House debates

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Test Review and Other Measures) Bill 2009

Second Reading

Debate resumed from 16 September, on motion by Mr Laurie Ferguson:

That this bill be now read a second time.

upon which Dr Stone moved by way of amendment:

That all words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:“the House defers consideration of the bill until the following have occurred:

(1)    the Government redrafts the bill so that it provides a ministerial discretion for those who cannot meet the residency requirements but whose citizenship can be demonstrated to be in the national interest; and

(2)    the Government redrafts the bill so that it provides a ministerial discretion for awarding citizenship to offshore workers who cannot meet the residency requirements, but who can demonstrate significant hardship or disadvantage.”

9:40 am

Photo of Shayne NeumannShayne Neumann (Blair, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Yesterday I was making comment on the comments made by the member for Cowan in relation to the Labor Party’s position, particularly the Rudd government’s position, in relation to border protection and asylum seekers. As I said last evening, what the member for Cowan was saying is simply errant nonsense about the Labor Party in terms of its commitment to border protection and the security of our shores. It goes to show that even amongst some on the back bench opposite there remains a devotion not just to Work Choices but also to the Pacific solution and the inhumane treatment of men, women and children in detention. Not everyone opposite holds that view, but certainly some still remain. It is the climate change sceptics, the Work Choices devotees and now the Pacific solution disciples infesting the back bench of the coalition.

The citizenship test was launched on 17 September 2007 by the previous government, allegedly for the primary purpose of ensuring that applicants for citizenship in this country had a basic knowledge of the responsibilities and privileges of citizenship and that they demonstrated the requisite requirements of the act. It is quite clear that the previous government, when it extended the period of time from two years to four years, really had the idea of being a bit more selective, shall I say, when it came to citizenship in this country.

This government, the Rudd Labor government, is committed to reducing the unnecessary obstacles to people seeking to become citizens in this country. The Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Senator Evans, announced on 28 April 2008 an independent review of a number of very prominent and eminent Australians who would look into the test. There was much media commentary in relation to that, about whether people knew Don Bradman’s average or what is necessary for people to adhere to in terms of their requisite knowledge of Australia and Australiana. I am comfortable with the test that we are coming up with, with the changes that are in this legislation.

I must say that I always have a lump in my throat when I hear people give affirmations or oaths when they become Australian citizens at the many citizenship ceremonies that I attend as the federal member for Blair. When people pledge their loyalty to Australia and its people, the democratic beliefs that we all share, the rights and liberties that we respect and the laws we uphold and obey—it is terrific on those occasions to hear fellow Australians also reciting that pledge, because it is important that all of us, whether we live in Tasmania, the Torres Strait, Palm Beach or Perth, adhere to those democratic beliefs, those rights and those liberties that we respect.

The review committee handed down its report in August 2008 which was entitled Moving forward: improving pathways to citizenship. The review committee was formally known as the Australian Citizenship Test Review Committee. The Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Test Review and Other Measures) Bill 2009 before the House today has been examined in detail by the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee and the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills. A report was handed down on 7 September 2009. This legislation takes up a number of the recommendations of the review committee and makes very clear that what we are doing is improving pathways for people to become citizens of this country.

This bill amends by way of schedule. Some people, by reason of their physical and mental incapacity, simply are not capable of sitting a citizenship test. These people, and they are few, should not be denied the opportunity to take up citizenship in this country. We want to be a humane, decent and fair society. If we truly believe in social inclusion we should, in all the circumstances, assist those people to become citizens like any one of us in this House. It is appropriate also to ensure that a citizenship test must be completed within a specified period of time. I also think the third amendment in this schedule I am referring to is beneficial and appropriate. The bill provides that to be eligible for citizenship by conferral the applicants who are under 18 years of age must be permanent residents at both the time of the application and the time of the decision. There is a small group of people who will benefit by the changes in this schedule, and they are just and humane changes. I am happy to speak in support of them and to vote in favour of this schedule.

The new second schedule also provides assistance to people who want to become Australian citizens who are engaged in certain professions, who are elite athletes and others—many of whom pay taxes, many of whom also represent the green and gold despite the fact that they have been permanent residents of this country. We have benefited in many sports from people coming to this country from overseas, not just in tennis or in ice-skating. I can also think of soccer players, rugby league players and rugby union players. There are countries around the world that have also adopted the same attitude as us. When I look at the England cricket team, I wonder whether they should be speaking Afrikaans there are so many South Africans in that team.

We live in a global community. We live in a community where people travel overseas from Australia. About one million Australians live overseas. We are also in a community which believes in multiculturalism, which I believe is appropriate and right, and accepts people from other countries. Last night, I said about six million people have come to this country since World War II and about four million have become Australian citizens. Clearly, many of those people who come to this country accept the democratic beliefs, the rights and the liberties that we respect, and want to become Australian citizens. It is one of the great joys of a federal parliamentarian to see the delight on the faces of young and old at citizenship ceremonies throughout our electorates.

I cannot understand the attitude of the member for Murray, who poured scorn on what we are doing in changing the pathway for citizenship for elite athletes and people in specialist professions. I am mystified at the opposition she put forward and the position she has adopted in relation to certain athletes. Why should these people who represent our country at athletics events, in sporting teams around the world and at Olympic Games events be denied that opportunity in their short careers, when we all share such joy at the efforts of Australian athletes and pride in seeing the delight on their faces when they compete on our behalf? I am truly astonished at the member for Murray’s attitude in opposing this sort legislation. There are many people who, by virtue of their residence and the fact that their employment takes them overseas, simply cannot satisfy the requirements here. To ensure these people get the opportunity to represent our country and to show the world how open and accessible we are is a very good thing.

We also need people from other professions in this country. That is why we have skill shortages. We need people to come here. Whether they are doctors, nurses, accountants or IT experts, we have enjoyed the benefits of a skilled migration program for years. We are also a country that accepts refugees. We adopt a humanitarian approach to people from overseas who are in need, often in desperate circumstances because of poverty, war, pestilence and other travails that they have had to endure.

We have a great record historically of ensuring that people with expertise who want to come to this country, take up permanent residence and then go and work perhaps on oil rigs or as airline pilots can do so. It is appropriate, fair and right. It is just plain wrong for people whose work circumstances are often beyond their control to be ineligible for citizenship. We should amend the test to remove these prohibitive residence requirements so that people can travel outside of Australia as part of their employment, still call Australia home and still become Australian citizens.

This is good, appropriate legislation. It is supported by a number of peak sporting bodies in this country, who also are urging the opposition to support this legislation. I urge the member for Murray, the member for Cowan and others to take a more reasonable approach with respect to this legislation so that the pathways to citizenship for the elite athletes who want to represent us and for professionals and other workers can be made easier, ensuring that all of us can enjoy the citizenship that we are so privileged to share.

9:54 am

Photo of Petro GeorgiouPetro Georgiou (Kooyong, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In 2007, despite widespread and well-informed criticism, the then government imposed a tough new test on people aspiring to become Australian citizens. Contrary to the propaganda, there had always been a citizenship test in Australia. Until 2007, the test involved a face-to-face assessment of applicants’ ability to speak basic English and their knowledge of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. By contrast, the new test required literacy, computer skills and knowledge of a wide range of facts about Australian history, geography and other subjects. The demands of this new test exceeded the capacity of many native-born citizens, and I opposed that test within and outside the parliament.

The test was overwhelmingly regressive. It turned its back on Australia’s tradition of inclusive citizenship. It discriminated not just against people of non-English-speaking background but against all people who have difficulty with literacy, and that is hundreds of thousands of people. It sent a corrosive message to many people—people committed to Australia—that they were not deserving of citizenship if they could not pass the test. Undoubtedly, it prevented many meritorious aspiring citizens from becoming full members of the Australian community. All these backward steps were taken despite any evidence that the new test was needed.

The then Labor opposition waved the legislation through. They made no amendments. They did not vote. They did, however, make the commitment that, if elected, they would establish a review of the citizenship test. Having won power, Labor did so. They established the Australian Citizenship Test Review Committee. This was a high-calibre group. It was chaired by Richard Woolcott, a very distinguished Australian. Other committee members were Rechelle Hawkes, Paula Masselos, Julianna Nkrumah, Warren Pearson, Vice Admiral Chris Ritchie and Professor Kim Rubenstein.

I do not want to be misunderstood. I thought that this was the best group that could be brought together for this task. It was a pity that from the outset the government tied the committee’s hands by declaring the new computerised citizenship test would remain. This was a significant handicap but, despite it, the Woolcott review’s work was quite exemplary. The committee undertook broad and genuine consultation. Its analysis was acute. Its recommendations were substantial and they were enlightened. The report transcended populist politics. It served the best interests of Australia and it reflected the best impulses of the Australian people. Dick Woolcott and his committee found that:

The present test is flawed, intimidating to some and discriminatory. It needs substantial reform.

The committee sought and found creative ways to return Australian citizenship to its tradition of inclusiveness. The review is a great tribute to its authors. The Citizenship Test Review Committee made 34 recommendations, and I commend the government for adopting a range of them, including focusing the test on the pledge of allegiance; having the resource book rewritten, dividing it into testable and non-testable sections; ending the need to pass mandatory questions; and, at the last moment, broadening the exemption for physical and mental disability.

According to the DIAC website, the government fully supported 23 of the recommendations and gave in-principle support to a further four. Leaving aside what ‘in principle’ means, on my count this number is incorrect. The government rejected or did not fully support 11 recommendations. My concern is not about errors of arithmetic or about the government’s spin—although there is a surfeit of this in the government’s response. My fundamental concern is that the government rejected the report’s most significant recommendations. It rejected recommendations that would have greatly enhanced the return to inclusive citizenship, and I think that is a matter of great regret.

As a cornerstone of its recommendations, the Woolcott review addressed the strong and widespread concern that a computer based test, even if it were substantially reformed, would exclude many people from getting citizenship—people who had been admitted to citizenship under arrangements that had been in place for over half a century. Throughout our post-war history, hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated they made good and often exceptional citizens, yet these people could not have passed the test.

The Woolcott review addressed the exclusionist bias of the new test. It did so through its recommendation that we institute ‘earned citizenship’. Earned citizenship recognises the commitment and the valuable contribution made to Australia by migrants over a long period of time. It reflects the belief that a compassionate society should provide a safety net for those who, despite their attempts, are simply unable to pass the test. A number of criteria for earned citizenship were set out in the Woolcott report. These were to be assessed by a citizenship referee appointed by the minister. This recommendation was rejected by the government. Earned citizenship was thrown out without argument and without justification, other than that contained in a single sentence, and I quote:

The Government believes this would introduce classes of citizenship.

This peremptory dismissal of well-considered suggestions of a very able group of people—a group selected by the government itself—is arrogant and its rationale is manifestly false.

The truth is that our citizenship law has provided a number of avenues to citizenship. These have been supported by successive governments. No-one has ever suggested that these avenues involved the introduction of classes of citizens—first, second or third. The basic and irreducible fact is that there is only one class of citizenship: Australian citizenship. The fact is that, in addition to the various bases on which people may be eligible for citizenship by descent, section 21 of the Citizenship Act specifies a number of different grounds of eligibility for citizenship by conferral without the test having to be passed. These include a provision for people with a permanent physical or mental incapacity; people who are over 60 or have a hearing, speech or sight impairment; people born to former Australian citizens; people born in Papua; and stateless people. I say again: there may be exemptions but there has only been one class of Australian citizenship.

The government arrogantly dismissed the Woolcott review’s proposal for a new earned citizenship by claiming that it would introduce classes of citizenship. The government’s justification may have been more than flimsy, but now it is a travesty. The government has shown this by its amendments introducing special citizenship provisions for athletes and offshore workers. The minister says that he listened to the request of the Australian Olympic Committee and individual sportspeople to assist them with their special circumstances. Ministers are always to be applauded for listening. Listening is good. What is not good, what is not to be applauded, is the sharpness of the minister’s hearing when listening to the concerns about elite athletes contrasted with his profound deafness to the Woolcott review’s disinterested and compassionate recommendations. The minister should be condemned for being deaf to the Woolcott review’s recommendation that people should be eligible for citizenship because they have made a contribution to Australia and have been independently assessed as being committed to Australia.

But it is not just a matter of one rejection; there are multiple rejections. The question is: why has the minister turned a deaf ear to the other very sensible proposals in the Woolcott review? The Woolcott review, in addition to earned citizenship, proposed a distinctive new pathway to citizenship by separating the assessment of basic English from the adequate knowledge of Australia and the responsibilities and privileges of Australian citizenship. Basic knowledge of English would be assessed by interview with a citizenship referee and adequate knowledge of Australia and the responsibilities and privileges of Australian citizenship would be assessed through the completion of a citizen education program in languages other than English. This pathway would be appropriate for residents with low or no literacy but a basic grasp of English orally. Applicants for this pathway might also be literate in other languages but have no experience of formal tests or have limited or no experience with computers. The Woolcott review concluded:

The benefit of this pathway is that difficult and often unfamiliar concepts that people need to understand are explained in their preferred language.

                  …              …              …

This positive educational approach will assist and empower prospective citizens to contribute to, and participate in, the community and in Australian society.

The government dismissed this out of hand, stating only that ‘the government is committed to having a test in English’.

Why did the government not listen to the Woolcott review regarding the pass mark? Having examined the evidence, the Woolcott review recommended that the pass mark be retained at 60 per cent. The government completely dismissed this and it actually increased the pass mark to 75 per cent. The government’s justification for this is to ‘maintain the rigour of the test’. The government rejected the proposal from the Woolcott review that, until implementation of the changes were complete, the test questions should be published and that two of the mandatory questions had to be answered correctly. The government rejected this. The Woolcott review recommended that the new test questions should be made publicly available. This was something that Labor had asked for when it was in opposition. In his second reading speech in the debate on the Citizenship Testing Bill 2007, the then Labor spokesman on immigration, Tony Burke, said:

I think that, a matter of transparency, the government making the questions available is completely in the interests of citizenship being a process of unifying Australians. It is a logical thing to do …

That was also the view of the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs enquiring into the citizenship testing bill, which recommended that ‘the proposed citizenship questions be tabled in the parliament’.

All these recommendations were curtly dismissed by the government with the retort that:

Maintaining the confidentiality of the test questions will ensure the integrity and rigour of the test is not diminished.

