Wednesday, 8 August 2007
Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Testing) Bill 2007
Debate resumed from 21 June, on motion by Mr Andrews:
That this bill be now read a second time.
upon which Mr Burke moved by way of amendment:
That all words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:“whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading and whilst welcoming the formalising of the current test for Australian Citizenship, the House:
- notes that the issue is whether the citizenship tests to be determined under the legislation are reasonable;
- notes the importance of teaching in the development of English language skills and the acquisition of knowledge of Australian history, culture and values; and
- calls on the Government to provide improvements to the Adult Migrant English Program and other settlement services to assist migrants to participate fully in the Australian community and to pass the citizenship test”.
Before debate was adjourned on 21 June on the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Testing) Bill 2007, I was making reference to the Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria’s discussion paper Australian citizenship: much more than a ceremony, which advances rather compelling arguments against what is being proposed in this legislation. I urge the government to consider its submission seriously as it articulates in a logical and coherent way the substantive views that are reflected in the depth of feeling that has been already expressed in ethnic communities in my electorate of Corio in Geelong and others around the nation in relation to the measures that are being proposed in this legislation.
Over the 14 years I have represented the electors of Corio in this parliament, I have attended every citizenship ceremony I have been practically able to get to, given my responsibilities to this House and my former shadow executive commitments as shadow minister for agriculture. I say to this House: those citizenship ceremonies have been absolutely uplifting experiences for me. To see the sincerity and commitment of those choosing to take the oath of allegiance to Australia and their pride in joining this great Australian family is always a very special moment in the life of any member of parliament, as it is for the person making that enormous commitment to Australia. One is always humbled by the stories of the personal journeys of many migrants from all parts of the earth to the point where they commit to Australia in that citizenship ceremony.
In the context of this debate, I pay tribute to the City of Greater Geelong and its officers and staff for the great efforts they put into making each ceremony a special one for each participant. I particularly make mention of Stephen Yewdall, whose personal care and professionalism as MC at the city’s conferral ceremonies ensures that they are conducted in a dignified but joyful manner for migrants, their families and friends.
Like many members of this parliament, I came up through the ranks of local government. I will not mention the local government at the time, but the citizenship ceremonies were tacked on at the end of a council meeting and people could be kept waiting for three to four hours for the citizenship ceremony to take place, sometimes in the early hours of the morning. That is simply not acceptable in this great country, and I am very pleased that the focus of these ceremonies has changed, with bipartisan support across this parliament and across my community.
There are some important points that need to be understood clearly in this debate. The first is that Australia already has a citizenship test, because applicants must already demonstrate a working knowledge of English and establish that they are of good character. The honourable member for Kooyong, who has just entered the chamber, is somebody we all admire because of his unrelenting commitment to these sorts of issues in his own party in his time in this parliament. He has won our enduring respect for the stance that he has taken on these matters and for his demonstrated understanding of the responsibilities and privileges of being an Australian.
While members across the political spectrum might agree on the need to put this situation on a more formal basis, as legislators we must be extremely careful that any instituted measure does not simply insert another unreasonable barrier to people becoming Australian citizens. The measures in this bill require a prospective applicant to successfully complete a citizenship test before making their application for Australian citizenship. To successfully complete the test, the applicant will need to demonstrate an understanding of their application and process, possess a basic knowledge of English and have an adequate knowledge of Australia and the responsibilities and privileges of Australian citizenship. Test questions are taken from a citizenship test resource book, with three questions relating to responsibilities and privileges of citizenship, and the overall pass mark is set at 60 per cent. Because of the significant political pressure generated as a result of the government’s original, half-baked proposals, the government has been forced to modify its original stance, and I support the exemptions that are now embedded in this legislation and the discretion now available to the minister to provide different tests in certain circumstances and to cater for the needs of those with permanent physical or mental incapacity.
One has to question the proposition that this government is serious about encouraging eligible noncitizens to take out Australian citizenship. I find the statistics relating to eligible noncitizens in Australia who have yet to take out citizenship revealing—346,200 people from the UK and 204,900 from New Zealand, and noncitizens from other English-speaking countries such as the USA and Canada would come into this particular category. If the government is really concerned about encouraging citizenship as a gateway for full participation in Australian life then what measures does it have in place to encourage English-speaking noncitizens to take up citizenship? I think a very important point that has to be made in the context of this debate is the sincerity of the proposals that are before us and the context in which they have been put forward. It is extremely difficult to come to any other conclusion, given the process by which this legislation has come into existence, than that the government, for all its rhetoric, is really not about encouraging citizenship participation but about pursuing another agenda.
In conclusion, I want to mention that the Corio electorate has a large non-English-speaking population and its people are vitally interested in this bill and these matters. I commend Mr Michael Martinez of Diversitat, the operational arm of the Geelong Ethnic Communities Council, for the points that he has made publicly in relation to this particular debate. He has not just taken a stick to the government; he has been quite constructive about putting the point of view of Geelong’s ethnic communities in the wider political debate in our region. He said that the federal government’s policy has confused nationalism with patriotism and he warned of its potential to divide rather than to include people. I hope that it does not do that. I hope these measures, once they are instituted on the ground, do not become a barrier to many of our citizens taking out Australian citizenship, because that would be a crying shame.
Mr Martinez made the very important point that the money spent on these measures would be far better spent on creating jobs and on teaching English and Australian history to migrants in particular. Of course that is a policy that we have articulated in the context of this debate. Let me restate on the floor of this parliament my commitment to multiculturalism in Geelong. It has worked, and I commend those migrants who have come from non-English-speaking backgrounds who have assisted in building our city to become one of the great provincial cities in the Commonwealth of Australia.
The Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Testing) Bill 2007 amends the Australian Citizenship Act 2007 to provide for the testing of prospective applicants for Australian citizenship. This bill will be welcomed by the wider Australian community because it is the result of a wide-ranging discussion within the community.
On 17 September 2006 the then Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, the Hon. Mr Andrew Robb, released a discussion paper, entitled ‘Australian citizenship: much more than a ceremony’, to seek the Australian community’s views on the merits of introducing a formal citizenship test. The discussion paper particularly sought comment on four questions: (1) should Australia introduce a formal citizenship test; (2) how important is knowledge of Australia for Australian citizens; (3) what level of English is required to participate as an Australian citizen; and (4) how important is a demonstrated commitment to Australia’s way of life and values for those intending to settle permanently in Australia or spend a significant period of time in Australia? Further questions were also asked in relation to the possible parameters of a formal citizenship test and the level of knowledge and understanding of Australian values that applicants for permanent or long-term residence should possess.
A series of face-to-face consultations were held in Perth, Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney, Hobart, Darwin and Adelaide. These consultations were attended by some 129 representatives from a range of government, business and community groups. Participants were also invited to comment on the proposals in the discussion paper. Many also subsequently provided written responses. The consultation period ran for two months, closing on 17 November 2006. In total, 1,644 written responses to the discussion paper were received.
Overall, there was strong support for the introduction of a formal citizenship test. Sixty per cent of respondents supported a citizenship test, while 25 per cent opposed a citizenship test and 15 per cent were unclear. Responses regarding the other key questions were also in favour of testing. Amongst those who addressed the importance of a knowledge of Australia and Australian values to allow effective participation as an Australian citizen, a large majority agreed that a knowledge of Australia is important, at 92 per cent, and only eight per cent disagreed. Amongst those who addressed the importance of English for effective participation as an Australian citizen, a large majority agreed that English is important, at 95 per cent, and only five per cent disagreed. Amongst those who addressed the importance of a demonstrated commitment to Australia, a large majority agreed that a demonstrated commitment to Australia is important, at 93 per cent, while only seven per cent disagreed.
Thinking Australians understand that citizenship is a responsibility, not a right. Australian citizenship is the single most unifying force in our culturally diverse nation. It lies at the heart of our national identity and it gives us a strong sense of who we are and our place in the world. Citizenship provides an opportunity for people to maximise their participation in society and to make a commitment to Australia’s common values, which include a respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual and of others, our support for our parliamentary democracy, our commitment to the rule of law, our commitment to the equality of men and women, the spirit of a fair go, and mutual respect and compassion for those in need.
Australian citizenship brings with it considerable values and benefits. Australian citizens have the right to apply for an Australian passport, the right to register children born overseas as Australian citizens by descent, the capacity to seek election to parliament, the right to vote, access to a range of financial assistance from the government, access to a range of employment opportunities and access to full consular assistance when travelling overseas—to name but a few.
I am informed that, in 2005-06, 103,050 people from more than 175 different countries were conferred with Australian citizenship at ceremonies across the nation. Overall, more than four million people have become citizens since Australian citizenship was introduced in 1949. Some 95 per cent of our population are Australian citizens and there are currently more than 900,000 permanent residents who are eligible to apply for citizenship.
Looking at this bill, we can identify citizenship testing as a key part of the government’s ongoing commitment to help new migrants settle successfully and integrate into Australian society. This test is to ensure that people who wish to become Australian citizens do so by demonstrating a level of understanding and commitment to Australia, our values and our way of life. This is reasonable to ensure that migrants are fully informed and ready to participate in the Australian community. It is also important from a broader perspective as it will support social cohesion and successful integration into the community.
The test will be designed so applicants can demonstrate their knowledge of the English language and their knowledge of Australia, including the responsibilities and privileges of Australian citizenship. It makes sense to encourage the uptake of English if migrants are to take advantage of everything that our country has to offer—both the economic and the social benefits. When people come to Australia they do so because they see it as a land of opportunity. Surely an essential part of our responsibility to them is to ensure that they understand and can use English to their benefit and, of course, to the benefit of their families and of the wider community. There will not be a separate English language test. However, the citizenship test will require the demonstration of a basic knowledge of English comprehension in answering the questions.
This bill will amend section 21 of the act to provide that applicants for citizenship under the general eligibility provisions must have successfully completed a test before making an application for Australian citizenship. The bill will also amend section 40, which relates to requests for personal identifiers. The bill will extend the operation of section 40(1) to allow a personal identifier to be requested from a person who has sought to sit a citizenship test. I am advised that the test will be computer based and consist of 20 multiple-choice questions drawn randomly from a larger group of confidential questions. Each test will be in English and include three questions on the privileges and responsibilities of Australian citizenship. All test questions will be derived from the content of a resource book designed to help people prepare for citizenship. An assisted version of the test will be available for people who have completed a minimum of 400 hours of English language tuition under the Adult Migrant English Program, the AMEP, and are assessed by the AMEP provider as having less than basic reading skills in English. The assisted test will involve the test administrator talking the person through the computer based test.
The government also recognises that it would be unnecessary and unfair for some people to comply with these requirements. Consequently, people under the age of 18 or over 60, those with a permanent physical or mental incapacity which prevents them from understanding the nature of their application and those with a permanent loss or substantial impairment of hearing, speech or sight will not be required to sit the test.
It is also important to note that migrants who come to Australia in the future, whether under skilled, family or humanitarian programs, will not be required to pass the test prior to or upon their arrival. They will only need to pass it when wishing to take up citizenship of Australia, which will usually be some four or five years later. For these people, the Australian government provides services to help them settle into Australia. For humanitarian entrants, settlement assistance begins with the provision of information about Australia before they arrive. The Australian Cultural Orientation Program is a three-day interactive course which provides an introduction to aspects of Australian life. It aims to enhance entrants’ settlement prospects and help develop realistic expectations for their life in Australia.
Also, the Integrated Humanitarian Settlement Strategy, the IHSS, is designed to provide short-term, intensive settlement support to newly-arrived humanitarian entrants on a needs basis. IHSS services are generally provided for around six months but may be extended to 12 months for particularly vulnerable clients with special needs. Services provided under the IHSS include case coordination, information and referrals, on-arrival reception and assistance, accommodation assistance, short-term torture and trauma counselling and advocacy, and raising community awareness. IHSS service providers also provide mainstream agencies with an appreciation of issues relating to humanitarian entrants.
After the initial settlement period, entrants have access to further assistance under the Settlement Grants Program. Settlement support and community capacity building is delivered to humanitarian entrants and eligible migrants with low English proficiency for up to five years after arrival. Services include linking new arrivals to mainstream agencies which deliver health, education and employment services. Community capacity building involves assisting emerging communities to organise and advocate for their own needs. Around $30 million was made available last year for organisations delivering these services. Many of the needs of new arrivals are addressed through mainstream services. An interdepartmental committee of Australian government agency heads is looking into a whole-of-government approach to improving settlement outcomes for humanitarian entrants. The focus is on helping entrants to get a job, to build English language skills and to participate fully in the Australian community.
The Australian government also funds English tuition under the Adult Migrant English Program, the AMEP, for migrants and humanitarian entrants who do not have functional English. Refugee and humanitarian entrants under the age of 25 with low levels of schooling are eligible for up to 910 hours of English tuition, while those over 25 are eligible for up to 610 hours. Other migrants are eligible for up to 510 hours of tuition. The tuition is designed to provide clients with basic language skills to settle successfully in Australia.
The Australian government also funds education authorities to assist with the cost of delivering intensive English tuition to eligible newly arrived students enrolled in Australian schools. The English as a Second Language: New Arrivals Program aims to improve the educational opportunities and outcomes of newly arrived students of non-English-speaking backgrounds by developing their English language competence and facilitating their participation in mainstream educational activities.
There is also the Language, Literacy and Numeracy Program, the LLNP, which provides basic language, literacy and numeracy training for eligible job seekers whose skills are below the level considered necessary to secure sustainable employment or pursue further education and training. It is designed to help remove a major barrier to employment and improve participants’ daily lives. To access the LLNP, job seekers must be of working age, be registered as job seekers with a referring agency, not be a full-time student, and satisfy eligibility criteria relating to benefit and visa status.
