Monday, 14 August 2017
Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Requirements for Australian Citizenship and Other Measures) Bill 2017; Second Reading
The Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Requirements for Australian Citizenship and Other Measures) Bill 2017 is important legislation because it affects not only the lives of hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of people already in this country but the lives of many more to come. The term 'citizenship' is vaguely defined. I guess citizenship started off in the Roman days, when it effectively meant that someone was entitled to be politically included in their decision-making, and it meant that they were full members of their society. That's probably where it really started. But its meaning has never been clear. The Australian Constitution makes no reference to Australian citizenship. It does not mention or define it, although it was discussed at length in the constitutional debates.
So what does Australian citizenship imply? Prior to 1949, it simply didn't exist. Residents were referred to as British subjects. Aliens could of course be naturalised by going through a similar process to that involved with citizenship today. After World War II, following in the footsteps of Canada, Commonwealth countries, including Australia, discussed citizenship and national identity at a conference in London. Following on from that, Arthur Calwell, Australia's immigration minister, introduced the Nationality and Citizenship Bill in 1948, and Australia's first citizens were sworn in at a ceremony at the Royal Albert Hall here in Canberra in 1949. The explanatory memorandum to the 1948 bill refers to citizenship as establishing a national identity, diplomatic protection, and rights and privileges, but says little else about its meaning. Arthur Calwell's second reading speech, however, provides some insight into what was intended. In speaking about the Nationality and Citizenship Bill, Calwell said:
It will symbolise not only our pride in Australia, but also our willingness to offer a share in our future to the new Australians …
He went on to say:
We want to … foster and encourage our young but very vigorous traditions of mateship, cooperation, and a fair deal for everybody.
This legislation is completely at odds with those sentiments and the spirit in which Australian citizenship was first introduced.
Since World War II, around 7½ million people have migrated to Australia. I understand that, of those, around five million, perhaps just a little more, have taken up citizenship. Notably, around 2½ million—that is, one in three migrants—did not, or have not yet, become Australian citizens. Right now, it is estimated that there are over one million permanent residents who are eligible for, but have not taken up, citizenship. The relevance of those figures is to highlight how the Turnbull government is overstating and overreacting to the importance of this legislation. The reality is that citizenship makes little material difference to a permanent resident's life. A permanent resident is entitled to welfare support, Medicare and public education, although university education for noncitizens is at risk under the government's higher education amendment bill, which is currently before the House, where the government wants to change the Commonwealth supported places program.
The main benefits of citizenship appear to be the right to vote, an Australian passport and employment in selected government agencies. Those benefits were clearly non-essential to over one in three permanent residents that chose not to take up Australian citizenship. The other important perceived benefit is security from deportation. It is a very fragile security, because section 17 of the Citizenship Act provides the basis for the minister to revoke citizenship. One would expect that any person deserving deportation would clearly have breached section 17 of the act. If the argument is that the minister's revocation powers should be extended—and that is a reasonable question to ask—then let us have that debate, rather than the pretentious debate that we need to protect Australians from would-be citizens. That is what this legislation purports to do by, amongst other things, making it more difficult for eligible applicants to be granted citizenship. It does that by introducing a much more difficult English competency test, a four-year permanent residency requirement and an Australian values test. No explanation has been provided as to how these changes will benefit Australia or where the existing test has failed Australians. We are simply expected to rely on the minister's opinion.
Our national leaders, and indeed many others, have frequently claimed that Australia is the most successful multicultural country in the world. If that is so, then it has occurred despite a so-called tough citizenship test and not because of it. On current estimates around five million Australians hold dual citizenship or have dual citizenship rights. Furthermore, since 1986, applicants when taking the Australian citizenship oath do not have to renounce any other allegiance that they hold. Interestingly, other Australians, who are born here, are not entitled to apply for dual citizenship. So we actually have double standards. A person who holds another citizenship doesn't have to renounce it and can continue to hold their other citizenship, thereby maintaining an allegiance to another country, whilst the Turnbull government feigns concerns about a person's inability to pass an English competency or values test. It's an absurd proposition to take. The government's priorities are clearly wrong. When there is more concern about a person's English language competency than about their dual allegiance, we have our priorities back to front.