This was despite the findings of the Woolcott review that publishing the test questions would:

… reduce the fear and apprehension felt by many candidates and will assist in promoting learning.

The recommendations relating to interim measures were dismissed without a thought, with merely a sentence:

The Government is committed to maintaining the current test in its present form until the new test is in place.

Arrogant, unjustified dismissals of argument have been a hallmark of the immigration debate in the past. The government claims to have been changing the immigration culture, but this rejection of the review’s recommendations demonstrates that the cultural change process is far from complete.

Perhaps because of the scarcity of recommendations from Woolcott that were adopted, the government introduced other changes into the bill that were not recommended by Woolcott. The first of these related to elite athletes and offshore workers. The second related to the exemption that children under 18 could be made citizens despite the fact that they had not been permanent residents of Australia. There are a number of reasons for objecting to these changes and all of those reasons are contained in the Senate report. I think it is good to restrict ministerial discretion but I do not think it is good to create across-the-board hardships by doing so.

This Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Test Review and Other Measures) Bill 2009 is about citizenship but in the course of the debate, both here and in the Senate, it has been linked with asylum seekers and border protection. My views on this matter are not a secret but let me repeat: the amelioration of harsh policies towards asylum seekers—policies which, let me emphasise to the House, began under the Howard government—is long overdue and, despite further steps taken by this government, is not complete. There is absolutely no evidence that harshness deters desperate people from seeking asylum. There never has been. Whether it be mandatory detention, the incarceration of women and children behind razor wires or the excision of territories, none of these measures have deterred desperate people from seeking to come to Australia. There is some overwhelming and compelling evidence that harsh policies hurt vulnerable people who are entitled to our protection. That is what the overwhelming evidence about our detention policy shows. We should not contemplate returning to it.

I believe that the merits of this bill must be judged on the basis of its response to the Woolcott review’s recommendations on the subject of citizenship, which is a matter of fundamental national importance. On this basis, I regret to say that it is a profoundly deficient and disappointing effort. The bill should have been, and could have been, the legislative centrepiece of a comprehensive package of measures recommended by the Woolcott review. This would have established a more coherent, sensible and equitable framework for allowing eminently worthy residents to become full members of our community. In the absence of a full and candid explanation from the government, one can only speculate on the reasons for its failure to seize this opportunity, an opportunity which, I think, will not come again. There are probably a variety of reasons for this. Some of its members may well be hostile to the reforms. Others may be fainthearted and fearing a populist backlash. Whatever the reasons, the bill asks this legislature to endorse and legitimise a regime which will continue to unfairly exclude worthy people from Australian citizenship. It will cast out people who undoubtedly have both the qualities and the commitment that should entitle them to be granted this status. This will diminish the individuals affected and, I believe, it will diminish our nation. I cannot endorse the bill.

10:11 am

Photo of Craig ThomsonCraig Thomson (Dobell, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I would like to acknowledge the member for Kooyong’s and the member for McMillan’s longstanding commitment to these issues of immigration. They have taken a very principled position over many, many years despite such a position not being popular within their own party. I think that should be acknowledged.

However, I rise to support the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Test Review and Other Measures) Bill 2009. I am just going to concentrate on one part of the bill—that which deals with elite athletes. The amendments to this bill are to provide for a reduced period of residence for certain persons in special circumstances who, because of their professions, are prevented from meeting the residence requirement of Australian citizenship because they spend large periods of time outside Australia. The amendments to the bill amend the Australian Citizenship Act 2007 to: provide, in a new schedule 2 of the bill, for special residence requirements for certain people seeking to represent Australia at international events and certain persons engaged in particular kinds of work requiring regular travel outside Australia; provide for the current residence requirement in the act to be defined as the ‘general residence requirement’ to distinguish between the ‘special residence requirement’ and the ‘general residence requirement’; provide for certain ministerial discretions in relation to administrative error and confinement in prison or psychiatric institutions to apply in relation to the special residence requirement; and provide that the minister may approve a person becoming an Australian citizen when the person is not present in Australia if that person satisfies the special residence requirement. The revamped requirements will create a fairer system for people who, due to circumstances beyond their control, are currently ineligible for citizenship.

In three years time the euphoria and excitement of the Olympic Games will again be shared by many thousands of Australians as we barrack for our elite athletes, hoping to see them set new world records and bring home lots of medals from London. We will be cheering them on by staying awake to watch the telecasts, sending them messages of encouragement and putting up thousands of blogs on websites. Not all our athletes and Olympians were born in Australia but those who were born in other countries who have now made Australia home are proud to be citizens of this country and honoured to represent this country at such pinnacle sporting events as the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games.

Naturally, we are happy that they have made the decision to become Australian citizens. The fact that these athletes choose to come and live in Australia not only provides a boost to our medal chances but enhances the lives of so many others, providing even further inspiration to our future sporting stars alongside the multitude of talent that this country has produced. We are a relatively small country, and one of the difficulties in competition for elite sportsmen is getting that competition in Australia; it means that they need to travel often and spend extended periods of time overseas. It is also a fact that, when elite athletes migrate and become citizens of this country, the competition within this country that helps to develop and further foster local talent is enhanced. But it has not always been easy for athletes to take the steps to become a citizen because the nature of their athletic careers means that they are often away competing in various parts of the world. Not being in Australia a lot impedes their efforts to become citizens of this country.

The changes under this bill, which include changes to Australia’s residency requirements, will enable elite athletes and people in other specialised professions who move to Australia but travel frequently to become citizens. Under the current legislation, elite athletes, tennis players and other professionals, such as international airline pilots and offshore oil rig workers, do not meet the residency requirements for Australian citizenship because they are required to travel extensively outside Australia as part of their employment. People who are out of the country for 90 days or more in the year before applying for citizenship are currently ineligible to become citizens. For many people pursuing athletic careers and the like, being away from Australia for 90 days or more is not unusual by any means. In 2007, the previous government also changed the residency requirement for citizenship from two years to four years and removed certain discretionary residence provisions, leaving a small group of people significantly disadvantaged. Due to their professional travel commitments, people who are ordinarily resident in Australia are unable to be present in the country for the required period of time, and this effectively excludes them from becoming Australian citizens. The Rudd government believe the current residency requirements serve as an artificial barrier that stops people who choose to and want to become Australian citizens from becoming Australian citizens. We also believe in fairness and, through the changes we are making, we seek to make it fairer for people who want to be Australian citizens but, because of their professional sporting careers or their jobs, are ineligible because of the amount of time they have to spend outside Australia.

The amendments do not apply to all elite athletes, only to those who have the potential to represent Australia at the international level and require citizenship to do so. These changes will create a pathway to citizenship for elite athletes and people in specialist professions whose jobs require them to travel overseas for work. Under amendments to the Australian Citizenship Act 2007, people in special circumstances, such as elite athletes, will need to have been a permanent resident for two years before their application with at least six months physically in Australia, require citizenship to represent Australia in their sport and have their application supported by a recognised national peak body, such as the Australian Olympic Committee or Tennis Australia. Specialist professionals will need to have been lawfully resident in Australia for four years immediately before applying for Australian citizenship with at least 16 months physically in Australia, travel extensively in the course of their work and have their citizenship application supported by their current employer.

The reduction in the period of time for elite athletes reflects their limited career time span. For instance, the Olympics only come around once every four years, so to maintain the existing requirements would mean that an athlete born overseas who is a permanent resident of Australia and competing for Australia at other international events would not be eligible to compete at an Olympics eight years after he or she arrives in Australia. Given the limited time span, it was considered unfair to deny an athlete who is 100 per cent committed to Australia the opportunity to compete at the Olympic Games. Often these athletes are already competing for Australia in other international events, but events such as the Olympics require citizenship to compete. All applicants will need to be able to show that, despite spending periods of time overseas, their home is Australia. They will also be required to meet all other legal requirements for citizenship, including sitting and passing the citizenship test. These changes will lead to more gold medals and more major titles and trophies for Australia at sporting events, as well as provide a real win for the national workforce.

Looking at this bill in a little more detail, one of its main points is to provide that an applicant satisfies the special residence requirement if the applicant is seeking to represent Australia at an event and, taking into account the selection process for that event, there is insufficient time for the applicant to satisfy the general residence requirement of the act. A person satisfies the special residence requirement if: the applicant is seeking to represent Australia at an event specified under a new subsection, the applicant needs to be an Australian citizen in order to represent Australia at that event and, taking into account the selection processes for the event, there is insufficient time for the applicant to satisfy the general residence requirement; under another new subsection, the head of an organisation specified, or a person whom the minister is satisfied is a senior person in that organisation, has given the minister a notice in writing stating that the applicant has a reasonable prospect of being selected to represent Australia at that event; the applicant was present in Australia for at least 180 days during the period of two years immediately before the applicant made the application; the applicant was present in Australia for a total of at least 90 days during the period of 12 months immediately before the day the applicant made the application; the applicant was ordinarily resident in Australia throughout the period of two years immediately before the day the applicant made the application; the applicant was a permanent resident for the period of two years immediately before the day the applicant made the application; and the applicant was not present in Australia as an unlawful noncitizen at any time during the period of two years immediately before the day the applicant made the application.

The proposed changes to criteria for people in specialist professions are: permanent residency in Australia for 12 months immediately prior to the application; lawful residence in Australia for four years immediately prior to application for a person ordinarily resident in Australia during that period; 480 days, or 16 months, physical presence in Australia during that four-year period, including 120 days in the 12 months immediately prior to application; a requirement to travel extensively outside Australia due to the nature of their profession; and, as I said earlier, support for their application by their current employer.

The changes under this bill will create a smoother path to citizenship for elite athletes and people in the specialist professions and will enable Australia to benefit from the talents and skills they bring to this country. I therefore commend the bill to the House.

10:22 am

Photo of Wilson TuckeyWilson Tuckey (O'Connor, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Test Review and Other Measures) Bill 2009, on the face of it, might appear to be quite unimportant legislation, just a matter of some technical amendments to address issues that arise from time to time. But there is a lot more in it than that. There are fundamental issues involved, which the opposition has identified and which it addresses in its amendment, moved by Dr Stone, to the motion for the second reading:

That all words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:“the House defers consideration of the bill until the following have occurred:

(1)    the Government redrafts the bill so that it provides a ministerial discretion for those who cannot meet the residency requirements but whose citizenship can be demonstrated to be in the national interest; and

(2)    the Government redrafts the bill so that it provides a ministerial discretion for awarding citizenship to offshore workers who cannot meet the residency requirements, but who can demonstrate significant hardship or disadvantage.”

Those matters have been detailed by the shadow minister for immigration and no doubt will be addressed in the third reading debate. There is also, within those more detailed amendments, a prohibition on the minister of the day delegating his or her rights under these particular special arrangements. Circumstances of this nature constantly occur in this parliament because ministers are unprepared to deal with controversial issues—and some arise from these amendments, particularly the ones relating to elite athletes—or, more particularly, because it is a lot of hard work. One could possibly say that it is a great way for a lazy minister.

This is fundamental. You get elected to this parliament to govern. Our processes give certain people more right to govern than others by way of the executive or frontbench or however you want to refer to it. But if you are not prepared to do the work, if you are not prepared to put your name on the line in terms of public opinion by taking decisions under the discretion provided to you by legislation, then you should not be in the job. It has been well known for a long time that the position of Minister for Immigration and Citizenship is a very hard job. It is one where you are under pressure every day. The parliamentary secretary arrangements, introduced by the Hawke government and now becoming virtually a part of this place, are designed to relieve some of that workload. But that does not alter the fact that the minister has the power of discretion as provided by the act and as is wished to be maintained by the coalition, the opposition, and that is how it should be.

It has been demonstrated over the years that, when authority is delegated, the Public Service has not always dealt with that in the appropriate manner. There has been a very broad interpretation of some of those powers, resulting in the entry of individuals who otherwise would not have been able to become citizens of Australia. In this House, it was the case that the mistakes of ministers could be aired, and there is a history of ministers feeling obliged to resign for their mistakes or even, in years gone by, the mistakes of the public servants who assisted them. Today, of course, we know that it does not matter what question is asked in this place; there will be no detailed answer. There will be no attempt whatsoever—

Photo of Graham PerrettGraham Perrett (Moreton, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Wilson TuckeyWilson Tuckey (O'Connor, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Well, I am sorry. Obviously the member who interjected does not read Hansard. If that person did so, I would invite him to extract from it any simple yes-or-no answer, any answer that provides actual detailed information relevant to the question that was asked. This is the government of deception. This is the government that thinks any question from the opposition is an invitation to blackguard someone in the opposition and, as I drew to the attention of the House the other day, a poor old school principal—the inference from the minister was that that person was a liar. These are the sorts of situations that are not needed in the management of government. But the process by which, by law, we start to delegate to public servants the powers that the public expects to reside in the minister is a very bad deal.

When one talks about question time and the responsibilities of ministers in that regard, I am reminded that the previous Labor government got so arrogant that the Prime Minister only turned up two days a week and ministers were rostered. That was because they were so busy—they were back in their officers hiding from this place. At least in those days ministers did feel they had some obligation to provide the parliament, and of course through the parliament the people, the information requested of them. I have been up on my feet speaking in this place a couple of times regarding this responsibility of ministers. I draw it to their attention that a longstanding convention of this place was that ministers, when asked questions to which they could quite rightly say, ‘I’m sorry, that information is not immediately available to me,’ would give an immediate undertaking to the parliament that they would return as soon as possible with the detail requested. Of course that added to the reputation of those ministers. Last night remarks were made about the member for Bradfield and his capacity to remember vast quantities of detail relevant to his portfolio. He was probably the person most equipped for that and he—

Photo of Graham PerrettGraham Perrett (Moreton, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Did you vote for Malcolm?

Photo of Wilson TuckeyWilson Tuckey (O'Connor, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I did not, and I have made that very clear over a period of time. I do not care if you raise it here or elsewhere. My views on that matter are well known. The point I want to make is that minister would stand up in this place and give detailed chapter and verse answers to the opposition. Their problem was that it was all very accurate and arose from good decision making and good administration. You do not come to this place to make fancy speeches; you come to this place to run the country. And let me just say that when it comes to the responsibility of ministers, which is what this legislation is all about, it gets pretty interesting.

