with the issues of identity and inclusion. During the course of the Second World War, it was decided that people from certain countries should be classed as enemy aliens. In Fremantle, that included residents with Italian heritage even if they had been born in Australia or long naturalised. By August 1940, more than 1,000 Italians in Western Australia, many of them from Fremantle, had been interned. By 1944, there would be nearly 1,500. They were held at Rottnest Island and in Fremantle jail, before many were moved to a bush camp at Harvey. Those men were removed from their families for years. In many cases, their shops and businesses were ruined. Even those who were allowed to stay in the community were prevented from leasing or buying land; obtaining bank loans; travelling; or owning torches, radios, cameras, trucks and tractors. The effect of this policy—where we turned on ourselves, gave into fear and prejudice and irrationally treated people as enemy aliens—is still felt in the Freo community today. Let's not drift down that path again. Let's be very careful not to take the success of our tolerant, multicultural nation for granted.
In the end, there is simply no case for the changes the government has proposed in this bill. Claims that the bill is about improving national security are without basis. Such claims should not be made. I have heard members opposite start their contribution to this debate by saying the government's primary role is to keep Australians safe. This bill has nothing to do with that—nothing. I repeat: there is no security analysis or advice on which these proposed changes are based, they do not respond to a present danger and they will not make Australians safer. Anyone who spouts that rubbish is kidding themselves; they are perpetrating a fraud on their communities and on Australia more broadly. The politics of fear is really the politics of desperation, of cowardice.
Australian citizenship belongs to us all. It is precious as a matter of individual and collective identity. Its meaning is self-evident. The values inherent in Australian citizenship are transmitted in part through our confidence that fairness, tolerance, freedom and equality do not need to be rote learned or drilled in because they speak loudly for themselves.
This legislation is a classic example of an answer in search of a question. Really, what are we talking about here? We have had a thin veneer of suggestions and insinuations made in the course of this debate that reflect on issues of national security and patriotism. It reminds me of the old expression that 'patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel'. When it comes to national security, I defer to no-one in this chamber. I have spent the last 35 years of my life immersed in the security affairs of this nation. Nothing is more important to me than the safety of our people and our contribution, as good international citizens, to the safety of the world. In that context, I served 20 years in the Army and 10 years in the Reserves. When I was in the Army, I deployed to places like Somalia, Bosnia and Timor. I spent a year in Iraq. In government, I had responsibility for the transition of our operations in Afghanistan and spent a lot of time there. I have spent a great deal of my life immersed in the issues of internal conflict, civil war, counter-insurgency and terrorism. Above all, the one lesson I learnt from that experience is the importance of building social cohesion as the means to achieving national security.
The genius of Australia has been in the success of our multiculturalism and how we have constructed that. So what is broken that the government is trying to fix? They always talk about our multicultural society as being a shining light to the world. And we have reiterated time and again the comments of David Irvine, the former Director-General of ASIO, who was at pains to point out that, for example, our Muslim community is the first line of defence against terrorism and has been of great assistance in that effort. We have managed to achieve that by being inclusive, by opening our hearts and our arms to citizens of nations other than ours and by making something of that process.
I was just at a citizenship ceremony a couple of weeks ago, and to watch the faces of those people who voluntarily entered into that process of wanting to become Australian and the effect of that process itself in building their investment in this enterprise of ours—this Australia. To me, the Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Requirements for Australian Citizenship and Other Measures) Bill 2017 does the opposite. This attempt to change the citizenship process in this country is about exclusion and not inclusion. That is the heart of this effort at what is contained in this legislation. Instead of that message of inclusion and instead of that message of our appreciation of the multicultural and multilingual benefits that we had from the immigration process, we are sending the message, 'No, there're people out there that we want to make life harder for, that we are not confident in in being citizens of this country.'
I look at the various stories told, certainly, by members on this side and all of us of that experience in our electorates. Madam Deputy Speaker Bird, I know that in your own electorate you have this multicultural experience well reflected there. We've heard talk of the Snowy Mountains Scheme, for example, which sits in my electorate, which was the birthplace of the great multicultural expansion post Second World War where 100,000 migrants came to help build that scheme over those decades. All of them stayed in Eden-Monaro. In Cooma, for example, 15 per cent of the community—a country town—were born overseas. It's still quite a high level and does not mention those who are descendants of those who came here and helped build that multicultural society.
In Queanbeyan 18.4 per cent were born overseas. Our communities in Queanbeyan are such a wonderful part of what we have been able to create in marrying up the great sense of community, the benefits of a country town and the richness and diversity of those cultural groups that have come to us. There is a complete rainbow in Queanbeyan. It is the most cosmopolitan town in New South Wales outside of Sydney. We take great pride and joy in the community and cultural celebrations of that. The one big event of the year that brings it all together is the Carnivale in beautiful Queanbeyan Park, where we celebrate the music, the dancing and the food of all those groups. I take particular great interest in traversing those food stalls on that day! It is probably not in the best interest of my health, but it is beautiful food. It is a great example of the rich tapestry.
In country areas like mine quilting is a popular pastime. It is a big part of our rural culture. What we have done in Australia is very much like a beautiful patchwork quilt. We've taken those magnificent, colourful individual panels and we've stitched them together to create this wonderful whole. That takes love, patience, persistence and perseverance. To keep that success story rolling, we must continually work at this issue, constantly, in the signals that we send and the way we build this community.
I also look at the electorate of the Prime Minister himself, who has become the quintessential hollow man through the abandonment of all the principles he once espoused in these gesture politics that we've seen—like the pointless paper plebiscite or the overused wet leaf in abusing and cajoling the banks and the electricity companies. And how is that going?
In relation to our national security, we have the issues that have emerged out of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia with 50,000 breaches of money laundering provisions—directly associated with our national security, by the way—in funding terrorists. Where is the royal commission into that? Why isn't there more focus on that issue than this pointless paper exercise?
I come back to the Prime Minister's electorate. There are Holocaust survivors in his electorate who have gone to make magnificent contributions to this country. One in particular, Frank Lowy, who delivered the inaugural Australian Multicultural Council lecture in Canberra on 20 September 2012, who became one of our most success businessmen, creating great benefit to our economy and jobs and becoming a great philanthropist, came here as a refugee boy and a self-described boat person fleeing the Nazis. His father died in Auschwitz. He said he could hardly speak English. And what did he go on to achieve? His line on this was he wanted a more muscular approach to civics education, to teach everyone—not just those seeking citizenship or immigrants but the whole nation. There is a great deficiency in our system in teaching all of us civics and the values of our democracy. He also said, while it may be handy for a newcomer to know that Don Bradman was our greatest cricketer, it would be far more useful to have a bedrock understanding of what it means to be a citizen. That's one of the Prime Minister's own constituents, and he should draw from that experience. That's the sort of thing we need to embrace and encourage.
When they talk about values, what is it that they're going on about? Are we looking to the coalition to teach us values—the values of how people are treated on Manus and Nauru, or the values of how they treated veterans and pensioners in trying to cut their pensions, creating an underclass in this society? Are those the values that we're supposed to imbibe?
Interestingly, in these questions, I was really interested to see some of the effective brainwashing propaganda that they're trying to put out as part of their so-called values. One of these was on so-called clean coal technology in these questions as part of the test. I'll just read a couple of paragraphs out of that to give you the flavour of this. It says:
The worldwide coal industry allocates extensive resources to researching and developing new technologies and ways of capturing greenhouse gases. Efficiencies are likely to be improved dramatically, and hence CO2 emissions reduced, through combustion and gasification techniques which are now at pilot and demonstration stages.
Clean coal is another avenue for improving fuel conversion efficiency. Investigations are under way into super-clean coal … and ultraclean coal … Super-clean coal has the potential to enhance the combustion efficiency of conventional pulverised fuel power plants. Ultraclean coal will enable coal to be used in advanced power systems such as coal-fired gas turbines which, when operated in combined cycle, have the potential to achieve much greater efficiencies.
Defendants of mining point out that, environmentally, coal mining has two important factors in its favour. It makes only temporary use of the land and produces no toxic chemical wastes. By carefully preplanning projects, implementing pollution control measures, monitoring the effects of mining and rehabilitating mined areas, the coal industry minimises the impact on the neighbouring community, the immediate environment and long-term land capability.
Tremendous propaganda. This looks like something straight out of North Korea. Then, of course, the questions go on to try to embed that and emphasise that, in a brainwashing exercise. One example is:
Compared with ordinary coal, new, ‘clean’ coals may generate power
A more cleanly and more efficiently.
B more cleanly but less efficiently.
C more cleanly but at higher cost.
D more cleanly but much more slowly.
This is the sort of thing that we're seeing. Is this the type of exercise we want to put our people through in achieving citizenship? Let alone trying to understand that, because we know for a fact that hardly anyone on the coalition side does understand the issues. Otherwise we would have seen them embrace and act much more quickly and effectively on their own Finkel review, and we're still waiting. I might point out, of course, that the Finkel review emphasised that they needed to make a decision on clean energy technology, and that particular aspect of the recommendations was immediate: in the time line that it set for its recommendations, that was at the zero-month mark. Well, that zero-month mark has well and truly passed. So, in terms of the values, the information and the education standards, we don't get filled with confidence at the approach of this government to dealing with those issues.