I would also like to take this opportunity to welcome the Australian government’s investment of $924,300 to help refugees and other migrants in my local area under the Settlement Grants Program 2007-08. The grants include $858,000 for four projects at the Liverpool Migrant Resource Centre and $66,300 for a program at the Australian Bosnian and Herzegovinian Cultural Association in Liverpool in my electorate. The projects will provide casework and referral services, community leadership and support groups and promote integration, participation and empowerment of the newly arrived Iraqi, Assyrian and Kurdish communities. The projects aim to develop leadership skills and self-reliance for new arrivals, provide youth development initiatives and establish partnerships with service providers to better respond to the needs of women at risk, focusing on African and Dari-speaking communities. The funding will also allow the Bosnian and Herzegovinian Cultural Association to undertake casework and provide referral services and group work to assist newly arrived Bosnian speakers to plan and advocate for services to meet their needs. These are the nuts and bolts that refugees and migrants need to rely upon to integrate quickly into their new communities and to make the most of their opportunities in Australia. Finally, the funding will also provide much-needed support in the crucial transitional period from school to higher education or to employment.
In conclusion, the vibrant diversity that makes up the Australian society today has won renown and respect amongst other nations in our increasingly complex world. Whilst we do not expect our newest citizens to forget or forgo the traditions, culture and history of the country of their birth, it is not unreasonable to anticipate that, as they come to live and work in our cities, towns, suburbs and workplaces as one of us—as Australians—they will embrace our traditions, culture and history, together with our values and respect for our parliamentary democracy.
Because our citizenship ceremony is at the heart of what it means to be an Australian, an appropriate understanding from our newest Australians will mean that they can take their place with us as one people under one flag. This bill will ensure this objective. I commend the bill to the House.
I have the pleasure this morning to talk about the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Testing) Bill 2007. This bill amends the Australian Citizenship Act 2007 to ensure that applicants for citizenship complete a more formalised test before applying for citizenship. The bill outlines the general eligibility criteria for Australian citizenship—that is, applicants applying for citizenship understand the nature of their application, possess a basic knowledge of the English language and have an adequate knowledge of the responsibilities and privileges of Australian citizenship. It is worthy to note, as other speakers have done, that we already have a citizenship test in this country and this is taking that just a step further.
Interestingly, the legislation that we see today is in fact a long way from the citizenship test first proposed back in December 2006 by the government. It is reassuring to me that some of the more level heads in the government seem to have prevailed and that this test does not represent what was going to become an unreasonable barrier to residents of Australia becoming Australian citizens. I am pleased to see the government back-pedalling a little on this particular issue. I understand we will see sensible exemptions for the test, including for those with literacy problems and for people under 18 years of age or over 60 years of age. Those with literacy difficulties will be able to have the test read to them. Also, discretion will be exercised for those people with permanent physical disability or mental impairment which prevents them from fully comprehending the test requirements. That, frankly, is how it should be.
This test will comprise 20 multiple-choice questions drawn randomly from a large pool of questions. We have not yet been presented with those questions at this point. A resource book will be available to aspiring citizens to assist them in preparing for the test. Sensibly, applicants for citizenship will be able to take the test as many times as they require to achieve a pass. I believe the pass mark required will be in the order of 60 per cent.
Labor, obviously, support this bill. However, our approach is somewhat different from the government’s approach. If we are successful at the upcoming election, Labor will improve the English language services available to migrants to help them learn conversational English. This bill, together with Labor’s proposed boost to English language tuition, should not be seen as putting another obstacle in the way of those people aspiring to be new Australians. Labor’s policy announcement is a way of lifting the language skills and cultural knowledge of our new citizens. It will allow them to more fully participate in their communities, in the workforce and in the education system. Labor’s policy will assist new citizens to have a more rewarding life both socially and economically in our great country. We must ensure that, in imposing this test on them, we do not discourage worthy people from taking up Australian citizenship. We must give them the support they need to improve their English language skills and their understanding of our culture, our government and our society.
In the lead-up to this particular bill, I spoke quite strongly in this place about the wonderful contribution that people, historically, have made to this country from other parts of the world, despite not having English language skills. I want to say that again this morning, not in any way to deride the sort of contribution those people have made. If I remember accurately, I referred in more recent times in this place to experiences in my electorate, where the Greek community was holding a massive fundraising event for a charity organisation here in Canberra. All of the thankyou speeches made at that function about the contributions of those people in the room were in Greek. I had no problem with that at all.
We on this side of the parliament have very strong opinions about the need for us to stand behind people and to offer them the resources and the support to enable them to participate more fully and the need to offer that English language teaching in a full and proper way. Australia is a country built on the foundations of migration and tolerance. Those who have come here have added immensely to our society, our economy and our government. I am very privileged in this place to represent the electorate of Canberra. There are many great things about my electorate, not least of which is the fact that this parliament sits within my electorate boundaries. I am very proud of that.
Another important historical point that I would like to bring to the attention of the House, or remind those who already know it, is that the first citizenship ceremony ever held in this country was held in 1949 in the Albert Hall, just down the road from this building and next to the Hyatt Hotel, as we know it today. There is a very strong historical connection for my city with Australian citizenship, as we know it in our modern processes.
One other fantastic feature of this electorate is that it contains over 90 diplomatic missions of countries all around the world. This gives the city of Canberra a bit of a mini United Nations feel. We have a cultural diversity and an appreciation for that diversity which would be unrivalled in any city in Australia. We are very proud of the cultural diversity that the embassies and the high commissions bring to our city.
Of course, the diplomatic missions are not the be all and end all of cultural diversity for the bush capital, as we are known. For example, here in Canberra we celebrate the National Multicultural Festival every year. It is a wonderfully colourful gathering, involving not only those people from Canberra but also those many thousands of people from all other parts of the world. I say to members: if you have not already done so, if the next Multicultural Festival in Canberra coincides with a visit to the ACT, I would strongly encourage you to participate. It is the most wonderful gathering of scores of different cultures which are living in this city and of which we are extremely proud.
I would also like to take this opportunity to talk briefly about some of the wonderful cultural groups who operate in a very concerted fashion in my community. Every one of these communities makes a fantastic contribution to the fabric of our town and they contribute in so many ways. I will begin with the Greek community in Canberra, a community that I am very proud to be associated with. They have certainly delivered huge cultural benefits to Canberra over many decades. They hold the annual Greek festival, the Glendi, and they operate the very successful Hellenic Club, located just 10 or 15 minutes from this parliament. Many members of this parliament may have taken the short drive down there and enjoyed some of the Greek hospitality at that facility. They have also contributed to the construction of the Australian-Hellenic Memorial on Anzac Parade, commemorating the combined sacrifices of our soldiers in the defence of Greece and Crete in World War II in particular. I have attended many a service at that particular memorial with our Greek community. The other point I want to make about this particular community is its economic contribution to the ACT. Many leading businesspeople in this town are of Greek background. They have stayed here through good times and bad and have invested great confidence in our community here. They are to be respected and regarded for that.
Another community I want to mention is the people from Laos. This is a wonderful group, much smaller than the Greek community. They have their Lao new year celebrations. They put a lot of time and effort into participating in the local festivals around the city and they put a lot of work into ensuring that their culture is passed on and inherited by their younger generations so that that connection and that cultural heritage can continue.
The Philippine Cultural Society is another group I want to talk about. They participate in virtually any and every opportunity they have to display their culture to the broader community. I have the pleasure of attending the Philippines Independence Day function in June of each year. On a more sad note I want to take the opportunity to note the very sad passing of their past President Mr John Simmons only in the last week. He was the president of that society for many years as well as holding other roles within the organisation. It is very sad to note his passing, but in doing so I pay regard to his dedication to the Filipino community in Canberra and to his determination that they continue with the joy of life that he and others have demonstrated.
We also of course have a large community from the Italian part of the world. Again, many members may have visited the Italian club just down the road. Again, they have provided a great investment, in both an economic and a cultural sense, in this city of ours.
The Scottish community, or the Canberra Highland Society, as it is known, is based at the Burns Club. The Burns Club Pipe Band, which recently celebrated its 70th anniversary in the ACT, performs nationally and internationally and is a champion pipe band. Again, this is a wonderful retaining of culture by people who work so hard to make sure that they not only retain that culture but develop and grow it, and the community around them gets to experience and understand that culture.
Earlier this year I celebrated the Bangladesh Mother Language Day with the Bangladesh Australia Association. We also have a strong Thai community in my electorate, with whom I also have a close association. Again, they put so much effort into ensuring not just the retention but the growth and the continuation of their wonderful culture. On a smaller scale is the Austrian Choir in the Austrian community. This choir has been operating for 27 years, performing all around the city and sharing their cultural contribution with people in Canberra. Then we have Mr Sam Wong and his colleagues from the ACT Chinese Australian Association, who again are dedicated to participating in a wholesome, good, contributing way within the community. The Maltese community is another longstanding ethnic community here in Canberra who represent themselves so well. The list could go on and on. At the risk of missing some, I cannot list them all. But we are very proud here in Canberra. I believe that we practise multiculturalism very well here. The Multicultural Festival is probably the best example that one can trot out of just how all these communities, in their own small ways, contribute so much to our society and on this annual basis get together en masse to show us who they are, where they are from and what values they bring to us.
Like many members in this place I get the opportunity to regularly attend citizenship ceremonies. When I stand in front of a room of 40, 50, 60 or 80 people from 20 or 30 different backgrounds, all of whom have made the big decision to not only come here to live, to choose Australia and/or this city for their families’ future, but to take the pledge that they do, I always find those ceremonies very moving. To me it is a very big thing to step out from where you come from and to adopt this new city and this new country in the way that they do. I always say to the people at those ceremonies: ‘Please, never turn your back on where you are from or the culture you have. Bring it with you, share it with us and allow us to learn from you.’ Australia is what it is, Canberra is what it is, because of people like that. I hope we see that continue into the future.
The reason that I raise all of these examples of groups who contribute to my local community is that I do not think any of us in this place would want to see Australia denied the rewards of having these tremendously active ethnic communities in our electorates. As I said earlier, the citizenship test should not become another obstacle for aspiring Australians to become citizens. Labor’s recently announced policy for expanding the Adult Migrant English Program, the AMEP, will make sure that this is not the case. The government’s own figures show that in 2005, I understand, only 11 per cent of people who exited the AMEP could speak functional English. There could be a lot of reasons for that, but it is not a very good record. The government say they want migrants to be able to speak English. But I believe you cannot expect that to happen if you do not put the resources and the money into that valid and needed investment. When I have met small groups at our local colleges or the CIT, the TAFE, where there are adult English programs going on, they tell you very clearly: ‘We want to be able to continue this until we feel confident with what we are learning. Please don’t cut us short in our access to these programs.’
We in Labor will ensure that that will in fact happen and that they can have the adequate access that they want. We will fund improved and expanded English language tuition to the tune of almost $50 million. Too many people are left to their own devices when they reach the maximum number of hours allotted to them under the current regime. One size fits all simply does not work. Labor will introduce a traineeship in English and work readiness, which will be designed to allow new entrants to continue their English language tuition while developing knowledge, skills and experience in Australian workplace culture and practice. Our redesigned Adult Migrant English Program will have a greater focus on vocational English to better enable new residents to apply for a job and to communicate at work. We will require tenderers for the new AMEP to have a close relationship with Job Network providers. This will assist new residents to have pathways to employment. Labor will also introduce a new Employment Pathways program, where extra English language tuition hours will be allocated to those students who need it most. In summary, the introduction of a citizenship test can be beneficial to both migrants and Australia as whole, both socially and economically, but only if the introduction of the test is matched with resources to help new migrants become fully engaged in Australian society in every sense. The test should not be an unreasonable barrier to citizenship.
In conclusion, I want to thank quite sincerely all the fantastic people who live in my community—the ones I have mentioned and the ones I have not mentioned—and have added so much value and so much understanding for all of us. We have learnt how to live together and how to enjoy each other’s cultures at the same time. We have so many examples of how well it can work here in Canberra. We do it well. I thank those people not only for that but particularly for deciding to come to Australia and choosing to set up home here. They have added enormously to our community and I thank them for it.
I rise today to support the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Testing) Bill 2007. The key provisions of this bill will amend section 21 of the act so that applicants for citizenship under the general eligibility provision must have successfully completed a test before making an application for Australian citizenship. In standing to support this bill, I would like to make mention of the fact that it is very important to emphasise that this is not a test for settlement; it is not a test precluding people from coming to Australia. People can still be permanent residents. They can stay with that status for the term of their existence in Australia. But, if they want to progress further and become a citizen of Australia, they will have to undertake this citizenship test.
I have thought long and hard about this, because I too have an electorate which has welcomed people from many nations from across the world. All of these people have contributed in some way, shape or form to the Riverina blossoming into the very productive area that it is now. Many of the people who came and worked on the Snowy were displaced during the European war. They came out to Australia, worked on the Snowy and then made their way down to the Riverina. They increased productivity and exposed our culture to entirely new tastes and experiences, and we have been far the greater for having had those experiences. I thought very seriously about whether or not this would be a major impediment to people who want to come and set up their life in the Riverina. So I talked to a lot of Italian people who had come in. At first, it was a bit daunting and a bit scary for them, because they thought that this meant that people would not be able to settle in Australia. It was explained that this would not stop people from settling in Australia but would be a citizenship test and, if they wanted to take out Australian citizenship, they would have tools made available to assist them, including a booklet. It was explained that it was not an English language test or a test on how you speak English but a test of an applicant’s understanding of the history of Australia and of the values that should be in every person’s mind when they seek to declare themselves to be an Australian citizen.
I went to a small school just a few months ago and they made the Australian pledge, and they do it at every assembly. What a fantastic idea. These children knew the Australian pledge off by heart. That is something that we could expand further in our education programs in order to enhance the feeling of pride and passion in being an Australian citizen.
When I went through these issues with some of the Italian elder community, many of them said to me, ‘Gee, we wish that we’d had this available to us and that we’d been assisted in learning these things when we came to Australia, because our lives would have been much more inclusive of the Australian way of life and we would not have at times felt excluded because of our lack of understanding of the Australian way.’ There is no doubt that sometimes the Australian way is very different to the culture that people have travelled from. I have in my life five beautiful children from Ethiopia. My children have now been here for four years—in fact, it is four years today since they arrived in Australia. I have found that their commitment and dedication and the effort that they have made to ensure that they are able to participate fully in education has been fantastic. My children are getting older and they have no foundation of education from their grassroots in Ethiopia. But they have a great will to learn in Australia. They have come from an almost impossible situation, but they are doing very well and their English is fantastic.
