House debates

Monday, 9 September 2019

Private Members' Business

Citizenship Applications

6:05 pm

Photo of Tony ZappiaTony Zappia (Makin, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That this House:

(1) notes that:

  (a) as at 30 June 2019 there were 221,415 applications for Australian citizenship by conferral;

  (b) under this Government the backlog has risen from 27,037 in 2013-14;

  (c) the timeframe for finalisation of 90 per cent of applications is now within 24 months;

  (d) some applicants wait longer than two years for their applications to be finalised; and

  (e) Australian Citizenship provides a number of important benefits including:

     (i) the right to enrol and vote;

     (ii) eligibility for a HECS-HELP loan for university;

     (iii) access to an Australian passport; and

     (iv) sometimes satisfying a requirement for employment; and

(2) calls on the Government to immediately address the backlog and lengthy wait times for citizenship applications so that people who want to fully participate in Australian civic life are able to do so.

Arthur Calwell, in introducing the Nationality and Citizenship Bill in September 1948, said:

It will symbolize not only our own pride in Australia, but also our willingness to offer a share in our future to the new Australians we are seeking in ... vast numbers. These people are sure of a warm welcome to our shores. They will no longer need to strive towards an intangible goal, but can aspire to the honour of Australian citizenship. They will be able to say, just as proudly as any of us, "I am an Australian".

That warmth and generous spirit has been lost under the Morrison government. The key purposes of Australian citizenship were to allow newcomers to claim Australian nationality and not feel discriminated against; to end uncertainty hanging over the heads of newcomers who wanted Australia to be their home; to allow them to work for their future with absolute confidence; to make them equal to all others before the law and, in their participation, in all aspects of Australian life; and to give newcomers the security that enabled them to embrace Australian values and commit to the nation's prosperity and the nation's growth. Importantly, citizenship created a process by which newcomers could publicly pledge their loyalty to Australia. It is something that only new citizens get to do in most cases. People born in this country never get to do it. It was an opportunity for newcomers to say to the Australian people, 'I want to be part of your country and I'm pledging my loyalty to you.'

In the decades that followed, successive Australian governments actively encouraged eligible new migrants to become Australian citizens. That all changed in 2013 when the coalition government took office. Since then, becoming an Australian citizen has been made much more difficult. Indeed, it has almost been discouraged. Processing of applications almost came to a standstill, with some people waiting in excess of two years for their citizenship to be processed. I spoke to one couple that had that happen only a week ago.

In 2013-14, when this government came to office, 27,037 people were in the citizenship queue. As at 30 June 2019, there were 221,415 people waiting to have their application processed. That is an eight-fold increase in the waiting list when this government came to office. That is no coincidence and it simply happened under this government's watch, and I believe deliberately so. These are people who have met the necessary criteria, have lodged their applications and patiently wait to hear from the department as to when they might be able to be granted their citizenship. While they wait, they can't get access to an Australian passport, they can't get access to a university HECS-HELP loan for their children, they're unable to get overseas consular assistance if they happen to travel overseas and some problems arise, and they can't apply for certain jobs which still require Australian citizenship as one of the criteria. Importantly, they can't vote. Even though they are permanent residents and pay taxes, they can't vote. Indeed, in the recent May election, some 200,000 people who would otherwise have been eligible to vote weren't able to do so because their citizenship application had not been processed.

I notice that since that election the numbers have improved a little, and the waiting list, as at the end of July, is I believe 198,477. I suspect that part of it is that people are sick of the processing time and are simply not applying. That's indeed what one person said to me, again, only within the last week. The government should get on with processing those applications and give eligible migrants the opportunity to pledge their commitment to this country, which I'm sure all of us would want to see them do—and give them the security and the confidence they need to get on with their lives.

I attend citizenship ceremonies on a regular basis in my electorate. It is the one thing I have done for years and years. One of the greatest joys I get is seeing the expressions on the faces of those people about to be handed their certificate, because they know that after their long journey to this country—in many cases from countries where citizenship wasn't even available to them—they have finally got the security they want for themselves and their children.

