Monday, 14 August 2017
Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Requirements for Australian Citizenship and Other Measures) Bill 2017; Second Reading
I rise to speak against the Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Requirements for Australian Citizenship and Other Measures) Bill. I do so for a number of reasons, and I join with all of my Labor colleagues, of which there have been many, who have come into this place one after the another to place on the record their disagreement with this legislation. I note the absence of speakers from the government—they have not shown up in this debate to place on record their support for this. One could only deduce from this that the legislation does not have much support, but I can only postulate why hardly any government members would rise to speak on a piece of legislation that the minister himself claims is dire for our country's national security. By the way, Labor has provided and continues to provide bipartisan support on issues of national security. This legislation comes without recommendation from our national security agencies whatsoever. It is a grubby, dirty and deceitful power grab by Minister Dutton to placate their preference dealer—Hanson—and the far right wing of the Liberal Party. And all of this has been done with the absolute sham of a community consultation process that the Liberals won't even release the findings of. You would think they would be at least transparent on that, if they had support. Again, it is just another fine example of the Liberals shutting down public debate and discussion around this matter.
If we look at the changes that Minister Dutton wants to impose, and there are many, the one I want to focus on here and now is the introduction of the English test—the English level 6 test, which is the IELTS, at a university-standard level of English. It is absolutely absurd. We on this side of the House, in the Labor Party, are committed to assisting immigrants to learn English and attain a language level that allows them to take full advantage of all of the opportunities and benefits available to make them productive and contributing members of the Australian community. It is the ethos, the absolute ethos, of the 'fair go for all' that is one of the greats strengths of our multicultural society. The government like to play that card in the community. However, they never practice what they preach. Here is the government's fair go: you need to have university-level English to pass this test. The government should do whatever they can within their means to help people to learn English, as the member for Grayndler has just said, not use it as a sledgehammer to scare and intimidate people who want to come to our country or people who are in our country trying to live a decent life.
The government should be well aware there is a level of isolation and extra challenges that come for people in their own lives if their English skills are limited or English is their second language. If you had any compassion, you would know it is about helping and training people. The Turnbull government is sending a message not just to new immigrants but to all Australians who do not have university qualifications, and that is: if the Liberals had their choice, these people wouldn't be here.
There are a number of people who will never pass the English test. Our concern is that this will develop an underclass of people in our country, people who will always live here but will never be able to pledge allegiance to Australia and will be told that they do not belong. This is the most concerning thing. I have constituents who are not only concerned but scared as a result of this proposed legislation. One example I have is of a married couple from St Mary's in my electorate. The husband is an Australian citizen and his wife has been a permanent resident for 15 years. I will paraphrase some of the letter. It goes to the heart of how mean and callus this government is, and how worried they have made decent, hardworking, honest people feel. My constituent's wife applied for Australian citizenship on 23 June 2017, having been a permanent resident for 15 years. He has been an Australian citizen for 30 years. They were advised that the processing of citizenship applications has been adjourned as the government wishes to strengthen the requirements for citizenship. As the processing is suspended, getting citizenship is delayed for unnecessary reasons. Quite reasonably, my constituent states: 'I consider this unfair and un-Australian. I don't know what your idea is about it. Don't get me wrong, I fully understand and support the need for strengthening our laws to safeguard our way of life and, importantly, this peaceful country. However, this process of stopping the processing to an unknown time is unfair.' These people have been in our country for 15 years. I ask the minister: if they were a national security threat, why didn't we know about it before now? Is putting her through an unnecessary English test going to make her less of a threat, after 15 years of living as a resident in this country?
The letter goes on to say: 'I fear my wife will have difficulties in passing the English test as it requires a competent level of the language skill, as opposed to the previous basic level of the English language. She would be able to understand the citizenship test in English and she could pass the test without any issues. However, expecting a competent level of the English skill is a little pessimistic.' Now I will quote the letter directly: 'This requirement will not helpful in any way to the aim of the strengthening of requirements. There are some many people who does have very basic English skill, but contributing to Australia by working menial jobs and paying their share of taxes.' Clearly, my constituent is one of those people whose level of English is fine to send me an email. He can spell quite fine but his grasp around context and also grammar is slightly lacking compared to what perhaps would be considered perfect. But he is politically engaged to the point where he knew to send me an email. If we've got people who want to come into this country and who want to participate in our democracy, they should be allowed to. He makes fair and valid points.
So, what was the response from government and the department to his concerns when he made contact with them? When I contacted the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, they did not have any answers, they just replied that they do not have any instructions from the government and were waiting for the same. That is not good enough. Why wouldn't the minister explain the current position of the bill and why hasn't the department taken interim action to allay the concerns of people like my constituent? The department should have at least explained the current position of the bill. But, as we have seen in this debate, the government has hidden and nobody wants to speak.
I also offer this: I am a proud granddaughter of Polish migrants who came here after World War II—and, yes, my citizenship is fine. They arrived on New Year's Eve and they were taken to a camp in Cowra before making their way to Penrith, where my father would eventually be born. My grandparents came here without any English whatsoever. My babcia—which is the only word I know in Polish, which is the word for 'grandmother'—was removed from her family at 14 by Nazi soldiers and placed in a work camp. She never saw her family again. My babcia worked here in Australia as a cleaner in the local school. She raised seven children, worked and paid taxes, and—there's nothing more Aussie!—she drove an orange Datsun. She longed for and missed her homeland. She didn't come to Australia with much choice. Her country was ravaged by war. She missed her home, her family, and the things that were familiar to her, all while grasping a new language, a new culture and a new life. But this didn't stop her from learning English, and she participated in Australia's way of life.
When she migrated she was told to assimilate, which meant she didn't have the opportunity to pass on the language, the culture, the traditions and the history of her country. This has impacted my life. I can't speak a word of Polish, I have no clue as to where my family were from. I know nothing about the Polish tradition and culture, and, now that I'm a parent, I would dearly love to be able to pass some of that on. These are the fears that I hold when we tell people who come to our country that they need to be just like us. The languages and traditions have never been passed on to anyone in my generation. My babcia has passed away now, sadly, and I'm left seeking so many answers about my heritage and the origins of my own story. This government should be encouraging the sharing of culture and encouraging our newest Australians to become bilingual—not by punitive methods, but by supporting.
When I look around my community, what do I see? I see that 21 per cent of the community I represent were born in another country. Thirty-five per cent have parents who were born in another country. I see cars that are Japanese, Russian vodka, Italian pizza, Turkish kebabs, Brazilian coffee, American movies, German beers, clothes made in India, oil from Saudi Arabia, Chinese electronics, and our numbers are Arabic and our letters are Latin. So why, then, would this government seek to demonise people who want to call Australia home by demanding a test that many in this House, including those on its own benches, would have difficulty in passing, including the Deputy Prime Minister? This test is not about national security—it's about fear and it's about dividing our country. It's about turning us into bunch of elitist snobs who shun anyone who wants to come here and contribute to our country. And what does this test say to Australians who were born here who cannot pass level 6 English? What a shame Minister Dutton has no mirror for reflection to enforce the level 6 English test on his own government colleagues.