Monday, 14 August 2017
Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Requirements for Australian Citizenship and Other Measures) Bill 2017; Second Reading
I appreciate the opportunity to continue my contribution on the Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Requirements for Australian Citizenship and Other Measures) Bill 2017. As I noted in my previous comments, I make that contribution as a representative of one of the most multicultural communities in the whole country and I am so incredibly proud to represent people who have come to Australia, whether they arrived six months ago or five generations ago. This bill has incredible relevance and incredible importance to those people, so I'm very pleased to make the contribution that I do today.
One of the crucial points that I want the chamber to understand about the impact of the bill before us is the contribution that is made by the different communities around my electorate, and the thing that rings in my ears whenever I consider this bill being debated today is the fact that if this had been law decades ago then so many thousands of the people that I represent in my community would never have had the opportunity to become Australians. I think that is incredibly sad, because these are people that contribute every day in different ways around my electorate. Never mind the fact that we know that migrants contribute $40 billion in taxes to this country every year. Never mind the fact that migrants are going to contribute $1.5 trillion to our economy by 2050. It's not just these financial contributions but so much more that I believe is being devalued by the legislation that's before us.
It was a great honour for me, the member for Isaacs and the member for Bruce to run a community forum to talk to people, to consult with our communities—as the government evidently decided not to do—about how to put together a bill like this. I can tell you, Mr Deputy Speaker, that we had about 400 people gather in the Springvale City Hall, which is right in the heart of my electorate of Hotham. When I explained the English language test—which I will get to in a few moments—to the 400 people present in the audience, they literally gasped. This was because it was immediately obvious to them that this legislation was going to have a profound impact on my current community and, indeed, on the future shape of that community. I'm very privileged, as I note is the other member who joins us at the table, to represent communities which are undergoing constant change, because the areas that we represent are a magnet for migrants—and we are very proud of that. We want that to continue, because we know that in the years which follow the incredible experience of people getting Australian citizenship, those people will make contributions. They will work hard to educate their children, and then those children will make contributions. That is the migrant story which this amazing country is built on.
I have brought into the chamber an enormous pile of paper. This pile of paper is just a snapshot of some of the petitions that were signed at this community forum. Hundreds of people stood with one voice and said: 'We do not want to see this type of change come into this country. We do not want to live in a country which has a law that effectively says that, if you cannot speak university-level English, you have nothing to contribute. That is not the country we live in.' I do wonder whether the government think they are being politically clever by putting this legislation forward, because that's not what the reaction is going to be in my community. People understand that there is a lot more content and a lot more value in Australian citizenship than simply your English skills.
I want to talk about the two aspects of the bill before us that Labor is most concerned about. The first is the English language test that I've just referred to. I want to make one thing perfectly clear for anyone who is listening to the discussion today: you need to be able to speak a level of English to become an Australian citizen today. That is current law and that is because, Deputy Speaker Coulton, as you well know, the citizenship test itself is conducted in English. You have to be able to speak English to successfully get through this test, but that is not good enough for this government. What the bill before us is seeking to do is make a change to the law so that every person, in order to obtain Australian citizenship, has to meet level 6 of the IELTS test, and that is the level of English which is required for entrance into university courses in this country. In fact, some university courses allow a lower level of English than level 6. This is an absolutely extraordinary act of snobbery, and it has nothing to do with the contribution that I can see thousands of my constituents making all over the community that I represent.
I looked into what it specifically means to speak English at level 6 in the IELTS test, and I want to read a couple of sentences from it that are basically the standard you need to meet. The test reads:
With the Cooperative Research Centre for Micro Technology in Melbourne, they are developing unobtrusive sensors that will be embedded in an athlete's clothes …
Then there are a few other clauses, which I won't read out. It goes on to read:
After years of experimentation, AIS and the University of Newcastle in New South Wales developed a test that measures how much of the immune-system protein immunoglobulin A is present in athletes' saliva.
This is ridiculous. Surely, everyone in this parliament and at home can hear that and can see that this has nothing to do with what sort of an Australian you will make. It is an arbitrary and, frankly, rank political move from those on the other side of the chamber, who I believe are making a very foolish attempt to try to bring some Pauline Hanson supporters back into their party.
Citizenship is not a plaything of this government. It is a serious, very important and fundamental institution that defines who we are as a country. I would have thought that, despite all the political tricks that I see played by those on the other side of the chamber, the government would be above this—but they're not, and it's very disappointing.
I want to talk a little bit about some of the communities that I represent just to illustrate what the impact on these communities will be. I represent, for example, the suburb of Springvale, which will be known to everyone in this chamber who comes from Victoria because it is where we all go for our dumplings and yum cha on a Sunday. Fifty-nine per cent of people who live in Springvale were born overseas. Twenty-one per cent of people who live in Springvale were born in Vietnam alone. That is on the 2011 census numbers. Eighty per cent of people who live in this suburb speak a language other than English. Clayton is Australia's most multicultural suburb, with more than 70 per cent of its residents born in another country. My electorate office is in Clayton and I lived in Springvale when I was a little bit younger. These are extraordinary places and they are so much richer for the waves and waves of people who have come to this country, seeking a better life, who wanted to set down roots and make a better life for their families. They've chosen these brilliant parts of our great country, and here we are telling them that essentially if they'd come 30 or 40 years later we wouldn't have wanted them. It just beggars belief, and frankly it is offensive.
One of the things that frustrates me so much about this debate is that the qualities and the values that I see exhibited by these communities are exactly the ones that I hear lauded on the other side of the chamber. These are communities of people who are intensely entrepreneurial. I see small businesses everywhere—restaurants, accountancy firms and law firms. These are communities of people who have worked hard, who have got themselves educated and who, by and large, have gone out and started their own businesses. So we see entrepreneurship, get-up-and-go and communities of people who don't expect that they are going to get much more help than that incredible gift of Australian citizenship if they make a commitment to this country. And now we are effectively saying we are going to take that away from future generations who could make that contribution.
I have to mention the unbelievably awful impact that the bill before us would have on refugees who come to this country. We have debates in this chamber about the manner in which you might make your refugee journey to Australia, but I don't believe I've heard on either side of the chamber people denigrate the contribution that refugees make to our community. Refugees make great citizens. As members of parliament, we get to give them their citizenship. You see people crying because they have made decades long journeys to this country, just trying to come to a place where there is democracy and where they will have their human rights respected. The reality is that, for a lot of people who have spent much of their lives fleeing persecution and who may have missed many years of their schooling, they may come to Australia and study their whole lives and never be able to speak university-level English. What we are saying here is we are going to pretend to offer an opportunity for refugees to make a new life in this country but we are going to cut off their pathway to citizenship. I cannot think of anything more offensive than telling a person who has planned for decades to try to come to a country like Australia that, once they get here, because their English skills aren't fancy enough and they may not know what 'immunoglobulin' means, they are not going to be able to make a contribution to this country. It is wrong, it is offensive and Labor stands against it.
