Wednesday, 9 August 2017
Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Requirements for Australian Citizenship and Other Measures) Bill 2017; Second Reading
That has to be one of the most strange, weird and odd speeches I have heard in nearly 10 years in this place!
I will say from the outset that we won't support the Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Requirements for Australian Citizenship and Other Measures) Bill 2017. We referred it to a Senate committee for inquiry, which will report in September. If you were listening, the Turnbull government would have you believe that they are strengthening Australian values. They are actually undermining them and preventing individuals and families who wish to pledge allegiance to this country from becoming Australian citizens.
The government has failed to provide any coherent or cogent case as to why the proposed amendments are necessary. They have attempted to silence those individuals, organisations, peak bodies, businesses and even foreign embassies who made submissions in relation to the discussion paper on Australian citizenship. They refused to release or to make public those submissions. The only conclusion is that they do not want the public to know what was being submitted. We know that the Refugee Council of Australia has said in relation to this particular matter:
The inclusive nature of Australian citizenship is a crucial element in the success of our multicultural society.
Like many other Australians, I have been deeply concerned by the chorus of voices on the other side who have lined up to offer their answers to the question: what makes a good Australian? This is as if somehow they are some authority on the topic—as if, somehow, on that side of the chamber they are patriots and on this side of the chamber we are not. That is just nonsense, the stuff we heard from the member for Fairfax.
By this bill, the government wants to make people wait even longer before they are eligible to apply for citizenship. The Turnbull government has already become known to go slow with respect to processing of visa and citizenship applications. They have ripped away resources and savaged staff from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection—frontline staff. We know that from the budget papers of the last couple of years. Now those time frames are only going to grow longer because of this particular bill.
People who migrate to Australia, regardless of where they come from, have already been permanent residents for 12 months before they become Australian citizens. Further, they have to live for a total of four years in Australia on some form of visa before even being able to apply for citizenship. This means that they have already been living here for four years—often already speaking English in the case of people who have come here, or learning English. We provide English language training of up to 510 hours and are increasing that to a thousand hours, often in community hubs or in circumstances being provided by those authorities who provide English language training. But that's simply not sufficient for this government. Instead, they have brought forward legislation which says that anyone who wishes to become an Australian citizen needs to demonstrate a minimum period of four years permanent residence immediately before making an application.
Now, they're seeking to do this by amendments to the Migration Act and the Citizenship Act. The government has failed to explain why it believes delaying someone's pledge of allegiance to Australia any further could be considered to strengthen our citizenship laws. People who wish to declare their affinity with and love for this country will be forced to wait even longer before they can do so. It's really a slap in the face to our history as a migrant nation and to those migrants who built their lives here, received Australian citizenship and enriched our communities. It's not beneficial to impose further hurdles, which will further isolate migrant communities and refugees in this country.
In a submission to the Senate inquiry, the Federation of Ethnic Communities Council of Australia, FECCA, stated:
Permanent residents should be encouraged to seek citizenship as soon as practically possible to foster a sense of inclusion and belonging and to encourage integration.
FECCA continued by saying that 'anything which delays or deters should be resisted'. Labor has adopted that principle.
Concern has also been expressed by the Forum of Australian Services for Survivors of Torture and Trauma for those on safe haven enterprise visas—SHEVs. Under the government's proposed amendments, those in Australia on SHEVs would have to be in Australia for a period of five years and permanent residents for a minimum period of four years, a total of nine years before even being eligible for citizenship.
The Turnbull government has brought forward this legislation, which will impede those people who wish to have a sense of belonging and who wish to be connected to this country. Of course, it goes without saying that all Australians, whether they were born here in this country or migrated here, should abide by Australian laws. Labor believes that; I dare say that there would not be a person in this chamber who doesn't believe that. The Australian Citizenship Act 2007 already allows the government to put forward any citizenship questions about Australia, including what Australian values are, under section 23A, which states:
The Minister must, by written determination, approve a test for the purposes of subsection 21(2A) (about general eligibility for citizenship).
Amendments such as in paragraph 21(2)(f), that insert references to Australian values, have been inserted by the Turnbull government as a distraction from other unfair and poorly considered measures in the bill, of which there are so many. It should be noted that the current citizenship test is already in English and that these proposed changes by the government are an additional test being added to the list of desired requirements. We believe on this side of the chamber that being an Australian citizen should be about your values and commitment to this country and not whether a person can speak a university level of English, and that's exactly what the government proposes.
New paragraph 21(9)(a) empowers the immigration minister to determine the circumstances in which a person has competent English. It says of the English requirement that examination is administered by a particular entity and the person achieves a particular score. First the government wants to make migrants and refugees wait longer to become Australian citizens, and then they are saying that you have to achieve a university level of English to become an Australian citizen. The Forum of Australian Services for Survivors of Torture and Trauma stated in their submission to the Senate inquiry:
The Government’s proposed changes to the assessment of English proficiency has not been accompanied by a commitment to provide resources to assist people to prepare for the new test.
Labor believes in helping migrants to obtain English language skills, because having conversational English allows those people who come to Australia to benefit themselves and other members of the Australian community to get jobs and integrate into society. There is no denying it helps families participate in their communities, reduces potential vulnerabilities and allows people become part of Australian life.
