House debates

Monday, 14 August 2017


Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Requirements for Australian Citizenship and Other Measures) Bill 2017; Second Reading

4:13 pm

Photo of Clare O'NeilClare O'Neil (Hotham, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I appreciate the opportunity to continue my contribution on the Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Requirements for Australian Citizenship and Other Measures) Bill 2017. As I noted in my previous comments, I make that contribution as a representative of one of the most multicultural communities in the whole country and I am so incredibly proud to represent people who have come to Australia, whether they arrived six months ago or five generations ago. This bill has incredible relevance and incredible importance to those people, so I'm very pleased to make the contribution that I do today.

One of the crucial points that I want the chamber to understand about the impact of the bill before us is the contribution that is made by the different communities around my electorate, and the thing that rings in my ears whenever I consider this bill being debated today is the fact that if this had been law decades ago then so many thousands of the people that I represent in my community would never have had the opportunity to become Australians. I think that is incredibly sad, because these are people that contribute every day in different ways around my electorate. Never mind the fact that we know that migrants contribute $40 billion in taxes to this country every year. Never mind the fact that migrants are going to contribute $1.5 trillion to our economy by 2050. It's not just these financial contributions but so much more that I believe is being devalued by the legislation that's before us.

It was a great honour for me, the member for Isaacs and the member for Bruce to run a community forum to talk to people, to consult with our communities—as the government evidently decided not to do—about how to put together a bill like this. I can tell you, Mr Deputy Speaker, that we had about 400 people gather in the Springvale City Hall, which is right in the heart of my electorate of Hotham. When I explained the English language test—which I will get to in a few moments—to the 400 people present in the audience, they literally gasped. This was because it was immediately obvious to them that this legislation was going to have a profound impact on my current community and, indeed, on the future shape of that community. I'm very privileged, as I note is the other member who joins us at the table, to represent communities which are undergoing constant change, because the areas that we represent are a magnet for migrants—and we are very proud of that. We want that to continue, because we know that in the years which follow the incredible experience of people getting Australian citizenship, those people will make contributions. They will work hard to educate their children, and then those children will make contributions. That is the migrant story which this amazing country is built on.

I have brought into the chamber an enormous pile of paper. This pile of paper is just a snapshot of some of the petitions that were signed at this community forum. Hundreds of people stood with one voice and said: 'We do not want to see this type of change come into this country. We do not want to live in a country which has a law that effectively says that, if you cannot speak university-level English, you have nothing to contribute. That is not the country we live in.' I do wonder whether the government think they are being politically clever by putting this legislation forward, because that's not what the reaction is going to be in my community. People understand that there is a lot more content and a lot more value in Australian citizenship than simply your English skills.

I want to talk about the two aspects of the bill before us that Labor is most concerned about. The first is the English language test that I've just referred to. I want to make one thing perfectly clear for anyone who is listening to the discussion today: you need to be able to speak a level of English to become an Australian citizen today. That is current law and that is because, Deputy Speaker Coulton, as you well know, the citizenship test itself is conducted in English. You have to be able to speak English to successfully get through this test, but that is not good enough for this government. What the bill before us is seeking to do is make a change to the law so that every person, in order to obtain Australian citizenship, has to meet level 6 of the IELTS test, and that is the level of English which is required for entrance into university courses in this country. In fact, some university courses allow a lower level of English than level 6. This is an absolutely extraordinary act of snobbery, and it has nothing to do with the contribution that I can see thousands of my constituents making all over the community that I represent.

I looked into what it specifically means to speak English at level 6 in the IELTS test, and I want to read a couple of sentences from it that are basically the standard you need to meet. The test reads:

With the Cooperative Research Centre for Micro Technology in Melbourne, they are developing unobtrusive sensors that will be embedded in an athlete's clothes …

Then there are a few other clauses, which I won't read out. It goes on to read:

After years of experimentation, AIS and the University of Newcastle in New South Wales developed a test that measures how much of the immune-system protein immunoglobulin A is present in athletes' saliva.