Specifically in this legislation, one of the other values we'd be looking for would be emphasising the rule of law. We hear a lot about that from the coalition. What does this legislation do? It takes the minister out of the purview of review by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, so what we're seeing is that the minister himself will be beyond the scope of merits review. So where's the democratic value or the rule of law emphasis in that?
That's one of the things coming back to my own personal experience of these war-torn areas with these great civil disruptions. You can introduce elections and you can produce legislation, but what I learned in particular was that democracy was about a culture of democracy, the values grown over many, many decades and through many, many ways; it is deep and extensive in how a society operates. What we are seeing from this government is a complete lack of understanding of that issue and in that approach. This legislation will not do what they believe or claim it will do. It will only place more barriers in the way of building a cohesive society, where we have people enlisted in our vision and prepared to fight, die, defend, work for and imbibe the cultural values of our community. And that involves us working at all levels to embrace them, to respect their cultures, to value the fact they have other language skills. We are one of the worst countries in the world for depth of language skills. We should be embracing these people's skills and helping them to help others in this community to learn those skills. We should be out there asking them, 'What's the term for X, Y or Z', building our own appreciation. That's how we also build trade, how we build goodwill internationally, how we build our diplomatic capabilities: through those multicultural bases and communities.
I had many conversations when I was out advocating for Australia to get a seat on the Security Council, and conducted multiple activities in Africa and at the UN with my friend Jose Ramos-Horta. In reaching out to those communities and those countries, quite often the discussions revolved around the communities we had here in Australia that were making such a difference and who were so welcome to us. Those arguments and that understanding of Australia as a multicultural country, an embracing country, made a big difference in that an endeavour. One of the more embarrassing moments I had in my life was during the Tampa affair. I was in the UN headquarters in Dili, working with Norwegian and UNHCR officers. This was the beginning of a period where they started to question Australia's bona fides in that respect. It's been the coalition that has been undermining that, undermining the standing that we have in the world in that respect. This will be taken as yet another step in the wrong direction in that tendency and that trend by this coalition.
I would urge the government to rethink that. I know there are good people on that side who have argued against this, who have constituencies like the member for Reid's and who will understand that it's not going down well. It fits in the same category as that 18C assault. They need to forget this, move on and work with us to build a better Australia.
Australian values. We've heard a lot about them this week from government members. We've heard a lot of hypocrisy and a lot of cant as, in this place, in Australia's parliament, they've been trashing a core Australian value: that of representative democracy. It is clear now that the only thing our craven Prime Minister really values is clinging onto his office. Not to power, because it's pretty clear he has very little of that, but to office.
The people who three years ago supported the right to be a bigot, have now gone several steps further. They have licenced further bigotry in walking away from parliamentary democracy when it comes to equal marriage because the Prime Minister is too weak to do what he knows to be right—that is, for this parliament to do its job, for its members to be allowed to make a law in support of another great Australian value, that of equality. How we treat one another is at the very heart of what it means to be Australian. It is to me, anyway.
I'll state my attitude to Australian values: I cherish our egalitarianism and I cherish our diversity. So, too, the PM apparently. He says often that we are the most successful multicultural society. He's right. And he's also right to say so. But these words have been belied by his actions and by those of his government, which have undermined our multiculturalism and undermined our social cohesion already. We remember, on this side of the House, the awful hurt inflicted by the 18C campaign, the incessant dog whistling. These have been steps to the journey that has taken us to this unnecessary and deeply unhelpful and divisive legislation. We have before the House a proposal designed to fundamentally create two classes of Australians, to make citizenship more difficult to obtain for some people, but not others. Generally, these are vulnerable people: people who have entered Australia through humanitarian programs or as refugees. This is not my sense of Australian values.
Of course, what it means to be Australian is an important question and one which should inform our careful consideration of how we approach Australian citizenship as a matter of law, but this government has this the wrong way round. As the member for Eden-Monaro said, this bill is 'an answer in search of a question.'
Here's a history lesson for members opposite: values evolve. The views of our founding fathers—indeed, the absence from the records of our founding mothers—show the journey that Australian views have undergone. The views of those men cause me great discomfort in many respects. My own party—our own party—saw the world very differently at the time of Federation than we do today. I'm pleased that our values and Australia's values have developed, that we have seen things and people differently, that we have resolved to expand the boundaries of social, economic and political participation of our social compact and, indeed, of citizenship. Let us have this conversation and use it to inform any reform we make to our formal recognition of citizenship. Let's not go through a hurtful, divisive and unwarranted process such as this.
What this bill and this debate show us, sadly, is that members opposite are not really conservatives so much as they are reactionaries. They are not concerned about preserving Australia's values, no matter what the Prime Minister may say of multiculturalism, but about winding back the clock. I felt privileged to have been here for the contribution of my friend the member for Fremantle, who spoke very movingly of what exactly winding the clock back means for too many Australians. But winding back the clock is at the core of this bill in its presentation, in the journey it has taken to get here and in its substance, and so I am very proud to join all my Labor colleagues in opposing the bill.
It is a wide-ranging and very complex piece of legislation. Many of those matters it seeks to address deserves careful scrutiny, so I look forward to the consideration of the Senate inquiry and those recommendations, but some of its core components must be rejected outright. I refer in particular to the question of the English language requirement which is imposed—and I will go on to make some further comments about that—and the pointless imposition of a delay for people who are already permanent residents being able to progress their citizenship.
I am also deeply concerned about some other aspects of the bill and in particular the expansion of the discretionary powers of the minister. Such an expansion would be troubling in any set of circumstances but under this minister is doubly so, particularly—indeed, this was touched upon briefly by the member for Eden-Monaro—in circumstances where discretionary power is increased and accountability is diminished. We are seeing fewer checks on the executive authority. The Liberal Party used to be concerned about these matters. The Liberal Party used to be concerned about rights. They have put all of these things in the dustbin of history.
On that matter again I raise one other specific concern about the bill, and that is, of course, its retrospective operation. It has ordinarily been a principle that laws having retrospective effect should present a particular standard of justification as to why such effect is to be given. No such justification has been given.
More broadly, justification for the measures set out in this bill is lacking to say the very least. The submission by the Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law is more generous than I would be in expressing its support for what it described as the 'broad objectives' of the bill, by which I take them to mean some of the words spoken by the minister in his second reading contribution and in particular those references to social cohesion. But in their very useful submission they go on to say:
…we do not believe that the measures adopted in the Bill address these objectives in a proportionate and evidence-based manner. This is particularly problematic because the proposed changes have significant implications for prospective citizens, their families and society more broadly. Given these implications, it is incumbent on the government to justify why these changes put forward are necessary.
But of course they have not even tried—not the minister in the long journey since these changes were initially flagged many months ago and not in contributions to the debate by government members. This isn't good enough.
The citizenship law is absolutely fundamental. It is the bedrock of our society as well as our democracy. We deserve, and Australians deserve, to have the case for change made.
One justification that has been offered by government members makes recourse to national security. But of course there is no evidence before us to suggest that any of the provisions contained in this bill were supported by our national security agencies or by reference to advice from those agencies.
Going to the wider objective, the critical question of supporting our national security through bolstering social cohesion: it is fine for government members to speak of fostering social cohesion, but I am concerned that this bill, in substance and in the manner in which it has been brought before the parliament, will have the opposite effect to supporting social cohesion. This is a concern shared by many others—indeed, by most stakeholders, including the Kaldor Centre.
These questions of process are important. I spoke earlier about the significance of working through the values that should inform citizenship and its place in our society and our democracy. This has to be a conversation, a two-way process—a dialogue. Yet we saw the absurdity of a submission process that was closed in terms of civil-society actors and, indeed, our capacity to consider the views of many community members.
Going to the substance of the bill: there were two elements of the bill that many of my colleagues have spoken of, one being the English language requirement, and the member for Cowan drew on her personal experience in terms of teaching English. On this English language requirement, there are a couple of points that I should make in addition to those made by my colleagues.
I think all of us in this place see the importance of conversational English. We see that in terms of social participation and of economic participation, of course. But, if the government were serious about supporting people in the process of seeking citizenship improving their English language skills, perhaps they might start by offering some support to people to further their English language skills development; instead, decisions made by this government, sadly, take us in the opposite direction.
There is no warrant for the level at which the standard is to be set under this proposition. That is a matter that has been very clearly articulated by the member for Watson and the member for Cowan and many others on this side of the debate, and it is striking that government members have not sought to rebut these evidence-based propositions and, instead, have resorted to the rhetoric of their talking points.
Then, of course, we have the delay, which does not recognise the existing requirements as to permanent residency. We have here a substantial change that sends a very disturbing message to many people, and to many of my constituents in particular—absent any sense of a wider purpose or, indeed, of a particular warrant in respect of the circumstances. This is extraordinary legislation from a government that is supposed to be about smaller government—absolutely extraordinary.