My children are being confronted with understanding life and its meaning. I am sure my five-year-old will rule the world one day because he has been learning in pre-school from the day that he came to Australia. He is very established in Australian ethos, ethics and the way in which he insists on all English being spoken at home because he is an Australian. It becomes quite jovial in our household. But, at the same time, I know this will better prepare these people—not so much the English speaking—to go forward and understand the ways and the life of the Australian community. My children feel very strongly about this; they want to learn.
I know that many people have come to live in Australia to seek greater opportunity. It is the opportunity that we want to offer, but one of the responsibilities is to ensure that we, as Australian people and citizens, make the most of what our country has to offer new arrivals, to enable them to have a sense of true belonging and involvement in our community. This is what I believe the citizenship test will ultimately achieve. Yes, it will be daunting in the first stages but you can sit the test again if you do not pass. If you are under the age of 18 or over 60, or if you have a permanent physical or mental incapacity which would prevent you from understanding the nature of an application, you would not be required to sit this test. But it will encourage our prospective citizens to obtain the knowledge that they will require to support their successful integration into Australian society.
We have just had an exhibition in Wagga Wagga called From All Four Corners. I launched that exhibition some weeks ago. It was one of the most difficult exhibitions for me to launch. When I went through all of the components and exhibits of that exhibition it was heart-warming to see what many of these people, who I knew intensely closely, had achieved. I had not recognised the difficulties that they had to overcome. One of the families exhibited green hot-water bottles in a glass cabinet. We used to put hot-water bottles in our beds before the advent of electric blankets.
Yes, some people still do. But the hot-water bottle was significant. The family concerned had settled into San Isador, a community in Wagga Wagga. They had been extremely persecuted in their homeland. They arrived in Wagga Wagga when it was freezing cold. Temperatures in Wagga Wagga go into minuses. The night they arrived they were very cold in their house. The next day the neighbour said to the elder of the family, ‘How are you enjoying it? Are you settling in all right?’ He said, ‘It is very cold here. Last night we were freezing.’ At 9 o’clock that night there was a knock on the door. It was very dark outside; there is no street lighting in San Isador. They were terrified because of the experiences in their country. ‘Who would be knocking on our door at 9 o’clock at night? We know nobody.’ They had to be convinced to open the door by their neighbour cajoling them and saying, ‘We are the neighbours from next door. We are not here to harm you or create problems.’ They opened the door and the neighbour had hot-water bottles for their beds. The man, who is in his 70s, cried because he had never experienced kindness like this in his life.
This man and his wife were at the exhibition. When he was explaining his memory of the first night and of the Australian people and the way in which they included him in their lives he cried again; he has lasting memories. This family and many others explained to the gathered crowd at the exhibition just how wonderfully supported they had been while integrating into the Australian community. If they had not been given that very significant support, they would not have understood the difference in the Australian way of life and the Australian ethos. They have all indicated that they required that support.
I spoke to many of these people that evening, explaining how the citizenship test would work—that it was not something that should fill them with fear—and asking them to give me an honest appraisal and without exception they all indicated that this was what they believe should take place in Australia. They did not see it as discrimination or as somebody trying to put roadblocks in their way or pressure upon them to forget their past and only embrace a future. They saw it as a true and genuine effort to ensure that we were not just going to assume that people arriving in our country were equipped and able to prepare themselves for the very big differences in the way in which Australians think and act. I am not privy to the questions that will be asked but I am sure that they will encompass some history and some basic facts about Australia. By knowing that, they feel more able to consolidate their relationship.
I believe that the government in its wisdom has a plan that is going to provide people many opportunities that are currently being lost. They are lost through no fault of the Australian public and through no fault of the people who are coming into Australia; they are lost because there is a crack, and people are just expected to understand without being given the appropriate tools and learning guides to assist them. You might think that when somebody settles in Australia they would know everything. I just took for granted that my children would know the simple things—my girls are well into their teens and my eldest boy was 14 when he came; he will be 18 in September—about everyday shopping and living. They are things that we take for granted. I was so staggeringly surprised when I took the time to sit down with them and I realised that they were in a maze of confusion about going to a supermarket and getting themselves prepared for personal hygiene and a whole host of different things, because in their country it was totally different. Nobody had taught them. I have learned a lot from that and I do not take anything for granted anymore.
I refer back to when we had submissions on the citizenship test. I called for submissions from my electorate, because I knew that they would feel strongly about this—and they did. About 1,600 responses came back to the minister on the discussion paper that was released in September 2006 that sought community views on the merits of introducing a formal citizenship test. It was interesting to note that 60 per cent of respondents supported the introduction of the citizenship test. That means that 40 per cent did not, but 60 per cent saw merit and value and I would suspect that many of that 60 per cent, like the people who had spoken to me, were people who had come from other countries, had experienced difficulties and wanted a clear understanding of some parts of Australian history so that they could feel that they were in the truest sense accepted and welcomed.
I do understand that many people have confusion—I certainly have seen it in my communities. There has been an enormous contribution from arrivals from other countries into my electorate. Many of them have done that without being able to speak English and are still unable to speak English—and many have been here for 50 years. I find that there are still some concerns about this issue, but can I reiterate that this is not about English language. There will be assistance made available with people reading this list of questions and assisting applicants through this. This is not a test of English language. I want to explain to the community at large that I do not believe there is anything to fear from this test. I believe that, in the true sense of being Australian and in the true sense of Australians assisting new arrivals into this country, Australians will again step forward and help with going through this booklet and advising and assisting.
I made mention of my children. They have had no underpinning education, yet they are able to traverse the internet and they are now out there and active. One of my girls is working in a nursing home. My second daughter has found herself part-time employment. She has done her own CV and applications for work. My third son is now studying for the HSC. How difficult it must be for him competing for the HSC, having started his education from year 10. They are understanding the written word and are able to put things together. I believe that the capacity is there for our new arrivals into Australia to embrace this test if they want to be an Australian citizen and also for it to be more inclusive rather than exclusive. I take this opportunity to commend the minister for this opportunity for all Australians.
I am very happy to be speaking on the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Testing) Bill 2007. I will start by mimicking some of the words of the ALP shadow minister for immigration, the member for Watson. He said that from time to time there are great pieces of legislation that change radically the way we think or deal with certain issues—that are essentially hugely important to society and make a whole world of change and are so important in this place. Unfortunately, this is not one of those bills. This bill actually does not do a great deal at all. You would have to read it twice, and still you would scratch your head and say, ‘What does it actually do?’ The devil, they say, is in the detail. Unfortunately, when you read the detail, there is no devil, because there is not any detail to start with. There is really no devil in it, either. This is not some unusual bill; this is not controversial. It has been made out to be, I think, by all sorts of people from all sorts of sides in a range of cases.
I do not find the bill offensive in any way. I think there are a couple of bits in it which we need to know more about—the devil in the detail—because the bill does not resolve issues that have been raised in terms of reasonableness, what the questions might be and exactly how they will be applied. There are a number of unknowns within the bill but it is certainly not a bill that will set the world on fire. This is not a bill that will radically change the way that Australia deals with our citizenship; it just formalises a process that is already there. It is a process that currently takes place every time somebody applies to become an Australian citizen and it has been around in this country for a very long time.
I just wanted to start by saying that. I have a range of views in this area, which I think are important. I think this issue is important but the bill does not go to the heart of making some sort of significant change in Australian culture, society, inclusiveness or anything like that. I suppose I should declare here that I actually was not born in Australia. I took up Australian citizenship voluntarily. It is my only citizenship, of course. My family did that because it was something we really wanted to do. We had this burning desire because we thought that if you are going to live in a country you should fully participate and fully contribute to that country. Australia is a great country for that. When I think about it, it is one of the things I get goose bumps about.
Just how great is this country when somebody who was not born here, such as me, can be a member of parliament! I am not the only one; there is a whole range of such people on both sides. It is one of the truly great things about this institution—along with the freedoms, democracy and all the things we hold dear. Australian citizenship is part of that formula. It is something that I treasure absolutely. I think that all people who take up citizenship have a similar experience and a similar view. For them it is something significantly important. It is a massive decision to take in their lives. Regardless of where they were born and who they are, they are saying to the whole world, ‘I am making a conscious decision as an adult that I have this new country, new allegiance, new family, new set of values and new culture.’ All of those things are inherent in taking up Australian citizenship.
The last thing that any of us would want to do, in good faith, would be to make it more complicated or more difficult for people. I do not believe this bill will do that, by the way. I do not think this bill makes it any more difficult. When we see a bit more of the detail we will be able to make a better judgement and a better assessment of the reasonableness of certain exemptions by the minister and how the questions will work and so forth. I am reasonably confident that if the government is doing this in good faith—and I will have a little bit to say about this as well—then this is not a great departure from where we have been.
Probably not everyone understands that prior to the introduction of Citizenship Act in 1948—I do not know whether you would have this as one of the questions because a lot of people would get it wrong—there was no Australian citizenship as such. You were really just a citizen of the British Empire. The only true Australians were our Indigenous people.
So, many things have changed. The way we view ourselves and the way that citizenship works today has changed completely. That is normal because that is the history of Australia over 200 years since settlement. There is a changing view. Just as values change, so do views and the ways our systems deal with certain situations. A lot of expectations have changed, and I think all of us would understand that as a result of being members of parliament we have had the great privilege of attending so many citizenship ceremonies.
When you see people taking on citizenship you see the emotion and you understand how big a decision it is for some of them. Some of them have been here a long time. For some of them it is just formalising something that they have had in the back of their minds. Maybe they just never got around to it, but they decided that the time had come and they really had to make that leap and become a fully participating Australian. To tell you the truth a lot of those people actually considered themselves to be Australian the whole time. I have often spoken to people from the UK who have been here for 50 or more years. They might get in a little bit of strife when they decide to travel back and do not have the correct documents. They realise they are not Australian citizens. Things like that happen but they are formalising their want to become Australian citizens.
It is easy for those who have been here for a really long time. There are those who come here from circumstances of genuine hardship. I hope there is always great agreement between all people about helping people through UNHCR programs and humanitarian programs by trying to give them the ability to come and live in safety and peace here in Australia. Then at some point we can encourage them to become Australian citizens as well.
When I first heard from the government of this test and these changes I had an impression in my mind—and I am sure a lot of the public did as well—that it was going to be some massive, radical change. It concerned me. I thought it was going to be a reform of gigantic proportions, which was revolutionary almost. I thought that this was somehow about keeping out undesirables and was linked to terrorism. There were all these connotations floating around. The government certainly did not do anything to dampen that. That may have suited their wider agenda, but when you look at it you will see that there is not a great deal here that would concern too many people.
So Labor is supporting this bill. I believe in a citizenship test. We have one now and no-one seems to argue about that. There has been a test around for very long time and no-one seems to have too many problems with that. The formalisation is a little bit different but it is not too strange. I think this legislation can perhaps put in place a more formal mechanism which will give people the opportunity to take up citizenship.
It is not so much about the test itself, because it can be sat a number of times, and it is not as if anyone would or should fail. It is perhaps simply making people jump through an extra hoop. Again, that is not too difficult. What the test should be about—what I hope it is about and what Labor supports—is education and providing information. It should make the process more inclusive and, from the Labor Party’s perspective, give people a greater feeling of earning their citizenship and having contributed more to obtaining it. It should not simply be a case of someone downloading a form from the internet, filling it out, sending off a cheque and receiving a piece of paper saying that they are an Australian citizen. It should be more involved than that, and it is.
The people of this country take their Australian citizenship very seriously. Taking out Australian citizenship, like taking out the citizenship of any other country, is a strange story. At some point we have all come from another country. Of course, that excludes Indigenous Australians. We meet people all over Australia who are Aussie, dinky-di and true blue and who talk with an Australian colloquial accent but with the hint of an accent from their home country. That is a beautiful thing. It is amazing to travel this country—whether it be to Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide or Perth—and hear all the different accents. That is particularly noticeable with older people who have adopted the new language and lingo but who still have a coarse accent from their home country. We realise that they really are Australian and have fully adopted the little sayings that we use. We also see that in the way their culture changes over time.
I have the great privilege in the electorate of Oxley to represent many people from a range of countries and backgrounds, in particular from Vietnam, Laos, China, Samoa, Tonga, the Pacific islands, Spain, Chile, Argentina and the list goes on. Oxley is a very multicultural area. Once upon a time people might not have thought that, but it is true. The local people have made a huge contribution. While they may not all be Australian citizens yet, I know it is a source of great pride and something they promote within their communities. It is a two-way message for them and their communities about never forgetting who they are and where they come from. They do not forget their language and they try to remember their culture, food and people and the reason they came here. That is part of their history and the journey undertaken, whether it was in the past 50 or 200 years.
As the members of the second generation of those immigrants from Vietnam and other areas come along they become much more Australian. The third and fourth generations change to the point at which their parents often tell me that they are really concerned about their kids because they cannot speak their language and have forgotten their culture; they are completely Australian. Those parents are also very proud of that, but they are worried because they do not want their children to forget that link to home. I think everyone would understand that. That is simply the way things are; you eventually become so Australian that the old heritage becomes a distant memory. Members might not hear a different accent or notice different mannerisms in members from another place, although given the way we use our hands some might hazard a guess as to our heritage.
The application of the test in this bill can and should be about inclusiveness and the principles of fairness. We make judgements and implement strategies to implement values. I love the values debate. We articulate our definition of values differently, but we often return to the same core ideas. I think we all believe in democracy, fairness and free speech. We all subscribe to common values and we often say that ours is a tolerant society. I again use the words used by many others: tolerance is a great thing, but inclusiveness is even better. We see a change in immigrant communities when we suddenly move from tolerating their presence to including them and making them feel part of the fabric and greatness of Australia. This country’s strength today is built on the foundations laid by people from many different backgrounds.
We should never fear multiculturalism. Some people say it has no place and that we should get rid of it. I tell them that they are wrong; we cannot get rid of something that is in-built. Multiculturalism is simply a word, but it is one that represents something all around us; it is Australian. We see it in this parliament; this is a multicultural parliament. The biographies of members of parliament demonstrate incredibly rich and diverse histories. All those different views and backgrounds are the strength of this place. Having been born elsewhere and having a different cultural background or heritage does not diminish in any way our devotion and dedication to or our love or the hard work we do for this country. In fact, that strengthens it.