One of the arguments that's been put forward by the government is that this has something to do with national security. I really object to that. That is the sort of thing that we hear from this government whenever they want to put something beyond debate, and we are not going to take that bait. We are absolutely not going to that bait, because this has nothing to do with national security. What our security agencies tell us time and time again is that the best way to make our country safe is to bring people in and create an inclusive society where young people who may be at risk of radicalisation feel that they belong. If we were designing a law to do the exact opposite, I think we'd come quite close to what is before the chamber today, which again makes an attempt to draw a horrible, arbitrary line between people who belong in our country and people who do not.
I am proud to represent a community of people who have left their countries to come here to build a better life in Australia. They have done extraordinary things; they make an incredibly important contribution. I just want to say to those people that Labor value what you do. We want to welcome that next generation of people who may migrate to our country and do exactly what you have done—and that is to make us a better place.
The Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Requirements for Australian Citizenship and Other Measures) Bill 2017 is important legislation because it affects not only the lives of hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of people already in this country but the lives of many more to come. The term 'citizenship' is vaguely defined. I guess citizenship started off in the Roman days, when it effectively meant that someone was entitled to be politically included in their decision-making, and it meant that they were full members of their society. That's probably where it really started. But its meaning has never been clear. The Australian Constitution makes no reference to Australian citizenship. It does not mention or define it, although it was discussed at length in the constitutional debates.
So what does Australian citizenship imply? Prior to 1949, it simply didn't exist. Residents were referred to as British subjects. Aliens could of course be naturalised by going through a similar process to that involved with citizenship today. After World War II, following in the footsteps of Canada, Commonwealth countries, including Australia, discussed citizenship and national identity at a conference in London. Following on from that, Arthur Calwell, Australia's immigration minister, introduced the Nationality and Citizenship Bill in 1948, and Australia's first citizens were sworn in at a ceremony at the Royal Albert Hall here in Canberra in 1949. The explanatory memorandum to the 1948 bill refers to citizenship as establishing a national identity, diplomatic protection, and rights and privileges, but says little else about its meaning. Arthur Calwell's second reading speech, however, provides some insight into what was intended. In speaking about the Nationality and Citizenship Bill, Calwell said:
It will symbolise not only our pride in Australia, but also our willingness to offer a share in our future to the new Australians …
He went on to say:
We want to … foster and encourage our young but very vigorous traditions of mateship, cooperation, and a fair deal for everybody.
This legislation is completely at odds with those sentiments and the spirit in which Australian citizenship was first introduced.
Since World War II, around 7½ million people have migrated to Australia. I understand that, of those, around five million, perhaps just a little more, have taken up citizenship. Notably, around 2½ million—that is, one in three migrants—did not, or have not yet, become Australian citizens. Right now, it is estimated that there are over one million permanent residents who are eligible for, but have not taken up, citizenship. The relevance of those figures is to highlight how the Turnbull government is overstating and overreacting to the importance of this legislation. The reality is that citizenship makes little material difference to a permanent resident's life. A permanent resident is entitled to welfare support, Medicare and public education, although university education for noncitizens is at risk under the government's higher education amendment bill, which is currently before the House, where the government wants to change the Commonwealth supported places program.
The main benefits of citizenship appear to be the right to vote, an Australian passport and employment in selected government agencies. Those benefits were clearly non-essential to over one in three permanent residents that chose not to take up Australian citizenship. The other important perceived benefit is security from deportation. It is a very fragile security, because section 17 of the Citizenship Act provides the basis for the minister to revoke citizenship. One would expect that any person deserving deportation would clearly have breached section 17 of the act. If the argument is that the minister's revocation powers should be extended—and that is a reasonable question to ask—then let us have that debate, rather than the pretentious debate that we need to protect Australians from would-be citizens. That is what this legislation purports to do by, amongst other things, making it more difficult for eligible applicants to be granted citizenship. It does that by introducing a much more difficult English competency test, a four-year permanent residency requirement and an Australian values test. No explanation has been provided as to how these changes will benefit Australia or where the existing test has failed Australians. We are simply expected to rely on the minister's opinion.
Our national leaders, and indeed many others, have frequently claimed that Australia is the most successful multicultural country in the world. If that is so, then it has occurred despite a so-called tough citizenship test and not because of it. On current estimates around five million Australians hold dual citizenship or have dual citizenship rights. Furthermore, since 1986, applicants when taking the Australian citizenship oath do not have to renounce any other allegiance that they hold. Interestingly, other Australians, who are born here, are not entitled to apply for dual citizenship. So we actually have double standards. A person who holds another citizenship doesn't have to renounce it and can continue to hold their other citizenship, thereby maintaining an allegiance to another country, whilst the Turnbull government feigns concerns about a person's inability to pass an English competency or values test. It's an absurd proposition to take. The government's priorities are clearly wrong. When there is more concern about a person's English language competency than about their dual allegiance, we have our priorities back to front.
It seems that the government will allow exemptions from the test for UK, Republic of Ireland, US, Canadian and New Zealand migrants. Apart from the obvious discrimination towards several other English-speaking countries, there is a huge assumption in that proposition being made by the government that all migrants from the exempted countries have fluent English and show Australian values. I would suspect that there are many people in each of those countries who are themselves in turn migrants to those countries in the first place. They may have acquired citizenship once they arrived there and they may now wish to migrate to Australia. But if they do, they will be exempt. In my view they will be little different to the people that are applying and that currently live in this country and have come directly to this country from any country other than the UK, the Republic of Ireland, US, Canada or New Zealand. I accept that is a matter for the minister, and we wait to see what he will do.
That brings me to the point that this bill seems to be filled with matters over which the minister has an incredible amount of control. Again, that appears to be wrong, in my view. I accept that many of those matters will be dealt with through regulations, and the parliament always has the opportunity to oppose or reject regulations. But the very fact that those matters are going to be matters directed by the minister is in itself of concern.
The term 'values', which is quite often used, is a very vague, subjective and changing concept. I suspect the values of the Australian people 50 years ago were very different to what we would consider them to be today. More importantly, and what should matter, is that in their time prior to applying for citizenship applicants have complied with Australian laws. That is the real test of their assimilation and understanding of Australian society, because it is our laws which reflect and clearly define our values, and compliance with them reflects a person's commitment to being a good citizen and their understanding of Australian values.
The most discriminatory aspect of this legislation is that in recent years, and even more so over the last decade, around 50 per cent of migrants to Australia have come from Chinese Asia and Southern Asia. They are the people who will be most affected by this legislation and clearly they are the people whom this legislation is targeting. When you take out from all of our migrants the Chinese Asians, the Southern Asians and then migrants from the English-speaking countries that I referred to earlier, it doesn't leave much else. Legislation that targets a particular sector of society because of their background is racist. The legislation has not been cleared by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights and it may not be. Indeed, it may not even comply with the Racial Discrimination Act. I have not had time to try to ascertain whether it does, but it seems to me on the surface of it that it may not.