The concerns that have been expressed by almost all those stakeholders who speak for and with multicultural communities deserve to be heard in this place and in the other place. I made a submission in respect of this piece of legislation because of the depth of anxiety in the communities that I represent, and I want to place on the record the sense of betrayal of many older members of the communities which make up the Scullin electorate. They have often been in Australia for a very long period of time and have made very substantial contributions to our community and our society but feel the imposition of this language test sends a message that somehow their citizenship is less worthy and that they would not have been afforded the rights they have today, a status that is so important to them, if they had arrived here some years later. This is a terrible message to send to people and one of the many reasons why this bill must be rejected.
I'm disturbed to have heard, in the course of debate here, government members mischaracterise citizenship and look at this as a privilege. Well, if that is the case, why are we seeking to impose different standards on different classes of people? There are privileges that are connected to citizenship, and certainly, for me, it has been a great privilege, as someone who acquired Australian citizenship through the circumstances of being born here to Australian parents, to have attended many citizenship ceremonies and seen what the journey means to so many people I am very proud to represent in this place. For me, those ceremonies in the Shire of Nillumbik, in Diamond Valley, in Eltham or at the City of Whittlesea or South Morang have been absolute highlights of the time I have been a member of this place. To see what it means to people to join the Australian community is something which is extraordinary. To see this government, absent any justification, seek to impose unnecessary hurdles in the way of them seeking to make real and full their commitment to this country is a retrograde, unnecessary and, frankly, offensive step.
So I say again I am proud to stand here in opposition to this legislation along with every one of my Labor colleagues. I look forward to the comments that will be provided through the process of the Senate inquiry on some of those more technical questions, but this is not how we should be making laws of this nature. The government has not made the case for any of these changes. I stand here proud of our multiculturalism and to represent such a wonderfully diverse community. I say to the members of that community that I stand here ready to fight for multiculturalism and for all of my constituents, wherever they may have been born
I want to join with my Labor parliamentary colleagues and oppose the changes in the Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Requirements for Australian Citizenship and Other Measures) Bill 2017. I do so because the government's proposed changes quite simply, as far as I'm concerned, are unwarranted, and I don't believe that there is any evidence-based reason for changes to the Citizenship Act. These changes, on the contrary, stand to undo all the great work we as a country have done to date to create the sort of social cohesion that has resulted in a successful, contemporary, multicultural Australian society. These changes are nothing short of divisive. As they appear to have been solely designed to deliberately exclude people, not to include them, it's a bill about exclusion, not inclusion. These changes present a calculated and harsh hurdle to Australian citizenship, one that has never been attempted by any other government. It's a 'little Australia' bill that bucks the visionary aspiration of Australia's nation-building project.
I have the opportunity to attend many citizenship ceremonies in my electorate of Calwell. Having an electorate that has the highest intake of refugees historically, and more recently the highest intake from Syria and Iraq, and a very large multicultural community made up of established migrants and second and third-generation migrants, means that I have had the opportunity of seeing thousands of locals, migrants and refugees take up with great pride their Australian citizenship. Australian citizenship ceremonies in my electorate are incredibly important family and community occasions, and they're always filled with excitement, with joy and with pride. I personally really enjoy attending citizenship ceremonies. Each time they bring back precious memories for me personally, as they remind me of my own experience when I became an Australian citizen alongside my parents.
At our local citizenship ceremonies, I see so many of my constituents embarking on what they see as a new chapter in their life here in Australia. I see their pride and the sense of achievement from the moment I shake their hand and offer them the Australian flag, which they so proudly hold, embrace and wave while they pledge allegiance to their new home and when they sing our national anthem for the first time. Each new citizen thanks me, their federal member, for the honour that we as Australia have bestowed on them by allowing them to become citizens and welcoming them as equals to our multicultural family. They are indeed grateful. They are excited. And many of them, who have come from war-torn countries, see this moment of citizenship as an anchor to a place of safety, stability and egalitarianism. Each and every time our newly minted Australian citizens look forward to participating in our democratic process. In fact, I am astounded at how quick they are to fill out their AEC form so they can get on the roll. And nothing is more moving than the children who stand next to the parents, in whom I see, reflected in their presence, the future of this country.
Throughout this debate, I've thought about my own family, the people I grew up with and indeed my constituents more broadly. I think about how demeaning it would be to be excluded from attaining citizenship because you can't get to level IELTS 6 of the standard English test or how frustrating it would be to have to be told that you have to wait for a longer period of time now because the government has arbitrarily decided that you need more years to prove yourself. I think about the people who will never overcome this insurmountable hurdle proposed by this legislation. I genuinely do wonder: what is this all about? The preamble to the Australian Citizenship Act 2007 states:
… citizenship is a common bond … uniting all Australians …
Citizenship is not only a legal contract; it's also of enormous symbolic significance that all of us are united and equal as Australians. Citizenship should not be reserved exclusively for those who happen to speak university-level English, while those of us who don't are to be relegated to some purgatory of Australian citizenship.
I want to refer to the Federation of Ethnic Communities' Councils of Australia's submission to the Senate inquiry into the citizenship changes, where they state that this bill 'will dramatically change the rules determining qualification for Australian citizenship'. From my own personal experience, and also from the feedback I've received from the people in my electorate, this bill, which purports to expedite integration because of the level of English it imposes and to somehow protect our Australian values and cultures and even our national security, will actually be doing the opposite. It will compromise the multicultural society that millions of migrants have worked so hard to build over the decades.
This is not a spurious view held by me or my Labor colleagues. It is the view of people who have skin in the game on the issue of integration, the migrant communities across this country and in my own electorate, from the English to the Dutch, the Italians, the Greeks, the Turks, the Yugoslavs—in fact, all of Arthur Calwell's new Australians, who have come from generations of migrants whose biggest contribution to this nation as citizens was to build this country. They did it without university-level English. There were thousands of young postwar migrants, many of whom worked on the iconic Snowy Mountains Scheme, my father-in-law included. In fact, many of them built their lives and their fortunes with very little English at all.
As a matter of fact, under this bill—I've thought about this—my parents would never have become Australian citizens. Never. They had little education in Greece. They came to Australia as adults with a young family. They worked very hard day and night and did not have the capacity to learn English. However, they built a life for their family, they bought property and they educated both of their daughters to university level. In fact, one of those daughters ended up being in this place as a federal member of parliament. But God only knows where all that lifelong contribution would have gone had they been denied Australian citizenship. Maybe they would have been forced to 'go back to where they came from', as a former member of this House infamously once said.
Australia has managed to get along with the process of nation-building and integration and has done it with many of us speaking variations of English, whether it is mother tongue English, university-level English, basic English or conversational English. In fact, the Greek-Australians have even developed their own idiom here in Australia. We call it Greeklish. It's actually quite funny but reflective of the reality of living in Australia.
My point is that Australians have gotten along quite fine, thank you very much, and have been able to communicate and collaborate with each other with whatever English level they have able to them. You know what? Their commitment to Australia has been all the better for it.
I believe we are the most successful multicultural society in the world. Even our Prime Minister used to say that once upon a time. But we didn't become this by accident or by punitive measures. The truth is that access to Australian citizenship has been fundamental to developing an inclusive and cohesive society, yet our own Prime Minister seems to have had a change of mind on this issue. Perhaps he has been convinced otherwise by the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection. In fact, the Prime Minister is now saying that this bill 'will ensure that many people who had not learnt English or had not been encouraged to learn English will do so.' You know what we are doing, he says? We're doing them a big favour. Leaving aside the somewhat patronising undertone, this is a very narrow and short-sighted prerequisite for citizenship.
I want to make on thing clear: in opposing this bill I am not for a minute suggesting people who want to become citizens of Australia or who want to live here and become integrated in our community should not learn English. I'm not saying that at all. In fact, I do believe that being able to speak the English language is important to getting around, belonging and integrating. I really do. Our settlement services do a great job of providing English language classes to new migrants who want to become citizens. Historically, we have provided English language classes and helped people learn the English language since the days of Australia's first immigration minister, Arthur Calwell.
The issue here is not learning the English language. The issue here is the standard of English, the IELTS level 6 university English that is being used to decide whether or not you can become an Australian citizen. That's the issue. The government appears to want to raise the bar so high that, in doing so, it will make citizenship tests insurmountable for many hardworking people, including many in my electorate.
The Refugee Council of Australia has said of this bill:
The current Bill would disproportionately affect refugees, and it would fundamentally alter the nature of Australian citizenship. The proposals in the Bill would effectively convert citizenship policy from being a tool of inclusion to a tool of exclusion.
For those people in my electorate who have already been waiting for citizenship to come through, these changes also propose another hurdle. The government now wants them to wait another three years or so to get citizenship, causing further uncertainty and angst.
