Monday, 14 August 2017
Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Requirements for Australian Citizenship and Other Measures) Bill 2017; Second Reading
I thank all of the members for contributing to the debate on the Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Requirements for Australian Citizenship and Other Measures) Bill 2017. The amendments in the bill will strengthen integrity and increase public confidence in the program. Our citizenship laws define who is, and who can become, an Australian citizen. It is wholly appropriate for the citizenship program to be reviewed and updated, just as we are continually re-evaluating and recalibrating other aspects of our migration program. This is fundamental to a prosperous and cohesive society. The 2015 final report of the National Consultation on Citizenship, entitled Australian citizenship: your right, your responsibility, indicated strong community support for strengthening the test for Australian citizenship. Australia's success as a sovereign nation is underpinned by a commitment made by all Australians to a law-abiding, peaceful and open society. The Australian public expects aspiring citizens to commit to Australia and Australian values. Australian citizenship is a pledge and it is a privilege taken by people that all of us should respect, both those born here and those who elect to join our community.
Regrettably, Australia faces a real and increasing threat from people who embrace violence as a means to pursue extremist beliefs and ideology and therefore reject the values fundamental to Australia. We should have the necessary levers to ensure that such individuals do not benefit from the great privilege that is Australian citizenship. It is in the national interest to do so. The government remains committed to ensuring that our citizenship program is appropriately calibrated for the complex domestic and global environment that we are in this very day. The proposed changes to the citizenship program will ensure that the system is better designed to support those with a strong commitment to Australian values and a desire to integrate and contribute to become citizens.
The amendments in the bill include increasing the general residency requirement, allowing more time to assess an aspiring citizen's experience of integrating into life in Australia, and the standalone English-language test at the competent level. English-language proficiency is essential for economic participation, social cohesion and integration into the community. They also include the requirement for aspiring citizens to sign an Australian values statement asking them to make a commitment to act consistently with those values of respect, equality and freedom; a strengthened citizenship test introducing an aspiring citizen's understanding of Australian values and the privileges and responsibilities of Australian citizenship; and the requirement for an aspiring citizen to demonstrate their integration and contribution to Australian society, pledging allegiance to Australia and the Australian people, elevating the importance of the commitment the aspiring citizen is to make to Australia.
The member for Watson, in his address, criticised the process for assessing competent English and the department's process for accepting people in comparable English-speaking nations as meeting the English-language requirement for administrative simplicity. Those countries include the US, the UK, New Zealand, Canada and the Republic of Ireland. The member did so in some quite offensive terms. It is important that the House notes that the countries he mentioned are exactly the same as those that were included during Labor's time in government for the competent English assessments for migration purposes, including while the member for Watson himself was minister. In fact, my department advises that the Labor government did make a change to those countries the member for Watson referred to, clarifying that Ireland refers to the Republic of Ireland. That change was actually made by the member for McMahon.
The truth of the matter is that, as exists now and did under Labor for migration purposes, there are relevant and sensible exemptions for English language. Australia has changed a lot over the years, as has the nature of employment. There is no denying that English language is crucial for integration, employment participation and settlement outcomes, as the member for Watson and other members of the opposition reiterated in quite clear terms prior to this debate. I make no apologies for setting high expectations in our national interests, which are in our best long-term interests and the long-term interests of those aspiring citizens. However, over 70 per cent of people sitting the general training IELTS test for immigration purposes were assessed as competent or higher in 2015.
The member for Watson and some others opposite also argued against increasing the time of permanent residence. As members opposite well know, there are different requirements for attaining permanent residency and different entitlements than for someone who is on a 457 visa or a working holiday-maker visa, for instance. Under Labor, a 457 visa applicant wasn't even required to provide a police clearance certificate or any overseas criminal history check. The only check was by self-declaration. Yes, the changes may have meant a longer period residing in Australia, which is a privilege in itself, before visa holders could make the step to apply for citizenship. But what the member for Watson failed to acknowledge was that since the coalition government came to power there has been an approximately 1,200 per cent increase in visa cancellations for people committing serious crimes against our citizens. This includes over 150 visa cancellations for child sex offenders, over 40 for murder, 20 for manslaughter, nearly 100 for rape, nearly 200 for armed robbery and over 380 for other violent offences. In total, 1,106 were permanent residents. That is since 2014 alone. People have also had permanent visas cancelled on national security grounds on the advice of intelligence agencies during that time. Under the Labor government, many of these people may now be citizens.
The risk remains, given the argument of the member for Watson to keep residency requirements to a minimum before a person can apply for citizenship. This may be in the interests of elements of the Labor Party, but it is not in the national interest—nor is it in step with comparable countries. As the department advises, the United States has a residency requirement of five years; Germany, eight years; France, five years continuous residence; and Denmark, nine years continuous residence.
Australian citizenship should be highly valued, and the government's changes will ensure that it is a privilege obtained by only those who have demonstrated the most sincere commitment to Australia and our values, and respect for our laws—as it should be. The amendments in this bill ensure that there is an understanding that everyone has a responsibility to contribute to Australian society as a whole.
I take the opportunity to present an amendment to the explanatory memorandum to the Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Requirements for Australian Citizenship and Other Measures) Bill 2017, incorporating the regulation impact statement for the information of members.
In summary, I do believe that the bill deserves the support of all members . I commend the bill to the House.