House debates

Thursday, 12 November 2020


Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2020-2021; Consideration in Detail

11:20 am

Photo of Julian LeeserJulian Leeser (Berowra, Liberal Party) Share this | Hansard source

I am going to put a question to the acting minister for migration, but before I do I want to make some personal and other observations. My grandmother was born in a small town in Germany called Budingen near Frankfurt. As the Nazis came to power the family had a housekeeper, a woman called Katie Popp. I wouldn't be here in this chamber without Katie Popp because Katie sensed more than most what was happening and what it meant for my grandmother's family to be Jewish because people stopped serving her in shops. They started to shun her not because she was Jewish but because she worked for a Jewish family.

My grandmother died in 1969 and I never met her. But Katie lived well into the early nineties. I remember as a small boy going to her place, enjoying a sense of the German culture that she had, enjoying the beautiful cakes and hearing her speak English with a thick German accent. I tell this story because I'm reminded of the way in which Katie learnt English in Australia in the 1930s and 1940s. She, like the rest of the family, loved dogs. She used to take the dogs for a walk in the park and would strike up conversations with people. Through those conversations she gradually picked up the English language. That may have been an acceptable way for people to learn English in the 1930s and 1940s, through osmosis, if your first language was German—German giving English many of its roots. But if your first language is Mandarin, if it's Farsi, if it's Arabic, if it's Korean, if it's Hindi, or any of the other Indian languages, how much more difficult it is to do that today?

The minister made an excellent speech, if I may say, at the National Press Club recently where he looked at the issues around the challenges we face in social inclusion and in economic opportunities for people who live in this country who don't speak English. The figures from the census are quite alarming. There are over 819,937 people who don't speak English. One of the great strengths of Australia is its cultural and ethnic diversity. It's one of the things that make it such a wonderful place to live, that we have successfully absorbed migrants from the four corners of the earth. But if you don't have English your opportunities to contribute to the country, economically and socially, and your capacity to engage other Australians is much more limited than it could be.

In my own electorate there are 4,944 people who have little or no English. Of those who came in the last 10 years there are 1,413 people. And of the total national figure over 44,000 people have been here for more than 50 years and have little or no English. This isn't just a problem for individual social inclusion; it's a problem for the stability and strength of Australia as a society.

The former chief rabbi of the Commonwealth, Jonathan Sacks, who died at the weekend, wrote a beautiful book called the Home We Build Together about how to strengthen multicultural societies. I want to quote from his book, from an observation he made about his father when he came to Britain from Poland. He said:

My father came to Britain from Poland in the first decade of the twentieth century. What might he have done had he come a century later? In those days he had to learn English to make contact with the world outside. He acquired British culture; he admired it; he made sure we, his four sons, made ourselves at home in it. He had no choice; neither did we. Had he come today he could watch Polish television, listen to Polish radio, read the Polish press. Through internet technologies he could be in spoken and visual contact with friends and family thousands of miles distant, as if they were living next door. His 'hello; would imply no 'goodbye'. Physically he might be here, but mentally he might still be there.

The technology that Sacks speaks about makes our world terrific and allows us to have connections, but it presents a real challenge for societies today to ensure that the integration we desire, as a society and as individuals, is ultimately successful.

The adult migrant Adult Migrant English Program is over 40 years old. In my own electorate, the Hornsby TAFE conducts courses in the Adult Migrant English Program, and I had the privilege of going a couple of years ago and sitting in on those classes. People came to those classes with Asian, Middle Eastern and European language backgrounds, and the program has been a success. But the fact that we have still over 800,000 Australians who speak little or no English indicates that we need to do better. My question to the minister is: how will the reforms that minister is making to the Adult Migrant English Program change the opportunities for people in Australia who can't speak English and allow us as a society to be stronger, more cohesive and more united?


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