We find littered through the records of the great people of this country the fact that some of them could barely speak English, if at all. However, they have still made huge contributions in a range of areas, be it the medical, science or business spheres. Those people have loved this country and have made huge contributions through culture, the arts or business, or simply by making Australia a greater place. We should particularly value that.
I have a couple of words of caution. The book that the 200 questions will be drawn from has not been released. Let us make it clear that this bill does two things. Firstly, it formalises a test whereby people will fill out a multiple-choice form of 20 questions. It was going to be 30. We are yet to see the book that the questions will be drawn from and we will make a judgement as to the reasonableness of those questions when we see them, obviously after the first test has been implemented. Secondly, the implementation of a citizenship test is not a radical departure from what Labor’s position has been for a very long time, so I do not think anyone should be overly spooked by it. The legislation enables the government and the minister to make some exemptions and to set some questions. The nature of the questions will be interesting, because we want to make sure that prospective Australians have a reasonable chance of passing them—that the test is not impossibly hard. The test is not some crazy game of Trivial Pursuit, and we would not want to demean our nationality in that way. We would also not want the questions to be of such difficulty that they would incur a huge failure rate in general society—questions that perhaps even members of parliament would commonly get wrong. We would not want to get too much into the animals that are on our coat of arms, because most people would probably get the answer wrong—it is not quite what you think it is; it is something else.
Other common errors are made in answer to certain questions. The Sydney Morning Herald and I think the Herald Sun put out an example test, which was purported to be ‘the’ test. However, one of the answers was wrong. You can see where I am going with this: we need to be careful about our approach. The shadow minister, the member for Watson, moved a second reading amendment that goes to a reasonable test of citizenship and notes the importance of teaching English. Although people may have been here for 15 years and may not speak English to the standard we would like, it is important that they learn. It will help them to contribute to society, thereby helping them to become better citizens. It will help them to get a job and it will assist them in a range of areas. I think that is very important. If the government is committed to proficiency in English language and literacy, then a heap of programs that cover adult migrant English need to be enhanced and funded to enable people to feel more a part of society. It is fine to teach English language skills, a bit of Australian history, culture and values, but we need to see improvements to the test. I do not think this test will set the world on fire at any point in time. This is a technical change that really does not change much at all. Changes to Australian citizenship and inclusiveness are about how the government funds programs and treats people. Those are the things that will make a difference. (Time expired)
It is now transparently clear that both sides of the House will support the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Testing) Bill 2007. Unfortunately, I believe this bill is overwhelmingly regressive. I believe that it turns its back on Australia’s tradition of inclusive citizenship and that it imposes a punitive test. I do not support the citizenship testing bill because there has been an utter failure to show that a new citizenship test is needed or that it will operate fairly. I do not support the bill because it sends a corrosive message to many people who would become citizens that they are undeserving of this status. I do not support the bill because the new test will prevent many meritorious aspiring citizens from full membership of the Australian community, and I believe this will diminish us as a nation.
This is not a matter of my personal opinion but a matter of evidence, which I and many others can personally affirm. The experience of my father is emblematic of the experience of hundreds of thousands of men and women. My father, Constandino Georgiou, came to Australia after the war. He raised and educated a good family and he worked two jobs for most of his life. He became a citizen in 1957, if I recollect, and he died at age 56. He was like hundreds of thousands of postwar immigrants—he, and they, earnestly tried to learn English but, despite their best efforts, they could not achieve a standard of English that would have enabled them to pass the test that this parliament is about to endorse. But, despite their limited English, these people committed to Australia. They enriched every facet of our nation’s life. They worked hard, they obeyed the law, they were good parents and fine neighbours. This is not about looking backwards; it is about the future. It is about the hundreds of thousands of migrants who are here now and who will come here in the future to make Australia their home and make their children our nation’s inheritance. It is about people who would make wonderful citizens but who would not pass the proposed test.
Let me set out why this bill is, in my view, an unsupportable measure. There has been a lot of talk about this test not signalling any significant change—that it is just a formalisation—but I do not believe that to be the case. Since Australian citizenship was created in 1949 and our country began its massive immigration program, successive governments have chosen an inclusive approach to citizenship. Discrimination which once existed against non-English-speaking migrants ended. English language requirements were eased. Residency requirements were made equal for all. Discriminatory voting privileges were addressed. Dual citizenship was allowed. All were required to attend a citizenship ceremony. The belief was that if we encouraged and embraced migrants who wanted to become Australians we would become a better and stronger nation.
The inclusiveness of our approach to citizenship has been sustained through massive changes in the racial and cultural composition of our migrant intake. It has to be said—and it is unquestionable—that we have sometimes felt anxious about the speed and magnitude of this change. But Australia has held fast and we have not compromised our belief in inclusiveness, and I believe we have been vindicated by society.
I think it is ironic that, while paying lip-service to the fact that our citizenship has been outstandingly successful, the advocates of this bill ask the parliament to reverse the longstanding thrust of our approach to citizenship. Let me make it clear: as so many have recognised in the course of this debate, if not before, this bill is not about the introduction of an Australian citizenship test, and I think there is a common misapprehension that no test currently exists. The existing law requires applicants for citizenship to be assessed at a compulsory spoken interview for a basic knowledge of English and an understanding of the responsibilities and privileges of Australian citizenship.
What this bill does, which I do not think is sufficiently recognised, is introduce a significantly tougher citizenship test than the present one. That is its explicit intention. The new test represents a fundamental shift from our focus on basic English-speaking ability and an understanding of citizenship. The test will be a test of literacy. It will be a test of the ability to read and comprehend written English and respond to written English at a computer to demonstrate a knowledge of Australian values, culture and history—a knowledge that many native-born Australians do not have. To pass the test applicants will have to study a book written in English and use a computer to answer 20 multiple-choice questions drawn randomly from a large pool of confidential questions determined by the minister.
Let us look at how substantial the case is that has been used to justify the imposition of this tougher test. The bottom line is that this case is utterly without substance. It is based on fallacious and unsubstantiated assertions. The first argument repeatedly advanced for a harsher test is that Australia today faces a new unprecedented challenge, a challenge posed by the intake of large numbers of migrants coming from cultures far removed from our own and from the cultures of earlier waves of European immigration. The facts refute this assertion. There has been a fundamental change in the composition of Australia’s immigration intake. That change took place 30 years ago with the demise of the White Australia policy and the growth of Asian immigration, which has exceeded European immigration every year since 1984. Australia met the challenge of that change, and there have been no major changes to our migrant intake since then. I seek leave to incorporate in Hansard graphs bearing out some of my statements.
The graphs read as follows—
There have been some difficult and ugly moments in the process. In the 1980s we had the Asian immigration debate, which led some to call for a restriction on Asian migration, and we then had the One Nation outbreak. Today most of the people who were concerned about Asian migration have since accepted that they were wrong, and Australia has grown stronger, not by creating new barriers to citizenship but by maintaining our commitment to inclusion.
A second argument advanced for the tougher citizenship test is that many citizens do not value Australian citizenship because they can get it too easily. Citizenship, it has been suggested, is being scattered around like confetti. The only so-called proof of this was a single unattributed anecdote that at one citizenship ceremony a number of people left before the national anthem was sung. I think it is difficult to imagine a flimsier basis for a major change in public policy, which in a few years will cost over $100 million to implement.
A third argument for imposing a tougher English language test is that it will provide an effective incentive for migrants to learn English. Let me make my position unequivocally clear: I believe it is of the utmost importance that people are encouraged and supported to learn English. It benefits them. It benefits their families and the community. The community consensus shared by both migrants and the native born is that English is important for citizenship and the greater the proficiency in English the greater one’s ability to take advantage of the opportunities that Australia has to offer. Despite this, the proponents of the new test suggest without a single shred of evidence that many migrants are unmotivated or resistant to learning English and that the threat of denial of citizenship is an appropriate and effective spur to get them to study harder. I believe that this utterly misunderstands the migrant experience.
Migrants do recognise the centrality of English in Australian society and the importance of learning it. The bill uses the stick of denial of citizenship to penalise people without even having established the nature and extent of limits on English language fluency. Do some immigrants not want to learn or can’t they get into classes? Are they fully occupied in meeting other demands such as employment and family responsibilities? Are there simply limits on how much English some people can learn?
It is recognised that some people will not have the literacy skills required. It is said that in these so-called special cases a test administrator will read out the test questions and possible answers. But, if applicants do not have the literacy skills to read the questions, how does the minister think they will be able to study the book on which the questions are based? This is not just a misunderstanding of the migrant experience; it is based on a flawed perception of literacy and knowledge across the Australian community. The plain fact is that hundreds of thousands of Australians would fail such a test even when English is their native language.
Studies conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicate that 2½ million Australians have very poor literacy skills. One and a half million people who have English as their native language have great difficulty in using much of the printed material that is encountered in everyday life. The ABS says that these people cannot locate information on a medicine label giving them the maximum number of days the medicine should be taken and they cannot enter the number of tickets required on an order form.
This bill is premised on a belief that questions about Australia’s culture and history can generally be answered by primary school children or by secondary school children. The fact is that studies that have been undertaken show that 77 per cent of year 10 students do not know what Australia Day commemorates or the functions of the Governor-General and that only half of Australian students have a grasp of the purpose of democracy. The native born do not have to pass any tests to be citizens. That is as it should be. We got over the notion of literacy tests a long time ago. But, nonetheless, a test for citizenship for migrants should not demand a level of proficiency that is beyond the reach of a significant number of Australians who have English as their mother tongue. Rather than being an incentive to learn English, the new test will punish those with low English language proficiency who happen to have been born overseas. This is totally inconsistent with Australia’s commitment to equal treatment and a free go.
A fourth argument is that we should follow other countries—the USA, Canada and the UK. It has been said that these countries have perfectly functioning citizenship systems. So why, if these models are so good, should our test be even tougher than theirs? Our tests will demand knowledge of history that many native-born Australians would not be able to meet. The UK, which is consistently put forward as the preferred model, does not test history, explicitly on the grounds that it would be unfair to ask immigrants questions that many British people would have difficulty in answering.
The so-called successful UK test was introduced in November 2005, less than two years ago. In March 2007, it was revised because it was deemed to be too difficult for people with basic English fluency to study for it. The US test is currently being revised because it was found to be highly deficient in a number of respects, and a pilot program is being mounted in 10 cities to ensure that the new test works fairly and effectively. This experience shows that there is a need to proceed with caution and that we are being harsher than our so-called role models. But, transcending this, why should Australia culturally cringe to countries whose citizenship systems have yielded inferior results?
A fifth argument advanced by advocates of a tougher test is that the community needs to be assured that migrants are able to integrate into Australian society. It is said that the ability to pass a formal citizenship test will signal that reassurance to the broader community. Personally, I am not aware of any widespread community disquiet that needs to be addressed by imposing a tougher citizenship test. The evidence that is relied upon is an assertion that 60 per cent of a completely unrepresentative sample who responded to a government discussion paper said that they supported a formal citizenship test. Okay, let us take that for granted. But why is this evidence of a troubled community, in particular given the fact—as has been widely acknowledged in the course of this debate—that a test is already in place?
Despite the quite biased presentation in favour of a formal test, a quarter of the respondents opposed it and 15 per cent were unclear. It has been said that 60 per cent supported the introduction of the test. This is not the case. Sixty-seven per cent did not respond to the question asking whether knowledge of Australia is important, 60 per cent did not comment on whether English ability is important and 70 per cent did not address the issue of whether a demonstrated commitment to Australia is important. The question about what should be in a test, let alone in ‘the’ test, yielded no results—and I repeat, no results—that were statistically significant. I could go on, but, in brief, there was absolutely and unequivocally no majority in favour of the test.
Let there be no apprehension about the impact of the proposed new test: it will stop many migrants who are committed to Australia as their home from becoming citizens and thereby full members of our community. Hundreds of thousands of native-born Australians would not be able to pass the test. Low literacy skills should not make a new migrant unworthy of citizenship, just as they do not and should not debar the native born who are low in English fluency from the right to fully participate in the life of the nation.
Since the introduction of Australian citizenship, many hundreds of thousands of people have been accepted as citizens, despite having only basic English proficiency. They have made enormous and universally acknowledged contributions to their new nation. How can it be in the interests of cohesion and integration to impose new barriers to citizenship, barriers that would have prevented its acquisition by so many Australians who have proved themselves to be model citizens? Would having been refused citizenship have increased their commitment to and identification with Australia? Would it have accelerated their integration into our society? Would they have won the respect of other Australians if they had been permanently relegated to the position of guest workers? The only rational answer is no.
The fact that Australian citizenship laws have been made more inclusive in the past has provided a basis of trust, confidence and achievement. The fact that we accepted people with modest English language skills as citizens has broken down barriers, not maintained them. The establishment of this test will, I believe, diminish Australia. I do not believe that this will be apparent immediately, but I believe that it will happen, as the test excludes people who are committed to Australia and who could pass the present test. Their opportunities will be restricted, their participation will be impeded and the fairness and vitality of our society will be eroded. I do not support this bill and I cannot commend it to the House.
I listened with great interest to the contribution made by the member for Kooyong to this debate on the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Testing) Bill 2007. I know he has a very good understanding of immigration and the processes of citizenship in this country, one that is probably better than mine, and that his involvement in this area goes back a lot further than mine. I listened carefully to the reasoned contribution he made about his opposition to the bill, and I can certainly understand his reservations and his personal decision not to support it. I represent a very ethnically diverse electorate in Melbourne; in fact, it is one of the most ethnically diverse electorates in Australia. In my electorate of Gorton, more than half the households—57 per cent—speak a language other than English; on occasion, as well as English. I rise to support the bill and the proposed amendment, but I have to say that the member for Kooyong has highlighted concerns I have had about the original announcement made by the government in relation to this bill. The government’s comments in late 2006 about this matter were very concerning and, in my view, divisive. Indeed, I would suggest they were deliberately divisive and that this matter was being used as a political football by the government, which is consistent with the way it plays with a lot of important matters.
The test that was originally proposed by the government has been changed significantly. I had thought that might have been as a result of the conversations that the member for Kooyong had with the government. I am not sure if that is the case, but my thoughts were that a number of government members and maybe some members of other parties convinced the minister not to proceed with the original purpose of this bill. But I do note, as the shadow minister has also noted, that there have been significant changes to the original proposition.