I have met refugees and I have had the privilege of sitting in on English language classes—support they are offered when they first come to Australia. Many of those support services were introduced by the previous Labor government. In those classes I learnt that success is not about teaching grammar proficiency. Real success is about feeling included; it is about the self-worth of what it means to be a student. For some individuals, this was the first time in their lives they had that experience. There is also the challenge of learning something new. I heard from mothers who took pride in being able to help their children with schoolwork, and fill in forms their kids brought home from school. And fathers who had pride in securing their first job in Australia. These tasks did not require a university level of English; it needed guts, determination and the help of a supportive teacher. It is those attributes we should be fostering, not a public debate about the use of a semicolon brought on by the Prime Minister.
As shadow minister for immigration and border protection, I have been fortunate to meet many families and individuals who have moved to Australia and who now call this country home. Many permanent residents dream and aspire to become Australian citizens so they can fully pledge their commitment to this wonderful country of ours and its shared values. It would be a disgrace if the actions of the Turnbull government prevented people who have worked so hard to make this country their home from becoming Australian citizens just because they do not have university-level English.
The government has attempted to deny the requirements are university-level English. Dr David Ingram, of Griffith University, was one of the original developers of the IELTS test in June 2015. He said that this test was 'specifically designed to assess the English proficiency of international students seeking enrolment in English speaking universities'. Although Australia is a nation built on migration, the Prime Minister and the immigration minister want to impose on new migrants an English language requirement that many of those born in this country would not have been able to pass themselves. I wonder how many members of the Liberal and National Party caucus rooms—because the previous speaker, the member for Fairfax, was talking about caucus rooms and caucuses—could pass the government's proposed English language test. Has the immigration minister trialled the test in his own caucus? I note that the immigration minister issued a press release on 20 July using the word 'baldly' in a sentence, rather than 'boldly', which I assume was the correct word he intended to use. The immigration minister also incorrectly used the word 'mislead' instead of 'misled' in the same release. How would the Deputy Prime Minister, for example, fare in this English language test, if you heard him at question time? A university-level English requirement is an absurd proposition by the Turnbull government. It just shows that, if they'd had their way, those who wouldn't satisfy this requirement wouldn't be in this country.
We're acutely aware of the repercussions of tying a particular high level of English language requirement to our citizenship process. If this bill is successful, it will set a course for a new group of permanent residents to be established who will never be eligible to become Australian citizens. They are permanent residents who work hard to make a life for themselves, permanent residents who enrich our communities and contribute to our society, permanent residents who are our friends, our colleagues and our neighbours, all of whom we can chat with and share stories with.
But, under this government, making permanent residents wait longer isn't enough. The government wants to force a situation in which these migrants will never be invited to become Australian citizens and will never be invited to pledge allegiance to Australia. This isn't an exaggeration. The Refugee Council of Australia agrees with this sentiment. It said:
For many, achieving an academic level of English is impossible, effectively denying them citizenship no matter how much they contribute to Australian life or however long they live here.
The government thinks conversational English isn't enough for those who wish to become Australian citizens. It thinks university-level English is sufficient to become an Australian citizen.
FECCA stressed their concern in regard to this bill, saying:
FECCA believes that this Bill will create a permanent underclass of Australian residents …
How is creating a permanent underclass good for this country? How is it good for Australian society to fail to recognise the past contribution of migrants and refugees when assessing their future as citizens of this country? This government, in my view, under this bill, is attempting to divide this country. It's sad. The Prime Minister himself has said of his government's English language requirements, 'We're doing people a favour by making it a requirement.' I will be the first to say to the Prime Minister that I don't want him to be doing this favour for me or for anyone else that I know.
Today we are faced with a choice about what type of nation we choose to be, and that's why Labor's opposing this bill. The government claims it's about national security. If you heard the previous speaker, he alluded to it. We're committed to keeping Australia safe and keeping all Australians safe as well. We've consistently demonstrated a bipartisan approach with respect to national security. We recognise that the national security legislation comes on the advice of national security agencies. They're our experts entrusted with the task of keeping Australians safe, regardless of the government of the day. It's because national security is bigger than politics and because the national security agencies are the best in the world that Labor listens to what they have to say.
But this legislation before the chamber did not come as a result of the advice of national security agencies. It came because of the advice of a current Liberal senator and a former Liberal member of the House of Representatives. It's a blatant example of this government prioritising politics over the national security of Australia and its people. The Prime Minister, in his desperate attempt to keep his position, is allowing this power grab by the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection while attempting to placate the far right of his party.
We've seen no cogent or consistent evidence for this legislation. We've received no briefings from national security agencies as to why this is necessary, nor have there been any public statements in relation to it. Labor has not seen anything in any way offered by the government about how this would substantially benefit national security concerns. This is about fearmongering, sadly. We are concerned about where the government's going in relation to this issue. We think the government has simply got it wrong.
But there are issues being raised about the increasing power of the immigration minister, and we've raised those issues in the past. I quote the President of the Law Council of Australia, Fiona McLeod SC, who says:
This new legislation effectively allows the minister to override citizenship decisions or to render his own decisions unreviewable.
It's for these reasons that Labor has established the Senate inquiry. It is because Labor's about keeping Australians safe and about a cohesive, consistent and multicultural community. We won't stand by while the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection seizes power in a quest to be judge, jury and anything else in relation to these issues. So we await the outcome of the Senate inquiry; we oppose this legislation; and we call on the government to rethink this bill.