Any of us who pick up the Sunday papers, in this day and age of great interest in property, housing and the cost of housing, will find an insert, particularly at the weekend. I note that in my state it is labelled ‘Home’. If you open that up, you see it is a series of advertisements that tell you what you can buy a house for. Of course at the lower end of the market, and I cannot say whether this is with or without the $20,000 subsidy, but it becomes irrelevant, a couple of hundred square metres of house—brick and tile—in Western Australia is advertised for $170,000. If in fact that is the price after the subsidy, the original price could be $190,000. And what is in those houses? A series of bedrooms, a fully equipped kitchen and probably two bathrooms.

Yet evidence has been bought into this place of this government spending $800,000 on a single classroom. Minister Albanese got up, in the absence of the Minister for Education, and it is a matter of record in the Hansard, and quoted the education department of New South Wales as having costed out two classrooms with two accompanying storerooms at $350,000. And yet when I rang up the builder who missed out on the job, and he was from New South Wales, he said it would cost about $170,000. So where the figure for double that amount of money came from one does not know, but let us come back to the fact that when ministers rely overly on the decision making of public servants, and more particularly ones that live in another state and that are answerable to another government, that is the sort of thing that happens.

Photo of Graham PerrettGraham Perrett (Moreton, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Do you know what the legislation is, Wilson?

Photo of Wilson TuckeyWilson Tuckey (O'Connor, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Let me get this straight: this is legislation about delegating power to someone else—and, what is more, changing the law to give rights to people based on the simple fact that they might win a gold medal. That is a decision that a minister should take. If we are to change the four-year time limit for the citizenship rights of an individual, that is okay with me; provided the minister has the right to say a lesser period is appropriate and, of course, is prepared to back that decision in this parliament.

What we are looking at here is that if someone comes in, there might be significant reasons why they just should not be a citizen of Australia. And they come in and say: ‘Get out of the road. I am the fastest skater, the highest jumper or the fastest runner. You’ve got to ignore every other part of my background because the law says I am allowed to get citizenship in the shortest possible period.’ Now that is not good law. Of course there are opportunities for those things.

When one talks about sporting identities, as mentioned in this legislation, I note that this year there has been a lot of reporting about the upcoming Soccer World Cup. The reality is that this year the English team looks like it will be represented in South Africa in the Soccer World Cup. In the previous world cup they missed out; they were not good enough as a national team. And everyone knew why. Their domestic competition is full of foreigners. There is nothing wrong with foreigners. But this has happened to their cricket teams. They are so busy hiring good cricketers from other parts of the world that their domestic competition has not produced enough good local cricketers.

Photo of Mike KellyMike Kelly (Eden-Monaro, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Support) Share this | | Hansard source

They won the Ashes.

Photo of Wilson TuckeyWilson Tuckey (O'Connor, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

They sure did, because they learnt that lesson—and I might add that they did it by hiring a couple of Australian coaches. But the reality is that you cannot neglect your own sporting community because there are better people from overseas—and, of course, you include them in the national team. I guess speed skating is not an area where Australia will ever be highly represented, simply because we have to battle a bit to find the ice. The fact of life is that, in other circumstances, to bring someone into the country for a year and declare them a citizen to compete as a national hero raises some questions in my mind.

But what should we be debating in this place in terms of the administration of our citizenship laws? I wrote to the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship the other day. I wrote to him because I do not raise individual constituent matters in this House. I believe constituents have a right to my help and I have a responsibility to resolve their difficulties, whether I have to deal with a Labor minister or a Liberal minister. I have seen Labor members stand up in this place over time and expose the concerns and difficulties of their constituents to make a political point. I have never seen it advantage the individual, because of course when you pull that trick you do not get any cooperation from the minister of the day. Consequently, I will be very generic.

I have had to put a proposition on behalf of a person known to me, actually, who does not even live in my electorate. His future daughter-in-law was going to be kicked out of the country because she is English. She had come here on a work visa and had fallen in love with my acquaintance’s son. She was 8½ months pregnant and they were going to send her back. She would probably have had the baby on the plane. That is silly, silly administration, but I am glad to say that through the representations of my office that matter was changed. But how could it be? This lady was a genuine resident. I know the department gets concerned about ‘wives for cash’, residency and the difficulties that arise from that. I can understand their suspicion, but this young woman had even been back to England to make a permanent residency application. She had not just tried to get into the country. She and her partner had bought a house, and yet until we intervened they were going to kick her out of the country.

I got another letter about an elderly lady who has been here under the appropriate visa. She must be reasonably wealthy and is clearly not one who wants to impose herself on our social welfare system, which for elderly immigrants is usually not available, and I endorse that situation. This lady has paid $126,000 in tax since she has resided in Australia. She has lived out all the appropriate periods and wants to at least have permanent residency or other rights that entitle her—obviously a person of some wealth—to travel and to return to Australia, where her children are residents, and the approval is still being delayed. Here we are, saying we should give more power to public servants, when those sorts of circumstances arise!

We seem to have gone upside down on 457 visa entrants, a lot of whom have come to my electorate as meatworkers, for instance. And why are they here? Because Aussies do not like working in meat works anymore—and that is fair enough, if they can get jobs more attractive to them, as they certainly have in recent times, more particularly under the Howard government. But why should we close down meat works? People in my electorate have been here four years, and there was a clear understanding that after four years they could apply for residency. They have gone and bought houses. Their wives have been working in the communities, doing the jobs that need doing and, furthermore, both the men and the women have taken positions in sporting clubs and other things and have become excellent citizens. Yet they are getting letters asking them to go home while this parliament deals with whether the law should be changed for one sporting identity.

The other matters are similarly available to the minister’s discretion and do not need specific legislation in this place of the nature offered, and I support entirely the amendments proposed. (Time expired)

10:42 am

Photo of Steve GeorganasSteve Georganas (Hindmarsh, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Can I say how appropriate it is that we are debating this bill in the parliament on Australian Citizenship Day. Very soon, in about 15 minutes, there will be a citizenship ceremony conducted in the Great Hall by the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, and I am hoping to attend, as I am sure many other members will be attending.

This bill is very important, especially for someone like me. I represent the seat of Hindmarsh in Adelaide, which has people who have become citizens from many, many corners of the world. In fact, over 40 languages are spoken in the electorate of Hindmarsh. Today I speak in favour of the amendments contained in the bill before the House, the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Test Review and Other Measures) Bill 2009. It has been pretty heartening to get a good feel for the discussions that have taken place in the review of the citizenship test in this place over the last couple of days, to witness parliamentarians talking and working on the detail, in most cases cooperatively, in support of the concepts and the processes that, it seems to me, the majority of both sides of the political divide support.

The nature of the amendments, and the reasons given for the amendments, could perhaps be seen as a natural evolution of the detail of what has been in operation now for a few years. The citizenship test was very informal in previous times, but nevertheless it was always there. There was always some form of citizenship test, and we have a system that has been in place for a few years and could do with some tweaking. That is apparent in this debate, and both sides support the parliament developing the most practical and sound processes in support of people who wish to be citizens of this great country.

I note that debate in the other place has touched on the average number of citizenship tests that applicants have needed to sit in order to pass. The average has been 1.9—in other words, nearly every single person who has sat for the test over the last few years has had to go back to have another crack at it. I wonder how many times those with more marginal English language proficiency would have had to sit the test. I wonder, in fact, how many times my own parents, when they were more recently arrived migrants 60 years ago, would have had to sit the test in order to pass. Would they have been able to pass this test?

It is good that citizens of this nation have a fair understanding of the way this wonderful country of ours works, our rights, our responsibilities, the nature of our systems and the nature of government—the basics of Australia. I would like to think that more of us continue to read and discuss such matters throughout our lives from primary school to old age, because these things are not just something that you get a pass on and then forget like an abstract mathematical equation one encounters one day in high school. They are evolving. You come to Australia for whatever reason, whether it be as a refugee, an economic migrant or a spouse or family member. Everyone has their reasons for coming here. And, of course, you evolve once you land in this great country, becoming part of this great nation and contributing to it. These are matters that are at the core of our society, however academic they may seem. They are at the heart of our way of life and they are the foundation on which our identity is being built. It is ongoing and forever maturing.

I am more than happy for residents of this country to really know what they are working with—the contexts and the unfolding opportunities that our collective histories, our cultures and our country present. As I said, I wonder whether my parents would have passed 60 years ago the test that exists today. I remember very clearly my own parents’ citizenship ceremony. I was lucky enough to have been born here, but they came out in the early fifties. I would have been about four or five at the time many years ago that they received their citizenship certificates at the Thebarton council chambers in the electorate of Hindmarsh. I remember how important I felt even at that age. I remember how important we all felt on that special day. That memory has stayed with me forever. Receiving your citizenship is a special occurrence; it is not something that should just take place and then be forgotten. I think it is important for us all to explore with citizenship what it is that makes Australia the place that it is and Australians the people that we are.

For example, I am one of millions who were born in Australia but whose parents migrated from overseas—in my family’s case, from Greece many years ago. I have learnt about their history, their culture and their language, but I have never felt confused about what it means to be an Australian. Of course I have an affinity with their land. I have an affinity with where they came from through the many relatives who are still there. I am bilingual—I speak perfect Greek and English—and I would like to think that I understand the Greek culture. But Australia is my country, my home and, most importantly, my children’s home. It is my children’s future. I am Australian and I would not have it any other way, so I think the affirmation by a citizen of our loyalty to Australia sums it all up neatly and simply. It says:

As an Australian citizen, I affirm my loyalty to Australia and its people, whose democratic beliefs I share, whose rights and liberties I respect, and whose laws I uphold and obey.

That says a great deal about our country. Australia is about democracy, liberty and equality. Australia has a rich, proud multicultural history which we must all cherish.

In the electorate of Hindmarsh 23 per cent of people were born overseas. I am very proud to say that 91 per cent of those people in my electorate of Hindmarsh are Australian citizens. That compares to 88 per cent nationally, so in Hindmarsh a greater number of people who were born overseas decide to become Australian citizens. I think that is great and quite significant. The electorate has changed, of course, over the years. In the sixties, when my parents became citizens, 90 per cent of the people getting citizenship at the ceremony would have been Greek, Italian or—very few—from the former Yugoslavia. Today, over 70 per cent gaining citizenship in my electorate are from Africa. Back in the sixties it was a very different Australia. Our Indigenous population, for example, did not have a vote. We still had the White Australia policy. Our citizenship debates and discussions continually evolve. As I said, I wonder how many of those people back in the fifties and sixties would have passed the citizenship test of today.

Deciding to become a citizen is a little bit like deciding to get married: for many people, you meet someone and you get engaged, and that engagement takes place for a long, long time; others know immediately that that is the person for them. Citizenship is like that. It does not matter how long you have been here; what matters is that decision to take out citizenship. As in marriage, some people come here and for whatever reason may still want to remain citizens of their former country. Others immediately want to become citizens because they know this is their life. But becoming an Australian citizen should not also mean that you are losing anything. When you decide to become an Australian citizen, you should not just throw your old culture away like we throw an old shirt away; it all becomes part of our society, part of our culture, part of this great melting pot. We expect people to contribute their own culture, their history, their knowledge and the rich experiences that they bring to this wonderful country of ours.

Those in Australia who choose to believe that the Australian culture is something derived solely from one culture are choosing to believe in a myth. Each decade there is a new wave of immigrants which brings new challenges to existing Australians. Each generation we must ask ourselves whether we are a nation which can welcome people with open arms. I truly believe that we are a nation that can welcome people with open arms. We have welcomed millions of people with open arms over the years.

This wonderful country of ours was founded on multiculturalism. It is not different or unusual; it is what we are. In 1788, British convicts and settlers came to this land, which had been inhabited by Indigenous Australians for upwards of 60,000 years. By Federation, Australia was also home to people from French, German, Chinese and Melanesian backgrounds—to name a few. There have been a few vocal people in Australia who indulge in the myth of a monoculture. It is unfortunate that they are pushing against the reality that multicultural Australia exists—because it is a reality, whether we like it or not—and that being an Australian who has links with another nation is about as Australian as you can get.

Our local libraries are filled with Australians tracing their family trees, with people sometimes finding out funny things about their background—like the case, which I have raised in this place before, of one of my constituents who told me about her Cornish great-great-grandmother who was in love with an Afghan camel trader. All you have to do is scratch the surface and these stories come out. Whether you research your Welsh, Irish, Italian, Greek, Vietnamese or Middle Eastern heritage, it makes little difference. With the exception of Indigenous Australians, our people have only been in this great country for a few generations. Australia is a community of more than 200 nationalities and yet each generation identifies our newest arrivals as ‘different’. How absurd—200 nationalities, a country built on immigration and yet a few people still look backwards to cultural assimilation. Those of us who have the good fortune to be elected to parliament have an absolute responsibility to protect Australia from any tide of prejudice. When we give in to fear, we turn our backs on Australia and we deny who we are—we deny that we come from all walks of life and from hundreds of nations.

We are a great country because of citizenship, because of how we allow people to become citizens but also because there is such strength in diversity. While the rest of the world battles over ancient hatreds and ideologies, we look to the future. We believe in the rights and freedoms of every Australian, regardless of religion, language or cultural background. That is what citizenship is. It is about giving every Australian equality. Australia’s multiculturalism is an absolute model for other nations. In fact, the way we do our citizenships is a model for other nations around the world. I think it is one of the strongest points that this country has. One of the things that have kept us so cohesive is that we offer citizenship and we tell people, ‘You can come to this country, you can become a citizen and you can have equal rights just like anyone else.’ I have friends from different parts of the world, and they tell me that, for example, in some countries—countries not very far from Australia—you cannot work in the Public Service if you are of a particular race or a particular religion and you cannot go to university if you are of a particular race or religion. So I think our strength has always been citizenship. Our strength is that we tell people, ‘You can come to this country and you can become a citizen and therefore become one of us and part of a group of many, many nations that form this wonderful country.’

I am sometimes alarmed by the suggestion that multiculturalism is not working. It is a part of what this country is, and it has been a part of Australia for 200 years. I ask anyone who thinks that multiculturalism or giving people citizenship is not a success: is Australia a success? Clearly Australia is a success, and, because Australia and multiculturalism, together with citizenship, are so thoroughly entwined, it follows that multiculturalism is also a great success.