Unlike the original proposal, the test is now more flexible. Applicants with literacy difficulties will now be talked through the test and, under this bill, further exemptions and variations can be made at any time. Clearly, that is not sufficient for the member for Kooyong, and I genuinely respect his reasons for that. I have some concerns about the way in which the change will still preclude some residents of this country becoming fully fledged citizens because of their potential incapacity to pass even a test they are being asked to do orally because of their own literacy difficulties. As I said, the original proposal has been watered down in this bill. However, we still do not know the questions that will be asked. It is interesting to be debating a bill and talking about a test when the test itself has not been determined. We are looking to agree upon a matter when we do not have all the detail, although I understand the test itself is quite simple.
Labor generally supports the principle of formalising the current citizenship test, but whether the proposal is worth supporting depends on its content—and that, as I said, remains a mystery. We are still waiting for the government to provide the details. It is also important to note that we already have a citizenship test and have had one, in one form or another, since 1948—for as long as Australian citizenship has existed. This bill will formalise a process that was largely opaque, but will still provide discretionary powers. Much latitude will still exist for applicants to overcome literacy obstacles where special arrangements can be made to accommodate them. The very old and those under 18 will be exempt. I am also happy to see that there will not be a separate English test but a test that will be formalised and integrated into the application process.
Many proponents of the bill point to a Newspoll that was taken in December last year, and subsequently published in the Australian, claiming that it showed a majority of Australians to be in favour of a citizenship test. The member for Kooyong quite rightly refuted the conclusion that some have made about that Newspoll. The Newspoll question noted that the proposed test ‘must be completed in English, making knowledge of English a requirement to become an Australian citizen’ and asked: ‘Are you in favour or against knowledge of English being a requirement to become an Australian citizen?’ There are two points I would like to make with respect to that poll. Firstly, the poll was on the public reaction to the proposal that citizens should learn English, not on the support for a citizenship test. Secondly, the knowledge of English is already a requirement under the current law for eligibility. In fact, the ability to understand English was first put into the citizenship test in 1948, as I said earlier, when the status of Australian citizenship was first established. The only effective difference between the test being proposed here and the existing test is that at the moment an applicant’s English is tested verbally by interview, whereas in this proposal the test is written, at least initially. However, following any difficulties, the applicant could proceed to a verbal interview. So where a person does not have the literacy skills required to understand the test, the bill provides for more flexibility than existed before. In that event, a test administrator can go through the text of the questions verbally. The bill also provides for different tests should that be required by the particular applicant.
We are pleased to see that the government has significantly back-pedalled from its original divisive rhetoric, which it was happy to see played out across the tabloids and talkback stations across the nation in late 2006. In fact the rhetoric on this issue has been at odds somewhat with the content of the legislation before us. Opposition to the government’s tone on the citizenship issue has not been restricted to the opposition. As the member for Kooyong has clearly underlined, there are grave concerns among government members about the motives of the bill and indeed the contents of the bill.
The government had claimed that rigorous testing will aid integration, yet their practice has been to strip community groups that actually aid integration of some of their funds, or at least make the terms of their funding much more restrictive. I remember very clearly the anxiety communicated to me by the staff of a migrant resource centre in my own electorate when it became clear that the government was recasting their funding models, making many of their more important functions more difficult or even impossible to maintain.
Much of the discussion in this debate has emphasised our common values, yet I wonder how well we actually live up to the values we claim to represent. Values advertise themselves through example, but do we actually live our own values? Many Australians might identify the ‘fair go’ as a quintessentially Australian value. But where was the fair go in the government’s approach to the prosecution of David Hicks? Where was the fair go with the introduction of industrial relations laws entitled Work Choices? Where is the principle of the fair go in those decisions? What are the values that define us as distinct from other nations? And that is another important question we should ask ourselves. Are these values genuine or do they represent a national conceit? Are we testing citizens on our values as we live them or simply testing people’s awareness of the values we aspire to but do not actually live by? I think that these matters should be considered by all members, indeed by society at large.
In the past the Prime Minister has mocked those who sought to define the national character. Many would say it was a project which was a by-product of a greater sense of nationhood, a resurgent nationalism, and indeed some attributed it to the Whitlam government in the 1970s. The Prime Minister said he wanted Australians to be ‘comfortable and relaxed’ about their origins and history in some of his earliest speeches as Prime Minister. Certainly it was on his mind at his election in 1996. If the concern is indeed integration, and the most important single hindrance to integration is lack of English, then why not expand the access to English classes and training?
I make particular reference to the amendment moved by the shadow minister in part 3. By moving this amendment, he is calling on the government to provide improvements to the Adult Migrant English Program and other settlement services to assist migrants to participate fully in the Australian community and to pass the citizenship test. So one wonders how genuine the government is in its rhetoric about being inclusive when it does not provide the wherewithal for many migrants to gain access to English classes and encourage those migrants to become more literate and conversant in English.
I have some major concerns with this bill. As we have witnessed already this morning, these concerns are shared by members of the government. The member for Kooyong did raise an important issue, I thought, when he drew upon examples in other countries and outlined what they do to process their citizenship. It could be said that we are in danger of following inappropriate European examples where large-scale immigration has proceeded illegally for many years and where immigrants are held back from full citizenship by rigorous controls. In these countries the adoption of a citizenship test has actually increased the access to citizenship.
In contrast, Australia has a long history of successful integration of people from all over the globe. Public acceptance of immigration is widespread, an acceptance which increases with greater day-to-day contact with new migrant groups. In fact one might say that multiculturalism itself is an Australian value. The adoption of a too-restrictive citizenship test would be a restriction which was not there before. The reintroduction of a harsh application process for citizenship would be a significant reversal of the trend which has seen successive governments try to open up the process rather than close it down, and I believe that was the point that the member for Kooyong made quite clearly in his contribution.
The history of citizenship conferral since it was created through the Australian Citizenship Act 1948—until now—is of a progressively more inclusive approach and the easing of requirements. We should be encouraging new migrants to fully participate in the life of the nation by adopting Australian nationality, not restricting it further. When we inquired about the content of the proposed test—to be made subsequent to this bill being enacted—the government had to admit that it had not yet designed the test. In fact it has not even drafted the book from which the questions will be based.
So we must question—as indeed the member for Kooyong did—the government’s sincerity when it makes an announcement and fosters widespread community debate about the notion of a test without actually having any idea what that test might contain. This is yet another example of the government asking the opposition parties, its own members and the community at large to support potentially divisive proposals without any notion of what those proposals might actually contain. No wonder the electorate is cynical about this government.
From the outset of this process, the government late last year made claims about the requirements of English for admission to Australian citizenship and then, in a quieter process, pulled back from the hard rhetoric which I say, and others have said, was divisive—and deliberately so—and ultimately proposed this bill. The bill causes me some consternation because some of the matters that we should have before us to properly decide the merits of the bill are not before us—in particular, the test. It is incumbent on the government to provide that test to the public and to the parliament so members can properly consider their decision to support or not support the bill. The member for Kooyong’s comments clearly came as a result of his frustration over the government’s handling of the legislation. I respect his position on that.
I have fallen on the other side of the decision, if you like, by supporting this bill. But I do so with reservations and with some questions unresolved. Those questions are unresolved largely because I do not have the information at hand to consider the merits of parts of the bill—in particular, the test itself. I support the amendments moved by the shadow minister. If the government accepts them, I think they will at least assist in more migrants having access to English classes. I support those provisions because they may assist in the greater likelihood of people wanting to become and indeed becoming Australian citizens, but I am certainly concerned about some of the unresolved matters, due to the failure of the minister and the government.
A Gippslander am I, though from the west, from dairy, potatoes and asparagus. The good soil of the Kooweerup swamplands drew the immigrants from Europe and so began the great cultural change to our community. Few newcomers spoke English, especially the older immigrants, but their children, whilst maintaining their European ways, quickly adopted the new environs of football, meat pies, kangaroos and Holden cars. We also changed: our chops and three veg were interspersed with spaghetti bolognaise, osso bucco and minestrone soup. We were birthing a multicultural world but we did not know it, where contributions from newcomers to sport, education, church life and the workplace were gratefully accepted.
Our community responded to new parameters. My father-in-law, an estate agent and valuer, concluded that he needed to learn to speak Italian to capture the emerging Italian-speaking real estate market. A talented agent he was; he did well and learnt to speak Italian. My father, a draper, employed Italian and Dutch shop assistants to better communicate with his customers and to ensure future customers.
At a recent house-warming on the other side of Melbourne for my nephew, who is courting a young lady of Italian descent, revelations of family ties reaching all the way back to early Kooweerup emerged. Three and four generations on, we are one people linked by our common heritage but still with our differences according to that same heritage. Prosperity favours the brave, and brave it was for the postwar Europeans, English and Irish to bring family to an English-speaking country on the other side of the world. How daunting, how embarrassing for eight-year-old sons and daughters interpreting and speaking on behalf of mum and dad. The pre-eminence of the father in a European household and his standing would have made such times difficult, if not downright degrading, for father and son.
By the way, as a preteen, local Anglo, as we were called, I had no inkling of the daily problems faced by our own new Australians. After all, their kids went to a different primary school. The Protestant-Catholic divide was still rolling along in the fifties and sixties, so only the Dutch, Germans and those from the Baltic states came to our school. The new kids at school did not talk much. They did not speak English and therefore struggled at school for a while. However, once they mastered the language they shone like beacons in the classrooms. Unlike some local parents, many of whom pulled their kids from school to work on the farm at the earliest opportunity, the new Australians saw the value of education, encouraging their children to stay at school, as long as they were succeeding.
New Australians stuck together. No wonder! For them, there was no sense of belonging, except for church, where Latin was the norm in mass and where they outnumbered the locals, pleasing to the church to this day. Every aspect of life—sport, health care, communication, employment, social interaction—was new to them. Everything was different. I for one am in awe of those who came to this country to enjoy its great opportunities and, in return, to repay the nation with generations of proud, intelligent, energetic young Australians.
We owe a debt of gratitude to all those who come here to participate in the building of this nation, the Great South Land. Today we have immigrants from over 200 countries, many facing the same sense of alienation and separation which those before them faced. Twenty-two per cent of us are overseas born and many more of us are the children of those born outside of Australia. Hopefully, generations will deliver the same dynamic future for our current intake of immigrants. After all, that is the experience of those gone before.
As the Howard government introduces a new citizenship test for prospective Australians my community has given me a very clear message: ‘Fine, but don’t make the test too hard.’ Statements of mine have received some considerable coverage—which is surprising, considering the test is not meant to be onerous or a barrier of any sort to gaining citizenship. The fun and games in the run-up to the next election will begin when journalists start randomly using the 70-odd questions in the citizenship test in live interviews with politicians of all persuasions. Perhaps the test set for new citizens will become the bridge too far or a stumbling block of our own making.
New Australians must wonder about our collective wisdom sometimes. In my experience they never bothered to fix something that wasn’t broken; anyway, the new arrivals had work to do. The reality of the problems and difficulties faced by new immigrants was writ large for me at the recent funeral of much loved local Corry Kooloos, who came with her husband and seven children from Holland and arrived at the Bonegilla migrant camp. She was on her own because her husband went straight to work on a farm outside Melbourne. She had six boys and three girls, all very close. As Anton said to me this morning, they had all done very well.
Corry’s funeral was one that I would not have missed. At the funeral, her daughter Ada recounted the story of her mother never forgetting how life began in Australia with an act of kindness. Two wonderful Italian men who saw the plight of the family getting off the train to go to Bonegilla immediately grabbed their bags and carried them and the youngest children all the way from the train to Bonegilla migrant camp.
The first migrants arrived at the Bonegilla Migrant Reception and Training Centre in the Wodonga district in December 1947. They came to Australian under the immigration scheme. During the 24 years Bonegilla was open 320,000 people passed through its gates. Each, like the Kooloos family, has a special story to tell. The experiences of the Bonegilla migrants span the range of human emotions. They often talk of the isolation, fear, discomfort and broken promises, but they remember the warmth of the people they met, the friendships they developed and the opportunities that became theirs. These people came to build a nation. From those who worked at the Snowy River hydro scheme, Latrobe Valley power generation and the coal mines of Wonthaggi to the fruit growers of Shepparton and Mildura, they lived the dream in the new opportunity that was multicultural Australia.
The Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Testing) Bill 2007 is an aptly named piece of legislation. It is possibly the most testing approach to the subject since the passing of the Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948 first established the legal category of Australian citizen. It is, I believe, one of the most serious tests of our maturity since we finally discarded the remnants of the Immigration Restriction Act, or White Australia policy, in the 1960s and 1970s. One of the controls built into that legislation was of course the infamous dictation test. This was used to either bar the entry of, or effect the removal of, anyone considered to be an undesirable. It was simple but effective—a 50-word dictation test in any European language, and could be applied at the whim of an immigration officer. I am not for one minute suggesting that the test proposed by this bill represents a return to such draconian measures, but I am concerned that the very idea of a new test will invite comparisons to this effect among newcomers to this country who aspire to Australian citizenship.
Part of the rationale behind the proposed test is said to be that it will reassure the Australian public and that it has their overwhelming support. However, it is clear from some of the media reporting of comments on the proposed test that it has anything but universal support. These comments have ranged from derision regarding the form and content of the questions to outright rejection.
There is no doubt that the resounding success of Australia’s postwar immigration has been based squarely on the notion of inclusion and a fair go for all. We have welcomed people from more than 200 countries and embraced many aspects of their cultures. Distinguished Scottish author Andrew O’Hagan picked up on this in his opening address to the Sydney Writers Festival earlier this year. He told the festival opening:
This is a great country and your greatness may always lie in a notion of your inclusiveness.
But he added a qualification:
It is your job to make it more than just a notion. Inclusiveness is a virtue to be fought for and won, and Australia has a heart, or it did in the minds of my people growing up ...