If the legislation were passed, thousands of potential citizens who had set out a pathway to Australian citizenship under existing laws, which they believe they were complying with, would find themselves stranded, because the Turnbull government, for politically motivated reasons, wants to shift the goalposts. I understand that some 81,000 people have already had their applications put on hold before this legislation even becomes law, effectively meaning that this legislation is being backdated. I understand that the department is not processing applications lodged in recent months.
I want to go, for a moment, to the four-year residency requirement. Again, this is an absurd situation. A person that is in this country, regardless of the visa type, has ample opportunity to adapt to and understand the ways of this country. It doesn't matter whether it's a permanent visa, a working visa, a student visa, a holiday visa or whatever; it is the time spent in the country that matters, if at all. Indeed, if we go back through history and look at the prerequisite for Australian citizenship in the past, it has varied from five years, to two years, to three years, to four years and so on. In each one of those measures there is no evidence that those numbers made any substantial difference to Australia.
A person's allegiance to Australia cannot and should not be measured by their ability to pass an education test, be it in language or values. If it were, many Australians born here would very likely also fail that test, yet they are not being denied full participation in Australian life. More importantly, it is not the ability to pass a citizenship test that the government should focus on but the screening at the entry point into Australia, regardless of the visa class. That is where the greatest focus should be if the government has any security concerns whatsoever. We had 8.3 million tourists or thereabouts that came into this country last year. We have anywhere between one million and 1½ million other visa-class holders here at any one time, yet the government wants us to believe there is a problem with people who want to become citizens and swear allegiance to this country. That's not where the real concerns should lie.
In summary, there is no justification for this legislation whatsoever, and the government hasn't produced any. There's been no security advice to support this legislation and the need for it. There is no evidence that citizenship is creating any kinds of problems and no security advice that the changes proposed here will make Australia a safer place. There is no regard in this legislation for thousands of people who have commenced the citizenship journey using an alternative visa pathway. There is no concern for the people who have made Australia their home and will work hard, pay their taxes, abide by our laws, but never have the confidence to apply for citizenship, and no concern at all about the creation of an underclass of Australians. I have not seen a single submission in support of this legislation, but I've seen numerous opposed to it. In closing, this legislation has shades of Australia's discarded White Australia policy, which ended 50 years or so ago. It is offensive, it is discriminatory and it is driven by a government that is struggling in the polls and wants to whip up unfounded fear and concern. This legislation should be rejected, because it flies in the face of the Australian values that the government claims it wants to uphold.
I had some difficulty believing that the previous speaker could really believe in what he was saying. It is quite extraordinary to me. In Queensland, where he comes from, there's most certainly no Labor government; there's a Greens government. Their policies are very much in line with those of the Greens.
When you see me walk into this chamber, through those doors, you will always see me salute the magnificent painting of Charlie McDonald. He was the first member for Kennedy and the third Speaker in this place, and he was one of the proud founders of the Labor movement. In sharp contrast to the last speaker, he said, 'We don't want migrants to come into this country and take our jobs off us and undermine our pay and conditions, because we don't—'
An opposition member interjecting—
That is exactly what you were saying, sir. That is exactly what you were saying. Every single sentence that came out of you prompted more migrants to come to this country. You want the barriers lowered and removed. We're talking here about increasing the barriers, making it more difficult to come to Australia, reducing the number of people coming in. Let the people who are desperate for jobs in your electorate know who is responsible. Who was bringing in 650,000 people a year? Not the Liberal Party. It was the Labor Party.
Charlie McDonald, that great man out there, would turn in his grave. Seventy-two of his fellow citizens in the Kennedy electorate died in an explosion at Mount Mulligan. Twenty-five died in an explosion at Mount Leyshon. That was in my home town of Charters Towers. We died like flies because of the corporates that owned the mines and treated us like dogs, so we fought for our pay and conditions. No sooner did we get our pay and conditions, win arbitration, because of great men like Charlie McDonald than the corporate classes brought in the coolies to work the mines and the Kanakas to work the cane fields. Our arbitration commission wasn't work two bob, because they had people who were going to work for nothing in the cane fields and the mines and who couldn't have cared less really, in a collective way, about our conditions. One in 30 of them died in the cane fields. One in 30 of them, strangely enough—ironically enough—died in the mines.
Yet the champions of more migration, including the last speaker, are the Labor Party. Those migrants are the ones putting the pressure on welfare in this country. If you are going to continue to bring 650,000 people a year into this country, all of them able to work—there are no restrictions upon section 457s or student visas; they can all get jobs here—and there are only 200,000 jobs being generated in the country, and over 200,000 school leavers, you don't have to be Albert Einstein to figure out that you're going to go bankrupt real quick.
When I asked this question of Prime Minister Abbott, five days later the minister for welfare in the government said that welfare was going to explode from a quarter of the budget to half of the budget. Well, of course it is! If you're bringing 650,000 people a year into this country and there are only 200,000 jobs and over 200,000 school leavers, of course the welfare budget is going to explode. But 'bludgerigars' that come into this place are not worried about adding up; they are just worried about pleasing some part of their constituency.
The people of Australia are starting to wake up and the Liberal Party is starting to wake up, but Labor are living in the Stone Age. They're quite literally living in the Stone Age. They proudly boasted about bringing in 650,000 people. I am told that there are now only 350,000 people, not 650,000, coming into the country. I think, under the circumstances, the Liberal Party should be applauded.
Mr Deputy Speaker, we are bringing these people in from countries that have no rule of law, no democracy, no egalitarian tradition. Much as I love Indians, people from India, they do have a very rigid class system and most certainly have rule of law and democracy. But it was in the paper the other day that in the past 55 years in Pakistan not a single prime minister or president—whatever it is—has completed his term in office. Whatever their values are, they're not the values of this country.
Finally, there is the Judeo-Christian underpinning of our society. You may not believe in God; you might hate religion; but I think all of us would probably agree we're brought up in a background of love your neighbour, you have responsibility to your neighbour, you have responsibility to produce something for your fellow man. Those things are the essence of the Christian and to some degree Judeo value system.
So are we going to bring all these people in—no democracy, no rule of law, no Judeo-Christian background, no egalitarian traditions? As the member for Makin said, Australia is changing. Too damned right it's changing. You read quotations in the history books, the description of Australia in the 1950s, and you would be proud to be an Australian. Those characteristics were true, those books and their images were true, and we could be very proud of what we had achieved in this country.
If you are bringing in people that are totally different, we are going to have a totally different country. I don't want it to be different. I'm pretty proud of the way it is, and I'm pretty happy with the way it is. I don't want it to change. Heaven only knows that my electorate is an amalgam of ethnic minority groups—the Afghan cameleers were very significant; many of my friends are their descendants—but those migrant groups that came to Australia came here to be Australians. They fought with their fists to become Australians, and they were accepted as proud Australians. The people coming here today don't come here to become Australians—no, no, no. They think we should become them, not the other way around.
