Monday, 14 August 2017
Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Requirements for Australian Citizenship and Other Measures) Bill 2017; Second Reading
I'm very pleased to follow my friend and colleague the member for Blaxland and that the member for Greenway and the member for Werriwa are in the chamber as well—three other Sydney MPs who represent multicultural electorates and who are proud of the fact that Australia is the nation that we are today because, with the exception of the First Australians, we are all descendants of migrants, be they British migrants or migrants from all over the world who have come to make Australia their home.
When I see a bill which is aimed at an existing law, my starting point is always: what problem is it trying to fix? If something's broken then it is the responsibility of this parliament to intervene, to create new laws, to update the laws of the nation and to make sure that laws become fit for purpose. But this piece of legislation—indeed, even the very title of the bill, including the word 'strengthening'—implies there is something weak about the existing arrangements. We're asked to accept that being able to speak conversational English is no longer sufficient for people to become Australian citizens. This is snobbery of the highest order. We'll now require people to pass a university-level English test—a test which, frankly, I would question whether members of this House would be able to do. We're asked to accept that being a law-abiding citizen who has lived here for four years is no longer enough to justify the privilege of Australian citizenship. Under these changes, people would be required to demonstrate that they possess Australian values and that they have integrated into our community.
Now, I am always pleased to keep an open mind when it comes to legislative amendments, but the truth is that there is no evidence that this legislation is necessary. It didn't originate in the bureaucracy. It certainly didn't come from our national security agencies. It has its genesis in the ideological obsession of some of those opposite in the Liberal Party—a Liberal Party that is prepared to play politics with issues of our national citizenship. To me, the issues of citizenship, national security and law and order should be taken very seriously indeed. What they shouldn't become is a plaything for the Liberal Party's internal divisions—divisions based upon some in the Liberal Party who hark back to a golden era of white picket fences, an Anglo Saxon culture being predominant in this country, a lack of diversity and a lack of modernism that has made Australia the successful nation that we are today. My fear is that this legislation is all about the culture wars, where the Prime Minister has been prepared to just throw out all the things that he knows Australia needs. He is prepared to throw out decades of conviction that he has held in order to appease the culture warriors in the right wing of the Liberal Party.
This is an extraordinary proposition that has come before the parliament, which is why we have referred the bill to a Senate inquiry and why the member for Watson has moved such a comprehensive second reading amendment to it. There have been no arguments put up for its adoption. Let's just have a look at some of the issues which are specifically created by this legislation. Firstly, there is the issue of the English tests. The fact is that the tests which people currently sit for are, of course, written in English. The existing courses teach what is known as competent standards under the International English Language Testing System. The proposed change means that what would actually be required to be competent in English would be a university level of English, which would change the whole dynamic. One of the great privileges that we have as members of parliament is attending citizenship ceremonies. What we have then, as in my part of the world, is people from all over the world—Asia in our region, South America, Africa and Europe—who come to pledge their allegiance to this great nation. It is extraordinary the emotion that people feel. There is no better place to be in Australia than at Enmore Park on Australia Day, on the afternoon of those citizenship ceremonies. There are tears, there are hugs, there are people proudly waving the Australian flag, there are speeches and there is a huge gathering of the family and friends of those people who are becoming citizens on that day. It seems to me to be quite remarkable that the legislation before us is aimed at making the process harder and longer before people can enjoy those ceremonies. That flies in the face of what we should be doing as a nation, which is encouraging people to declare their allegiance to Australia—encouraging people to become full citizens and to participate fully in the civic life of this country.
These people currently pay taxes and they work damn hard in this country. If you have a look at the sorts of people who do these jobs, menial work in particular, whether it be in the agricultural sector or whether it be cleaning our offices here in this building, you see that they tend to be people who have come to Australia to make a better life for themselves and for their families. They don't ask for much. What they do ask for—and what they expect and what they deserve—is respect. And that is what this legislation does not give them. This legislation changes the parameter of the debate from one in which we're encouraging people to become citizens to one in which we're thinking up barriers to citizenship and barriers to that civic participation, including voting—which may well be the motivation of those who are putting forward this proposition.
The extraordinary thing about the requirement for university-level English is that none of the proposals put forward by the government speak about an increase in funding to assist people to learn English. Indeed, the changes to the Adult Migrant English Service and other organisations and the attacks on TAFE have undermined participation by community members. We don't expect people to have a PhD in English in order to be citizens, unless we're deliberately putting the qualification bar so high that we are excluding people. Another issue in the bill is the extension of the time for people to be eligible to become citizens.
It is interesting that national security agencies haven't even been consulted on the issues in the legislation. We take a bipartisan approach to national security issues. I had another briefing this morning about transport security. I've worked very constructively with the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Darren Chester, on all the issues that have been raised in recent times about threats to our security, and Labor has never played politics with these issues. But there is no national security justification for these moves.
This, of course, goes to Australian values. Australian values are about respect for democracy and respect for the rule of law. We're also talking about the Australian value of the fair go. The truth is that the fair go is given short shrift by this legislation. The legislation also gives the minister the right to set aside Administrative Appeals Tribunal findings concerning character and identity if the minister believes it is in the public interest. Labor have reserved our position on that. We want to see some evidence, though, that that is necessary, and that's one of the things that we'll consider through the Senate process. The process up to now has been atrociously handled by the government, with a sham community consultation process. There certainly hasn't been adequate consultation with the communities who will be directly affected by this. Multicultural leaders who go out and promote Australian citizenship have had that process undermined.
Today, a day on which the great Les Murray, one of the champions of multiculturalism in this country, is being farewelled at St Mary's Cathedral in Sydney, is a day on which it is timely to remind the House of the contribution that people who've come from across the world have made to Australia. Les Murray, who came here as a young boy in 1957 in the wake of the Hungarian uprising, put down by the Stalinists in 1956, made an incredible contribution to turning football into the amazing participation sport that it is in this country today. He was also a constant advocate of multiculturalism and, from such humble origins, an iconic figure in this country. Indeed, he became a character in popular culture with the TISM song, What Nationality is Les Murray?one of my favourites, where the chorus is 'Les is more'—because everything about Les Murray was larger than life, and I think that his contribution should be valued.
We have heard a lot about Australian values, and part of that is respect and inclusion. I do want to make a brief comment about the rejection by Waverley Council and the Land and Environment Court recently of a planning proposal to establish a Jewish synagogue at Bondi. This is a very poor sign for our country. We cannot allow the threat of terrorism and violence to stop people being able to practise their faith, whatever faith that is. Whether it be a Jewish synagogue, or an Islamic mosque, or a Catholic Church, or a Buddhist temple, people have a right to practise their faith in this country. We shouldn't ever, ever concede that because some would threaten a particular faith or group of people in our society we should allow those threats to be successful. I think that was quite an appalling decision, and I want to put on the record my opposition to it.
Australians are made up of people of different religions, different ethnicities, different racial backgrounds, different genders and different sexualities, but we make Australia what it is today—this great melting pot—through citizenship. I think that we should support the amendment that has been moved by the member for Watson, and the government really needs to reconsider where it's going with its approach to Australian citizenship—it should be something that we're advocating, not something that we're making harder.