There is one vital ingredient that is needed if we are to achieve this ideal of inclusiveness: respect, the sort of respect that I and my family hold for the Kooloos family as representatives of the many who came to our country area. A recent article on this very subject in the Melbourne Herald Sun caught my eye. In the article the author Brian Patterson drew together the thoughts on the subject of the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Anglican leader Archbishop Rowan Williams and South African religious leader Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Patterson says that, despite all of the antidiscrimination laws, there is a distinct lack of respect, a lack of tolerance for our diversity of race, creed, sexual orientation, cultural values, political persuasions or ideology. I find this a rather negative view of Australian society—and one, I would hope, that is not widely shared. There are and always will be those who preach intolerance and division, and sadly they seem to attract more than their fair share of headlines. But I am heartened by the tolerance and respect shown by the overwhelming majority of messages received in my office on matters relating to immigration and citizenship.
In his second reading speech, the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship said it was important that Australian citizens understand the values that guide us and how our country works. These are values that I believe are already at work in our community. These are the very values that I spoke of earlier. They include the notion of a fair go, and it is this particular value that we need to keep in mind in preparing this citizenship test. Will this legislation offend the imaginings of those who come here in the belief that their dreams of this wonderful land can become a reality? Will this legislation offend the spoken word of an immigrant father, ‘This is my dream; my son manifest’? Will this legislation be born not out of our inclusive history but instead out of an exclusive future? If so, the nation will be poorer for the words. Legislation that comes before this House has to be tested on two levels. First, it must meet the aspirations of and be of benefit to the whole Australian community. Second, it should not be open to abuse so as to disadvantage even the smallest section of the community. While I will support this bill, I would urge the government to keep this latter test at the forefront of its considerations when framing the detail of the proposed test.
I commend the previous speaker, the member for McMillan, for his comments. The Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Testing) Bill 2007 sets out to formalise the citizenship test that applies to the granting of Australian citizenship. The bill amends the Australian Citizenship Act to provide for a more formalised model. My concern with the use of a formal test is to do with what exactly is to be tested and what a formal test will achieve. The mark of any good test is that it should be a valid test—that is, it should test what it is desired to reveal. And in this case that would be the knowledge required of a person seeking to become an Australian citizen.
The requirement of this bill is for applicants for Australian citizenship to have successfully completed a citizenship test before making an application to become Australian citizens. Applicants must understand the nature of their application, possess a basic knowledge of the English language and have an adequate knowledge of Australia and of the responsibilities and privileges of Australian citizenship. Until now, the test has been in the form of an interview with an officer of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. This form of assessment is, by its nature, subjective and could be seen to be open to a range of outcomes for similar applicants. But in formalising the test we must be sure that what is being tested is an essential requirement of an Australian citizen. That has thankfully been the result of the government changing the original test proposal. But, even given the watering down of what was originally proposed, I can see the potential for problems depending on the types of questions included in the test.
As I said earlier, to be a valid test, the questions must be relevant to the strict requirements of being an Australian citizen. I have noted that the test will contain three mandatory questions on the responsibilities and privileges of Australian citizenship and that those questions will be part of the 60 per cent pass mark. That leaves a further nine of the 20 questions which must also be correctly answered. And it is the point of these questions that causes me some concern.
In a similar type of testing that we accept as part of our lives, the testing of drivers, we expect the test to be confined to matters which can be shown to be necessary to demonstrate that the applicant has the required knowledge to be able to drive safely on our roads and obey the relevant traffic rules. We have come a long way from the time when the local police sergeant would ask an applicant to drive around the block and, if they returned in one piece, then tell them that they had passed the test. That test was certainly valid in testing some driving skills but left a lot to be desired when it came to fully testing the driver’s ability to perform under a variety of conditions. Since then, we have seen responsible authorities introduce objective testing of road rules as well as a short road-driving test. But that still leaves many critics calling for a more rigorous driving test and even the inclusion of attitude testing. We should all appreciate the need for drivers to have the knowledge and skills to ensure the safety of all road users. But the purpose of the questions in the proposed citizenship test other than the three mandatory questions on responsibilities and privileges is definitely not entirely clear.
In his second reading speech, the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship saw it this way:
One of the main reasons people come to Australia is that they see this as a land of opportunity.
And I agree with that observation. The minister went on to say:
Part of our responsibility to them is to ensure that they have the knowledge to make the most of what our country offers and to help them develop a sense of belonging. Citizenship is at the heart of our national identity, giving us a strong sense of who we are and our place in the world.
The minister then went on to express this as follows:
Becoming a citizen is a profound step requiring the individual to pledge their loyalty to Australia and its people. It involves a commitment to a shared future and core values.
But what are those values? Or should I ask whose values they are? While recognising that Australia is a multicultural society, the minister then said:
While people are not expected to leave their own traditions behind, we do expect them to embrace our values and integrate into the Australian society. In becoming a citizen, they pledge their loyalty to Australia.
It seems deliberate on the part of the minister to mention the phrase ‘embrace our values’ and the pledge of loyalty in the same paragraph. He went on to say:
For generations, Australia has successfully combined people into one community based on a common set of values.
And the minister went further and listed those values:
These values include our respect for the freedom and the dignity of the individual, support for democracy, our commitment to the rule of law, the equality of men and women, respect for all races and cultures, the spirit of a ‘fair go’, mutual respect, compassion for those in need, and promoting the interests of the community as a whole.
I would have thought that those comments would have covered the matter. Although I have to ask how you could put those values into questions as part of the proposed test. The minister takes this seriously as is evidenced by his comment:
It is important that Australian citizens understand the values that guide us and how our society works.
The minister then gave us a history lesson on the foundation of Australian values as he sees it. Like so many historians he begins as follows:
From 1788 the British settlers of Australia brought with them the Anglo-Celtic principles and traditions of Christianity, the scientific revolution and the enlightenment.
There is no mention whatsoever in his speech about our beautiful Indigenous Australians and I think I can safely assume that there will be no questions about Indigenous Australians in the citizenship test. The minister told us:
The material which will form the basis of the citizenship test will highlight the common values we share, as well as something of our history and our background.
As I said, it will not be easy to frame the questions related to the common values we share. The minister spoke about the spirit of a fair go, but how do you put that into words that someone new to Australia and with moderate English language skills can understand well enough to be able to answer test questions about it? For that matter, what is meant by ‘the dignity of the individual’? These are concepts that we can analyse, but it would be difficult to come up with a simple definition and it would be very difficult to come up with a simple statement that could be fairly included in a test. When you look at values such as ‘the equality of men and women’ we need to consider the extent to which they have been adopted in Australia. In my lifetime we have seen the principle of equal pay accepted nationally, so when we talk about established values we need to consider that values are not chiselled in stone. Australian values have evolved over time—and that time includes our prehistory—and continue to evolve.
One of the major forces shaping our changing values is the impact of immigration on the make-up of the Australian population. So when we look at those values that we seek to make a part of the citizenship test, we must look at those in the light of the changing nature of the Australian population. I will repeat my earlier quote from the minister’s speech:
For generations, Australia has successfully combined people into one community based on a common set of values.
But we need to ask just how much that ‘one community’ has changed. Even though I lived in suburban Sydney in my school years, much of what I was taught—and you might say many of the values I developed—were influenced by images of Australia as a rural nation. The school books showed farmers on tractors, sheep and fields of wheat. We recited Dorothea Mackellar’s My Countryand I am sure the member for Throsby would also remember reciting it many times—and my mother, bless her heart, listened to Blue Hills on the wireless. But those images and the cultural values that flowed from them had little significance when it came to my working life in the city of Sydney. Those common values have long since vanished from urban Australia in the 21st century.
The community that Australians identify with is more likely to be framed by their immediate surroundings, their workplace, their suburb, their generation, their entertainment and their family background. What is significant in an electorate like Fowler, which I am so privileged to represent in this parliament, is that, while it is home to 150,000 people, it is not typical of even what might be called ‘average Australia’. For a start, in the 2001 census, most Australians described their ancestry as Australian, Anglo-Celtic or European but, in Fowler, the largest group described their ancestry as Chinese. When it came to religion, 94 per cent of the population claimed to have a religious belief but only 54 per cent—slightly more than half—described themselves as Christian. The significance of this is that, while we may seek to identify common values, the values that are common for a person living in Fowler may be quite different to the values of someone living in another part of Australia. Regardless of what may be set out as common values and tested as part of the citizenship test, the evolving values of Australians will be those developed in their local communities and not necessarily those developed in the national community.
One of the best examples of the way these values are formed was shown—in what was at the time seen as being a light-hearted way—in the 1960s novel They’re a Weird Mob, which was written by John O’Grady under the pen name of Nino Culotta, and in the similarly-themed book So, You Want to be an Australian by Cyril Pearl. It was made into a film starring Walter Chiari and Chips Rafferty. The plot of the film shows the perils of assimilation faced by an Italian immigrant. Much of the film is devoted to the influence of the workplace on the values and language adopted by the Italian migrant. While knowing of the film might date me, I think it is true to say that its message is as relevant today as it was 40 years ago.
The point I wish to make is that, regardless of what the Department of Immigration and Citizenship may put together as a test of Australian values, unless it understands how those values are learnt the test will not be a valid one—that is, it will not be a reasonable test of what are real, common Australian values and it will not be relevant to the community that people seeking citizenship will be part of. The most obvious consequence of a test based on irrelevant values is that it will encourage the kind of shonky schools that we have seen in driving instruction and taxi licence testing. The applicants are given a quick rote-learning way of passing the test without really understanding what it is all about. I think that will be the inevitable result of this legislation.
It should be the case that the existing Adult Migrant English Program, which provides access to English for employment, citizenship and community participation, should be expanded to ensure that all candidates for citizenship have access to affordable programs to assist them with the knowledge required to meet the test requirements. But the experience in recent years in New South Wales does not fill me with confidence that this will be the case. Before 1998, adult migrant English programs were conducted by the Adult Migrant English Service of the New South Wales Department of Education and Training. Under this government, the program was put out to tender with a newly established private organisation, ACL, being allocated three of the five regions. As we can now see, the cost of delivery has increased, which has resulted in fewer hours of tuition being provided. By the 1999-2000 year only 11 per cent of existing students achieved a functional English certificate. Since then, ACL has also won the tender for settlement services in New South Wales and, despite what should be the regional nature of the English program, not one refugee client of the ACL settlement service has been referred to AMES. So much for the supposed choice that the tender system was to provide.
What we have in New South Wales is a race to the bottom where the leading provider is a for-profit company listed on the Stock Exchange that can set the pace in providing a minimal service to maximise its profit. The losers are those clients who will be less able to function in the workplace or in society as a result of their lack of English skills. If we were to look at where applicants for citizenship should seek the English and other test requirements, it definitely should be the Adult Migrant English Program. Instead, we find that migrants who were required to pay up to $5,000 for English language education before they come to this great country, Australia, often cannot attend at all or can attend only for a short period of time because they need to work full time to get established in their new homeland.
These migrants do not achieve the level of functional English often necessary to work in their area of skill. It is not unusual to find skilled migrants—I have found so many living in my electorate—working outside their trade or profession because they simply do not have the necessary English skills. It is a catch-22 situation: they cannot get the English skills they need because they need to work in a low-paid, unskilled job and they cannot work in their trade or profession because their English is not good enough. That is a story told by thousands of skilled migrants in this country. While we suffer from acute skill shortages in many fields, the lack of accessible and affordable English classes prevents us from taking full advantage of the skills of these wonderful people.
The second point in relation to learning English is that the amount of time it takes to attain the level needed can be greater than the allocated 510 or 610 hours. We need to take into account the fact that many refugee migrants have very poor literacy in their own language. Learning English is therefore doubly hard. When people do not have the knowledge to read and write in their own language, these skills must also be taught as part of the program. It is little wonder that only 11 per cent of students achieve a functional English certificate. It should also be obvious that a person who speaks a European language based on the same Latin alphabet as English will be able to learn English faster than a person of Chinese background who is literate in a Chinese character based system of writing.
One thing is clear: as a country, we are not doing enough to develop the English skills of our migrants and we are paying a hefty price in suffering skills shortages in trades and professions because we are failing to invest enough in these programs. This government should be condemned for that. When it comes to testing applicants for citizenship, I can see three future directions. We can invest in programs that improve the English skills of all migrants and, in the process, impart the most important of Australian values. Secondly, we can continue as we are and water down the English and citizenship tests to the lowest common denominator to ensure people get through. Or, thirdly, we can make a joke of the whole process by failing to fund English language and citizenship knowledge and leaving the process open—and I feel that we will leave this open—to rorting by shonky agents eager to make a buck out of the citizenship test.
I concur with many of the comments made by my colleague the member for Fowler. Like the electorate of Fowler, the electorate that I represent, Throsby, was built on a very solid foundation of successive waves of migration to this wonderful country, and many wonderful migrants to the Illawarra have availed themselves of citizenship. Since 1949 Australia has taken great pride in this and governments of both persuasions have chosen an inclusive approach to citizenship matters. That has been exemplified, as I say, by successive waves of migration, particularly in the postwar era.
The inclusiveness of our approach to citizenship has been sustained despite the massive changes in both the racial and cultural composition of our migrant intake over those decades. I think there has always been a belief at the government level—in governments of both political persuasions—that, if we embrace migrants who want to become Australians, this will result in a better, more tolerant and more successful and unified nation. I do not think anyone can dispute that immigration has been one of this nation’s most obvious success stories, with migrants having come to our wonderful land from more than 200 countries around the globe.
Back in 1973, the then Citizenship Act saw the waiting period for citizenship reduced to two years and a requirement that migrants had a basic understanding of the English language—with people over 50 exempt from the test. In the seventies I think multiculturalism was well established and generally accepted in our community. We grew to value Australia’s cultural pluralism and encouraged migrants to belong and identify with this nation’s destiny, its values and its objectives, while at the same time understanding that migrants wanted to retain their cultural and religious ties. In fact, in 1993 a preamble was inserted into the then act acknowledging and implicitly valuing Australia’s cultural diversity. It said:
Australian citizenship represents formal membership of the community of the Commonwealth of Australia; and Australian citizenship is a common bond, involving reciprocal rights and obligations, uniting all Australians, while respecting their diversity ...
I think it is fair to say that the prevailing attitude in the Australian community is that when people take up citizenship of this nation it is a very important step which involves rights and obligations to our nation. At the same time that those words were introduced the old oath, in which citizens swore allegiance to the Queen of Australia, was dropped. A new pledge, penned by our notable poet Les Murray, was introduced. That pledge says:
From this time forward, under God,
I pledge my loyalty to Australia and its People, whose democratic beliefs I share, whose rights and liberties I respect, and whose laws I will uphold and obey.