So I think the government deserves praise here. I sat in a CFMEU dinner, and that very great Australian, Michael O'Connor, made a comment to the then Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, about that union, the most powerful representative of working people in this country. I have mentioned on many occasions that I'm proudly a member of the CFMEU and have been a supporter for most of my life. He said, 'This union will no longer brook the bringing of section 457 visa workers to this country. Do you understand what I am saying clearly, Madam Prime Minister?' We sat down to dinner and there it was on the menu, the dish in front of us. It said, 'No more section 457s'. They are undermining our pay and conditions and taking our jobs on a massive scale. To the shame of the Labor Party in this place, they were the people that introduced them. In fact the Liberals introduced them, but they were bringing 30,000 in. The Labor Party kicked that up to 150,000. It was quite right that the biggest representative of employees in the country was taking a strong stance. That's why so many people are trying to join that union now and amalgamate with it.
In conclusion, what if the developmental policies of the tiny little party that I belong to were being implemented in this country? I can simply mention that if you build a railway line into the Galilee coalfields you will create 40,000 jobs. We've reached a stage in this country where we don't refer to the Galilee; we refer to Adani. Therein lies the problem—development depends upon foreign capital and foreign ownership. It didn't in my day. Under the much-maligned Bjelke-Petersen government we owned all the railways, proudly; we owned all the electricity, proudly; and the people of Queensland owned all the ports, proudly. I might add that, to the shame of the Labor Party, most of the sales were under the Labor Party in Queensland, not the Liberal Party. I'm sure, if the Liberals had been there, they'd have been selling Grandmother's false teeth. But they weren't, so it was the Labor Party who sold the assets.
All you've got to do is to build a government-owned railway line into the Galilee. There are 26 tenement holders there, and all of them would like to open up their mines. Well, they sure aren't going to open them up with the noose around their neck—with one corporation owning the railway line. In actual fact, that railway line will not open up the Galilee, it will close it down—the same as the decision by the Liberal government in Western Australia, to quote Twiggy Forrest, closed down iron ore expansion in Western Australia for 25 years. The government wouldn't build a railway line. Successive Labor governments in Queensland, proudly Labor governments, built the railway lines, and then they were doubled and quadrupled by the incoming Country Party government, of which I proudly was a part.
We can provide for you 40,000 jobs there, immediately. We can build the STaDSS scheme on the Herbert River and the Hell's Gate scheme on the Burdekin River for you and provide you with another 40,000 jobs. So 100,000 jobs you can create with the flick of your fingers. The two latter projects will supply 10 per cent of Australia's petrol needs and four per cent of our electricity requirements—all super-clean energy, with no CO2 emissions whatsoever. And that can be done tomorrow, if the two major parties in this place—although they're ceasing to be major parties—realise, for one moment, that they can do what their forebears did and borrow the money to invest in development and not in self-indulgence, building massive freeways around cities and tunnels in cities. As the great economist John Quiggin said, one thing that can be said about Queensland governments is that they most certainly have tunnel vision. Brisbane is the most tunnelled city in the world. Next year, it will have 30 kilometres of tunnels. Sydney, with five times their population, has only got 14 kilometres of tunnels.
You might say that's a good thing. Yes, it is, except that the state is being bankrupted, and they're tripling electricity charges to get the money to pay for all this self-indulgence, instead of investing the money in projects like Galilee. Invest in the Galilee coalfields—half Australia's coal—and those two giant water projects and you'll get your money back. You'll get $3 billion or $4 billion back every year through payroll tax, through income tax and through mineral royalties. That's why the Queensland government was easily the most successful government in Australian history. We must pay great tribute not just to the politicians but to the great public servants who were responsible for that—I refer particularly to Sir Leo Hielscher.
If you undertake these projects, you can afford to bring migrants into this country. But, would you please bring in migrants who want to become Australians, who do not want us to become something different. I venture to suggest that, if you go to the CBD areas of Sydney or Melbourne, you will see people who look forward to an Australia that is not Australia but is their country with all the values and systems that they have and, in the main, no democracy, no rule of law, no Judeo-Christian philosophy—love your fellow man, sacrifice yourself for your fellow man, build good things, do good to your fellow man. They are different entirely to that: get ahead, beat the other bloke, be out in front, own everything.
What I'm saying here is that we were able to bring people in who wanted to become Australians, no matter where they came from in the past. We are bringing in numbers now that we can't possibly afford with a no-development government. They say there's no money for development. Twenty-five billion dollars a year has been taken out of superannuation— (Time expired)
I represent one of the most multicultural parts of Australia. More than half the people who live my electorate were born overseas. That's more than almost any other electorate in this place. It means I go to a lot of citizenship ceremonies, and, like all members of parliament, I love going to them. It's one of the best parts of our job. When I speak at these events, I tell new citizens that they're part of a long history of migration.
Except for the first Australians, we're all migrants or the descendants of migrants, and it's not just a story of British migration until the last few decades. The First Fleet had people from other parts of the world. There were former African slaves from the United States who fled with the British after the revolutionary war who were on the First Fleet. Arthur Phillip, the first Governor of New South Wales, was half German. The first Chinese migrant, Mak Sai Ying, arrived here in 1818—a good decade before my first convict forebear. He married a woman named Sarah Thompson, they had a bunch of kids and he ended up running a pub called The Lion, in Parramatta, not far from my electorate. That's the sort of story that's repeated itself time after time after time over the last two centuries—people who have come here from all parts of the world, some with barely two bob to rub together, and made a go of it and made a success of it.
Of the miners who rose up under the Eureka flag in 1854, there were people there from more than a dozen different countries, including Finland, Jamaica, Italy and Sweden. Among the soldiers at Gallipoli, there was a bloke called Billy Sing. His mum was English and his dad was Chinese. He was a sniper. He was the best the Anzacs had. His actions saved countless Australians on that rugged peninsula. If you go down the road from here and visit the War Memorial, you'll see a place littered with names. It includes the names of people who weren't born here but died for us. That's Australia. They're the sorts of stories that I like to tell at these citizenship ceremonies.
I also tell the story of an 18-year-old Vietnamese refugee who fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon, being shot at as he left, and I tell the story of a 17-year-old Vietnamese girl who fled with her sister and one change of clothes. She made it to Malaysia where she was put in a UN refugee camp. She spent the next 10 months there until, one day, someone said, 'You're going to Australia.' Those two teenagers didn't know each other then, but they soon would. Soon after arriving in Australia, they went on a blind date at Bondi Beach. A few years later, they were married and had kids.
Those two Vietnamese refugees are my mother-in-law and father-in-law. If this legislation that we're debating here today was in place all those years ago, they would never have been able to become citizens of this great country. That's because what the government wants to do here is change the law so you can't become an Australian citizen unless you've got university-level English skills. That counts my mother-in-law and father-in-law out. They can speak English—their English is pretty good—but is it university level? No, and it never will be. But, I tell you what, they're good Australians, and, like thousands and thousands of other people who've come here over the decades, they've learned a new language, they've got a job, they've raised a family and they've made a go of it. They've even set up their own business. These are the sorts of people who we should be congratulating. This legislation says that they shouldn't even be citizens. How on earth could I vote for that? How on earth could I vote for something that says they shouldn't even get a vote? How could I?