The government, of course, will argue that new migrants and refugees need to work harder to integrate. They need to wait longer and learn not only to speak English but to speak university-level English before they are allowed to become citizens. Yet to the people of my electorate, especially the ones born overseas, becoming an Australian citizen was instrumental and fundamental to their sense of belonging.
The people in my electorate are proof that you don't need university-level English to become a good Australian. The people of Calwell and their children are proof we should not use Australian citizenship as a tool to exclude people, nor to reaffirm our values. Our values are reaffirmed in the daily lives of my constituents. I believe FECCA is right when it is suggested this bill will permanent underclass of Australian residents who will be denied the rights and opportunities of being welcomed and included as Australian citizens. These changes, if they pass this House and are enacted, are set to exclude a whole cohort of people because of a language test that even many Australian-born citizens would find difficult to successfully complete. This is a view shared by the Australian Human Rights Commission, who said, 'Many Australia-born citizens would not possess a written or spoken command of English equivalent to this standard.'
I want to thank all the civil society organisations such as FECCA, the many people in my electorate and others who are standing up and defending our rights because, quite frankly, I do not think the government is. I don't think this is just a case of snobbery. I don't even think it is a case of elitism, although it has been referred as such. I think this is blatant racism. It may sound harsh, but as far as I am concerned this is blatant racism by a government that stands to do one thing, and that is to divide the Australian community.
I will finish with where I started. It leaves me to continue to ask the question that a lot of people in the Australian community are asking: what really is the point of these proposed changes? What is the point of this legislation? It does not add to our social cohesion; in fact, it is the antithesis of this. These changes will compromise our multicultural society. These changes take away the egalitarian nature of the Aussie way of life and thinking. These changes are detrimental and dangerous to a safe and cohesive Australian society. This is not the way a progressive, forward-thinking country behaves in a global community.
I rise to speak on the Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Requirements for Australian Citizenship and Other Measures) Bill 2017. I would like to start by acknowledging the fine words of the member for Calwell, Maria Vamvakinou, who has a much greater understanding of citizenship than I will ever have. I thank her for her great words.
There are many ways to become an Australian. Some of us were born here, and we can thank our parents and grandparents for that. Some Indigenous Australians have around 3,250 generations before them, as proud members of the oldest civilisation on earth. Some of us were born elsewhere to parents who were Australian. Some came to Australia later as children or adults choosing to make Australia home. Being born here doesn't necessarily make you a better Australian than someone who has chosen to make their home here. In fact, the opposite is often true. Those Australians who have made a conscious decision to make Australia their home and pledge allegiance to this nation often value their citizenship more than someone who has received it at birth.
Citizenship is important. It has important implications for those who hold it and also, sadly, for those who do not. The preamble to the Australian Citizenship Act 2007 says:
… Australian citizenship represents full and formal membership of the community of the Commonwealth of Australia, and Australian citizenship is a common bond, involving reciprocal rights and obligations, uniting all Australians, while respecting their diversity.
As an Australian citizen, you do not require a visa to live in Australia. You have the right and, in fact, the obligation to vote in elections—not in postal surveys, but in elections. You can access government support programs that aren't available to non-citizens. As Australian citizens, we take for granted these rights and responsibilities. But for those who do not have citizenship, they can be priceless and cruelly out of reach.
Like you, Mr Deputy Speaker, I attend many citizenship ceremonies. In Moreton, they are held regularly. I am always overwhelmed by the excitement and pride displayed by our brand new citizens, these proud new Aussies. In fact, I would say it is the best part of this job to be involved in these citizenship ceremonies. These ceremonies are a chance to celebrate the importance of Australian citizenship, to welcome new Aussies and, for the rest of us and those attending, to reflect on what it actually means to be Australian.
I have had many, many occasions to reflect on what being Australian means to me. These things I hold dear: respect for the rule of law; respect for parliamentary democracy, and a parliament that does its job; and Australian values such as mateship, a fair go for all and offering a helping hand. Having a unique Australian identity which transcends skin colour and religion makes us the most successful multicultural nation in the world. But this piece of legislation, brought in by the Turnbull government, makes sweeping changes to the eligibility requirements for people seeking Australian citizenship. More than that, this bill proposes changes to the definition of what it is to be Australian and what sort of country we will become.
The changes of most concern to me are the new English language test—and I say that as someone who taught English for 11 years and has an honours degree in literature—and the increase in the period of time that permanent residents must live in Australia before they can become citizens. The announcement by Prime Minister Turnbull of these proposed changes has caused immense stress to many residents of Moreton. Moreton is a vibrant, culturally diverse community—and 46 per cent of those who live in Moreton were not born in Australia. Compare that to the whole percentage of those born overseas, which is 28 per cent. Moreton has a large Chinese community, Taiwanese, Indians, former Yugoslavs, Pacific islanders, Somalians, Eritreans, Ethiopians, Sudanese, Rwandans, Filipinos, South Africans, Indigenous Australians, New Zealanders, Fijians, Koreans and Vietnamese, to name a few. The whole Moreton community is much richer, much more vibrant and much more creative and economically strong due to the contribution of these ethnic communities.
My fellow Moretonites are worried that they or their relatives will not be welcome to become Australian citizens—that they will become people who live among us but won't be of us. The two changes that particularly disturb me are the addition of the university-level English language test and the additional time before an application for citizenship can be made. Before becoming eligible to be an Australian citizen you currently need to pass a citizenship test. And guess what? No surprise, but the test is written in English. So to pass the test you first need to be able to understand the English language well enough to read the test. This pernicious bill proposes to add a separate English language test which will assess the standard of English of persons applying for citizenship. Obviously you won't have to take this test if you are from New Zealand, Canada, the United States, England or Ireland.
To pass this new test, it will be necessary to have a standard of English equivalent to that expected of university entrants. It is not a conversational English test; it is a comprehensive test that requires skills in speaking, listening, comprehension and writing. The applicant will need to be able to write an essay to complete this test successfully. The standard required is referred to as IELTS level 6. That is the standard required by some universities for entrance to their courses. That would be a much higher standard than any country in Europe, including Britain. This will make it much harder for people from non-English-speaking countries to become Australian citizens. It will be almost impossible for most adult migrants from non-English-speaking countries to become proficient in English to that standard after completing the 510 hours of English language tuition provided by the government—effectively 13 weeks of full-time study.
There would be many Australians who have lived their whole life in Australia who would not have that standard of English competency. Teachers of language say an adult would need 2,700 hours of tuition—18 months of full-time study—to reach that standard. There is a real risk that requiring a standard unachievable for many migrants—because they will be working rather than sitting in a classroom learning the language—will create a permanent underclass of residents who will never be able to gain citizenship. They will live here, some will work here, but they won't be us. This could be a recipe for disaster. It may well unpick the fabric of our beautiful multicultural society.
The other measure proposed by this Turnbull government bill is to increase the waiting time before being eligible to apply for citizenship. I point out that, even though we're debating this legislation now—we haven't had a vote—this measure has already been implemented before this debate is finalised. How do I know this? Because the department is not currently processing applications. This is an arrogant minister—Minister Dutton—who has made a decision before the parliament has actually voted on the legislation that would implement this policy.
There is already a 4-year waiting time before someone can apply for citizenship. I stress that again: there is a four-year waiting time. What the Turnbull government wants is for migrants to have to wait for four years after they have been granted permanent residency before they can apply for citizenship. This will greatly extend the time they need to live in Australia without being able to pledge allegiance to the nation they call home. Some people initially come here as temporary workers or even students and they may have more than one four-year visa back-to-back and then some long-term temporary visas before they eventually become a permanent. These people could be living in Australia for 10, 12 or 13 years before they are invited to take an oath of allegiance to Australia. The government has already said they can live here as a permanent resident, so why would the government stand in the way of asking them to pledge their allegiance to Australia? It makes absolutely no sense. I think the member for Calwell might have touched on the motivation behind this and I support the member for Calwell. There is an element of racism motivating this legislation.
Is it about national security? Let's have a look. The Turnbull government has definitely tried to wrap these changes up in the cloak of national security. There have been many tranches of legislation that have made changes to national security. This is not one of them. Labor has supported all of those changes and in fact made the amendments much better because of our input. Let me be clear: national security agencies have not recommended these citizenship changes. The recommendations actually came from two NSW members of the Liberal Party: one current serving Senator and a former lower house MP. It has nothing to do with our national security agency. The 4-year waiting time only affects people who have already been granted permanent residency. There are people who have already been cleared to live here permanently. If these people are a national security threat, why are they walking amongst us? It does not make sense.
Last week I held a forum in my electorate so that my community could have their say about these proposed changes by the Turnbull government. The forum confirmed that the Moreton community is very concerned and fearful. I heard from many Moretonites that they're concerned about the new language test in particular. They're concerned that the level of English required will be too difficult for them or their family members ever to achieve Australian citizenship. I also heard—I had not considered this—that women will be particularly disadvantaged by the English language test. Many people come from countries where women are not as well educated as men, and these women would be particularly disadvantaged by having to pass a language test of a standard required for university entrants. While many migrant men will quickly enter the workforce in Australia and have daily contact with other English-speaking workers, often their wives or partners may not have these opportunities. It is much more difficult to become proficient in a language if you are not constantly exposed to conversation or dialogue. I was told that older family members would also be unlikely to pass a university-standard English language test. I was also told that other family members with learning difficulties—for example, dyslexia—will be disadvantaged by this much more difficult, university-level English test.