Today, 17 September, is Australian Citizenship Day. The Minister for Immigration and Citizenship has today reminded some of us that it was only 60 years ago that Australian citizenship was invented. That is all—60 years ago! Prior to 1949 and the enactment of the Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948, people of this country were British subjects. That act represented a seismic shift in our identity and a substantial change at the very heart of who we as Australians are and how we perceive ourselves in the world, and yet it was such a short time ago.

This bill will enhance our citizenship. It will bring some fairness into it for people who for whatever reason cannot sit the test—perhaps because of language difficulties or disability. I commend the bill to the House.

Photo of Peter SlipperPeter Slipper (Fisher, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member for Hindmarsh. He will have to move quickly if he is going to get to that citizenship ceremony.

10:57 am

Photo of Jamie BriggsJamie Briggs (Mayo, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is a privilege to follow the member for Hindmarsh, who has a large part in the rich tapestry of our country and represents an electorate with many recent arrivals to, and recent citizens of, our country. That is quite different to my electorate, I suspect, in the amount of people born overseas. I think the member for Hindmarsh said his electorate had well over 20 per cent; I think mine has well under 10 per cent, which probably reflects the differences between our seats.

I rise to support the amendments to the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Test Review and Other Measures) Bill 2009 put forward by our shadow minister for immigration and citizenship, the member for Murray—in particular the ministerial discretion aspects of those amendments. There was much I agreed with in the member for Hindmarsh’s speech. I think it is very important that we always acknowledge the importance of our citizenship, the strength and support it has within the community and the desire of so many people in other countries to become Australian citizens.

We all have the pleasure in this place of attending citizenship ceremonies regularly. They are great events, I am sure all members would agree, where people have a genuine sense of excitement that they have become members of the Australian club, I guess you could say. It is probably the most sought-after club in the world, because we have the best country in the world. We live in freedom, with liberty. We have a parliamentary democracy, which largely works well, except for about an hour and a half or two hours every sitting day.

We are a successful and much sought-after place to live and I think that is a credit to us. It is a credit to our country. It also is a reminder that we should always protect membership of our club. We should always ensure that those who seek to join it are doing so for the right reasons. We should not weaken the standards that we have set to a degree where we are weakening the value of the citizenship that they seek. That is a very important thing that we should remember.

One of the great changes in our country over the last 10 or so years—and I give credit in large part to the former Prime Minister for this—is the re-engagement with the value of being an Australian. Look at the celebration that we have now on Australia Day compared to what it was some years ago, when I was a lot younger. Today, it is a great thing to see so many local barbeques and local celebrations—on Australia Day morning, in particular—leading to us rushing around our electorates and seeking to be at as many of them as we possibly can. That is a great reminder of what it is to be an Australian.

It has been a great change in our culture in recent years that we now spend Australia Day remembering. We do not change the public holiday—we celebrate it on the day, on 26 January. That is a great thing and a great change in our cultural experience. It also gets back to the absolute need to protect the strength and value of our citizenship. We should always value our citizenship at the highest possible level. We should not make changes here in this place or outside this place which devalue or rip away at the absolute underlying strength of our citizenship.

The mistake that this minister is making in this bill, and the mistake that we are seeking to help rectify with our amendments, is that the minister is seeking to codify things which should really be in his discretion. It may be ‘his’ or ‘her’ discretion but in this case it is a ‘his’. I am sure it will be a ‘her’ in the future. The minister appears to want to set very tight black-letter law requirements around how athletes, in particular, and offshore overseas workers can get access to citizenship. There has been for some time the ability for ministers to—with their discretion—exclude the provisions and allow athletes in particular to join. Of course there have been some famous examples of that, with athletes becoming Australian citizens and winning gold medals and winning tennis tournaments. I think probably the most famous one recently was Jelena Dokic. We have given athletes the opportunity to represent Australia even though they might not necessarily have met the full requirements of the act.

The mistake the government is making here is that it is potentially weakening those standards. Certainly, the minister needs discretion. There are always examples where the rules do not apply appropriately and the minister should be able to look at the facts and make a change. But if we codify this too much we risk reducing the standard or standards of Australian citizenship, which I think is a mistake.

I guess that is our overall criticism of the government’s approach to citizenship and immigration at this stage. They are weakening the protections that we put on becoming an Australian or getting access to Australia. We have a very proud record in this country, as the member for Hindmarsh rightly pointed out, over the last 200 years—over the last 60 years in particular—of accepting people from a wide range of places. We are probably second to none in accepting people who, for one reason or another, have fled from where they were living: whether they were from post Word War II Europe, where they sought the opportunities given by Australia, whether they were from countries affected by war or whether they were the many refugees from Germany who sought a better life and were able to have a better life here. We should never be ashamed of the great tapestry that has been provided to this country. We should never be ashamed that we have accepted this. It is part of our culture and part of who we are today. However, we should equally be very careful that we do not weaken the standards to the point where we are becoming an easy or ‘soft touch’, which would threaten the security of our country and the great liberty that we are able to live in. That is the balance the government needs to ensure they get right, across the realm of immigration policy.

We are always—in this place, at a political level—going to disagree on issues. Immigration is one of those issues over the last 10 years which has really splintered the parliament and splintered Australian society. Yesterday we saw the reaction of the Prime Minister when he was asked questions about immigration policies and so forth. It is a mistake that people are not allowed to express genuine concern for the way a policy is operating. It is incumbent on us to make sure the government is held to account, because we have two major responsibilities in this place. The first is the management of the national economy. The second is the defence of the realm, the defence of Australia—ensuring that Australia is safe and ensuring that our security is kept paramount. As the Parliamentary Secretary for Defence Support, who is at the table, knows, that defence of Australia comes with costs and it comes with difficult decisions. We need to ensure that, in this place, the government makes those difficult decisions appropriately. At the moment, our criticism would be that they are not.

In summing up, the amendment moved by the shadow spokesman, the member for Murray, on these matters really does articulate our concern with the government’s direction on this bill, in particular in relation to athletes and offshore workers. We think the minister should have the ability to make decisions with discretion. The minister should rethink these provisions in particular, because ultimately we must do everything we possibly can to protect the strength and great value of citizenship in this country. It is the very thing that we stand for so much, the very thing that makes our country the great country that it is today, the best country in the world.

11:07 am

Photo of Graham PerrettGraham Perrett (Moreton, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I too am pleased to rise in support of the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Test Review and Other Measures) Bill 2009 and the related amendment before the House. It is particularly fitting that we are debating this bill on Australian Citizenship Day, when about 4,500 people right across Australia, including in this House, will become citizens. This is also a historic year, which marks 60 years of Australian citizenship. The history of Australian citizenship is a slightly chequered one. Up until Australia Day 1949, when the Nationality and Citizenship Act came in, Australians were actually British citizens.

The history of the process of becoming an Australian citizen is not one of our proudest chapters. The very first act of the Australian parliament was the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, which introduced a dictation test. People seeking to immigrate could be given a test in a European language and, if they were multilingual, it could be changed so that they could be excluded. It was the precursor to what became known as the White Australia policy, which lasted right up until World War II. There are some murky shadows in the multicultural history of Australia—murky shadows that I think probably need a light shone on them. It is certainly something that I have tried to do in my public speaking, especially in my electorate, which is a particularly multicultural electorate. We do not move on from the sins of the past by denying the sins of the past.

The Naturalisation Act 1903 introduced conditions so that aliens could be granted naturalisation by the Commonwealth and then they would become basically British subjects. But that act precluded people from Asia, Africa or the Pacific Islands applying for naturalisation, irrespective of how long they had lived in Australia or their connections with Australia. There were all sorts of complications for their children as well. Not surprisingly with that sort of culture, in the early years of the 20th century the number of people who were leaving Australia actually exceeded the number who were arriving, and that continued right up until the First World War, when immigration ground to a halt.

During World War I, the federal government amended the Naturalisation Act so that people who wanted to become British subjects, Australians, would have to advertise their intent to do so, they would have to renounce their own nationality, and they would also have to prove that they could read and write in English. It is good to see that we have moved on since those darker days. As I said, the Nationality and Citizenship Act came into effect on Australia Day 1949. It was great that this year on Australia Day I attended quite a few citizenship ceremonies. In fact, prior to one ceremony I was able to award the Sir James Killen community service award. Sir James’s widow, Lady Killen, presented the award to a deserving member of the community.

Prior to 1949, Australians could only hold the status of British subjects. All those Anzacs who died on foreign shores—50,000 in World War I and thousands more in World War II—were British subjects. Things changed after World War II. Since 1945, over 6.5 million people have migrated to Australia, and four million of those have acquired Australian citizenship. Obviously all members of parliament are doing what we can to make sure that we track down the other 2½ million people and, if it is all possible, give them the opportunity to become Australians.

Many migrants who come to Australia have chosen to live in my electorate. In fact, I represent an electorate where about one in three residents were born overseas. They have come from everywhere, particularly from the Chinese diaspora—which would include Taiwan, China and also people from the Chinese community in Malaysia, Papua New Guinea and Fiji.  There are also people from Sudan, Korea, Malaysia, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Eritrea, England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, New Zealand, Ethiopia, Hong Kong, South Africa, Japan and even, like my wife’s ancestors, from India. We are an open, vibrant multicultural community and, for the most part, we are tolerant and understanding of one another.

One of the most rewarding activities of my job as a member of parliament—which I have held for only 20 months—and the one that I have enjoyed most is being involved in citizenship ceremonies. To take part as a presiding officer as new Australians take the oath of citizenship is humbling. Unlike many people in my electorate, I did not become an Australian by swearing; I did it by screaming—by being born here. So I did not have a choice. But for those people who make the decision, it is quite humbling to see them do it. It is always a moving experience, whether it is with a big crowd at an Australia Day event or whether it is one of the monthly, always wonderful, events that are held in Brisbane City Hall by the Lord Mayor Campbell Newman. On occasion, I have done citizenship ceremonies for individual people in my electorate office, because they have needed to go overseas for some reason. Even if it is just in the presence of the person’s family and friends, it is still moving. I do need to report that I make my staff sing the national anthem, trying to cover up the fact that I cannot sing. On Australia Day there are a couple of hundred people, but in my office there is only me and a few people, so it is always a bit embarrassing to have to sing the national anthem. But still, it is a moving experience even if I do sing off-key.

Not a day goes by that I am not contacted by someone seeking help and support with an immigration matter for themselves, a family member, a friend or occasionally a loved one. Romance obviously is not dictated to by international borders. These people come to my office seeking assistance to navigate the bureaucratic system, progress an application or obtain support for a visa, whether it is humanitarian, skilled, family reunification or any of the others. As I said, I was born in Australia. I spent a year backpacking overseas. I briefly dabbled with the idea of moving to another country, in fact to Canada, which is not exactly a radical leap from the culture in Australia. It was too scary a thought for me and it did not work out. When I look at these people who have made the choice to come to Australia, I think about their bravery, especially when moving to a country that has a different language and culture, and leaving loved ones behind. I take my hat off to their bravery.

I am well aware that the decisions we make in this place regarding immigration and citizenship law have significant consequences and should never be taken lightly. These decisions more than almost any other area of law have the power to drastically impact on individuals and their families. We must ensure that as a government our immigration and citizenship policies are fair and equitable for all. You only have to look at the policies of the previous government relating to the mandatory detention of illegal asylum seekers to see how these laws disrupt people’s lives. There are some business owners in my electorate who spent too many years in detention centres when they could have been assimilating, getting jobs and paying taxes. In the lead-up to the 2007 election, unfortunately, my predecessor, the former member for Moreton, Gary Hardgrave, sent shivers through African communities, especially in Moorooka the suburb where I live, when he made some inappropriate comments. Even a dumped minister for multiculturalism should have understood how lives would be impacted by his comments. I am not sure whether they were careful comments or careless comments. I suggest the former. They caused too much damage in my community and many people will not forgive him.

The bill before the House is a common-sense amendment to ensure fairness in our citizenship criteria. It implements two of the recommendations of the Australian Citizenship Test Review Committee in their report Moving forward: improving pathways to citizenship. As a result, certain applicants will be eligible for citizenship without sitting the test if they have a physical or mental incapacity at the time of application that is a result of torture or suffering outside Australia. The act already exempts people with permanent or mental incapacity. However, this bill will ensure that those with psychological disorders as a result of trauma do not need to sit the citizenship test. It also ensures a person’s disability or mental incapacity does not need to be permanent, rather the condition must exist at the time of the application.

This bill also streamlines the application process by allowing applicants to apply and complete the test at the same time. Under the current system, applicants can only apply after they have successfully completed the test. The bill also clarifies that applicants who are under 18 years of age must be permanent residents at the time of application to be eligible for citizenship conferral. This amendment is really just about ensuring consistency across all applicant groups.

Refugee and migrant groups on Brisbane’s south side, where my electorate is located, have raised serious concerns with me about the citizenship test being a barrier to citizenship for some people, especially in our vulnerable refugee and humanitarian community where the rigours of taking a test are not something that you or I would treat lightly; for them it is quite significant. Mystery and fear surrounds the test.

The Rudd government believe that all people should be treated fairly and not excluded from citizenship because of circumstances outside their control. This bill, as well as changes to regulations and policies, will help achieve that. We also believe that understanding civic responsibilities and the rights and obligations of citizens is important for all Australians. That is why the Rudd government will keep the citizenship test. However, the test will be changed to reflect the recommendations of the review and to focus more on the legal and democratic foundations of Australian citizenship. The citizenship resource book will also be rewritten in plain English and will contain information about the pledge and broader information about Australia. I am assured that Don Bradman will still be in there, but obviously there will be a greater focus on some other aspects like democratic foundations.

I also welcome the amendment to ensure our citizenship criteria is fair for those who are required to travel outside Australia frequently for their work. Currently, some people who move to Australia but travel frequently for work such as elite athletes and airline pilots are unfairly excluded from citizenship because it is almost impossible for them to meet the citizenship criteria, as people who are out of the country for 90 days or more are ineligible. All applicants will need to show that, despite spending periods of time overseas, their home is in Australia. To paraphrase that bloke from Tenterfield, ‘Wherever they roam, they will still be able to call Australia home.’