This is ridiculous. Surely, everyone in this parliament and at home can hear that and can see that this has nothing to do with what sort of an Australian you will make. It is an arbitrary and, frankly, rank political move from those on the other side of the chamber, who I believe are making a very foolish attempt to try to bring some Pauline Hanson supporters back into their party.

Citizenship is not a plaything of this government. It is a serious, very important and fundamental institution that defines who we are as a country. I would have thought that, despite all the political tricks that I see played by those on the other side of the chamber, the government would be above this—but they're not, and it's very disappointing.

I want to talk a little bit about some of the communities that I represent just to illustrate what the impact on these communities will be. I represent, for example, the suburb of Springvale, which will be known to everyone in this chamber who comes from Victoria because it is where we all go for our dumplings and yum cha on a Sunday. Fifty-nine per cent of people who live in Springvale were born overseas. Twenty-one per cent of people who live in Springvale were born in Vietnam alone. That is on the 2011 census numbers. Eighty per cent of people who live in this suburb speak a language other than English. Clayton is Australia's most multicultural suburb, with more than 70 per cent of its residents born in another country. My electorate office is in Clayton and I lived in Springvale when I was a little bit younger. These are extraordinary places and they are so much richer for the waves and waves of people who have come to this country, seeking a better life, who wanted to set down roots and make a better life for their families. They've chosen these brilliant parts of our great country, and here we are telling them that essentially if they'd come 30 or 40 years later we wouldn't have wanted them. It just beggars belief, and frankly it is offensive.

One of the things that frustrates me so much about this debate is that the qualities and the values that I see exhibited by these communities are exactly the ones that I hear lauded on the other side of the chamber. These are communities of people who are intensely entrepreneurial. I see small businesses everywhere—restaurants, accountancy firms and law firms. These are communities of people who have worked hard, who have got themselves educated and who, by and large, have gone out and started their own businesses. So we see entrepreneurship, get-up-and-go and communities of people who don't expect that they are going to get much more help than that incredible gift of Australian citizenship if they make a commitment to this country. And now we are effectively saying we are going to take that away from future generations who could make that contribution.

I have to mention the unbelievably awful impact that the bill before us would have on refugees who come to this country. We have debates in this chamber about the manner in which you might make your refugee journey to Australia, but I don't believe I've heard on either side of the chamber people denigrate the contribution that refugees make to our community. Refugees make great citizens. As members of parliament, we get to give them their citizenship. You see people crying because they have made decades long journeys to this country, just trying to come to a place where there is democracy and where they will have their human rights respected. The reality is that, for a lot of people who have spent much of their lives fleeing persecution and who may have missed many years of their schooling, they may come to Australia and study their whole lives and never be able to speak university-level English. What we are saying here is we are going to pretend to offer an opportunity for refugees to make a new life in this country but we are going to cut off their pathway to citizenship. I cannot think of anything more offensive than telling a person who has planned for decades to try to come to a country like Australia that, once they get here, because their English skills aren't fancy enough and they may not know what 'immunoglobulin' means, they are not going to be able to make a contribution to this country. It is wrong, it is offensive and Labor stands against it.

One of the arguments that's been put forward by the government is that this has something to do with national security. I really object to that. That is the sort of thing that we hear from this government whenever they want to put something beyond debate, and we are not going to take that bait. We are absolutely not going to that bait, because this has nothing to do with national security. What our security agencies tell us time and time again is that the best way to make our country safe is to bring people in and create an inclusive society where young people who may be at risk of radicalisation feel that they belong. If we were designing a law to do the exact opposite, I think we'd come quite close to what is before the chamber today, which again makes an attempt to draw a horrible, arbitrary line between people who belong in our country and people who do not.

I am proud to represent a community of people who have left their countries to come here to build a better life in Australia. They have done extraordinary things; they make an incredibly important contribution. I just want to say to those people that Labor value what you do. We want to welcome that next generation of people who may migrate to our country and do exactly what you have done—and that is to make us a better place.


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