So from the very early days of citizenship requirements there has always been an understanding that citizenship involves obligations and reciprocal rights. One of those obligations is a professed commitment to share in the democratic values of our nation and to understand the rights and liberties and laws of our country.
It seems to me that there has been a decided change in direction in our approach to citizenship in more recent times. That change in direction is reflected in the debate we are now having on the bill before us, in terms of the formal citizenship test requirements. Let us be clear that there has always been a test for citizenship. The test that is in practice now must have worked well because under that test 3½ million people who have come to our shores have become Australian citizens since 1949. Those people, including my family, I believe have enriched every part of our society and the Australian way of life. The current system has overwhelmingly given Australia good citizens. Under this system applicants have to demonstrate a basic knowledge of the English language and, as I said earlier, an understanding of the responsibilities and privileges that citizenship bestows. These understandings and basic competency in the English language are assessed at a compulsory interview.
Under the proposals of this bill the current test—which I said had worked remarkably well and had seen 3½ million people accepted into Australian citizenship—will be replaced by a more complex, formal citizenship test that will need to be passed before citizenship can be bestowed. As I read the legislation, the new requirements will include comprehension in the English language and an understanding of Australian values, institutions, traditions and symbols, assessed by a multiple-choice test on the computer.
Our Prime Minister has defended these changes and he has argued that the test is about ‘cohesion and integration; it’s not about discrimination and exclusion’. Well, let us hope that that ends up being the case, but we should be clear that this new formal citizenship test does not establish a new test where none existed before. My worry is that it could make it so much harder than it has been in the past for good people to become good Australian citizens. In my view, our nation should not create unreasonable barriers, so that good people who come to our country can continue to become good Australian citizens.
What are the ingredients of this new test? According to the minister’s second reading speech on this bill the test will be computer based and consist of 20 multiple-choice questions drawn randomly from a large pool of questions, which are confidential to date. So we are debating a bill but we do not know the specific content of the kinds of questions that would be asked. Each test is expected to include three questions on the responsibilities and privileges of Australian citizenship. The pass mark is expected to be 60 per cent, including answering three mandatory questions correctly. A person will be able to take the test as many times as required in order to pass. The test questions will assess knowledge of Australian history, culture and values based on information contained in a citizenship test resource book. There will not be, we are told, a separate English language test, although obviously a person’s English language skills, fluency and comprehension will be assessed in terms of their ability to successfully complete the test.
The government acknowledges, however—and I take some comfort in this—that there will be some people who do not, and may never, have the literacy skills required. I think it is important that I stress that point; I will come back to it a bit later. I do not think I need to remind the minister that he only needs to look at the level of adult illiteracy among people for whom English is their first language to understand that lack of fluency in the English language and illiteracy are not conditions associated only with people newly arrived in this country. Moreover, we are getting many more migrants to our country who lack literacy skills, often in their own language.
The government does acknowledge that provisions may be needed for people who do not have the literacy skills required. It proposes that the test administrator could read out the test questions and possible answers to the applicant. That is as generalised a statement as I can find about how these special provisions would operate. However, the minister also assures us that the bill will provide flexibility to approve more than one test should different arrangements need to be made in the future for certain prospective citizens. I argue that those so-called prospective arrangements would be far better introduced initially rather than left as a possible option down the track.
It is clear from my reading of the requirements of the new test that it represents a fundamental shift away from our current focus on the applicant for citizenship having basic English-speaking ability and comprehension to a test of literacy; that is, the ability to read, comprehend and respond to written English and having adequate computer skills. I am concerned that many of the 3.5 million people who have become citizens of our nation since 1949—including, as I said earlier, members of my family—could not have passed the new test. While we do not have examples of the types of questions to be asked, I fear that the complexity of the test may stop many worthwhile immigrants who are committed to making Australia their home from becoming citizens and full members of our community.
Members need only to look at some of our nation's greatest individual success stories and ask whether they would have passed the test. Many of them are now famous businesspeople and scientists. Sir Gustav Nossal and Frank Lowy come to mind. Many eminent Australians arrived in this country without fluency in English. Many other people come to mind who are not publicly recognised or in the public gaze—people like my parents and grandmother, who have made their own special and unique contribution and who decades after their citizenship acceptance remained great citizens, albeit without fluency in the English language or the written word. Since 1949, many hundreds of thousands of migrants would have been accepted as citizens and made an enormous contribution to the success of our nation despite having only basic English proficiency.
As I said in my introductory remarks, the region that I represent—the Illawarra—has wonderful citizens who came to Australia in every wave of postwar migration. The migrants I have met and read about have made an enormous economic, social and cultural contribution to the life of our nation and our region. While penning a few thoughts for my contribution I found a lovely letter in the Age. I will quote it because it reflects my family’s experience. The writer—a woman from Blairgowrie—states:
Older migrants were not subjected to an English-language test and, in many instances, they never did master the language of their new country. Finding work, establishing a home and family and ensuring a secure future for their children took all their energy and resolve … They did not underestimate the importance of developing knowledge of English and there was a sense of regret and sometimes despair that they needed to rely on others to ease their way in an English-speaking environment ... They were, however, model Australian citizens and their loyalty to this country was rock-solid.
I repeat: I wonder if we had applied the stringency of the formal citizenship test during these successive waves of migration how many of the 3.5 million people who have become great citizens of our country would have passed. I am relieved that the government has provided an escape clause. The minister acknowledges that some time down the track there may be a need for another version of the formal citizenship test.
My concerns about the potential difficulty of the new test were articulated in a submission on the bill made by the New South Wales Adult Migrant English Service Teachers Association. I agree with many of the points raised by the association, and I will draw on a few of them. It is worried that an increase in the complexity of the assessment process will install barriers to access to citizenship, especially for migrants and refugees whose first language is not English. It points out that the complexity of issues to be covered—that is, the testing of values and principles like our respect for freedom and dignity of the individual—are well and truly beyond the basic levels of English learnt during the 510 hours of Adult Migrant English Program tuition. The association also points out that at present only 20 per cent of students achieve a certificate III level outcome. As professionals in the field, its members argue that any lesser level outcome would be insufficient for the kinds of assessment proposals canvassed in the discussion paper. As we know, many migrants are unable to attend AMEP classes or do so for a short period because of the need to work to support themselves and their families while there is no access to social security benefits for their first two years in this country. I am heartened by the comments made recently by our shadow minister for immigration in outlining Labor’s vision for a new-style AMEP and promised additional financial commitments. His press release states:
“For 11 years, the Howard Government has allowed this program to become stale and outdated. The AMEP was introduced in 1992 by Labor to help new arrivals learn English. But the immigration program has changed significantly over the past decade. We now have many migrants coming to Australia that have never been to school and are not literate in their own language.
“Too many people who hit the brick wall when they reach the maximum number of hours they’re allocated, who need to and want to learn more English, but the system is not letting them.
“The Howard Government’s policies continue to see new arrivals who have received university education be treated the same as those who cannot even write in their own language. Labor wants to see an end to the one-size-fits-all policy.
“The policy continues to disadvantage many people – up to 9 out of 10 people are leaving English language tuition without basic English. It is very sad that Government policy is failing these people.
I thought the heading of his news release was very appropriate in the context of the debate we are having today: ‘Labor Will Teach English, Not Just Test It’.
Let me reaffirm the great success story of this wonderful nation that we live in. Multiculturalism has been a stunning success which has strengthened our nation economically and socially. It has enriched our culture and has reinforced the principle of social cohesion. One in four of today’s Australians was born overseas, compared with one in 10 in 1947, the year I was born. Another quarter of Australians have at least one overseas born parent. So almost half of us Australians are either migrants or the children of migrants. No doubt immigration is one of our nation’s most noble success stories and one which we should all celebrate.
Unity and diversity are not opposites, and I think today’s Australia exemplifies the best of both. Migrants are more likely to want to become citizens and to be part of our wonderful society, knowing that we respect some of those differences and that no-one is dismissive of anybody’s culture, beliefs or traditions. That point was made very well in a recent Fairfax editorial—and of course the test is going to be talking about Australian values. I quote from the editorial:
Multiculturalism is not at odds with Australian values, it is an Australian value. And to recognise that Australia embraces a host of nationalities is not to put any nationality ahead of our own. Rather, it is to recognise that the acceptance of difference has itself become an integral part of Australian identity; it is part of the glue that holds our diverse community together. To deny it can only keep us apart.
In conclusion, I support the amendment moved by our shadow minister for immigration, which reads:
That all words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:“whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading and whilst welcoming the formalising of the current test for Australian Citizenship, the House:
- notes that the issue is whether the citizenship tests to be determined under the legislation are reasonable;
- notes the importance of teaching in the development of English language skills and the acquisition of knowledge of Australian history, culture and values; and
- calls on the Government to provide improvements to the Adult Migrant English Program and other settlement services to assist migrants to participate fully in the Australian community and to pass the citizenship test”.
I can only endorse what you just said, Mr Deputy Speaker, about the credit children of immigrants, like the member for Throsby, bring to this House. The member for Throsby and I have often attended functions together, and her ability to speak Russian to a very large part of my electorate is an adornment to the opposition. It certainly puts Russian-speaking people at ease. Major General McLachlan of the RSL said to me that the function we ran for the Russian veterans in my electorate for the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War was the best function that he had attended in Victoria for that commemoration, from Australia’s point of view and from his point of view as the State President of the Returned and Services League of Victoria. The success of that function was in large part due to Jennie George’s involvement.
Labor’s approach to the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Testing) Bill 2007 is clear: if you are going to test, you first must teach. This legislation alters laws which were passed earlier this year. It is another example of a government at the end of its mandate. It is legislation made up in a hurry to try and appease a mythical part of the Australian electorate in which the values and bigotry of the ‘Howard battlers’ are elevated. A core value of this Hansonite group which the government has elevated to attention is hostility to certain groups, a ‘value’ which lies at the centre of their values and which I believe is behind this bill.
This bill is a dispirited and lame attempt by a government in its last weeks of life to somehow lash out at people who are ‘non Howard battlers’. It attempts to exclude rather than include, to spurn rather than welcome, to create ‘them’ rather than ‘us’. The sensible Labor amendment will be rejected by this non-functioning government. Any attempt to turn this sow’s ear into a vaguely silk purse will be fought bitterly by a coalition slouching towards its well-deserved appointment with the electorate.
The act which is being amended today is the Australian Citizenship Act 2007. This legislation requires that applicants for citizenship understand the nature of their application, possess a basic knowledge of the English language and have an adequate knowledge of the responsibilities and privileges of Australian citizenship. This bill today now adds a test to be passed by an applicant for citizenship.
In our mother parliament in London many years ago, a similar ‘test’ bill was passed. It was in some ways similar to the ‘Howard battlers’ bill that we are considering here, Mr Andrews’s current proposal. The aim of the ‘test’ bill of 1672 was to exclude British Catholics from proper membership of the British nation. It was designed and enforced rigorously by, some people would say, this government’s forebears: serious, God-fearing and righteous British Protestants.
The legislation before us today is similarly aimed at a particular community—this time within Australia. I will not name the community because that would create a distracting headline. All members know the community I speak of. Australia, like all Western countries, does have a problem with a political ideology in a minority amongst the community, but that is a separate issue. Recent events at home and abroad contribute to the situation which has brought forth this bill. I do not discount for a moment the objective seriousness of this mainly external situation. I do not make light of the challenge faced by the West, including Australia, and thrown at us by groups who are committed and hostile to us and our way of life. What I question is whether it is sensible policy to automatically assume that we now have a fifth column in our midst. I am aware of individuals and groups listed in various courts in Australia facing very serious charges. I do not know who is guilty. A court will determine that. What I do know is that this almost collapsed government has not a scintilla of policy towards this community other than the stick—there is not a carrot in sight, and there never has been since the election of this government in 1996.
It is amazing to me that you can set up all of these tests but not provide the millions of dollars that are necessary towards teaching English to immigrants as they come to Australia. There should be a whole program of absorption and English training that is available as part of the package immigrants to Australia have when they come here. I support a high immigration policy. I think we have 160,000 immigrants coming into this country now per year. Immigration contributes not just to the economic vitality but to the cultural vitality of this great country. But we should be fair to them and make sure that they have English classes available. There are many people who just fail the English test that I know in Moscow and Leningrad and Kiev et cetera who, if they had not failed those tests, would have made excellent immigrants to this country and would have been able to perfect their English here like so many people have previously.
The legislation here today is a continuation of that failed ‘all-stick’ policy. Clearly, immigration officers will fail the great majority of applications made by members of the target community. Given that a situation will arise where some members of this community will be in and others will be out, could we have a more fertile field for quite hostile propaganda against Australia within this community? Presumably the minister will deny that his department will fail people under orders. There is no need for us to delude ourselves and argue the pros and cons of departmental probity. We all remember the Vivian Solon case, which the very capable Labor Party candidate for Wentworth brought to public attention. It tells us everything we need to know about the current environment and the way in which some Immigration officials act or were forced to act. My concern is that this test legislation, like the English Test Act of 1672, is based on knowledge of how this government views the world, how the department behaves as a reaction to this government and how people who are rejected and victimised react to this rejection.
Every member of this House knows as much of the three aspects of this situation as I do. The coalition members opposite know that the world situation is very complicated. We do not need, in my view, to adopt the lowest common denominator, Mark Textor focus group approach. I can only describe it as a sly and convoluted way of looking at the problem that we face which, in my view, is bound to make the situation worse. I think the government do not care. They are on a mission for this government and the Prime Minister to find another Tampa. Bashing an unpopular group is the best they can do. ‘We say who will pass our test and the conditions under which they will pass’ is a variation of a famous saying of the Prime Minister.
Let us look at some of the elements of this legislation and examine some of the problems that flow from them. Presumably, this legislation will need further amendment next year. Hopefully, next year with a change of government we will get a policy of carrots to balance the sticks in dealing with the community. The bill before us is a better version than the original suggestions. The proposed text is now more flexible. If Australia is going to continue taking migrants from underdeveloped countries then we have to take account of literacy problems with many of the test takers. This point is important and relates to my first remark here today: if you are going to test, first you must teach.