Elite athletes with the potential to represent Australia will need to have been a permanent resident for two years and been physically present in Australia for six months. They will also need to require Australian citizenship to represent Australia in their chosen sport and have their application supported by the sport’s peak body. Specialist professionals such as pilots whose job requires international travel will need to have spent at least 16 months physically in Australia and been a resident in Australia for four years immediately before applying for citizenship. They will also need to have their application supported by their current employer to prove they have travelled extensively and that it is a condition of their work. Obviously, they will also need to meet all other legal requirements for citizenship, including sitting and passing the citizenship test.

On a related note, I will soon begin an enrol-to-vote campaign in my electorate to encourage new citizens to make sure that they are on the electoral roll. I know that there are some new Australians in my community who have had citizenship conferred but for whatever reason have not taken the next step and enrolled to vote. The Australian Electoral Commission definitely does a great job at these citizenship ceremonies. I see them making sure they get their forms off people, but unfortunately some new citizens manage to slip by without getting on the roll. Exercising our democratic right to vote is something all of us should hold precious and that of course begins by enrolling with the AEC. I will be talking with my community and with multicultural groups over coming months to see how we might work together to ensure that more of our new citizens become enrolled and stay enrolled. In closing, I welcome these amendments. They certainly will not make citizenship a free-for-all, but they will provide balance and fairness to the application process. I commend the bill to the House.

11:22 am

Photo of Don RandallDon Randall (Canning, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Energy and Resources) Share this | | Hansard source

I speak today on the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Test Review and Other Measures) Bill 2009. As a former Chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Migration I continue to take a great interest in matters relating to the integrity of Australia’s immigration system. There is no question that the coalition built a strong, sound, effective and fair migration system. We had measures in place to protect the integrity of that system and make sure that those who followed the rules were given full consideration. The truth is that once people are here they certainly love Australia—why wouldn’t they? This brings us to the question of citizenship.

Citizenship is more than just ticking a box and having a nice ceremony and a photo op. Citizenship embodies rights and responsibilities that should be taken seriously and with pride. The overwhelming majority of new citizens do this. I am privileged regularly to attend citizenship ceremonies throughout the electorate of Canning. I see the excitement and pride in those new citizens when they take the oath to become Australians. It is more than just a bit of paper; it is a badge of honour, an achievement and a sense of belonging.

It is perhaps fitting that I make this contribution today, Thursday, 17 September, on Australian Citizenship Day. Today marks the 60th anniversary of Australian citizenship, and annually this day pays homage to Australia’s democratic values and unity. Today around 4,000 people will become Australians, some of them right here in the Great Hall this morning. They have passed the citizenship test introduced in 2007, proving their commitment to Australia’s culture, values and history. I congratulate these new Australians and encourage them to embrace Australia’s sense of pride, civic responsibility and nationhood.

As we have heard, the bill before us seeks to make certain changes to the current arrangements for qualifying for citizenship. Firstly, it seeks to cut the time frame for persons in ‘special circumstances’ so these persons can become eligible for Australian citizenship. These ‘special circumstances’ are a thinly veiled disguise to cover elite athletes, which I will detail shortly. Secondly, it intends to amend citizenship residency requirements for people engaged in particular kinds of work requiring extensive travel outside Australia, including oil rig workers and pilots—offshore workers. Finally, the legislation exempts people with a ‘permanent or long-term physical or mental incapacity’ from sitting the Australian citizenship test when they cannot understand or complete the test.

I will deal first with the amendment relating to elite athletes. There is no denying that, as Australians, we love our sport. I am no exception. But the government wants to rewrite the immigration laws essentially to grab gold medals. Is this true Australian sportsmanship? Of course we love to win, but our sense of fair play, ‘have a go’ attitude and healthy competition are jeopardised under these amendments. The government is sending an unequivocal message that we are happy to take winners, if that can add to our medal tally, but not losers. Why are we creating a new class of special categories for citizenship? Has our passion for sport become so obsessive that we value it above all else?

This bill has been rushed in essentially to cater for the Russian ice speed skater Ms Tatiana Borodulina, who must obtain Australian citizenship in five days to be eligible to compete for Australia at the 2010 Winter Olympics. I am sure Tatiana is an extremely talented skater but she simply has not been in Australia long enough to apply for citizenship. Under pressure from the Australian Olympic Committee—and Tennis Australia in other cases—the minister had to find a means to the desired end.

Lainie Anderson in the Adelaide Sunday Mail did not hold back, and I have to agree with her. She said:

… it sends a message internationally that Australia values sport (and the quest for trophies) above intellectual endeavour and equality when it comes to migration.

With the citizenship requirement having been halved from four years as a permanent resident to two years as a permanent resident and with people only having to be here for three months of the year before applying, Anderson rightly questions why Senator Evans is even bothering. She said:

Why not FedEx our Aussie tracksuits to athletes across the globe who can’t make the grade for their own country, and tell them to turn up in Vancouver in 2010 or London 2012? Or maybe we could do the best and fairest thing and keep all immigrants on a level playing field, instead of selling out on quickie citizenships for those who look good in lycra.

What will happen to up-and-coming Australians pushed out of teams and institutes because there is a better noncitizen available? What will happen if the import turns out to be a dud—someone who is not quite as good as we thought and does not bring home a medal or who, dare I say, gets injured? Can we say, ‘Sorry, we got it wrong,’ and take their citizenship away? Of course we cannot.

It comes as no surprise that the government is all over the place on immigration policy. Last month the minister toughened up visa requirements for international students; this month he is rolling out the red carpet for sporting hopefuls. These are mixed messages. The coalition seeks to amend the legislation to have the minister exercise a discretion for those who cannot meet the residency requirements but whose citizenship can be demonstrated to be in the national interest, and still they must pass the citizenship test. However, I suspect the minister is reluctant to make those tough decisions.

You can see how it might be frustrating for people who are trying to do the right thing to see the minister making special arrangements for people who can win medals. Genuine cases come before my office frequently—immigrants desperate to become permanent residents and Australian citizens but who are not high on the minister’s priority list. Where is the justice for Mr Charles Kamwi, whose visa was refused and who has been on a bridging visa awaiting ministerial discretion since early 2008? He works for a power company in Perth and is a minister at the local Armadale church. His work rights were recently taken away, while he was on his bridging visa, forcing the cancellation of church youth programs and leaving the community with the terrible possibility of cancelling Sunday school sessions. Through my representations he has managed to have his work rights reinstated but he is still awaiting the minister’s answer.

Where is the justice for the Gorringes, Zimbabwe nationals who had a child while in Australia on temporary visas? They are not citizens and their child is stateless. They are desperate to return to Australia because their mother and extended family are here. They cannot even attempt to come back for possibly three years. As you can understand, the stress of this situation has placed an incredibly toll on their family. I had an email from their mother, Mrs Gorringe, recently, just saying how desperate this family is stranded in Zimbabwe.

Where is the justice for Angela Pillay, a nurse who was working at the Peel Health Campus, who undertook her studies at Murdoch University in Perth? Through inadvertent misinformation during the changeover in English test rules, she has been forced to leave Australia and is currently in South Africa with her engineer husband and two children. Peel Health are keen to get this trained and skilled nurse back, but they are stranded in South Africa while the paper work is recompleted.

And what about the Flemings from Zimbabwe who are awaiting ministerial discretion to stay in Australia within their children? They have been told that because they can legally live in Britain they should go there rather than Australia. They have no home there and their family is in Australia.

Another example is Emanuel Adisho, a reverend at the local church who came to Australia on a humanitarian visa. He has done all the right things and is now trying to assist his sister and family to join him in Australia. They are Iraqi Christians who fled to Syria and then to Australia. They have been assessed as refugees by the UN but have been refused entry to Australia twice. Of course, they are considerably upset to see the door open for queue-jumping elite athletes.

With respect to offshore workers, as a Western Australian, I can see the benefits in discounting the residency requirement for citizenship for professionals whose work regularly takes them offshore. Our state relies on these skilled workers. Ministerial discretion should be available in these cases. It is a fair alternative for people who cannot meet the four-year residency requirement because they are frequently outside the country. Most of these offshore workers have been in Australia for years. They have homes and families, have embraced the Australian culture and contribute to our society.

In its original form, the legislation mandated an exemption for citizenship testing for refugees who had come to Australia who had experienced ‘torture and trauma when offshore and were experiencing a temporary physical or psychological disability’. The coalition obviously had great concerns about this provision. It was clearly open to fraud and fraught with difficulties. It would have been near impossible to regulate. Considering these refugees had to have been in Australia for four years before applying for citizenship, the issue of ‘temporary’ disability following torture before they came here was problematic, if not almost redundant. We did not want to see thousands of people who knew they could not pass the test rocking up to the department of immigration with a ‘temporary psychological incapacity’ resulting from alleged trauma. The floodgates would have opened and it would have resulted in a complete bypass of the citizenship test—making a mockery of the test’s intention. We do not want ‘trauma and torture’—to take the current Sri Lankan situation, where probably most of the people in detention would qualify—used as an excuse to get citizenship when it is often impossible to verify their claims.

The government has seen the sense in exempting from the citizenship test only the people who are suffering a permanent or long-term physical or mental incapacity. The government has also removed any reference to torture and trauma and refugees. These concessions are important, given this change will avoid exempting torture and trauma affected refugees who only have a temporary incapacity. I do approach this exemption with great caution, however. While the wording appears improved, will it stand the test of compassionate doctors and coached refugees and immigrants? You can see what could happen. They could go to a friendly doctor and get a certificate, but we know that, quite often, doctor’s certificates are not as legitimate as they could be. So identifying the validity of the incapacity is something that I have concerns about. There are, however, regulations in place regarding applicants being assessed by registered medical practitioners to identify the validity of the incapacity. I can only hope that this helps avoid the situation where applicants seek favourable outcomes by using medical professionals compassionate to their cause. But, as I say, only time will tell.

The government’s approach to immigration policy is clearly quite out of touch with the Australian community and pathetic. The Prime Minister’s claim before the election—in fact, just days before—that he would turn back all boats has turned out to be nothing but a hoax on his part. Piers Akerman in an article this week has put in print what we have been saying for months. Every promise the Labor government made on border protection has been broken. He says:

Rudd said his approach to border security was based on ‘effective laws, effective detention arrangements, effective deterrent posture vis-a-vis vessels approaching Australian waters’.

Nearly two years later, the effective laws have been rendered ineffectual, the effective detention arrangements need supplementing with portable cabins and, as we saw recently, have been removed entirely for a particular group of asylum seekers, and the effective deterrent posture vis-a-vis vessels approaching our waters has been weakened to the point of non-existence.

While I am on this, I will comment on the member for Moreton’s contribution, where he said, ‘Mandatory detention; shock, horror!’ Let us remind the House who brought in mandatory detention. It was Gerry Hand, the former Labor minister. As I have said in this House before, I remember him going to Port Hedland and opening the Port Hedland detention centre along with the then Premier of Western Australia, Carmen Lawrence. It was a Labor initiative—and I understand mandatory detention is still Labor policy. We have people in this House, like the member for Moreton, saying, ‘Shock, horror; mandatory detention is evil,’ but it is still their policy.

Because of the government’s lax approach to immigration matters, Australia now has a steady stream of asylum seekers approaching our shores. Between abolishing temporary protection visas and removing the 45-day rule, which helped ensure Medicare benefits were not rorted, the government has basically issued an embossed invitation to anyone who wants to come to Australia. That invitation says, ‘If you can get here, you can stay here.’

Twelve months ago, after having called it a white elephant, the Rudd government embarrassingly opened the Christmas Island detention centre. This is a clear sign that they know their policies are not working, yet they continue to roll out the welcome mat for people smugglers, thereby destroying Australia’s strong border security protection and the integrity of our migration system. This week alone four boats have arrived off Australia’s north-west coast, ferrying so-called asylum seekers. Ashmore Reef is almost on their GPS! The Western Australia Premier, Colin Barnett, spoke out this week blaming the federal government’s changes to immigration laws for an increase in the number of asylum seekers arriving. He said:

I think John Howard had it right. “It’s not going to work – you’re going to be closed off before you get here and you’re going to be sent back. We do have to give a very clear message that you cannot get into Australia by illegal entry,” he said.

I will make a further point. The Italians have suddenly realised that the Australian system worked. Silvio Berlusconi now has an arrangement with Libya that they will meet the hordes coming through Libya, which is the staging point—and they come from as far away as Somalia and Lagos—to get to Italy. So Berlusconi now has an arrangement where they are turned back in the middle of the Mediterranean. They go back to Libya and then get sent back to Nigeria and other countries of origin in Africa. This is because they have realised what a problem it is.

The government is not heeding the message. Just compare these facts: following the implementation of the Pacific solution the amount of boat people arriving in Australia had been slashed, dropping from a total of 5,516 arrivals in 2001 to none in 2002-2003. Since Tuesday last week, 218 boat people have been intercepted on their way to Australia. Since August 2008, 32 boats carrying 1,518 unauthorised arrivals have been guided to Christmas Island, which is filling up fast. I understand Christmas Island is almost at capacity. So much for being a white elephant! This takes us to an estimated 8,000 unlawful arrivals a year if the flow continues. That does not sit well with the public of Australia. My office is continually getting messages from the electorate saying, ‘When are you people going to do something about this because it is now getting out of hand again.’

People who are genuinely awaiting entry to Australia under refugee programs miss out. We know Australia is one of the most generous countries in the world in terms of humanitarian entrance. This government is continuing with similar figures to ours, something like 14,000 people a year, which is second only, as I understand it, to Canada. And yet people who come unlawfully take their place. So the people who have been sitting in camps for years in some of the most diabolical conditions, applying through the UNHCR and finally qualifying, are then told, ‘Sorry, you cannot go to Australia this year because Australia’s quota has been filled. They have had several thousand people arrive unlawfully who have taken your place.’ That is just out of order. Australia is a great melting pot. We have many people from every nation and they are welcome here—if they do the right thing. Why would you choose a people smuggler when you can come through the UN? You choose a people smuggler because you are trying to get unlawful entry and because you know you probably cannot get through in a lawful way. This is the point at which the Australian people have a problem with the way the laws are being watered down under the Rudd government.