Photo of John McVeighJohn McVeigh (Groom, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the motion seconded?

Photo of Maria VamvakinouMaria Vamvakinou (Calwell, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.

6:10 pm

Photo of Tim WilsonTim Wilson (Goldstein, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

One of the proudest moments for every member of parliament—in fact, we're very fortunate to be able to do it on multiple occasions—is attending a citizenship ceremony. I attend citizenship ceremonies regularly in the City of Bayside and the City of Glen Eira, and I get to see the bright, shining, beaming faces and the excitement and enthusiasm of the people who have decided not just to make Australia home, but to make a commitment to our great country. The mayors turn up in their full regalia. They have their mayoral bling, as I call it, which always makes them far more attractive in photographs with new citizens than us lowly members of the House of Representatives! When administering that oath, they share the pride, the hope and the ambition of new Australian citizens and what they will contribute to our great nation.

Part of the joy of being a member of parliament is to go to those ceremonies and be a participant. In fact, it's an honour and a privilege. It goes to the heart of the privilege of citizenship itself. I always give a speech about the history and traditions of our great country and how, over thousands of years, our journey from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders through to European settlement and the ongoing migration waves continue to enhance and strengthen our nation. There are the stories and individual histories that we bring to this country, including my own, with its diversity, and everybody else's. The story of our great country is being written by today's generation and will continue to be written by future generations—about the incredible achievements of our great country as part of an ongoing and enduring story of freedom, responsibility and the pursuit of justice for everybody, and, in our perfect country, towards a more perfect outcome and journey. That's the power and privilege of citizenship. That's what this government understands and why we treat it with such sanctity, such respect, and such hope. It's about the ambitions of the future citizens of our country. That's why citizenship is at the core of how we see ourselves as a government.

It's important that we make sure that there's integrity in the citizenship process and that everybody who wants to become a citizen is able to do so with the full confidence of the Australian people. We need to make sure that it's a fair and appropriate process and that everybody meets the criteria—and that, as part of that process, they make a commitment to our great nation and its future success as part of celebrating the traditions of freedom and responsibility. Of course it's also about recognising the full potential of every person who shares the ambition and values of our great nation and wants to become a citizen. That's why this government has invested $9 million in systems and staff, including establishing a task force to focus on complex cases and remove the barriers and gaps for many people seeking citizenship while maintaining the integrity of the system so that Australians have confidence in it.

The government has put an incredible amount of effort into doing this. There was a coordinated range of improvements to the entire citizenship processing pipeline during the past financial year—the recruitment of more staff to increase application processing times; improvements in staff training and the revision of policy and procedures to assist staff to be able to do so; the establishment of multidisciplinary task forces to address some of the most complex identity cohorts; the introduction of ambitious internal targets to achieve milestones; an increase in the number of citizenship appointments available for applicant interviews and testing; and encouraging online lodgement for easy applications to promote processing efficiencies. These are administrative processes that go to the heart of what we've been able to achieve. We have seen an 80 per cent increase in the number of citizenship by conferral applications approved. We've seen a 62 per cent decrease in invalid outcomes which have been much quicker to process so that those people who are denied a pathway to citizenship can correct if appropriate. We've seen more than 145,000 new Australians have their citizenship by conferral applications approved in the last financial year—up from 81,000 in 2017-18.

At every point this government has done what is appropriate to preserve the integrity of our citizenship application process. This government has done everything it should to make sure that there are pathways for those people who wish to be new Australians to reach their potential as citizens. And we see that on the faces—the smiles, the joy and in the eyes—of new citizens when they're sworn in at those citizenship ceremonies.

6:15 pm

Photo of Maria VamvakinouMaria Vamvakinou (Calwell, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member for Makin for bringing this very important private member's motion to the Chamber for consideration and debate. I want to agree with him in the raising of concerns about the backlog and the length of time to acquire citizenship that the member for Goldstein spoke about in such glowing terms for many people, and for many people in my electorate as well.