How could I look my little boy in the eye when he grows up and tell him that I voted for something that meant that his grandparents shouldn't even be citizens of Australia?
I don't want people to get the wrong impression here; I understand how important English is. English is critical if you want to succeed in Australia, and I see how important it is in my own electorate. In Blaxland, in south-west Sydney, the unemployment rate is double the national average. It won't surprise anyone in this place that it varies depending on how good your English language skills are. The unemployment rate amongst people whose first language is English is about five per cent. In other words, it's around the national average. But, among people who don't speak English very well, or at all, the rate of unemployment is about 25 per cent. That tells you how important English is. The better your English, the better your chance of getting a job, the better your chance of getting ahead and the better your chance of integrating properly into our society. But that doesn't mean we should be denying people citizenship because they don't have university-level English skills. It means we should be doing more to boost these skills. It means providing more English language training and making sure people finish the skills courses that they start. This legislation doesn't do any of that.
It's important to make the point here that the test to become an Australian citizen is in English. So, to become a citizen, you already need to be able to speak English, and read and write it. You just don't need university-level English. Now apparently, unless you can write an essay, unless you can write a university thesis, you're a threat to national security. That's the argument the government's making here. That's what Peter Dutton, the Minister for Immigration and Border Security, the future Minister for Home Affairs, has said—that this is all about national security. What a joke! What a joke!
In the last parliament, in the previous government, I was the Minister for Home Affairs. I held that job for two years, and, throughout all of that time, no-one told me that we need Australian citizens to have university-level English skills in order to make this country safer. And the people who are advising this government are the same people who advised me. None of them ever made that argument to me.
If this is about national security, where's the evidence from ASIO? Where are the recommendations from the AFP? Where's the advice from the department of immigration that this is necessary for national security? It doesn't exist, because it's not about national security. That's just a made-up argument to make the government look tough. It's about politics. If anything, this sort of legislation has the potential to make us less safe, because what this does is divide us into two groups: a group of Australians who are citizens or could become citizens, and those who know they never will be citizens. And, for that second group, knowing that they can never, ever become Australian citizens is going to make them feel like they're not one of us—like they don't belong. When that sort of thing happens, well, that's very dangerous. That's when bad things happen, and we've seen plenty of evidence of that recently overseas.
The fact is that this is not about national security. It is just wrapped up to look like national security. The reality is that it's about politics. The government are behind in the polls, and they think this makes them look tough and they think this is going win them votes. But my response to that is: if you think this is going to win you votes, then think again, because there are a lot of people in this country like my mother-in-law and father-in-law: people in their 60s, 70s and 80s; people who came here in the 1960s, the 1970s and the 1980s; people from places like Greece, Italy, China, Vietnam, Serbia, Croatia and parts of South America—people who have come from all around the world in the last few decades.
Twenty-eight per cent of Australians were born overseas, and a lot of those people don't speak perfect English. But, I'll tell you what, they work damn hard, they've paid their taxes and they've voted a lot of times over the years, sometimes even for the Liberal Party. Some of them live in marginal seats, like Banks, Reid and Chisholm. This legislation is a slap in the face to them because what the government is saying with this legislation to all of those people is that they think they shouldn't be citizens, that they think that they shouldn't even be allowed to vote. Well, that should go down well! That should go down real well in all those marginal seats. Good luck convincing all of those people from all around the world who have lived and voted here for decades that you don't think they should be citizens and that you don't even think they should get a vote on election day. I think when they find that out this government are going to have a lot of trouble convincing them to vote for them again. Don't worry, Mr Deputy Speaker Irons—we'll be reminding them what this legislation is all about. We will be saying to voters: 'Do you have university-level English skills? No? Well, Malcolm Turnbull and the Liberal Party think that you shouldn't be a citizen. Malcolm Turnbull and the Liberal Party don't even think you should get a vote on election day.' Let's see what happens then.
This is a big mistake by this government. One hundred years ago they wanted to stop people coming here by using a dictation test. This isn't that, but it's certainly using similar techniques. That might have been popular 100 years ago, but it's not going to work now because we are a different country to that. This is bad law. It's bad for national security and it's bad politics. If the government don't get it now—well, boy!—they'll work it out soon enough, because this is not good for national security. No-one's going to be safer because of this, particularly not marginal Liberal members of parliament. If this government were smart, they would back down from this at 100 miles an hour. But I don't think they're smart enough. They should back down from this before they do more damage to our community and before they do more damage to themselves. But I know they won't do that, because I don't think they even realise what they're doing to our community or to themselves yet—but they will. They'll work it out eventually, except it will take an election for them to work out what a mess they have made of this. I'm proud to represent my community, a multicultural community, one of the most multicultural communities represented in this place. I will be very proud later this day to vote down this terrible legislation.
I'm very pleased to follow my friend and colleague the member for Blaxland and that the member for Greenway and the member for Werriwa are in the chamber as well—three other Sydney MPs who represent multicultural electorates and who are proud of the fact that Australia is the nation that we are today because, with the exception of the First Australians, we are all descendants of migrants, be they British migrants or migrants from all over the world who have come to make Australia their home.
When I see a bill which is aimed at an existing law, my starting point is always: what problem is it trying to fix? If something's broken then it is the responsibility of this parliament to intervene, to create new laws, to update the laws of the nation and to make sure that laws become fit for purpose. But this piece of legislation—indeed, even the very title of the bill, including the word 'strengthening'—implies there is something weak about the existing arrangements. We're asked to accept that being able to speak conversational English is no longer sufficient for people to become Australian citizens. This is snobbery of the highest order. We'll now require people to pass a university-level English test—a test which, frankly, I would question whether members of this House would be able to do. We're asked to accept that being a law-abiding citizen who has lived here for four years is no longer enough to justify the privilege of Australian citizenship. Under these changes, people would be required to demonstrate that they possess Australian values and that they have integrated into our community.
Now, I am always pleased to keep an open mind when it comes to legislative amendments, but the truth is that there is no evidence that this legislation is necessary. It didn't originate in the bureaucracy. It certainly didn't come from our national security agencies. It has its genesis in the ideological obsession of some of those opposite in the Liberal Party—a Liberal Party that is prepared to play politics with issues of our national citizenship. To me, the issues of citizenship, national security and law and order should be taken very seriously indeed. What they shouldn't become is a plaything for the Liberal Party's internal divisions—divisions based upon some in the Liberal Party who hark back to a golden era of white picket fences, an Anglo Saxon culture being predominant in this country, a lack of diversity and a lack of modernism that has made Australia the successful nation that we are today. My fear is that this legislation is all about the culture wars, where the Prime Minister has been prepared to just throw out all the things that he knows Australia needs. He is prepared to throw out decades of conviction that he has held in order to appease the culture warriors in the right wing of the Liberal Party.