It seems that the government will allow exemptions from the test for UK, Republic of Ireland, US, Canadian and New Zealand migrants. Apart from the obvious discrimination towards several other English-speaking countries, there is a huge assumption in that proposition being made by the government that all migrants from the exempted countries have fluent English and show Australian values. I would suspect that there are many people in each of those countries who are themselves in turn migrants to those countries in the first place. They may have acquired citizenship once they arrived there and they may now wish to migrate to Australia. But if they do, they will be exempt. In my view they will be little different to the people that are applying and that currently live in this country and have come directly to this country from any country other than the UK, the Republic of Ireland, US, Canada or New Zealand. I accept that is a matter for the minister, and we wait to see what he will do.
That brings me to the point that this bill seems to be filled with matters over which the minister has an incredible amount of control. Again, that appears to be wrong, in my view. I accept that many of those matters will be dealt with through regulations, and the parliament always has the opportunity to oppose or reject regulations. But the very fact that those matters are going to be matters directed by the minister is in itself of concern.
The term 'values', which is quite often used, is a very vague, subjective and changing concept. I suspect the values of the Australian people 50 years ago were very different to what we would consider them to be today. More importantly, and what should matter, is that in their time prior to applying for citizenship applicants have complied with Australian laws. That is the real test of their assimilation and understanding of Australian society, because it is our laws which reflect and clearly define our values, and compliance with them reflects a person's commitment to being a good citizen and their understanding of Australian values.
The most discriminatory aspect of this legislation is that in recent years, and even more so over the last decade, around 50 per cent of migrants to Australia have come from Chinese Asia and Southern Asia. They are the people who will be most affected by this legislation and clearly they are the people whom this legislation is targeting. When you take out from all of our migrants the Chinese Asians, the Southern Asians and then migrants from the English-speaking countries that I referred to earlier, it doesn't leave much else. Legislation that targets a particular sector of society because of their background is racist. The legislation has not been cleared by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights and it may not be. Indeed, it may not even comply with the Racial Discrimination Act. I have not had time to try to ascertain whether it does, but it seems to me on the surface of it that it may not.
If the legislation were passed, thousands of potential citizens who had set out a pathway to Australian citizenship under existing laws, which they believe they were complying with, would find themselves stranded, because the Turnbull government, for politically motivated reasons, wants to shift the goalposts. I understand that some 81,000 people have already had their applications put on hold before this legislation even becomes law, effectively meaning that this legislation is being backdated. I understand that the department is not processing applications lodged in recent months.
I want to go, for a moment, to the four-year residency requirement. Again, this is an absurd situation. A person that is in this country, regardless of the visa type, has ample opportunity to adapt to and understand the ways of this country. It doesn't matter whether it's a permanent visa, a working visa, a student visa, a holiday visa or whatever; it is the time spent in the country that matters, if at all. Indeed, if we go back through history and look at the prerequisite for Australian citizenship in the past, it has varied from five years, to two years, to three years, to four years and so on. In each one of those measures there is no evidence that those numbers made any substantial difference to Australia.
A person's allegiance to Australia cannot and should not be measured by their ability to pass an education test, be it in language or values. If it were, many Australians born here would very likely also fail that test, yet they are not being denied full participation in Australian life. More importantly, it is not the ability to pass a citizenship test that the government should focus on but the screening at the entry point into Australia, regardless of the visa class. That is where the greatest focus should be if the government has any security concerns whatsoever. We had 8.3 million tourists or thereabouts that came into this country last year. We have anywhere between one million and 1½ million other visa-class holders here at any one time, yet the government wants us to believe there is a problem with people who want to become citizens and swear allegiance to this country. That's not where the real concerns should lie.
In summary, there is no justification for this legislation whatsoever, and the government hasn't produced any. There's been no security advice to support this legislation and the need for it. There is no evidence that citizenship is creating any kinds of problems and no security advice that the changes proposed here will make Australia a safer place. There is no regard in this legislation for thousands of people who have commenced the citizenship journey using an alternative visa pathway. There is no concern for the people who have made Australia their home and will work hard, pay their taxes, abide by our laws, but never have the confidence to apply for citizenship, and no concern at all about the creation of an underclass of Australians. I have not seen a single submission in support of this legislation, but I've seen numerous opposed to it. In closing, this legislation has shades of Australia's discarded White Australia policy, which ended 50 years or so ago. It is offensive, it is discriminatory and it is driven by a government that is struggling in the polls and wants to whip up unfounded fear and concern. This legislation should be rejected, because it flies in the face of the Australian values that the government claims it wants to uphold.