Citizenship is the fundamental glue that binds our community and enables our process of integration. Becoming an Australian citizen for each and every person marks the beginning of their journey and building their Australian identity. The sense of belonging to the broader Australian community is marked by the privileges and responsibilities assigned to each and every citizen equally without favour or discrimination. These shared equal rights and responsibilities have contributed to the success of nation building in this country, and it is the reason we are the successful multicultural society that we are today.

Most importantly, citizenship confers the right to vote, having a say in the shaping of our community through the participation in our Australian democracy. I came into this place many years ago under the Howard government. I remember well that that government understood the need to encourage migrant and refugees living in Australia to become citizens as soon as possible. In fact through the establishment of the Australian Citizenship Council and the appointment of citizenship ambassadors, the Howard government sought to encourage everyone, often through very unique citizenship ceremonies, to join what was called the Australian family.

However, the track record of this government is a far cry from that of the Howard government. Because, under this government's watch, the citizenship process has been, and continues to be, mired in backlog and unreasonable delay—and the member for Goldstein did refer to the integrity of Australian citizenship, which we all support. But this government has taken this sense of integrity to the point where people are actually being prevented from becoming Australian citizens. And this is the problem and this is why this motion is being debated here today.

I too attend citizenship ceremonies in my electorate. It's something that I too look forward to doing. I've attended countless citizenship ceremonies in the years that I have been here in this parliament. So, in my electorate in particular, in the federal seat of Calwell—and I thank the member for Makin for actually making reference to Arthur Calwell, who introduced the Australian Nationality and Citizenship Act and had a very strong belief in the power of Australian citizenship being that which brought together the diversity of the migration program that he implemented towards our nation building—over the years, we have had a very big uptake of citizenship. I do also attend and see the sense of pride and the great sense of optimism in the people whose citizenship certificates I present or whose hand I shake. When I do get to congratulate them, I always ask them where they've come from and what their hopes and aspirations are, and almost all of them talk about how important it feels for them to finally belong to the Australian community and have full and equal membership of the Australian community.

In recent times, I too have received many—I won't say complaints—expressions of sheer frustration from people who have been waiting for confirmation of the citizenship process. Some of them have been waiting for as much as 35 months. They're no wiser as to why they have been subjected to this very lengthy period. Many of them have fled war-torn countries. They're grateful to be here in Australia. They're grateful for the safety and the security that settling here in our country offers them. They're grateful for the ability to live in a democratic country and for the opportunities afforded to them. They work hard in their community to make their place and to find their place. They want to be able to share our freedoms and obligations in a way that's equal to the other people in the community. In the time that I have left, I just want to reiterate the member for Makin's point—citizenship under this government is one of almost selective discrimination. It's either incompetence or it's deliberate, but the actual slowing down of the process has marred the citizenship process. (Time expired)

6:21 pm

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

One of the greatest privileges of being a member of parliament is welcoming new citizens to our country and our community. When someone decides to replant their life and the lives of their family on Australian soil, they are making a significant decision. It's one of the most significant decisions a person can make, and it will leave a legacy for the generations that follow. Their story becomes part of the broader Australian story and their own life is then forever shaped by the land and people among whom they make their home.

I think of some of the families in my electorate who've done this—people like Abbas Ali, who came to Australia from Africa and built a business and gives back extraordinarily each day through the people he employs and his charitable work. I think of Mala Mehta, who came to Australia from India and who has received the Medal of the Order of Australia for her services to the community. I think of Nasiba Akram, a leader in the Afghan community who has helped settle hundreds of new families all across Australia over decades. I think of Jenny Lau, who has led the Cherrybrook Chinese Community Association—an organisation that integrates and settles people—here for many years. She is similar to my friend Ashwani Jain, the secretary of the Hindu council. I have been very pleased to go to several citizenship ceremonies over the last few years. One that I particularly remember is that of Steve Hunt, a British migrant to Australia who is now a leader in the Cherrybrook scouting community.