This is an extraordinary proposition that has come before the parliament, which is why we have referred the bill to a Senate inquiry and why the member for Watson has moved such a comprehensive second reading amendment to it. There have been no arguments put up for its adoption. Let's just have a look at some of the issues which are specifically created by this legislation. Firstly, there is the issue of the English tests. The fact is that the tests which people currently sit for are, of course, written in English. The existing courses teach what is known as competent standards under the International English Language Testing System. The proposed change means that what would actually be required to be competent in English would be a university level of English, which would change the whole dynamic. One of the great privileges that we have as members of parliament is attending citizenship ceremonies. What we have then, as in my part of the world, is people from all over the world—Asia in our region, South America, Africa and Europe—who come to pledge their allegiance to this great nation. It is extraordinary the emotion that people feel. There is no better place to be in Australia than at Enmore Park on Australia Day, on the afternoon of those citizenship ceremonies. There are tears, there are hugs, there are people proudly waving the Australian flag, there are speeches and there is a huge gathering of the family and friends of those people who are becoming citizens on that day. It seems to me to be quite remarkable that the legislation before us is aimed at making the process harder and longer before people can enjoy those ceremonies. That flies in the face of what we should be doing as a nation, which is encouraging people to declare their allegiance to Australia—encouraging people to become full citizens and to participate fully in the civic life of this country.
These people currently pay taxes and they work damn hard in this country. If you have a look at the sorts of people who do these jobs, menial work in particular, whether it be in the agricultural sector or whether it be cleaning our offices here in this building, you see that they tend to be people who have come to Australia to make a better life for themselves and for their families. They don't ask for much. What they do ask for—and what they expect and what they deserve—is respect. And that is what this legislation does not give them. This legislation changes the parameter of the debate from one in which we're encouraging people to become citizens to one in which we're thinking up barriers to citizenship and barriers to that civic participation, including voting—which may well be the motivation of those who are putting forward this proposition.
The extraordinary thing about the requirement for university-level English is that none of the proposals put forward by the government speak about an increase in funding to assist people to learn English. Indeed, the changes to the Adult Migrant English Service and other organisations and the attacks on TAFE have undermined participation by community members. We don't expect people to have a PhD in English in order to be citizens, unless we're deliberately putting the qualification bar so high that we are excluding people. Another issue in the bill is the extension of the time for people to be eligible to become citizens.
It is interesting that national security agencies haven't even been consulted on the issues in the legislation. We take a bipartisan approach to national security issues. I had another briefing this morning about transport security. I've worked very constructively with the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Darren Chester, on all the issues that have been raised in recent times about threats to our security, and Labor has never played politics with these issues. But there is no national security justification for these moves.
This, of course, goes to Australian values. Australian values are about respect for democracy and respect for the rule of law. We're also talking about the Australian value of the fair go. The truth is that the fair go is given short shrift by this legislation. The legislation also gives the minister the right to set aside Administrative Appeals Tribunal findings concerning character and identity if the minister believes it is in the public interest. Labor have reserved our position on that. We want to see some evidence, though, that that is necessary, and that's one of the things that we'll consider through the Senate process. The process up to now has been atrociously handled by the government, with a sham community consultation process. There certainly hasn't been adequate consultation with the communities who will be directly affected by this. Multicultural leaders who go out and promote Australian citizenship have had that process undermined.
Today, a day on which the great Les Murray, one of the champions of multiculturalism in this country, is being farewelled at St Mary's Cathedral in Sydney, is a day on which it is timely to remind the House of the contribution that people who've come from across the world have made to Australia. Les Murray, who came here as a young boy in 1957 in the wake of the Hungarian uprising, put down by the Stalinists in 1956, made an incredible contribution to turning football into the amazing participation sport that it is in this country today. He was also a constant advocate of multiculturalism and, from such humble origins, an iconic figure in this country. Indeed, he became a character in popular culture with the TISM song, What Nationality is Les Murray?one of my favourites, where the chorus is 'Les is more'—because everything about Les Murray was larger than life, and I think that his contribution should be valued.
We have heard a lot about Australian values, and part of that is respect and inclusion. I do want to make a brief comment about the rejection by Waverley Council and the Land and Environment Court recently of a planning proposal to establish a Jewish synagogue at Bondi. This is a very poor sign for our country. We cannot allow the threat of terrorism and violence to stop people being able to practise their faith, whatever faith that is. Whether it be a Jewish synagogue, or an Islamic mosque, or a Catholic Church, or a Buddhist temple, people have a right to practise their faith in this country. We shouldn't ever, ever concede that because some would threaten a particular faith or group of people in our society we should allow those threats to be successful. I think that was quite an appalling decision, and I want to put on the record my opposition to it.
Australians are made up of people of different religions, different ethnicities, different racial backgrounds, different genders and different sexualities, but we make Australia what it is today—this great melting pot—through citizenship. I think that we should support the amendment that has been moved by the member for Watson, and the government really needs to reconsider where it's going with its approach to Australian citizenship—it should be something that we're advocating, not something that we're making harder.
I rise to speak against the Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Requirements for Australian Citizenship and Other Measures) Bill. I do so for a number of reasons, and I join with all of my Labor colleagues, of which there have been many, who have come into this place one after the another to place on the record their disagreement with this legislation. I note the absence of speakers from the government—they have not shown up in this debate to place on record their support for this. One could only deduce from this that the legislation does not have much support, but I can only postulate why hardly any government members would rise to speak on a piece of legislation that the minister himself claims is dire for our country's national security. By the way, Labor has provided and continues to provide bipartisan support on issues of national security. This legislation comes without recommendation from our national security agencies whatsoever. It is a grubby, dirty and deceitful power grab by Minister Dutton to placate their preference dealer—Hanson—and the far right wing of the Liberal Party. And all of this has been done with the absolute sham of a community consultation process that the Liberals won't even release the findings of. You would think they would be at least transparent on that, if they had support. Again, it is just another fine example of the Liberals shutting down public debate and discussion around this matter.
If we look at the changes that Minister Dutton wants to impose, and there are many, the one I want to focus on here and now is the introduction of the English test—the English level 6 test, which is the IELTS, at a university-standard level of English. It is absolutely absurd. We on this side of the House, in the Labor Party, are committed to assisting immigrants to learn English and attain a language level that allows them to take full advantage of all of the opportunities and benefits available to make them productive and contributing members of the Australian community. It is the ethos, the absolute ethos, of the 'fair go for all' that is one of the greats strengths of our multicultural society. The government like to play that card in the community. However, they never practice what they preach. Here is the government's fair go: you need to have university-level English to pass this test. The government should do whatever they can within their means to help people to learn English, as the member for Grayndler has just said, not use it as a sledgehammer to scare and intimidate people who want to come to our country or people who are in our country trying to live a decent life.
The government should be well aware there is a level of isolation and extra challenges that come for people in their own lives if their English skills are limited or English is their second language. If you had any compassion, you would know it is about helping and training people. The Turnbull government is sending a message not just to new immigrants but to all Australians who do not have university qualifications, and that is: if the Liberals had their choice, these people wouldn't be here.