Not only are these changes to citizenship eligibility fundamentally unfair and unwarranted; they will change the character of this great modern country. I'm not suggesting it's going to be a drastic change like we have seen in The Handmaid's Tale, V for Vendetta in the UK or George Orwell's 1984, but it will fundamentally change who we are as a nation. Who are we? We have a strong and long Indigenous history. Then British institutions were introduced and upon that we have built a great multicultural society. This legislation will fundamentally change that.
This nation was built on migration. Before the White Australia policy was introduced, 29 per cent of our population was born overseas. This percentage fell after the implementation of the White Australia policy—it was the first bit of legislation passed by this parliament, in fact—and it went down to 10 per cent in 1945 or so. Then, following the war, we had the populate or perish policy and we had strong immigration growth. Seven million people arrived after the war. Currently 28 per cent of our population was born overseas. We are a multicultural country that is successful—the most successful on earth, I would suggest.
Language barriers have never stopped migrants being successful in Australia. There are many stories of people running successful businesses, raising children and grandchildren but not being able to speak more than a few basic words of English. At the forum, I had on a panel Lewis Lee, who is a Chinese-Malaysian who came to Australia to study Greek, and also Galila Abdel Salam, who formed the Islamic Women's Association of Queensland 25 years ago. I could give you story after story but, I'm going to tell you about one guy: Peter Carozza the father of a good friend of mine, John Carozza. They came to Australia in 1952 as a boxer,. He came from a little village called San Marco Evangelista, 15 minutes outside Naples. When he arrived, they sent him out to western New South Wales out near Dubbo, where he said the dogs on the property were treated better than him. But he worked hard for two years and then moved to Sydney and then to Brisbane. He went to Brisbane and met his future wife, Beryl, at the Cloudland ballroom.
In 1960, because he was homesick for Italy, he returned home and then decided to come back to Australia. He lived in Coopers Plains, built a house there, then moved to Moorooka and then Sunnybank, where Beryl Carozza lives now. Peter has since died, and I was a pallbearer at his funeral.
Peter raised three children—John, Paul, and Maria—and all three of them are school teachers. Maria is the deputy principal at Runcorn Heights State School. Paul Carozza, many would know, is a great Wallaby, and John Carozza is a very good friend of mine. We've been in a band together. He's a great musician, a great artist, a great filmmaker and a great teacher. I remember this speech from a guy who could speak English. I have heard great speeches in my time, from Kevin Rudd, from Julia Gillard, from Ken Henry at the Press Club and from Obama, but Peter Carozza's speech is one I remember word perfect. At John's 21st, in very poor Italian English he said, 'John, there are times when I wanted to physically hurt you, but you are my son, and I love you.' If we are going to exclude people like Peter Carozza from this place, that is a bad, bad thing for this government to do, and I ask the Prime Minister to reconsider this legislation.
It's a privilege to stand today to speak on this legislation. I obviously don't support the legislation, but it brings me to the chamber to speak about Australian citizenship. It always makes me centre myself to think about my Australian citizenship. I am not Australian by choice; I was born in this country. When I was preparing today, I went through my memory for some important moments. Some of the most important moments in my life were to stand here and deliver my first speech, to listen to other members of the class of 2013 give their first speeches and, since then, to listen to members of the class of 2016 give their first speeches. My impression across those speeches was that in this chamber we carry with us the Australian story, from listening to the member for Barton deliver her first speech to remind us of the long trajectory of the first Australians present on this land to listening to my classmates of 2013 as we delivered our speeches that spoke of our history in this country. I got to listen to my colleague on my right over here deliver his second first speech in this place and talk about his family history in this country. There is no getting past that we are a nation of immigrants.
When I gave my first speech in this place, I talked about the diaspora at Ballarat and Peter Lalor leading the Eureka stockade and I made reference to how similar the electorate of Lalor now is with the representative diaspora from across the world just like Ballarat was then. These are things that celebrate in our homes and in the classrooms across this country, and I feel this piece of legislation is a direct threat to the pride we have in who we are and to the pride we have in who we're still to become.
We have had controversy over the citizenship of members of parliament and, you know, people in my electorate are confused. On the one hand, our parliamentarians know that we are all Australian citizens and proud to be Australian and that we've rejected citizenship in other countries. On the other hand this week, our parliamentarians are asking people who want to become Australian citizens to wait longer and to have a mastery of a language they don't see reflected in this chamber, day-to-day. It's an extraordinary thing that we are asking.
Like others, I want to speak about the citizenship ceremonies that I attend, because I have been struck. They are now almost supersede visits to schools in my electorate. Knowing my love of education and schools, that's saying something. What I see in those citizenship ceremonies are the tears, the smiles, the joy, the absolute commitment and shared joy in that moment when they become Australian citizens, when they finish that pledge and are told, 'You are now Australian citizens.' A cheer goes up around the room and it is an extraordinary moment.
When I go to those citizenship ceremonies, I speak about Australian values. I take our national anthem as something to share with that audience that day and I talk about the values that are reflected in our national anthem. I talk about the notion of Australian values that are embedded, particularly, in the second verse—let's face it, the first verse is a celebration of land and certainly doesn't talk about values, but the second verse speaks to values. It talks about 'toiling with hearts and hands'. I tell the brand-new citizens that day that. in Australia, we value hard work, we value diligence, and we value our heartfelt commitment to those things.
The second verse speaks of welcome, the universal value of hospitality. I know as a student of classics, how important hospitality was in ancient Greek culture. There's been a continuous importance around hospitality—the hearth, the fireside—welcoming a stranger. That's there in our second verse. It says:
We've boundless plains to share;
Many people have spoken about this and that speaks to our generosity and that that's an Australian value. Most importantly, it speaks to courage:
With courage let us all combine…
And that's an Australian value.
In those citizenship ceremonies, I speak about the courage that I know nothing of, personally. It is generations since my family, the individuals in my ancestry, left their homes to come to this country. I am not an Australian by choice. I was born here and I stand in that room with people from around the world who want to be Australian by choice and who have shown extraordinary courage in leaving their home to travel to another part of the world to set down roots and to determine to have children and create a future somewhere that they have often never been to—a stranger's land—and that is an Australian value. That courage is something we all value in Australia because we all have it in our history.
I tell people at citizenship ceremonies about one of my ancestors, who was a 16-year-old girl, who left Ireland to escape poverty. She got on a boat on her own and did that journey, got off in Geelong and found herself a job in domestic service. I think about the courage of that young girl and I am overwhelmed by those thoughts. Then I look at the people in the citizenship ceremony and I know that they are replicating that journey from a different place in a different time. But their courage is the same.
In the electorate of Lalor, we have many new citizens join us every month. Generally, across the month, we have four citizenship ceremonies—so around 1,000 new Australians a month in my electorate so it is reflective of an international diaspora. There're many conversations that I have had with people about citizenship. I am worried about this particular piece of legislation, particularly around the extension of time, because I know when I shake hands with every new citizen at a ceremony, I ask that question: how long have you been in Australia, and at what point did you make the choice to become an Australian citizen and put down roots here? I have never heard anyone say, 'Less than four years.' So it is my general observation that it takes four years to become an Australian citizen, because they say, 'Four years ago, I decided I wanted to become a citizen, and it has taken me four years to get to this day.' So I think that four years is a reasonable amount of time for people to become Australian citizens after seeking that. Many of them tell me about becoming permanent residents.
I've had many conversations with people in my electorate about the IELTS testing, which is already controversial on the ground. It is already controversial. The cost of the IELTS testing is generally around $330 per test, and many residents in my community have come to speak to me because they may have sat that test three, four or five times. Some are very concerned because they considered themselves proficient in English when they arrived. They applied to be international students, and they walked through the door having passed tests that said they were proficient in English to study in Australia. They sit that test and then, a couple of years later, they sit it again and find their English has gone backwards, and they are studying in our universities. So it is already controversial. There are already people in my community who are not trusting that testing system.
I want to speak directly about this English test because it's the other obstruction here that I find most concerning. I've taught English all of my adult life, until the last four years spent in this place. Many of those years I spent teaching teenagers who were children of new arrivals, refugee families, humanitarian intake families and some others who were here through other immigration processes. I have taught English as a second language to people from all around the world, so I understand the time it takes. I understand the very critical things about teaching English to people of other languages. One of the most important things that a lot of people do not understand is that it's not actually your skills in English that assist you to teach other people in a classroom; it's your understanding of their languages and their difference between their base language, or their first language, and the language that you are trying to teach. And of course we all know, or we all should know, in this place that English is one of the most difficult languages to learn, because of the complications around tense in particular that are not reflected in other languages.