Before I close I want to remind the House of the people that come through my office, and other members’ and senators’ offices across Australia, saying such things as: ‘We have a family stranded in Zimbabwe. We have a family that we want to reunite.’ Ministerial discretion could apply and these people could be given compassion and consideration. Yet, because of some technical rules of the department, they are not. It is causing an enormous amount of stress and trauma. And when they see that the pull factors now in Australia are saying that if you can get here, you can stay here and you will get a visa, they feel terribly aggrieved. They have done the right thing and are trying to come here for all the right reasons. They have applied properly but then someone beats them to the punch by turning up because the laws have been softened and Australia is now a desired destination. We have real problems with people. Remember the boat that burnt recently and the loss of life? So I would point that out in terms of this bill. (Time expired)

11:42 am

Photo of Andrew SouthcottAndrew Southcott (Boothby, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Employment Participation, Training and Sport) Share this | | Hansard source

I would like to speak on the amendments in this Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Test Review and Other Measures) Bill 2009 relating to elite athletes. Nine years ago Sydney was the Olympic city and on 25 September 2000 all of Australia watched one of the great nights for Australian sport. We watched Cathy Freeman win the women’s 400 metres in athletics and Tatiana Grigorieva win the silver medal in the pole vault. That night gave enormous pride to Australians. It spoke very powerfully of the way we see ourselves, and the way we would like others to see us, as a country. It spoke very powerfully of the opportunities that are here and it was with Cathy Freeman, an Indigenous Australian, and Tatiana Grigorieva, a very recent arrival. So, in terms of gauging the community’s opinion about recent arrivals who take on the Australian colours, I think it is a positive one. Tatiana Grigorieva’s story is worth reflecting on. She and Dmitri Markov came to Australia in 1996. Dmitri Markov was a pole vaulter and she was a 400 metres hurdler. They came in order to follow their coach and they came under the old rules, which meant that you could qualify for citizenship after two years. Dmitri and Tatiana achieved their citizenship at a citizenship ceremony in my electorate—in the city of Marion. They did it in the normal way and they did it with members from their community.

One of the disappointing things about the amendment which relates to elite athletes is the way that the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship has completely bungled this. He has taken an issue on which there would be enormous goodwill in the Australian community and caused enormous resentment by the way he has created this special category. It is also disappointing that the government has been aware of this for some time. Both Tennis Australia and the Australian Olympic Committee have identified this as a problem with the government for some time and yet it has chosen only now to act. The opposition understands that Olympic athletes and potential Olympic athletes spend a considerable amount of time training outside Australia. We understand that this makes it difficult for a non-citizen athlete to satisfy the residency requirements under the current Australian Citizenship Act. From a sports point of view, there is definitely a case for some changes to the current laws. But, while recognising that, we do not want to start trading citizenship for gold medals. Even the immigration minister has backed away from his early comments when he said that this will lead to more gold medals for Australia.

Under the government’s proposed changes, international athletes who wish to become Australian citizens will need to be a permanent resident for just two years, be present in Australia for a total of at least six months during those two years and be present in Australia for at least three months in the year immediately before their application. The opposition believes it is far better to reintroduce ministerial discretion, which will allow for a variation in citizenship requirements for noncitizens if the minister is satisfied that granting Australian citizenship to the person would be in the Australian public interest because of exceptional circumstances relating to the applicant. This will protect the integrity of Australian citizenship while also providing an avenue for elite athletes, such as Tatiana Borodulina, who find themselves unable to satisfy residency requirements.

Most disappointing about this debate is that the government has known about this issue for a while. In fact, Tennis Australia director Craig Tiley said, according to the Australian Financial Review, that Tennis Australia had been in regular discussion with the government on this issue for the last couple of years. I also believe the Australian Olympic Committee has been in discussion with the government relating to Tatiana Borodulina’s case for some time. But the government has decided to act only now. The government could easily have proposed changes to the Australian Citizenship Act to assist sporting athletes such as Tatiana Borodulina when this bill was first introduced in June. This issue could have then been debated when the bill was referred to a committee. It could have produced a better proposal that was acceptable to both sides of the House. The government has rushed this when it did not need to. It would have been aware of this as an issue for the whole period that it has been in government. In relation to the specific case, I understand that the date for Ms Borodulina to achieve her citizenship is 22 September. As I said in my remarks, I believe that there was a much better way that this could have been done by the minister—a way that would have achieved community support and would not have been setting up one special category.

11:48 am

Photo of Steve IronsSteve Irons (Swan, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is always a pleasure to rise in this place and discuss the topic of citizenship, the common bond that binds us together as a nation, particularly on this day—National Citizenship Day. However, I rise today to raise some concerns with the legislation before the House, theAustralian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Test Review and Other Measures) Bill 2009. We are a country that has been built on migration and our migrant population is still growing. The ABS website estimates that we have a net gain of one international migrant every two minutes and 23 seconds. My electorate of Swan has a particularly large migrant population. At the time of the last census, only 57.5 per cent of my constituents said that they were born in Australia. This compares with a national average of 70.9 per cent. The electorate of Swan is not dominated by any particular migrant group: the migrants in Swan have arrived from all over the world. I truly have the world in my electorate; it is a beacon of diversity. Despite the fact that just 57.5 per cent of locals are Australian born, 76.6 per cent are Australian citizens. This shows that there are a large number of people in my electorate who have gone through the process of becoming an Australian citizen and I know many others are going through this process at the moment. My office provides immigration assistance on a day-to-day basis and I know what a challenging pathway it is and how well deserved eventual citizenship is.

I believe parts of this bill devalue the hard work and effort of all the people in my electorate who have achieved or are striving for Australian citizenship through the normal process. The special residence requirement for persons representing Australia at international events, or what members have referred to as the ‘elite athletes amendment’, provides for the fast tracking of citizenship for elite athletes so they can represent Australia at the Olympic and international games. Under normal circumstances, athletes, like everyone else, have to wait the obligatory four years to become a citizen. This bill would give the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship discretion to shorten the residency requirement for elite athletes nominated by either the AOC or Tennis Australia. Therein lies the first contradiction: why only tennis or from the AOC? What is wrong with golf? Is it because it is not an Olympic sport yet?

I understand that the Australian Olympic Committee has pressured the government into this move over the high-profile case of Russian ice speed-skater Ms Tatiana Borodulina, who must obtain Australian citizenship by 22 September if she is to be eligible to compete for Australia at next year’s Winter Olympics. I sympathise with Ms Borodulina, as I strongly support sport, but the fact is that she has not resided in Australia for the period required to allow her to apply for citizenship. It is the same rule for everyone—and so it should be. I am disappointed with both the government and the Australian Olympic Committee for promoting this clause, which is not only against the spirit of citizenship but against the spirit of the Olympics. The minister himself is on record as saying:

These changes will lead to more gold medals for Australia at sporting events …

I remind the Labor Party of the fundamental principles of Olympism as documented in the Olympic Charter:

1. Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.

2. The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.

3. The Olympic Movement is the concerted, organised, universal and permanent action, carried out under the supreme authority of the IOC, of all individuals and entities who are inspired by the values of Olympism. It covers the five continents. It reaches its peak with the bringing together of the world’s athletes at the great sports festival, the Olympic Games. Its symbol is five interlaced rings.

4. The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play. The organisation, administration and management of sport must be controlled by independent sports organisations.

5. Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.

6. Belonging to the Olympic Movement requires compliance with the Olympic Charter and recognition by the IOC.

Nowhere does this list of principles say that the Olympics is about winning gold medals at any cost and elevating the rights of athletes above those of people dutifully waiting for their special day. The Olympic spirit is about playing and promoting the benefits of sport.

As a director of junior development for the Perth Football Club, I see the benefits that young people get from playing team sport. Sport fosters social integration. It brings together all parts of our diverse community and it is healthy. The values we teach the kids in sport, particularly at the elite level, include waiting to earn their right to get to the level they need to get to. This demonstration of making exceptions for elite athletes is going to go against those values that we teach our young children in our communities. Why in the midst of a childhood obesity epidemic are we spending our time legislating for more gold medals? I say to members that today our nation would be far better served if it were considering at this moment legislation that would support junior sport across Australia. Why is it that only the AOC and Tennis Australia are on the list? It seems that the best lobbyists are the ones who win.

I am always pleased to attend citizenship ceremonies in my electorate and meet the diverse range of people taking the pledge. I have met individuals and families originally from places as varied as the United Kingdom, Sudan and Mauritius. Many have waited a long time to become citizens of Australia and they are overcome with the emotion of the ceremony. Credit is due to the staff of each council, who make these ceremonies a special occasion for the recipients. I know a considerable amount of time goes into contacting each new citizen and ensuring that they receive a certificate and a gift from Australia. Citizenship ceremonies are often held in the council buildings with family and friends in attendance.

Congratulations to Mwambi and Badibanga Kabala of Carlisle, who recently obtained their citizenship at the Town of Victoria Park ceremony. It is always good to see members of the same family obtain their citizenship together. It was also a family occasion in the city of South Perth recently when the Sonnendeckers achieved their citizenship. Congratulations to all of them.

I have other constituents who recently received their citizenship: Mr Sudarsha Ganegoda of Queens Park, Mr Fasil Worku of East Cannington, Mr Grant Martin of Ferndale, Mr Hazrat Ahmadzai of St James, Mr Mohammad Moinuddin of East Victoria Park and the Van Dyk family of Salter Point. These are all people who have recently become citizens in my electorate of Swan. I hope I am giving the members some idea of how international my local area is.

Waiting lists to attend citizenship ceremonies in my area now extend to February or March next year. The number of recipients waiting for their day has increased significantly in recent years. One of the most popular dates to receive citizenship has always been 26 January, Australia Day. The councils in the electorate of Swan often have requests from recipients to be involved in ceremonies on that day. The local governments work tremendously hard to accommodate most people with these desires and the Australia Day ceremonies are very large-scale events. What I find most touching is the elderly new citizens, many of whom have lived in Australia for years before applying. The stories that these people tell never cease to amaze me and it is gratifying to watch them officially become Australians. For most it is more than just a piece of paper.

I have also been involved in two private ceremonies in my office. Recently a constituent of mine, Kathryn Day, was eligible for citizenship but due to the waiting list with her local council was not going to be made an official citizen until early January. Ms Day was due to attend university on exchange in Denmark for a semester and was hoping to apply for an Australian passport prior to her departure. Last year I also had a citizenship ceremony for a Como resident, Mick Prescott. This man had fought for the Australian Defence Force and was still not a citizen. I was pleased that Mr Prescott brought his family with him to celebrate on the day. In conversations with the Department of Immigration and Citizenship it was decided that as Ms Day’s citizenship was already approved we could have a private ceremony to make it official for her. This was held in my office with my staff and Ms Day’s auntie in attendance. It was a special moment for her. I felt privileged to be involved with Ms Day’s and Mr Prescott’s citizenship ceremonies.

I often reflect on the meaning and importance of being an Australian and living in a country that allows us to celebrate our democratic values, equality and respect for each other. On the day, I particularly remind the applicants about the rights and privileges that we have in this country compared with some other countries and remind them to embrace our community spirit and values. I also remind them about the Anzacs, who were prepared to lay their lives on the line to make sure that we would be able to keep those privileges and rights.

Thursday, 17 September is Australian Citizenship Day. Across the nation more than 4,000 people will become Australian citizens on and around Australian Citizenship Day in more than 85 ceremonies. The date is significant because the Australian citizenship test was launched on 17 September 2007, although it commenced on 1 October 2007. The test was introduced to ensure that citizenship applicants had all the requisite knowledge to demonstrate the requirements of the Australian Citizenship Act. Broadly speaking, these requirements are being able to understand the nature of the application, having a basic knowledge of English and being able to demonstrate comprehension of the responsibilities and privileges of citizenship. Data recorded from 1 October 2007 to 31 March 2009 showed that over 11,000 applicants had sat the Australian citizenship test. Of those, 96.7 per cent passed on the first or second attempt. An applicant can sit the test as many times as they need to until they pass.

Failing the citizenship test does not affect your visa status at all. The test is computer based and consists of 20 multiple choice questions drawn randomly from a pool of confidential questions. To pass you must get a mark of 60 per cent or more, including answering three mandatory questions correctly. There was a lot of media hype surrounding the introduction of the test and the type of questions asked. I felt the majority of this hype was unwarranted. The questions all come from a book called Becoming an Australian Citizen, which is available to all applicants. Areas covered in the test include: the geography of Australia, the culture, and the national symbols and emblems; as well as understanding the parliamentary system. Let us not devalue the citizenship test by making it a political tool to win gold. Citizenship of this great country of ours is a privilege not a right.

12:00 pm

Photo of Barry HaaseBarry Haase (Kalgoorlie, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Roads and Transport) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise with some relish to speak on the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Test Review and Other Measures) Bill 2009 and our amendments to it. Citizenship is a qualification that my constituents hold dear, and overwhelmingly so. I was particularly taken with the absolute avalanche of congratulations that I received as a federal member when the Howard led government introduced the citizenship test in 2007. My constituents were saying to me ad nauseam, ‘Thank goodness a government has had the good sense to realise how valuable we as Australians consider our Australian citizenship. We have been giving it away as though it was to be found in a weeties packet for far too long.’

So the first thing I want to reinforce is that Australians are overwhelmingly in favour of very firm tests for acquiring Australian citizenship—not just that applicants do not break the law whilst they do not have Australian citizenship, not just that they spend a certain period of time in Australia as a resident and not just that they seek Australian citizenship; but that they actually involve themselves in gaining an understanding of Australian history and culture, what it is to be Australian, what the responsibilities are of an Australian citizen, and the give and take of being an Australian citizen. It is absolutely fundamental we should ask of those persons who are born in another nation and come to this country that, in order to qualify as a citizen and have the rights of those who are born in Australia, they jump through the hoops. Within reason, I believe those hoops should be very tough; and overwhelmingly my constituents believe that those hurdles should be pretty tough.

My colleague the member for Hindmarsh said earlier in this House that he vividly remembers his own citizenship ceremony. He was very small at the time but it is burned into his memory as that occasion when he gained equal rights with his fellow citizens. Prior to that he was probably in those days referred to as a ‘New Australian’. Regardless of the pride some quite obviously take, after they have received their citizenship, in referring to themselves as ‘New Australians’, the term was in the past not always meant as one of endearment. There was almost some slight against those who were viewed by the population at large as being ‘New Australians’. It implied that they did not belong.