Australia is a unique and incredible country, and this is partly because of the way we have so successfully integrated people from many places and backgrounds into our country. You rarely find a more patriotic Australian than one who has chosen to be here and who has put in the effort to build a new life in this country. Liberal governments have always recognised the immense privilege that citizenship confers. This government is continuing to ensure that migration to Australia is managed efficiently and with the appropriate care, recognising how significant a decision about citizenship is and how important national security remains as these decisions are made. It should be no surprise to us that many people across the world look at Australia and would love to become a part of this nation.

In the eight years between 2010-11 and 2017-18, there was a 177 per cent increase in the demand for Australian citizenship. In 2017-2018, over 80,000 people from at least 180 different countries became Australian citizens. And in 2018-2019 more than 145,000 migrants had their citizenship by conferral applications approved.

As a result of the government's investment in citizenship, there is an 80 per cent increase in the number of citizenship by conferral applications approved. What this means in practical terms is that we have more people who are not just living here indefinitely, with one foot in and one foot out, but taking on the responsibilities and commitments that come with being a citizen.

Despite this increase in demand, there has been significant improvement in the time taken for citizenship applications to be processed. There was a coordinated range of improvements to every stage of the process during 2018-19, including the recruitment of more staff to process this high volume of applications, the procedures and training and ambitious targets to drive efficiency, the multidisciplinary task forces to address some of the most complex identity cohorts, and the creation of more appointments for applicant interviews and testing.

With these and other efforts, the government has halved the time between an applicant attending a citizenship interview and the finalisation of their application. People who were previously waiting over 100 days are now only waiting just 50. This is good news for everyone. It's good news for the taxpayer who's seeing greater efficiency for the dollars spent in this area. It's good news for communities who can be confident that the right people are being welcomed smoothly and that the wrong people are being declined. And it's good news for those waiting to have the privilege of citizenship conferred on them.

Our government knows that the processing time is not the only metric we should be using to assess how effectively migration cases are being handled. Citizenship should only be conferred upon those who are committed to Australia and fully satisfy the provisions of the Australian Citizenship Act 2007. We need to ensure that the integrity of our citizenship program and the safety of the community are always the first consideration in citizenship cases. When somebody becomes a citizen we need to know that their commitment is to this country and that it is a genuine commitment, and that they will participate in community life and they can help build deep and meaningful roots in this land for generations.

Our government scrutiny also means that in 2018-19 there was a 53 per cent increase in refusals of citizenship. These refusal cases take longer to process but they are also an important sign that our citizenship process is working and delivering results. I commend the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs and the Minister for Home Affairs for the outstanding work they are doing in driving a more efficient but robust citizenship processing system that gives Australians confidence that we're welcoming people to make their home with us with due levels of care. With the leadership of those ministers, I'm confident we'll see more efficiencies and the continued preservation of a robust citizenship process.

6:26 pm

Photo of Joanne RyanJoanne Ryan (Lalor, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I certainly won't be holding my breath while this backlog of people waiting for their citizenship is cleared by this government. The figures speak for themselves. In 2013-14 there were 27,000 people waiting for their citizenship ceremonies. Today that figure is out at 221,000. Those figures don't lie. The people we are talking about have met the criteria for citizenship. They have demonstrated that, in the first instance, to become permanent residents. We have made the time lines longer under this government. That is a separate issue. What we are talking about here is the wait between when your application is processed and actually becoming a citizen. This is outrageous.

Like everybody here, I attend citizenship ceremonies. It is the highlight of my fortnight in the seat of Lalor to attend citizenship ceremonies. In my community, there are 3,000 new citizens a year. Next year, it is tipped to be 4,000 for the year. Some of this is about clearing that backlog. I've got people coming to my office to talk to me about the fact that they've been told that, even though they have met all the criteria—the processing is finished and the application has been found to be sound—they will have to wait six to eight months to get to a citizenship ceremony. And my local government couldn't be working harder. They are doing 30 ceremonies a year. In fact, I joke with our local mayor that we pay her to do citizenship ceremonies. We do three a day on a weekend. We can do three on Saturday and go back and do another two on Sunday—120 people at a ceremony. There is no doubt that local government is pulling its weight—with minimal support from the federal government, I might add. Local government has several times raised with me the issue of cost. It requires eight staff on deck per session. There is an events person who works 50 per cent of their time in supporting these processes and ensuring everything runs smoothly.