Deputy Speaker, I want you to think—I want everyone in this chamber to think—about some of the kids that I have taught across the years, who came to Australia preliterate, with no written language at all. They had to learn what language is in the first instance. They had to come to grips with an alphabet that is supposedly phonetic but turns out not to be when they get involved in it. English has complex tense structures, complex grammatical structures and complex language that they need to pick up.
I might note too today that the most fun that can be had in an English-as-a-second-language classroom is teaching Australian colloquialisms. They're the things that most people want to learn first. That is because, as a nation, we are not hung up on the correctness of language. In Australia, we use language to communicate. We use language to comprehend, but we are not stuffed shirts about language in this country. Pedantry went out the window a long time ago in this country. We see language as living and changing, and our colloquialisms are reflective of that.
Introducing an IELTS 6 test seems extraordinarily harsh to me. It seems extraordinarily harsh to people who might come here with refugee humanitarian support, where they might get 14 weeks of language support to help them learn the language. I have spent time in my electorate in recent times in classrooms with settlement support and have watched people in their 30s and 40s who may or may not be literate in another language—people who speak three languages and are now about to learn to speak their fourth, read their fourth, write in their fourth and come to grips with a whole new alphabet. It's a difficult thing. Level 6—university language—is extreme.
This is absolute snobbery, and it is absolute snobbery because in this chamber, where we are sent to represent our communities, I see examples every day of people who would be in breach in an IELTS 6 test that is about correctness. It is absolutely about correctness—not about communication, not about comprehension, but about correctness.
In this chamber, we sometimes hear soaring rhetoric—soaring rhetoric. At other times, we hear absolutely butchered sentences—and I would be guilty, just like everyone else in this chamber, of both. On the notion that we are going to test people for the correctness of their language: I have heard many speakers, particularly on the other side, talk about the length of time we want people to be in the country before they become citizens, and they have listed other countries and how long those other countries ask people to wait. In other countries, nobody asks for level 6 in their language. The UK, Germany and a lot of the EU require level 4; Spain and the Netherlands require level 3. There are classes of visas in this country which do not require that—in fact, an executive is required to have level 5. Generally, level 4.5 is required for different visas in this country and now we are going to up it to level 6, a university level, and one that I think is a bridge too far for most.
I did a bit of research yesterday in my office. I went to the minister for immigration's Facebook page. I am rarely a pedant about language, but if the minister is going to set a standard for new Australians then the minister should certainly meet the standard himself. What I found was absolutely disappointing—absolutely disappointing! I found example after example where commas were missing, where capitalisation was misused and where phrases were butchered. I found sentences with six phrases and without a comma . My favourite sentence from a short study of the minister's Facebook page—and I will share this sentence—was the sentence written:
The Government passed our Gonski needs-based school funding plan this morning.
That sentence had no commas—no commas! That sentence also presumes the government passes legislation in this place, when we know the parliament passes legislation in this place. So I have rewritten the sentence for him. It should read: 'The parliament passed the government's Gonski, needs-based, school funding plan this morning.' In this place we shouldn't set a standard we cannot meet ourselves. And before everyone goes rushing to my Facebook page, yes, you will find errors, as you will find on all of the written material produced by people in this place—as we hear every day when we are on our feet. Let's not set a standard that we ourselves cannot seek to meet. Thank you.
I would like to thank the member for Lalor for that informative speech—especially her last point that here we have a minister setting a particular standard, and a standard that he would not pass himself with that small example that we saw from his Facebook page. And this is the measure that the government is wanting to put through this parliament with this Australian Citizenship Legislation amendment (Strengthening the Requirements for Australian Citizenship and Other Measures) Bill 2017.
Mr Deputy Speaker Vasta, I take it that you have realised by now that we are opposing this bill on this side of the House, and we are opposing it because it goes to the heart of what Australia has been and is today and what it has been for many years. If you look at our nation's history right through to where we are, we see a nation that has been cohesive; a nation made up of people from every corner of the world. It is a nation that has accepted migrants from not-so-lucky countries: migrants from nations devastated by wars and civil wars, and from places that have gone through hunger, devastation and earthquakes—you name it. We have encompassed all these people, including my own family.
What we have had going for us in this nation is our multiculturalism. We don't have those ancient tribal hatreds. We may divide on politics, but at the end of the day the political parties in Australia have a very similar goal—and that goal is for a better Australia. We may have different ways of getting to it, but we don't divide on race, politics, religion et cetera, and that has always been the way. We have had waves of people who have come to this nation, and we have opened our arms and encouraged them to become citizens. By encouraging someone to be part of a family, you make them feel welcomed, they feel part of your family and there is comfort in that for those people. But at the moment we've started changing rules and regulations and changing the goal posts on people who wish to become Australian citizens. Let me just say that the majority of migrants that come to this place, as we heard from the member for Lalor just before, want to become citizens as quickly as possible because we have set a standard over the years. That standard has been that we welcome them.
I think this bill is another diversion tactic from the government, looking at how we can divert from the real issues that affect us. I have said that many times. We have a government that is failing on jobs, a government where the economy is going backwards, a government that has done basically nothing on renewables, a government that is watering down our education system and a government that is making pensioners wait longer for their pension and is cutting their pension. This is another example of diversion. They say, 'Let's throw something in there that infuriates people and divides people,' and here we are.
Our processes for immigration and settlement have been recognised around the world. We are used as a example. We look at Europe and other places where perhaps their immigration policies have not gone as well as ours. I've had many discussions with people all around the world on this topic. One of the things they praise us for is our multicultural society and our cohesive society. Other nations recognise this. I think our multicultural society is recognised because it respects and celebrates diversity, and it's the absolutely envy of other nations. Yet this government believes the system must be reformed. You have to ask yourself why. One of the reasons for our success in Australia is that we have opened our arms to people and made them feel welcome, and we do that by giving them every opportunity and encouraging them to become citizens, not by putting laws in that make it harder for them.
By the time that people put the process in place, they are already permanent residents. You have to be a permanent resident to get your citizenship. So any checks and balances should have been done way before a particular person or resident wants to become a citizen. If that is the case—that's one of the reasons for this, as we've heard from the minister—then they are failing on their border security and their checks and balances. We know that in the history of Australia we had the Menzies government—a true Liberal government—that made laws to make it easier to obtain citizenship. Menzies did this because he had a vision for Australia. He did this because he knew that with the waves of migrants that were coming, the quicker we embraced them, the quicker we made them feel part of the family, the more cohesive a country we'd have in the future. He was right, and we did create the cohesive country that we are very lucky to live in today. Let's not forget that if migrants became Australian citizens under the current law and shouldn't have, it means that perhaps the law is flawed—that is, if we are hearing what the government is saying; that we need more checks and balances and we have to make it tougher and harder. We have had a cohesive society, so it's not flawed.
We know that people learnt English when they came here. Many, like my parents, couldn't speak any English at all when they came here. My father still has difficulty. Sometimes I question him and say, 'Dad, why didn't you learn really good English?' On the other hand, my mother could speak fairly good English. He says: 'Where would I learn it? On the production line, where the people next to me were Italian, Polish and Greek? We worked like robots. There was a half-hour break for lunch, and then we'd go home dead tired at night.' I feel embarrassed even having asked that question of him over the years. But my family, like many other families, came here with very little English and very little skill. They worked in the lowest-paid jobs and made a life for themselves because Australia opened its arms to them.
We have heard from many other speakers about the citizenship ceremonies and the joy that people have. Some of the events I enjoy more than anything else is the citizenship ceremonies. I reflect on them and think of my own family and my own story. You see people who are just so happy that they have become citizens. I am sure, Mr Deputy Speaker, that you see the same in your electorate. There are people who have had difficult journeys to come here. There are people, as I said earlier, who have been in refugee camps. Others have come here by choice on business visas. Others have a uniting family visa. But all of them have one common factor: they are so happy and so pleased when they receive their citizenship certificate. Shaking those hands and looking at the joy in their faces just proves to me that we are, or have been, a society that welcomes people, and that is the best way to have a cohesive society.
All these people, people that came from all over the world—from Europe, from Africa or from Asia, including Vietnam and China—have enriched our country. They have all contributed and made this nation great and the nation that it is. They have all raised families, who all have had the amazing wealth of being able to move between two or more cultures or languages, which is something fascinating that we don't see in other countries. We have such a rich tapestry and people that contribute to our nation, and this works because Australia managed to create an environment that was welcoming to immigrants. The language we used was inclusive. The language that politicians used was inclusive. This is all part of welcoming people, making people feel comfortable in our nation and making them feel as if they are Australians as well, and that is the end goal.