But I believe that we are a multicultural country today. Amongst many other wonderful places in my huge electorate of Kalgoorlie, I represent the community that is Port Hedland in Western Australia in the wonderful Pilbara. I swear it is one of the most multicultural population centres in Australia. We have a very buoyant and hardworking Muslim population from nations around the globe. They are integrated as well as any other group. We have Koreans, we have South Africans, we have Zimbabweans, we have English and we have North Africans. We have such a multicultural mix. And they all aspire to become citizens of this country. That is for a long list of very good reasons. We as Australians, especially in this place, know full well that Australia is the finest destination in the world. There are, right now, tens of millions of people languishing in refugee camps around the trouble spots of the world, and overwhelmingly they want to go to either the United States of America or Australia.

The UNHCR does a mighty job in putting in place a conduit to process those applications from refugees living in extreme hardship to enable the UNHCR to have a moderated, regulated process to disseminate those successful applicants to destinations around the world. This leads me to another point that I feel very strongly about along with my constituents. I am not aware of any group within my 2.3 million square kilometres of Australia that has any interest in lowering the standards for those in circumstances less comfortable so that they should have an automatic right to come to this nation.

As I said before, they highly value citizenship; they highly value their own birthright as, in the main, native born Australians; and they think it is absolutely ludicrous that we should have a government that wants to lower the standards for entry into this country. They think it absolutely foolish that we should have a government that wants to soften our degree of border protection. This particular bill is not perhaps able to be construed as softening our border protection, but it is another change to legislation that impinges upon becoming a permanent resident of this country and getting citizenship—and acquiring citizenship through other means such as perhaps not being sound of mind and therefore having to have a lesser test when it comes to the understanding of our culture.

But I take this opportunity to remind the House that after the 2007 election there was substantial change made to our immigration legislation, and as a result of that we have had an avalanche of unannounced arrivals in our waters—to date, some 32 vessels containing 1,518 people, none of them invited, all of them ignoring the process organised by the UNHCR and all of them prepared to risk their lives at sea, often in unseaworthy boats. History shows that lives have been lost at sea on too many occasions because of the trade that is plied by these scurrilous, unprincipled traders in human lives. Yet they have been encouraged to do so by the very nature of the changes that this government brought into place with its numbers in 2007. It is so unacceptable to the overwhelming majority of my constituents that this softening of our borders be allowed.

I am talking about the consequences of these softened borders from the perspective of the likelihood of loss of life at sea on one hand but the absolutely unholy trade that is conducted by opportunists to line their own pockets at the expense of human misery on the other. It is something that a good government would endeavour to deter, but the policies that have been put in place by this government have done nothing more than to hold up a very large sign that says: ‘People smugglers, you are open for business once again. Tell your potential customers to come on down to the great south land, the land of milk and honey.’

There is no dispute that we are the finest nation in the world, with a great environment and great living standards. There is no question that in the refugee camps around war-torn sectors of the world the word is that, if you can get to Australia, you have reached Valhalla. This current government is paving the way to Christmas Island, with a quick hop to Australia and a direct line to Australian citizenship—and my constituents loathe that concept. They want to see tougher borders. They want to see these refugees who are in dire circumstances go through the process coordinated by the UNHCR and to use that process. They think that Australia boxes above its weight when it comes to taking refugees on a per capita basis. We are doing the right thing. We can hold our head up high and be proud to be Australians on the basis of our involvement in humanitarian works around the globe. So there is no justification for this government to take a weak approach to immigration and border protection.

The amendments that we are making to this relatively minor piece of legislation are necessary to bring the attention of the House to the fact we do not want to give away our citizenship on the basis of possibly picking up a few medals. I find it rather distasteful that we as members of this place are expected to support legislation that means we can simply pick sports stars from around the globe, invite them to compete under the banner of Australia and then hand out citizenship certificates through some regulated administrative process so as they can compete and win medals for Australia. I believe the sports minded Australian population are not just sports minded; they are also proud and they have a very strong sense of values and fair play when it comes to sporting competition—unless we are playing the English, of course, and then all bets are off. But I do not believe Australians want to witness an Australian team or the Australian nation winning something at the expense of diluting the value of Australian citizenship.

However, if that is going to be done, it ought not be done through some administrative process. Australians have a healthy disregard for bureaucrats of all description. They do not want us to be winning medals and getting international accolades on the basis of trading our citizenship rights for those medals, and they certainly do not want that process made possible by some bureaucrat who has been empowered by cheap legislation to do so. If that is going to happen, then it ought to be via the process of the ministerial discretion that the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship holds and needs enhanced, possibly. But ministers of the Crown are subject to public scrutiny through many processes. If a minister of the Crown wants to denigrate his or her reputation by making a puny decision to denigrate our citizenship for the sake of some sporting medals then be it on their head, but I am sure they will not shine bright in the eyes of the Australian population.

I have very little else to say about this legislation except to reiterate that Australian citizenship—earned by birthright or earned by newcomers to Australia after a reasonable period of time, after having gained an understanding of our history and culture, after having qualified through a rigorous test in that regard and having an understanding of the English language so that they can attend to their responsibilities at law as Australians—is the most paramount value to maintain. If the passage of this legislation dilutes in any way the value of Australian citizenship or if it encourages values that I see as un-Australian then it will be bad legislation. I strongly support the amendments we have made here today and commend those amendments to the House.

12:15 pm

Photo of Stuart RobertStuart Robert (Fadden, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I once again find myself in this enduring House standing up for strong borders, standing up for citizenship and standing up for a nation that wants to protect what it stands for, what it hopes to be and what it hopes to leave its children. It is a point of fact that since August last year, as the Labor Party sought slowly to dismantle the strong fences which are our border security policy enshrined within certain immigration bills, what was a very small and slow trickle of only a few and in some cases no illegal immigrants per year being plied by the most abhorrent of trader—the modern-day slave traders that we know as people smugglers—is now becoming a flood. There have been 32 illegal vessels since August last year—over 1,500 people. They are no doubt seeking a better life, putting themselves in the hands of that most abhorrent of beasts, the people smuggler.

The debate is never about those poor souls who risk everything for their families. There is nothing wrong with wanting a better life. I can only imagine the lengths I would go to to take care of my family. But policy that permits or encourages the abhorrence of trade that is people smuggling is, frankly, bad policy. It is no coincidence that 32 boatloads of smuggled people have arrived on our shores since Labor began the systematic dismantling of the immigration policy that had previously stood such good stead in putting up strong fences and strong borders. It is not coincidence that people smugglers now see Australia as an easier target for their boats. It is no coincidence that Inpex, looking at building an LNG plant the size of the Melbourne Cricket Ground—a floating platform in the ocean that will be the largest of its kind in the world—within 20 to 40 nautical miles of the Ashmore Reef, are concerned about the implication of Labor’s changes on them and their floating plant, because it is within the borders allowing for protection.

The Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Test Review and Other Measures) Bill 2009, unfortunately, is pulling one more link out of that border protection chain. In the bill there are three components of special interest that I wish to raise: firstly, a reduced period of residence for certain people in special circumstances so they can become eligible for Australian citizenship; secondly, amending citizenship residency requirements for people engaged in a whole range of work requiring extensive travel outside Australia; thirdly, people with permanent or long-term physical or mental incapacity being exempt from sitting the Australian citizenship test. I wish to outline a few brief points on those three issues.

First is elite athletes. Let us not kid ourselves. Let us face the brutal reality that the regulations that Labor is looking to put in will allow citizenship to be gained in half the time—two years—for those elite sportspeople who have been recommended by the Australian Olympic Committee and Tennis Australia. In other words, if there are elite sportspeople who have been recommended by the Olympic Committee or Tennis Australia they will get certain privileges. Indeed, the announcement was made on 31 August this year in the company of Ms Tatiana Borodulina, a Russian speed skater who is looking to represent Australia in the Winter Olympics. Minister Evans said that he hoped ‘the changes will lead to more gold medals for Australia at sporting events’. Imagine that—selling Australian citizenship, cutting the requirements so we can win more gold medals. Is that what the Labor Party believes citizenship is worth? Is that what you believe integrity is worth?

I am reminded of a story of a man who went to a road stop and had his wife and two small children with him. The children were both seven years old. There was a sign there that said ‘kids under six eat half price’. He said, ‘I’d like to have four specials—two adults and two children,’ knowing full well his children were over the threshold of six. His wife turned to him and said, ‘Is that all your integrity is worth? Saving $2.50?’

The question I ask the Labor Party, the Labor government, is: is that what the integrity of our nation’s citizenship is worth—the hope of a few more gold medals and the hope of a few more people in the finals of tennis matches? Is that what you believe the integrity of our citizenship process is worth? Is that it? Is there no thought to the enduring values of a nation or to what citizenship represents—the hopes and ideals of people who come to our nation, people who want to build a better life for their families, people who believe that all men and women are created equal? You believe the integrity of citizenship is worth a few gold medals. If that is what you believe citizenship is worth, if that is the value you place on being part of this nation, if that is all you believe this nation and the prize of citizenship to be, then I weep for the future, because it sets an exceptionally poor example of the value of citizenship.

I want my young boys to grow old proud of their nation and proud of the citizenship into which they were born. I want them to stand firm on what citizenship means and to look at their brothers and sisters left and right, no matter where they come from on the planet, and know that those people also value that citizenship. I do not want my children to know that a government sold citizenship out for a few gold medals, because I believe that the integrity of our nation, emboldened by all that citizenship brings to the table, is worth so much more than that.

I say to the Labor government: I believe in the Australian flag being flown at schools; I believe in Anzac Day and I march proudly; I believe in Australia Day; I believe in a thing called patriotism and I love my nation; I have served overseas in uniform—I have stood on a front line, peacekeeping for my nation; I believe in the integrity of what our nation stands for; and I will not stand in this hallowed place of parliament and see citizenship sold out for a few gold medals. It is incredibly disappointing that such a thing would not only be considered but be brought to a vote in the House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Australia. The Minister for Immigration and Citizenship under current law already has discretion under exceptional circumstances. I do not know why the minister would want to see changes when he already has discretion. I will not cast aspersions upon the minister and say that he is scared of hard work; but I am surprised that these changes would come through.

Let us move on to the second amendment, the offshore worker amendment, which discounts the residency requirements for citizenship for professionals whose work regularly takes them offshore. The coalition offers an amendment to the bill, to create a second ministerial intervention which allows residency concessions for offshore workers who demonstrate hardship or disadvantage—with eligibility for intervention consideration only after they have been normally resident in Australia for four years prior to the application and have spent a minimum of 16 months in those four years in Australia—and who have passed the citizenship test. Our view is that that second ministerial intervention should not be delegated and that any decision should be made public on the departmental website and, of course, should be tabled in parliament annually. We believe this is a reasonable, fair and just alternative for those who have close affinity and strong ties to the nation, who have lived here for some time, who have relatives here and who are making a contribution to this great place we call home. We do not believe that codifying this change in legislation is appropriate; we believe that ministerial discretion is better suited to ensuring that the access to this concession is limited to those who genuinely meet the requirements. I believe that the power of ministers is paramount. The minister has the discretion to act wisely and justly—there is no indication that ministers are not acting in such a way. I would like to see that power continued and, in this case, widened to allow the minister to act in such a way.

On the third point, I am particularly pleased to see the amendments in the Senate which change ‘permanent physical or mental incapacity’ to ‘enduring physical or mental incapacity’ in relation to exemptions from the citizenship test. We believe these changes reflect a range of concerns that the coalition’s dissenting report quite rightly raised. These amendments are an improvement; there is no question about that, given that the change will avoid exempting torture and trauma affected refugees who may only have a temporary issue. They will have a range of support measures, considered some of the best in the world, to assist them with the issues they are working through.

I support the amendments that the shadow minister for immigration and citizenship has raised in the House. They are important amendments. They should be considered in the spirit and in the light with which they are put through, to ensure that citizenship is something that we can be proud of, that citizenship stands the test of time. Great victory and achievement, if it is taken easily and has come lightly, is never received greatly. Citizenship should be hard. It should be difficult, because we want people in our nation who will share our common values, who will come and contribute to a nation, who will belong to it, who will join in with it and who will, if need be, fight for it in the uniform of the nation. Citizenship should be something that is prized and valued.

12:29 pm

Photo of Scott MorrisonScott Morrison (Cook, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Housing and Local Government) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise as the seconder of the amendment to the motion for the second reading on theAustralian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Test Review and Other Measures) Bill 2009 and I rise to say to the House that I love my sport as a proud representative of the Sydney Sutherland shire—the shire which also loves their sport. I love my sport, but I love my country more. One of the things that sportspeople understand is that there are rules. When you play by the rules, that is when you are a success in sport. When you respect the rules, when you respect the umpire, then you will have success in sport. More than that, you will have respect as a sportsperson. We have got many great referees around our local community and we need to respect them. We also need to respect the referee of our laws when it comes to citizenship in this country.

What we have before us is further evidence of Labor’s policy of softening our laws when it comes to immigration and border protection. We have seen this exhibited time and again. The shadow minister, the member for Murray, is at the table. I think it is now 32 new arrivals in the last 12 months. More than 1,500 people have come here. The Labor Party’s policy of softening these laws is risking lives and it is risking our borders. The government, if it wants to get serious about this policy, needs to do more in this area than simply rebadging the department—going out there and getting new embroidery on the coats worn by dogs at our airports—and actually deal with serious issues of border protection and changes to our immigration laws and not send the message, as it is and as those offshore know, that this government has a policy of softening our laws.

We need rules and these rules need to mean something. They need to mean something to those people wanting to come to this country so that they know that the rules will apply, they will apply to everyone, there will be a process and there will be fairness. At the end of the day, this is very much about fairness. If you are sitting in a camp somewhere in ravaged Africa or somewhere around the globe waiting for your opportunity to come here, then people need to know that the rules are going to apply to them as much as anyone else who seeks to come here. We need to speak up for those who do sit in camps around the world and want to know that their time and efforts to come here are going to be treated equally with any of those who may arrive illegally in another fashion.