Labor has always supported education and education services for migrants. The teaching of English and citizenship matters. This is the best way for this parliament to achieve the nobler element of this bill. We are all united here in our desire to see Australia as an integrated, stable, secure and prosperous nation. No-one here on either side wants to see any part of our community fall by the wayside. No-one wants ghettos based on suburbs where a foreign language is the norm and where children are raised physically in Australia but psychologically in a foreign country. This is not multiculturalism; this is multinationalism. The money allocated to migrant education services under this proposal appears substantial but will probably be inadequate. Given the general attitude of the government to migrants, it is unlikely that the inadequate financing will be remedied. This is another example of where it will require a change of government to deal sensibly with an ongoing problem.
The bill before us makes another and quite profound change in the migration process. Currently, once an applicant makes an application, all sorts of legal protections for the applicant come into force. There are tribunals and courts available to enforce these protections for an applicant. However, under this bill, persons seeking to stay permanently in Australia must pass this test before they make such an application. Thus, the applicant remains on a temporary and expiring visa that he or she currently holds while trying to pass the test. Clearly, this process will enable the department to use the test in a candidate’s failure to prevent the making of an application. This technique, while being fairly blunt, will be effective. I fully accept that every government has to run a migration program that satisfies members of parliament and meets widespread community acceptability. What concerns me is that this approach uses a broad, slashing sword when a scalpel is required—or a rapier, at least. I think we all accept that migrants coming to Australia are doing so because they see Australia as a better place for them than their old country. It is a big transition for people who are migrating from one country to another to give up their homeland and to make Australia their country. I understand that. Like the member for Throsby, my father made the transition in 1939, from Germany.
For whatever reason—economic, cultural, political or merely the meeting of a potential life partner—migrants continue to flock to Australia. This is a marvellous benefit to our nation and also, clearly, a benefit to the migrants. In my electorate of Melbourne Ports, the vibrancy, the liveability and the whole cosmopolitan feeling of the area arise out of the diversity provided by our migration system—and it works. Equally, my standing here in this place speaking to this issue is testament to the opportunity that this country affords migrants and their descendants. Acceptance or integration into Australia is long seen as an issue that remains in the public mind predominantly with respect to some sections of the community unfairly targeted by the present government. What we want in Australia, and what I always say at citizenship ceremonies, is not to judge people by their aristocratic background, or their lack of it, or by the size of their wallet, their ethnicity or their political acceptability, but by the content of their character and what they do here in this country.
This bill seeks to apply legislative pressure to target those people who are deemed not to be adapting fast enough. I would urge members to be careful in this application of pressure. We do not want to make a mistake and create fear and anger amongst communities who may consider themselves the target of this bill.
The content of this test is not yet available. This is unfortunate, and it is also an indicator of the rushed nature of this proposal. Apparently there will be a body of 300 or so general Australian knowledge questions, from which 20 will be chosen by the officer administering the test. I understand that, to pass, an applicant must answer at least 60 per cent of the questions correctly. Will these tests be given on the streets, to university students, to members of the RSL or to beachgoers in St Kilda? All the mistakes, head-scratching and befuddled responses, no doubt even from amongst some of us in this place, will show this test to be substantially found wanting.
A better way to deal with this sensitive matter of citizenship would have been to have had a more focused, measured, less rushed investigation into how to effect a fairer and more effective system, perhaps under the auspices of a parliamentary committee. This would have limited the likelihood of alienating individual communities. The proposed amendments of the opposition go a long way to limiting what would otherwise be the collateral damage of this bill, but I am afraid this government, with its Pavlov’s dog reaction to anything that the opposition suggests, will reject them.
I commend the general attitude that Australians have towards immigration. The attitude that has made this country as great as it is rests on our traditions as a free Westminster, open, pluralistic society. But also the vitality of modern Australia rests on the contribution of so many migrants from so many backgrounds to this fantastic country. I am afraid this bill is inadequate. I worry very much about the content of this test and how it will be applied. I think of so many citizens who have come here and to whom English seemed almost impenetrable at the beginning but who have made such a great contribution to this country. It would have been a shame if they had been kept out under the provisions that will be passed with this bill, which is when we will eventually see this test.
The Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Testing) Bill 2007 requires applicants for citizenship to understand the nature of their application, possess a basic knowledge of the English language and have an adequate knowledge of the responsibility and privileges of Australian citizenship. It is my understanding that my contribution to this debate will be truncated because this debate is to be gagged.
I firstly associate myself with the comments made by the member for Melbourne Ports, who made an outstanding contribution to this debate. Secondly, I emphasise the importance of the availability of English language courses. One of the first actions of the Howard government, at a time when I was a member of the state parliament of New South Wales, was to reduce English language courses. That was devastating for the people who relied on those English language courses to develop the skills that they needed to be functional members of our society, to be able to communicate effectively and to obtain employment. When we are talking about English language, we really need to realise that it was the Howard government that, as one of its first acts, reduced and abolished those English language classes.
The other point that I would like to make in my very short contribution to this debate is that I, like all members of this House, attend Australian citizenship ceremonies. I find them to be one of the most moving parts of my job. I would like to share with the House what happened at the second-last citizenship ceremony I attended, which was at Lake Macquarie City Council. Along with the other people that were present, I made my contribution to the ceremony. The mayor then stood up and started reading to the applicants. As he read, I looked at one of the applicants in the front row. She was nodding and became highly emotional. She had tears streaming down her face because for her to take out Australian citizenship was such an important event in her life. To her it meant that she had considered what it actually meant to become an Australian citizen. She had been living in Australia for 10 years, so it was not a decision she took lightly, but to her it was an all-encompassing decision—a highly emotional decision.
Whilst the government is looking at putting barriers in place when it comes to taking out citizenship, I argue that it should be encouraging people to take out citizenship. One applicant for citizenship in my area had lived in Australia for 87 years and finally decided that she would like to take out Australian citizenship. Australian citizenship is a privilege but, as a nation, we have grown and thrived because of people coming from overseas who are prepared to become Australian citizens.
I thank members for their contributions to the second reading debate on the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Testing) Bill 2007. This bill amends the Australian Citizenship Act 2007 and provides for the introduction of an Australian citizenship test. People living in Australia enjoy many rights, including equality before the law and freedom of religion and expression. Australian citizens also have the right to vote and to participate in our democratic processes. But we also have responsibilities. We must obey Australia’s laws, respect the common values and respect the rights and freedoms of others. We are also encouraged to become involved in the community to help make Australia an even better place. The material which will form the basis of the test will highlight the common values we share, as well as our history, heritage, symbols, institutions and laws. It will give migrants to Australia the information they need to better understand what it means to be Australian, what their rights are as Australian citizens and what is expected of them in return.
The Australian Citizenship Act 2007 requires that applicants for citizenship by conferral under the general eligibility provisions understand the nature of their application, possess a basic knowledge of the English language and have an adequate knowledge of the responsibilities and privileges of Australian citizenship. The bill provides that these applicants must have successfully completed a test before making an application for citizenship to demonstrate that they meet these requirements. People who are not required to have a knowledge of the English language or the responsibilities and privileges of Australian citizenship will not be required to sit a citizenship test. This includes applicants under the age of 18 or those aged 60 years or over and those with a permanent physical or mental incapacity which prevents them from understanding the nature of their application.
The citizenship test will provide prospective citizens with the opportunity to demonstrate in an objective way that they have a knowledge of Australia, including the responsibilities and privileges of citizenship, and a basic knowledge of English. The test will encourage them to obtain the knowledge that will support successful integration into Australian society and enable them to maximise the opportunities that Australia has to offer.
Concerns have been raised regarding the power in the bill that allows for a ministerial determination to establish eligibility criteria for sitting a test. Specifically, the concern is that a determination may establish eligibility criteria that are inappropriate and unfair, with no parliamentary scrutiny and no opportunity for disallowance. Legal advice confirms that the determination-making power in the proposed section 23A does not allow for the setting of eligibility criteria for sitting the test that are inconsistent with the provisions of the act and, in particular, the general eligibility criteria in section 21(2). For example, a determination could not legally provide that only people of French-speaking background are eligible to sit the test.
The power is required for two purposes. One is to ensure that the resources available for testing are used only for prospective citizens. The second is to enable access to any special test that may be needed to be limited to those for whom the special test is intended. In this regard, the bill refers to ‘a’ test rather than ‘the’ test so that it is clear that more than one test may be approved by the minister.
The introduction of formal testing will be carefully monitored to identify those prospective citizens for whom an alternative test or tests may be appropriate. This approach will enable the development of an alternative test or tests to be designed on the basis of identified need rather than conjecture. To help alleviate the concerns about test eligibility criteria, the government has agreed to insert a note to explain that the power to set eligibility criteria to sit a test does not allow criteria to be set that are inconsistent with the act and, in particular, the general eligibility criteria for citizenship.
I will now address the recommendations of the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, which recently completed an inquiry into the bill. The committee’s first recommendation was that the operation of the testing regime be reviewed three years after the bill’s commencement. As I have stated publicly, the test will be monitored closely, particularly for the first six months, to determine whether any patterns emerge suggesting a particular cohort has difficulties with the test. I agree with the committee’s recommendation that a formal review of the testing regime should be conducted three years after the commencement of testing.
The second recommendation was to table the proposed citizenship test questions in parliament. The rationale behind making the test questions confidential is to provide an incentive for people to read the citizenship test resource book which will help them gain an understanding of the concepts contained in the book. Publicising the questions will serve to promote rote learning of the answers. For this reason, the test questions will remain confidential and will not be tabled in parliament.
The third recommendation was that proposed section 23A(1) of the bill be amended to specifically require that the test relate to the eligibility criteria in 21(2)(d)(e) and (f). Legal advice confirms that there is no ambiguity with this subsection of the bill. However, to ensure no further conjecture about this issue, the government has agreed to amend the bill by inserting a note that will explain that citizenship tests must be related to the general eligibility criteria in the new paragraphs (d), (e) and (f). These criteria relate to the requirements for applicants to, first, have an understanding of the nature of the application for citizenship; secondly, possess a basic knowledge of the English language; and, thirdly, have an adequate knowledge of Australia, including the responsibilities and privileges of Australian citizenship.
Concern has been raised that the content of a citizenship test, including the questions and answers, may be unreasonable. It is important to note that, with the exception of knowledge of Australia, these requirements for citizenship under the general eligibility provisions, which applicants will be required to demonstrate by successful completion of a test, are longstanding. Indeed, the requirement to have a knowledge of the English language has been a feature of Australian citizenship legislation since its commencement on 26 January 1949. It is also the case that most adult applicants for citizenship, including refugee and humanitarian entrants, have been required to satisfy those requirements. The bill will introduce an objective form of assessment as to whether an individual satisfies these requirements. As I noted previously, the test questions will be designed to test knowledge contained in a citizenship resource book that will be freely and widely available to all.
I turn now to some points raised by other contributors to the debate, in particular in relation to language and settlement services. The government has consistently demonstrated that it is willing to invest in settlement services to assist migrants and humanitarian entrants to settle in Australia and to learn English—for example, the 2007-08 budget provided an additional $209 million over four years to six Australian government agencies to enhance services for humanitarian entrants. In addition, the Australian government currently spends $285 million annually on the delivery of English language programs to new migrants and refugees. Funding for the Adult Migrant English Program has increased from $98 million, in 2003-04, to $156 million, in 2006-07. The government is also considering providing further assistance to migrants and refugees to help them prepare to pass the new citizenship test.
Under the Adult Migrant English Program, migrants who do not have functional English are legislatively entitled to up to 510 hours of English language tuition or until they reach functional English, whichever comes first. In addition to the 510 hours, under the Special Preparatory Program, humanitarian entrants under 25 years of age with low levels of education can access a further 400 hours. In 2006, the Prime Minister agreed to the formation of an interdepartmental committee on English language. The committee, chaired by my department, recently considered options for the provisions of more flexible, vocationally focused and better integrated English language training to meet the needs of migrants and refugees.
I will turn now to a couple of other matters raised in debate. One was that the resources book will not assist people who have literacy issues. The resources book will also be available in an audio format and it will be freely available. The book, although sufficient in itself, will not be the only tool for prospective citizens. Prospective citizens wishing to sit the test will already have had a minimum of four years permanent residence in Australia and, as members of parliament who attend citizenship ceremonies on a regular basis know, often people who take out citizenship of Australia have been in this country for 20 or 30 years. The longest time I recall personally is 55 years, but I am sure there are people who had been in this country for longer than that when they actually took out citizenship in Australia.
There were also claims that the test introduced by the bill will be harder than the current informal test, that it will be a test of literacy and that it will require an ability to use a computer. It will not be a test of literacy or computer skills as such; indeed, special arrangements will be made for people who have difficulty taking a test because of low levels of literacy or computer skills. Just this morning I sat a mock test as a trial, based on the Canadian questions—
I passed the Canadian test, I can respond to the honourable gentleman opposite. My point is that this is a very simple program. The questions come up on a screen. People can see the question. There is a capacity to go back and revise their answer. As I said before, the period to answer the 20 questions is 45 minutes and, where there are special needs, there can be assistance provided to people who have particular difficulties in relation to those matters.
This test in Australia is not something that is novel so far as the world is concerned. Countries such as the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, amongst others, have citizenship testing arrangements. The government believes that this is an important step forward in informing and educating people not just about our heritage and our values but about the history and the institutions of this country. We believe that people coming to Australia as migrants wish to meet their aspirations and to make the most for themselves and their families in Australia. This is an important part of that step forward and that journey to Australia.
Migration does not end when a person gets off an aeroplane at Kingsford-Smith airport or Tullamarine, in Melbourne. Migration is an ongoing journey, and settlement and integration into the broader Australian society is something which I and the government believe is crucial for the continuing success of our immigration program. In the context of an ageing population and a global demand for workers, the reality is that migration has, as it has in the last 50 or 60 years, been crucial to Australia’s development and will continue to be crucial for Australia’s development into the future. In summary, this bill will ensure that new citizens have the necessary knowledge of the Australian way of life to which they are required to commit and will aid their successful integration into our society. I commend the bill to the House.
The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Watson has moved as an amendment that all words after ‘That’ be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The immediate question is that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.
Question agreed to.
Original question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.