I know that we've enjoyed this peaceful diversity for many decades, but let's not take this for granted, because if we start changing the language that we use in government as politicians, if we start tinkering or if we start to accept the type of divisive language that we've seen from different politicians, we start to slowly chip away at the kind of society that many generations before us have fought so hard for. This government would have people believe that this government is designed to strengthen citizenship. That is absolute nonsense. Nothing could be further from the truth. I'd like to know how it strengthens citizenship when we make it harder for someone to become a citizen. When you tell someone, 'No, we don't want you; we don't think you are ready; we don't think you're quite right yet,' I think that is more divisive than anything. It doesn't strengthen citizenship when it creates a society that divides people into us and them. This creates division and, as I said, it chips away at our harmonisation and the wonderful things we've had. It doesn't make sense.
We can only assume that it's once again an attempt by this government to pander to those on the extreme right, to those conservative elements in the government and on the crossbenches, who have a very particular idea of what it means to be Australian. This, again, only divides people. You have to wonder why a bill like this is before the House when it does absolutely nothing to strengthen citizenship. I go back to what I opened my speech with, and that is that this is again another diversion policy to take away from the things that we should be debating in this place, like education, health, and jobs. On this side, as we've heard, we won't stand for it and we're not accepting it, and we will be voting this bill down.
This legislation also aims to increase, as I said, the residency requirements to be eligible for Australian citizenship from 12 months permanent residency and a total of four years living in Australia on some kind of visa, to a minimum of four years permanent residency. We're just extending the time. Checks and balances are done before people get here, while they are applying for visas. They're not done at this point, so this does absolutely nothing.
Then we have the issue of the language requirements. I gave you a small example about my family. There are millions of people who, for whatever reason, didn't learn English because of the circumstances they were in—factory workers, people who clean buildings and mums that stayed at home. Of course it's good to be competent in English and able to speak and read and write, but currently the only English test required for citizenship is the test itself in English. But again we see this government wanting to go from the current system to one that requires English at the IELTS level 6, which is university level. It's extraordinarily harsh, especially for refugees, people in their 30s and 40s and people—women, for example—who are much older and stay at home and don't converse as much as their partners who are at work.
Our governor in South Australia, Hieu Van Le, came to Australia from Vietnam on a boat. When he first landed here, his English was extremely minimal—and today he's the governor of South Australia. Under this bill, we would be excluding people of the calibre of Hieu Van Le from becoming citizens—and that's why we oppose it. Good people who would make great citizens would have to wait longer. That is divisive. It tells people, 'We don't actually want you right now; we're going to make you jump through a million hoops.'
Surely if the government expects a level of proficiency it also needs to provide adequate English lessons. But we have yet to see adequate English lessons and training for migrants. If you are genuine, increase classes. If you are genuine, fund English classes appropriately so people can actually learn English. But we have seen nothing on this side of it. Otherwise, this just becomes an exercise about stopping people from becoming citizens.
According to experts, language testing does not reflect the ability of applicants to communicate under all circumstances in which they would be actively engaged in Australian society and the economy. If you look back at the millions of migrants who have come to this country, the majority would have been excluded from citizenship under this particular test that this government is providing. Unfortunately, many people would not pass this test who would make great contributions to this nation, as we have seen many migrants do.
Instead of creating different classes of migrants, as has been the aim of this government, the government should find ways of strengthening our social cohesion, strengthening the things that we do well. And one of those things is multiculturalism; it will ultimately make Australia a better country, a safer country and a stronger country. Migrants have helped this country build it the way it is. They and their children and grandchildren have become integral parts of our society's fabric. This government should be ashamed of itself for undermining the very thing that makes Australia so special and unique—the pride that we have in our multiculturalism and diversity.
I join with my colleagues on this side of the House in expressing outrage at this bill. But it is not surprising. I am not surprised at all that the government has submitted this bill, because of the attitude it displays to anyone other than what it believes an Australian should be, should aspire to and, in many ways, should look like. I think it is one of the biggest dog whistles I have seen in the 12 months that I have been a member of this House. There is no other way to describe it. The stupidity, the dishonesty and the cowardliness of this bill are writ large. I'm going to address those particular points as I move through my contribution to this debate.
The first issue is dishonesty. Let us be clear how this bill came about. This bill has been presented to us and to the Australian public as being about keeping our borders safe, about protecting Australia and about the national interest in terms of security. That is patently untrue. This bill was not requested by any of our security agencies. It came out of a report that was put together by two people—Senator Fierravanti-Wells, and, I understand, Philip Ruddock. How can this be portrayed as being in the national security interest when it was not a request or a recommendation from any of our security agencies and has not been suggested by any of our security agencies? So let's get rid of that bit of dishonesty immediately.
Why is this bill stupid?
It is stupid because we know—as all of the speakers on this side of the House have articulated in their contributions—that, for anyone to become a citizen, they have to be a permanent resident first. I know that that has been said on a number of occasions, but it cannot be said enough. And to become a permanent resident takes some doing: it takes some time, and it also requires an enormous amount of vetting before somebody becomes a permanent resident. Yet now the minister is saying that, for citizenship: 'We're going to really test people; we're going to expect ridiculous levels of English language competency, and we're going to test for Australian values in someone who has already been a permanent resident for some time and has also jumped through many hoops to be on any class of visa in Australia.' So let's just get rid of that bit of dishonesty and stupidity immediately.
Why is it cowardly? It is cowardly because it wants to put in place, as has been well articulated, the notion of signing up to a whole set of Australian values. Who has designed that? Who makes decisions on what Australian values are? The other evening, in the Labor caucus room—and I am very, very pleased to be able to say this—there was a fabulous event put on by some of our colleagues called the Bankstown Poetry Slam. It was one of the most uplifting, inspiring events I have been to. There were young people from Bankstown, from very many different cultural backgrounds, speaking in poetry, all of it written by them, about what it means to them to be in Australia—what it means for them and their family to have Australian citizenship. There was one young Muslim woman who spoke about being cedar—as in the tree—in amongst eucalyptus. That was just one of the most beautiful images. She spoke strongly of her love for this country. There was another young Muslim woman who said, 'I am Australia,' and then spoke about how she is Australia. They love this country. As we, on this side of the House, respect: you don't forget who you are, you don't forget where you come from, you hold on to memory and you hold on to language. But that does not mean that Australia is not the home and not the allegiance of the people that this bill is aimed against. So that is cowardly—to hide behind an English language test that's unreasonable and to hide behind a set of values that someone has decided on without actually looking at the reality of this country.
Why is it—and I did not say this—politically stupid? It is stupid—and many of the people on the other side of the House in the coalition know it is stupid and unnecessary, and politically stupid—because many of you represent, as many of us on this side of the House represent, communities that are incredibly diverse. And isn't that what we want this parliament to be? Isn't that what should be reflected from this parliament? This parliament should embrace diversity. It should understand that the reality of this country is diversity, the strength of this country is diversity, and the make-up and the beauty and the vibrancy of this country is diversity. And yet those in the coalition have brought into this place a piece of legislation that goes against everything that this nation has built and everything that this nation stands for. And that is politically stupid. I hope that when it comes to the time of casting a ballot that people will remember who it was and which party decided that Australia was going to go back to a very long time ago—an ugly time in this country.
Prior to becoming the member for Barton, I was the member for Canterbury, and Canterbury's city logo is 'City of Diversity'. The same could be said for Barton, and the same could be said for many of our electorates. For example, in the seat of Barton—and I had a really close look at this—of the 234,000 Chinese people from mainland China that live in Australia, 20,000 of those people live in the electorate of Barton. The second-largest and fastest-growing group of people in Barton are the people from Nepal. We have over 6,000 people from Nepal; over 5,000 people from Greece; and nearly 4,000 people from Lebanon, and people from Macedonia, the Philippines, Vietnam, India, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Korea, Italy and the list goes on—Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
They are the people who believe in democracy. They are the people who have taken the enormous step, the hardest step, of leaving their country, their loved ones and everything that they know to come to a place for a better opportunity. And you will not speak to any migrant or to anyone that has chosen Australia as their home who does not say, 'I came here because I wanted to give my family and my children a better opportunity.' Without exception, that's what people will say to you. And yet we are debating a bill in this House that is so odious and that is so insulting to those people, who are Australians. They are Australians; they love this country and they pledge allegiance to this country in every way possible.
Who do those opposite think that the small businesses in many of our electorates are owned by, and who works in them seven days a week? Who do they think many of the children are in our schools? Who do they think their parents are? They are people who have chosen—in some cases, many had no choice—to leave the places that they loved for safety and security. So, if it is passed, this bill has the potential to create a subgroup of people—of stateless people—in this country that does not exist now.
Fair go; egalitarianism; helping your mate: these are the things that we hear all the time and that are supposed to represent this country. This bill represents none of that—none! It goes against everything that we supposedly stand for as a nation—everything! And that is why it is, as I said, duplicitous, why it is stupid, why it is dishonest and why it is cowardly.
I will finish on a couple of points, just to wrap up what I've got to say. To me, it seems that political bravery would be for those on the other side to say, 'We know and we agree with what Labor people are saying, but we can't stand up for it within our party.' In politics you've got to know what your Rubicon is, and it seems to me that this should be one of such moments—one of such momentous moments, I have to say.