We on this side of the House support a citizenship test. We do not snigger at it. When our government brought this matter to this House and made it law those opposite sniggered—they made fun of it. They talked about Bradman and other matters, and they ridiculed it, but Australians out there know that these matters are actually important to Australians. They know that these are important things. The government may want to snigger, just like they snigger in this place every time about our having had the audacity to say to schools around this country that they should have a flagpole and they should put the flag on it. Every time that comes up in this House those opposite—all around their backbenches and a few on their front bench too—say, ‘Why don’t you have a flagpole? Why are you putting flagpoles in?’ My question is: what is the problem? I am proud to say that our government said, as the retiring member for Bradfield did in government, that we should fly the flag in our schools. The government snigger at that, as they snigger at our citizenship test and now as they seek to dismantle it.

We have rules. They should be upheld. That is called integrity. Having rules and ensuring they are applied is called integrity. We also have proposed in the amendment that there be discretion and that discretion should afford the flexibility that the scheme needs—not a weakening of our laws but flexibility and discretion that sits within a robust framework. There should be no delegation of this discretion provided to the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship. There should be transparency of the decisions that are made. To those opposite, that is called accountability. Integrity and accountability are at stake with what the government is putting up here.

Our laws should also address serious economic issues. As I say, I love my sport, but I also love my economy. I love the fact that people in my electorate can have jobs. I make sure that our immigration laws are about the economy, not just about winning gold medals, which seems to be the obsession of the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship. We must address the serious economic issues, and our amendment highlights this.

At the end of the day, we must ensure that our policies in this country are addressed by the serious national interest, not the populism which we see day after day from this government—cheap populism which is all about trying to promote the government’s interests, to puff them up in the eyes of the electorate. Whether it is the school signs, which are the first to arrive and the last to leave when these projects are done, or it is this puffed-up proposal to get some cheap populism off the back of saying they are trying to win gold medals, this government is exposed for what it is—lacking integrity and lacking accountability.

12:35 pm

Photo of Laurie FergusonLaurie Ferguson (Reid, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs and Settlement Services) Share this | | Hansard source

I did not have the opportunity to hear all of the contributions to the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Test Review and Other Measures) Bill 2009, but the last three from the members for Fadden, Kalgoorlie and Cook were very wide ranging indeed. We heard one person boasting about his war record, and then we went on to flags. I want to deal very briefly with a few of those—

Photo of Scott MorrisonScott Morrison (Cook, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Housing and Local Government) Share this | | Hansard source

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker: the member opposite just cast a slur on the member for Fadden, who served his country on the frontline. He should withdraw and he should apologise now.

Photo of Steve GeorganasSteve Georganas (Hindmarsh, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The member will resume his seat.

Photo of Scott MorrisonScott Morrison (Cook, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Housing and Local Government) Share this | | Hansard source

He said he was boasting.

Photo of Laurie FergusonLaurie Ferguson (Reid, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs and Settlement Services) Share this | | Hansard source

I said that they were very wide ranging, boasting about their war record, talking about—

Photo of Scott MorrisonScott Morrison (Cook, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Housing and Local Government) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Deputy Speaker, on a point of order: the member opposite has just repeated his slur on the member for Fadden. He is saying he is boasting, with some sort of improper motive. He should withdraw.

Photo of Ms Anna BurkeMs Anna Burke (Chisholm, Deputy-Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

There is no point of order.

Photo of Laurie FergusonLaurie Ferguson (Reid, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs and Settlement Services) Share this | | Hansard source

As I said, they dealt with a very wide-ranging—

Photo of Ms Anna BurkeMs Anna Burke (Chisholm, Deputy-Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The member for Cook will resume his seat until I ask him to come back.

Photo of Laurie FergusonLaurie Ferguson (Reid, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs and Settlement Services) Share this | | Hansard source

As I say, the debate did indeed wander, and I know the Leader of the Opposition will be very pleased that in this wide-ranging contribution by the member for Fadden he did not comment on the world’s attitude towards fiscal packages. However, many areas were covered—

Photo of Scott MorrisonScott Morrison (Cook, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Housing and Local Government) Share this | | Hansard source

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker: it frustrates the opposition when members opposite come up and challenge the motives of those on this side of the House. It would assist the House if the member would withdraw his slur.

Photo of Ms Anna BurkeMs Anna Burke (Chisholm, Deputy-Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! The member does not have a point of order. He shall resume his seat. I warn the member for Cook.

Photo of Laurie FergusonLaurie Ferguson (Reid, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs and Settlement Services) Share this | | Hansard source

Although he has taken it wrongly, I withdraw. Does that help you? As I said, we have had a very wide-ranging contribution from the last three members. One was wondering whether I was going to get to September 11 and the Berlin Wall and every other issue around the place. I want to deal very briefly with some of those comments. Quite clearly, anybody who follows these issues knows that people in Peshawar or Nairobi do not just get up in the morning, have a cup of tea and say, ‘I might wander over to Australia tomorrow afternoon.’ There is a clear correlation and push factors with regard to refugee claimants and other people coming to this country and events that occur in their homelands. Quite clearly, at the end of the disputes in Sri Lanka we are going to have a very strong push factor from the Tamils. Tamils are going to be more inclined to come to this country.

Photo of Sharman StoneSharman Stone (Murray, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Immigration and Citizenship) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Deputy Speaker, I raise a point of order. It is about relevance. This has no bearing on the contents of the bill.

Photo of Ms Anna BurkeMs Anna Burke (Chisholm, Deputy-Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

There is no point of order. The member for Murray shall resume her seat and the parliamentary secretary will continue.

Photo of Laurie FergusonLaurie Ferguson (Reid, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs and Settlement Services) Share this | | Hansard source

This is preposterous. A series of opposition speakers have tried to draw a connection between a change with regard to sportsmen getting Australian citizenship and some preposterous claims about a weakening of Australia’s border protection. I am answering that point.

Photo of Sharman StoneSharman Stone (Murray, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Immigration and Citizenship) Share this | | Hansard source

Dr Stone interjecting

Photo of Laurie FergusonLaurie Ferguson (Reid, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs and Settlement Services) Share this | | Hansard source

Immigration policy, that is right. I am making the point that there is no weakening of position by this government with regard to border protection. What we have is a clear push factor in a number of countries that are leading people to be more inclined to attempt to have their salvation overseas.

Photo of Sharman StoneSharman Stone (Murray, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Immigration and Citizenship) Share this | | Hansard source

Dr Stone interjecting

Photo of Laurie FergusonLaurie Ferguson (Reid, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs and Settlement Services) Share this | | Hansard source

The person interjecting at the moment should bear in mind that if we did a correlation around the number of boats over the last 15 years we would find that there is no connection necessarily between legislation and the numbers of people coming to this country. A more important factor is what is occurring in a number of countries around this earth. Clearly that is the situation right now. We see daily reports from Afghanistan about the increased authority and success of the Taliban to the point where, in the paper yesterday, a leading US military source said that they are losing the war. These are the factors that push demand; it is not about the laws in this country.

In turning to the bill before us, the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Test Review and Other Measures) Bill 2009, I am very impressed that the opposition spokesperson, who is at the table, sits around getting very excited about a wholesale attack on our border protection and then does not want any response to it! The government wants the pathway to Australian citizenship to be a robust process—one that involves active learning about citizenship and that empowers our new citizens with knowledge about this country, our people, our traditions and our laws. The government believes that the citizenship test can play an important role in a migrant’s journey to Australian citizenship.

The bill seeks to implement the recommendations of the Australian Citizenship Test Review Committee that were agreed to by the government and that require legislative change. Senator Hanson-Young criticised amendments to the bill which were accepted by the Senate. The amendments will ensure that a person with a permanent or enduring incapacity, regardless of the cause of the incapacity and who, as a result of that incapacity, is not capable of understanding the nature of the application or does not understand English or the responsibilities and privileges of citizenship will be exempt from taking a citizenship test. These amendments will ensure that the most vulnerable and disadvantaged citizenship applicants will have a legitimate pathway to citizenship.

In addition, the bill proposes to amend the act to streamline the citizenship application process. This is in response to the review committee’s observation that the current process of multiple steps is inefficient for clients and the department itself. The other proposed amendment contained in this bill concerns applicants for citizenship by conferral who are under the age of 18. Currently the act allows any person under the age of 18 to be eligible for Australian citizenship by conferral. The amendments in this bill propose that the policy requirement that applicants under the age of 18 must be permanent residents to be eligible for citizenship by conferral be given the full weight of the law and leave no room for doubt as to how this provision is to be applied. The amendments will ensure the integrity and consistency of the citizenship and migration programs and provide clarity as to how the law is to be applied.

On 7 September 2009, in response to a number of organisations and individuals, the government circulated amendments to this bill. The amendments sought to introduce special residence requirements for a small, and I stress ‘small’, group of people in special—and I stress ‘special’—circumstances who have been significantly disadvantaged by the current requirement for eligibility for Australian citizenship. After the circulation of the proposed amendments to the Senate, concerns were raised with the minister that the proposed amendments had limited application. It was decided that the proposed amendments could be enhanced to provide access to a special residence requirement which allowed for a reduced period of residence for a broader group of people engaged in activities beneficial to Australia—rather than limiting it to people who may require citizenship to represent Australia at international events. The revised government amendments at schedule 2 of the bill provide for a special residence requirement for, firstly, persons seeking to engage in activities that are of benefit to Australia and, secondly, certain persons engaged in particular kinds of work requiring regular travel outside Australia. These revised government amendments will enable certain persons seeking to engage in activities that are of benefit to Australia and the Australian people and those engaged in particular kinds of work requiring regular travel outside Australia to be eligible to become Australian citizens. These provisions aim to provide flexibility for those who need to be an Australian citizen in a shorter time frame to engage in specified activities that are of benefit to Australia while ensuring that such applicants have a close and continuing connection with Australia through a longer period of permanent residency and a requirement to be ordinarily resident of Australia throughout the two-year period before application.

The opposition proposed that the minister should have a personal, non-delegable power to grant citizenship to a person if he is satisfied that granting citizenship to the person would be in the Australian public interest because of the exceptional circumstances of the case, as long as the applicant was not present in Australia as an unlawful citizen at any time during the period of two years immediately before the day the applicant made the application and successfully completed a citizenship test.

There is evidence that the shadow minister does not understand the government’s amendments or how the act works. The government amendments in the Senate did not represent a free pass to citizenship but rather a special residency requirement for a small group of people who do not have a pathway to citizenship. It keeps all the eligibility criteria in place. They have not changed. They are the same. The government amendments will still require applicants to meet all of the eligibility requirements in section 21 of the act, such as: having a permanent visa, being of good character and having an ongoing commitment to this country. The opposition’s proposed amendments, on the other hand, would introduce such a broad discretion that it would have contained no permanent resident requirement, no time to be spent in Australia, no character requirements and no requirement to reside or maintain a close contact with this country.

These are all standard requirements for the conferral of citizenship, which the opposition would have thrown out the window. The opposition has, in fact, created a new eligibility criterion for citizenship which does not have any barriers on a person making an application. The department would have to take an application and prepare a submission to the minister from someone overseas who may never have visited Australia.

Photo of Sharman StoneSharman Stone (Murray, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Immigration and Citizenship) Share this | | Hansard source

Dr Stone interjecting

Photo of Laurie FergusonLaurie Ferguson (Reid, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs and Settlement Services) Share this | | Hansard source

It is ridiculous that the opposition is suggesting that the minister should receive and make decisions on something as valuable as citizenship from anyone in the world who wants to put an application in. Doesn’t the opposition think it is ridiculous that anyone in the world now has a pathway to citizenship even if they do not have a visa or have never come to the country?

Indeed, this amendment would create an industry for vexatious citizenship applications that the minister would need to consider. Anyone could put in an application for citizenship, which would have to be personally seen by the minister, and there would be absolutely no restriction on who could apply. As long as you had a visa, you would not even have to be in Australia.

To accept the opposition amendment would undermine the very integrity of the process and the longstanding criteria for assessing whether a migrant is eligible for citizenship. Australian citizenship is too valuable and important to be the subject of the personal opinion of the minister of the day alone. What one minister thinks appropriate will vary from minister to minister. I think, having long-term experience in this portfolio, we have seen some very sorry uses of ministerial discretion in this particular portfolio area. In the last parliament, we know this was the subject of public debate and widespread commentary.

Also, by moving these amendments, the opposition have completely contradicted themselves. They supported the government in closing off ministerial discretion to children under 18 because it was being misused by a group of people who wanted to prolong their stay in Australia yet they propose to create another power which would allow the same people to apply to the minister for citizenship under a different provision.

The amendments that I have introduced by way of the special residence requirements by people engaged in specified activities or a particular kind of work provide a specific legal framework and clear eligibility requirements, which will ensure that the special residence requirement is used appropriately and only applied to the group of people for which it is intended.

Furthermore, the proposed amendments provide a legitimate pathway to citizenship for people who are engaged in particular kinds of work which requires them to travel frequently outside Australia and who will not be able to meet the general residence requirement as long as they engage in that particular kind of work.

As for the interjection about our caucus, quite frankly, it does not get too much coverage in the media compared to every meeting of the opposition party. Having been at the caucus meeting, I can tell her there was no debate whatsoever about this matter.

Photo of Sharman StoneSharman Stone (Murray, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Immigration and Citizenship) Share this | | Hansard source

They would cut their legs off!

Photo of Steve GeorganasSteve Georganas (Hindmarsh, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! All remarks are to be made through the chair. I ask the member for Murray to cease the interjecting.

Photo of Laurie FergusonLaurie Ferguson (Reid, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs and Settlement Services) Share this | | Hansard source

On the one hand there is widespread disquiet in the caucus and, on the other hand, when it is commented that there is no debate whatsoever, it is allegedly because people are too scared. As I say, we are getting a lot of coverage of the opposition meetings of late—for example, in the last day or so, the deep frustration of the National Party that they are not being listened to enough.

The proposed special residence requirements provide clearly defined criteria for eligibility in law. Unlike the discretion under the old act, they leave no room for ambiguity as to who will be eligible for consideration under these provisions. I commend the bill to the House.

Question put:

That the words proposed to be omitted (Dr Stone’s amendment) stand part of the question.

Original question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.