There are a number of people who will never pass the English test. Our concern is that this will develop an underclass of people in our country, people who will always live here but will never be able to pledge allegiance to Australia and will be told that they do not belong. This is the most concerning thing. I have constituents who are not only concerned but scared as a result of this proposed legislation. One example I have is of a married couple from St Mary's in my electorate. The husband is an Australian citizen and his wife has been a permanent resident for 15 years. I will paraphrase some of the letter. It goes to the heart of how mean and callus this government is, and how worried they have made decent, hardworking, honest people feel. My constituent's wife applied for Australian citizenship on 23 June 2017, having been a permanent resident for 15 years. He has been an Australian citizen for 30 years. They were advised that the processing of citizenship applications has been adjourned as the government wishes to strengthen the requirements for citizenship. As the processing is suspended, getting citizenship is delayed for unnecessary reasons. Quite reasonably, my constituent states: 'I consider this unfair and un-Australian. I don't know what your idea is about it. Don't get me wrong, I fully understand and support the need for strengthening our laws to safeguard our way of life and, importantly, this peaceful country. However, this process of stopping the processing to an unknown time is unfair.' These people have been in our country for 15 years. I ask the minister: if they were a national security threat, why didn't we know about it before now? Is putting her through an unnecessary English test going to make her less of a threat, after 15 years of living as a resident in this country?
The letter goes on to say: 'I fear my wife will have difficulties in passing the English test as it requires a competent level of the language skill, as opposed to the previous basic level of the English language. She would be able to understand the citizenship test in English and she could pass the test without any issues. However, expecting a competent level of the English skill is a little pessimistic.' Now I will quote the letter directly: 'This requirement will not helpful in any way to the aim of the strengthening of requirements. There are some many people who does have very basic English skill, but contributing to Australia by working menial jobs and paying their share of taxes.' Clearly, my constituent is one of those people whose level of English is fine to send me an email. He can spell quite fine but his grasp around context and also grammar is slightly lacking compared to what perhaps would be considered perfect. But he is politically engaged to the point where he knew to send me an email. If we've got people who want to come into this country and who want to participate in our democracy, they should be allowed to. He makes fair and valid points.
So, what was the response from government and the department to his concerns when he made contact with them? When I contacted the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, they did not have any answers, they just replied that they do not have any instructions from the government and were waiting for the same. That is not good enough. Why wouldn't the minister explain the current position of the bill and why hasn't the department taken interim action to allay the concerns of people like my constituent? The department should have at least explained the current position of the bill. But, as we have seen in this debate, the government has hidden and nobody wants to speak.
I also offer this: I am a proud granddaughter of Polish migrants who came here after World War II—and, yes, my citizenship is fine. They arrived on New Year's Eve and they were taken to a camp in Cowra before making their way to Penrith, where my father would eventually be born. My grandparents came here without any English whatsoever. My babcia—which is the only word I know in Polish, which is the word for 'grandmother'—was removed from her family at 14 by Nazi soldiers and placed in a work camp. She never saw her family again. My babcia worked here in Australia as a cleaner in the local school. She raised seven children, worked and paid taxes, and—there's nothing more Aussie!—she drove an orange Datsun. She longed for and missed her homeland. She didn't come to Australia with much choice. Her country was ravaged by war. She missed her home, her family, and the things that were familiar to her, all while grasping a new language, a new culture and a new life. But this didn't stop her from learning English, and she participated in Australia's way of life.
When she migrated she was told to assimilate, which meant she didn't have the opportunity to pass on the language, the culture, the traditions and the history of her country. This has impacted my life. I can't speak a word of Polish, I have no clue as to where my family were from. I know nothing about the Polish tradition and culture, and, now that I'm a parent, I would dearly love to be able to pass some of that on. These are the fears that I hold when we tell people who come to our country that they need to be just like us. The languages and traditions have never been passed on to anyone in my generation. My babcia has passed away now, sadly, and I'm left seeking so many answers about my heritage and the origins of my own story. This government should be encouraging the sharing of culture and encouraging our newest Australians to become bilingual—not by punitive methods, but by supporting.
When I look around my community, what do I see? I see that 21 per cent of the community I represent were born in another country. Thirty-five per cent have parents who were born in another country. I see cars that are Japanese, Russian vodka, Italian pizza, Turkish kebabs, Brazilian coffee, American movies, German beers, clothes made in India, oil from Saudi Arabia, Chinese electronics, and our numbers are Arabic and our letters are Latin. So why, then, would this government seek to demonise people who want to call Australia home by demanding a test that many in this House, including those on its own benches, would have difficulty in passing, including the Deputy Prime Minister? This test is not about national security—it's about fear and it's about dividing our country. It's about turning us into bunch of elitist snobs who shun anyone who wants to come here and contribute to our country. And what does this test say to Australians who were born here who cannot pass level 6 English? What a shame Minister Dutton has no mirror for reflection to enforce the level 6 English test on his own government colleagues.
It is an honour to follow so many terrific Labor colleagues in talking about our very real concerns about the citizenship changes that the government has proposed and put before the House in the form of the Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Requirements for Australian Citizenship and Other Measures) Bill. As I understand it, I'm the last speaker from our side of the House, but, as the member for Lindsay just mentioned in her contribution, many members from our side of the House—many more members on this side of the House than on that side—have spoken about the government's proposed legislation. That's because citizenship, migration and multiculturalism are articles of faith for us on this side of the House. We're proud of Australia's deep and enduring multicultural heritage.
If you listen to all of the contributions that people have made from this side of the chamber in the last little while—as you have, Deputy Speaker—you hear some pretty extraordinary stories about people's own heritage, people's own background, the sorts of trials and tribulations of our own relatives and people who we know and live amongst—our neighbours and friends—and the sorts of trials and tribulations that people go through in order to arrive in Australia, and then to ensure that they are taking up the maximum benefits of being in Australia by becoming an Australian. We all see that in our citizenship ceremonies and all of the other occasions that we are afforded as members of parliament to see the very best aspects of Australian citizenship. To be there at the moment that somebody becomes a citizen is a really treasured opportunity, and I know that I don't just speak for this side of the House on that point. Our position on these bills is to make sure we're saying to new Australians, those who have been here a bit longer or those who might aspire to Australian citizenship that we take our responsibility of ensuring the right arrangements very seriously. We want to take the time to deliberate, discuss and get to the bottom of the motivations for some of these changes, and to make sure that, if we are going to support or not support something that the government proposes, we do so for the very best of reasons.
Mr Deputy Speaker Vasta, you know my electorate, next door to yours. On Friday I was at Mabel Park State High School. They opened a really terrific initiative called the United Cultures Centre. The United Cultures Centre was effectively an Indigenous yarning circle, but the students, on their own initiative, had put around the yarning circle all of the places of origin of the different students who attend Mabel High. It's one of the most multicultural schools certainly in my electorate and definitely around the country. I felt motivated by that, to know that young people understand something that probably doesn't always dawn on this government—that is, we should be doing what we can to be more inclusive with our citizenship arrangements and our broader laws that emanate from this place. We need to make sure we are as inclusive as possible.