Citizenship of Australia is the goal for so many. We have all been, on both sides of this place, to citizenship ceremonies. There is nothing more uplifting and there is nothing that will put more of a lump in your throat than when you see families bringing their children with pride, holding the little ones' hands, to become Australian citizens. Their faces tell the story of their pride and of their commitment to this country. I know many people have read out the pledge that is made at those citizenship ceremonies. The pledge is taken so seriously by the people.
From this time forward I pledge my loyalty to Australia and its people, whose democratic beliefs I share, whose rights and liberties I respect, and whose laws I will uphold and obey.
From this time forward, under God, I pledge my loyalty to Australia and its people, whose democratic beliefs I share, whose rights and liberties I respect, and whose laws I will uphold and obey.
People do not say those words and cross their fingers behind their backs. People say those words with pride and joy—and often tears on their faces because of that pride and joy.
How dare the government stomp on that? How dare the government think they have the right to determine who should be an Australian, what that value is, and, most importantly, the nature of our society? This country is an amazing place. Its history, like all countries, is not always shining. But when you put it together and when you walk down the streets of Hurstville or when you walk down the streets of any place in this nation, you will see that we are a nation that has been built on the incredible foundations of first peoples. And then layer, by layer, by layer migration over the last 230 years has melded us into a place that could be destroyed and undermined by this stupid, odious, dishonest and cowardly bill.
I'm opposed to this bill. It's a lousy and disrespectful piece of legislation from a desperate government. Really, that's what's behind this; the government are desperate. They are falling in the polls and they are desperate to lurch further to the right to try and garner Australian people's attention.
There's no doubt that Australia and many nations in our region are facing challenging times. An increase in terror related activities and the constant threat of domestic attacks are present in many countries in the world, and have thrust the issue of national security into the spotlight. But I want to make it absolutely clear from the outset that Labor is committed to keeping Australia and Australians safe. We have always worked properly and promptly to act on the advice from security agencies and in the national interest, but we also believe in fostering a unified community built on mutual respect.
The bill before us today is deeply concerning. It's concerning because of the clear message that it conveys: not a message of unity and strength but a message of fear and indifference. It's important to note that this bill did not come about as a result of a recommendation from a review or a recommendation from our security agencies. That is very, very important to point out, and has been made clear by the Labor's spokesperson on this issue, Tony Burke. It was not based on the advice of the Australian Federal Police or the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation or any other external or independent review of our citizenship laws and the powers and the means for our security and policing agencies to tackle crime and terrorism. This bill is merely a response to a report by two members of the Liberal Party, one of whom has left the parliament.
Of course Australians should all sign up to our laws and values. Existing legislation allows the government to put forward any questions about Australia, which includes any aspect of Australia and life in Australia, including about our values. Indeed, there is a values test that already occurs for people who seek to become Australian citizens.
The ability to speak the language of our country is, of course, a significant benefit to assist in social and professional situations, and at least a little English does help serve to reduce the level of isolation felt by a person who perhaps did not grow up here and learn English as their first language. Given the many personal benefits of speaking the language, the government should be more committed to assisting immigrants to attain English language levels that allow them to communicate with others and bridge those gaps to take full advantage of the opportunities available to members of the Australian community. However, being forced to obtain a university level of English is a whole other story, and that is exactly what this bill does. It will force people to learn and to undertake a university level of English. The bill requires those seeking Australian citizenship to attain a higher level of English proficiency before they are eligible to apply for citizenship.
As a student of a second language, I know how difficult it can be to learn a new language, particularly as an adult and with many other responsibilities competing for time and resources. It can be an incredibly challenging task to even be able to hold a very simple conversation in another language, let alone reach a level of skill and nuance associated with a university level of language. The test that's proposed here is an increase in the English language proficiency test—the IELTS test in Australia—from level 4 or level 5, which is proficient, to level 6, which is competent. The process here will ensure that many will miss out on the opportunity to apply for Australian citizenship. There are people who have been living in this country for many years as productive members of our society who just cannot attain that additional level and are therefore lost to us as potential citizens of this country.
New migrants to the country do receive some assistance in ensuring that they can improve their English literacy and proficiency, and that is through the Adult Migrant English Program. But the way it is at the moment—the way that program is structured and the support that people get as new migrants to learn English—it will go nowhere near delivering a level 6 competency in IELTS. That is the problem with what the government is proposing here. They're not going to provide the assistance that is necessary for people to reach the level they are proposing in this bill and therefore apply for Australian citizenship. Now, 510 hours is the amount that a new migrant gets in terms of English instruction through the Adult Migrant English Program when they come here. Anyone that is involved in languages and the teaching of languages would tell you that you need at least 800 hours to become proficient in a European-based language such as English, French or Italian. A minimum of 800 hours. So, what the government is offering here is completely inadequate. When you talk about pictographic-style languages, such as Chinese, Japanese or Korean, it is around 2,200 classroom hours before you can even begin to become competent in that language, and a minimum of two years living in the country to be considered for fluency. That clearly demonstrates the challenges that people face in learning a new language, and it becomes even harder the older you get, so we are discriminating against older people here. Unfortunately, the effect of this may be to discriminate against women. It is unfortunate that many women do not reach the same level of proficiency as their husband, as they have in the past, because, unfortunately, they are predominantly the ones that are involved in household duties and raising the children, and do not have the opportunity to undertake the necessary training. So, unfortunately, for many people this requirement will simply be well out of reach.
Our concern is that it sends a terribly negative message to those people who live here for an extended period of time but, for one reason or another, do not reach a university level of English. It would be understandable for these people to feel disenfranchised and disconnected from the broader Australian community as a result of the government telling them that they are not good enough to become an Australian citizen. These people will never be able to pledge their allegiance to Australia; instead, they will exist as an underclass, forever reminded of their low status, as a result of their inability to achieve that university level of English.
I want to raise here an example from within my own family. My wife's family are Italian, and I think about, 'What if this rule had been applied in the past?' Think about the postwar migrants that came to Australia. Think of the talent and the dedicated Australians that would have been lost to this country, potentially, if this rule had been in place in the postwar migration periods. People would have missed out on the opportunity of becoming Australian citizens. My wife's family migrated, predominantly from Italy, in the postwar period after World War I. My wife's nonna came in 1921, the Natoli family, and my wife's nonno came in 1916, the Casamento family from the Aeolian Islands. When they came here, they hardly spoke a word of English. But they got to work. They started learning the language, predominantly through working and interacting with Australians. And they ran a fruit shop, on the corner opposite St Vincent's Hospital in Darlinghurst. Because they were running that fruit shop opposite St Vincent's in Darlinghurst, one of their kids became interested in the medical profession, went on to study medicine at the University of Sydney and became a very well-respected general practitioner in the Coogee area—and a bit of a local legend, if I may say, to plenty of people in our community—and was the team doctor for Randwick Rugby club for 30 years and did that on a voluntary basis. That's my father-in-law, Joe Casamento—the son of these migrants who came to Australia with very little English and who has made an enormous contribution to the community that I live in. He's got brothers and sisters who've become professionals as well. In fact, from the three migrants that came in the early 1920s, there are now over 100 descendants in that family who have made an outstanding contribution to Australian society but who might have been lost to this country had these laws been in place when those people migrated to Australia in the postwar period. This bill also increases the general residence requirements to require citizenship by conferral, and a person will have to have been a permanent resident for a minimum of four years.
The government claims this bill is also about bolstering national security. That's the rhetoric. But I fail to see how telling someone who wants to become an Australian citizen that they have to wait longer and take an additional step to pledge their allegiance to this new country is going to actually bolster national security. It may have a detrimental effect on a person's psychology, increasing their feelings of isolation and denying them a sense of belonging in our society. It is important to remember that those who apply for citizenship are already permanent residents and undergo rigorous character and security checks before they come here. If they are a security risk—as the government has said they are trying to weed out with this legislation—then they shouldn't be living here, because they shouldn't have been given a visa in the first place. There are plenty of preliminary steps in gaining a visa that ensure that we weed those people out from getting visas to live, on a temporary or permanent basis, in Australia. If there are problems with this process, then the government should be up-front with the Australian public and focus on preventing people who may become or may be a security risk from coming here in the first place.
As I said, Labor is absolutely committed to working with the government to keep Australians safe from serious criminal offences and violent criminals. Such individuals, we believe, should not become Australian citizens and should not be living here. If that's the issue, then we're happy to work with the government. But that's not what this bill is about. This bill is about making people who've lived here and who have passed all of those security checks further isolated and making it harder for them to become Australian citizens.
We note that the bill does contain additional measures, such as an ability for the minister to set aside decisions of the AAT concerning character and identity, where it would be in the public interest to do so. And, although that will be subject to judicial review, it may undermine the role of the AAT as an independent body.
In conclusion, I and my Labor colleagues are opposed to this bill. There is no justification for it. The rhetoric does not meet the reality. All it is going to do is to isolate a very dedicated and passionate group of Australian people who seek to become Australian citizens, by making it simply too hard for them to become citizens of our great nation.