We have three major concerns with this legislation. They are the reason we're voting the way we are. We want the Senate to look more deeply into some of the other issues, because we are concerned that some of the proposals in this bill do not create the right kinds of citizenship arrangements for an inclusive, tolerant, forward-looking multicultural society. As all of the people who've spoken on this side have said quite eloquently—and my colleague the shadow minister is here—we don't think that the English language test is appropriate. To ask people to have university-level English is a pretty extraordinary thing. If we had applied that throughout our history, you can imagine the sorts of great Australians that we would have denied ourselves and the dynamism that they contributed to this country. But it is not just the English language test; there is also the issue around the waiting period. As the member for Lindsay said in her contribution, people are already living here anyway. We should be looking for ways to get them to sign up to our way of life, laws and customs at an earlier opportunity, not making them wait longer for that opportunity. They are already here. The capacity to do the wrong thing is already available to them. We want to get people signing up and contributing as Australians.
The third point is on the arguments about national security. We're not convinced these proposals in the legislation are relevant and necessary to the important task of maintaining our national security. We don't think it has necessarily come from the advice of the agencies or from a good place. We are worried that the motivations of the Prime Minister, in announcing these changes, are not what they should be. It might've been due to—the minister has joined us at the table—a sop to an internal political rival. It might be a way to chase One Nation votes. We're worried about the motivations of this legislation. When they first announced they were going down this path, we said we had an open mind, because we want to use these opportunities to bring people together and not to further divide our community. Our concern is that, consistent with all the other areas—marriage equality, inequality in our broader economy—this government has taken an opportunity to bring us together and, instead, is driving us further apart.
I thank all of the members for contributing to the debate on the Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Requirements for Australian Citizenship and Other Measures) Bill 2017. The amendments in the bill will strengthen integrity and increase public confidence in the program. Our citizenship laws define who is, and who can become, an Australian citizen. It is wholly appropriate for the citizenship program to be reviewed and updated, just as we are continually re-evaluating and recalibrating other aspects of our migration program. This is fundamental to a prosperous and cohesive society. The 2015 final report of the National Consultation on Citizenship, entitled Australian citizenship: your right, your responsibility, indicated strong community support for strengthening the test for Australian citizenship. Australia's success as a sovereign nation is underpinned by a commitment made by all Australians to a law-abiding, peaceful and open society. The Australian public expects aspiring citizens to commit to Australia and Australian values. Australian citizenship is a pledge and it is a privilege taken by people that all of us should respect, both those born here and those who elect to join our community.
Regrettably, Australia faces a real and increasing threat from people who embrace violence as a means to pursue extremist beliefs and ideology and therefore reject the values fundamental to Australia. We should have the necessary levers to ensure that such individuals do not benefit from the great privilege that is Australian citizenship. It is in the national interest to do so. The government remains committed to ensuring that our citizenship program is appropriately calibrated for the complex domestic and global environment that we are in this very day. The proposed changes to the citizenship program will ensure that the system is better designed to support those with a strong commitment to Australian values and a desire to integrate and contribute to become citizens.
The amendments in the bill include increasing the general residency requirement, allowing more time to assess an aspiring citizen's experience of integrating into life in Australia, and the standalone English-language test at the competent level. English-language proficiency is essential for economic participation, social cohesion and integration into the community. They also include the requirement for aspiring citizens to sign an Australian values statement asking them to make a commitment to act consistently with those values of respect, equality and freedom; a strengthened citizenship test introducing an aspiring citizen's understanding of Australian values and the privileges and responsibilities of Australian citizenship; and the requirement for an aspiring citizen to demonstrate their integration and contribution to Australian society, pledging allegiance to Australia and the Australian people, elevating the importance of the commitment the aspiring citizen is to make to Australia.
The member for Watson, in his address, criticised the process for assessing competent English and the department's process for accepting people in comparable English-speaking nations as meeting the English-language requirement for administrative simplicity. Those countries include the US, the UK, New Zealand, Canada and the Republic of Ireland. The member did so in some quite offensive terms. It is important that the House notes that the countries he mentioned are exactly the same as those that were included during Labor's time in government for the competent English assessments for migration purposes, including while the member for Watson himself was minister. In fact, my department advises that the Labor government did make a change to those countries the member for Watson referred to, clarifying that Ireland refers to the Republic of Ireland. That change was actually made by the member for McMahon.
The truth of the matter is that, as exists now and did under Labor for migration purposes, there are relevant and sensible exemptions for English language. Australia has changed a lot over the years, as has the nature of employment. There is no denying that English language is crucial for integration, employment participation and settlement outcomes, as the member for Watson and other members of the opposition reiterated in quite clear terms prior to this debate. I make no apologies for setting high expectations in our national interests, which are in our best long-term interests and the long-term interests of those aspiring citizens. However, over 70 per cent of people sitting the general training IELTS test for immigration purposes were assessed as competent or higher in 2015.
The member for Watson and some others opposite also argued against increasing the time of permanent residence. As members opposite well know, there are different requirements for attaining permanent residency and different entitlements than for someone who is on a 457 visa or a working holiday-maker visa, for instance. Under Labor, a 457 visa applicant wasn't even required to provide a police clearance certificate or any overseas criminal history check. The only check was by self-declaration. Yes, the changes may have meant a longer period residing in Australia, which is a privilege in itself, before visa holders could make the step to apply for citizenship. But what the member for Watson failed to acknowledge was that since the coalition government came to power there has been an approximately 1,200 per cent increase in visa cancellations for people committing serious crimes against our citizens. This includes over 150 visa cancellations for child sex offenders, over 40 for murder, 20 for manslaughter, nearly 100 for rape, nearly 200 for armed robbery and over 380 for other violent offences. In total, 1,106 were permanent residents. That is since 2014 alone. People have also had permanent visas cancelled on national security grounds on the advice of intelligence agencies during that time. Under the Labor government, many of these people may now be citizens.
The risk remains, given the argument of the member for Watson to keep residency requirements to a minimum before a person can apply for citizenship. This may be in the interests of elements of the Labor Party, but it is not in the national interest—nor is it in step with comparable countries. As the department advises, the United States has a residency requirement of five years; Germany, eight years; France, five years continuous residence; and Denmark, nine years continuous residence.
Australian citizenship should be highly valued, and the government's changes will ensure that it is a privilege obtained by only those who have demonstrated the most sincere commitment to Australia and our values, and respect for our laws—as it should be. The amendments in this bill ensure that there is an understanding that everyone has a responsibility to contribute to Australian society as a whole.
I take the opportunity to present an amendment to the explanatory memorandum to the Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Requirements for Australian Citizenship and Other Measures) Bill 2017, incorporating the regulation impact statement for the information of members.
In summary, I do believe that the bill deserves the support of all members . I commend the bill to the House.