Citizenship ceremonies are fabulous events. We all go to them. We all see the tears. But the thought that in my community we can lift that from 120 conferrals at one session to 150, to get through a backlog, is outrageous. There has to be some sense of the personal happening on this day. Believe me, when I talk to people who've been through this process, this is the day they remember. In 40 or 50 years, they will remember the day they became an Australian citizen. And why is there a backlog? What could possibly be motivating this lack of efficiency? What could possibly be happening here? It's certainly not the fault of local government that there's this wait time. But there is a problem. And the problem rests, I would argue, with this government's watch and the way they're working through the issues.

We all know how important this is for people who are having citizenship conferred. We know that it is imperative. I had a person in my office last week talking about this delay and the fact that that will mean another semester of HECS payments at international student rates. If they became an Australian citizen, they would be able to access the HECS loan system. I've had people come to me who have had opportunities for employment in the Commonwealth Public Service but have had to wait for their citizenship. Time lines are being put on these people that are limiting the way they can contribute to our country. I think that that is the biggest crime.

I appreciate the words of the member for Calwell today. I know that the member for Calwell has conferral rights. I asked this government if I could be given such rights and was told no. There's a backlog. Wyndham City Council are being pressured to clear the backlog. They've dealt with the department. The department have said that they will send some of the locals into the city to some extra ones that they're going to do. Meanwhile, I'm sitting at home going, 'Hello?' I'd really love to be involved in this as someone who has conferral rights. If this government really wants to get serious, there are a few of us on this side of the House who might help you clear this backlog.

I want you also to think about the cost to local government. I don't think the contribution in FAGs is going anywhere near meeting the $100,000 that this is costing my local council. It is fundamentally Commonwealth business and Commonwealth work.

6:31 pm

Photo of Bert Van ManenBert Van Manen (Forde, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am more than pleased to stand in this House today and speak about citizenship and the processing times, but I first want to reflect on the wonderful contribution that migrants have made to my community over many years. I think that has been properly reflected in the comments that have been made across this chamber. My community of Logan, in the northern part of my electorate, represents some 217 cultures. It's one of the most multicultural communities in Queensland, if not in the country.

I look at the contribution migrants have made since prior to World War II—and there was huge European migration after that world conflict—to more recent times. They have brought a variety of skills, ethnicity and talent to our community. It is astounding what they've built over that time since the formation of my community. We recently celebrated Beenleigh's 150th anniversary. That area was settled by German migrants back in the 1860s and 1870s. Look at the contribution that they and their families have made over that time. If you travel around the area, you can see landmarks and roads that are named after those historic families. Equally important—and we don't talk about this often enough—is their interaction with our Indigenous community. If you talk to those German migrants, they say that they survived that first summer and couple of years only with the assistance of our Indigenous community.

Over the past 150 years, from early humble beginnings, we've seen various waves of migrants come and build a society that we should all be very proud of. I'm pleased to say that in our area we have very few, if any, of the problems that we have had in some other communities around Australia at various times. When you look at the community markets that the African community hold every weekend in Woodridge in the member for Rankin's electorate, look at the displays at various community events and, as has been mentioned by others, look at the wonderful and diverse national dress that some of our newer citizens display at citizenship ceremonies, you see the colour and culture that they bring.

I well understand the disappointment or frustration that people have expressed in my office at the time taken to get their citizenship ceremony done so that they can be fully-fledged citizens and feel like they're contributing to the community they so love and that has adopted them. They recognise the immense privilege that it is to become an Australian citizen and obtain that fundamental national identity.

As this motion mentions, there are, and there have been, some backlogs. I can say to this House and to the community more broadly that we are working to ensure that the backlog is minimised. There have been occasions when I've conducted ceremonies in my office where that has been required to deal with an issue that a new citizen was facing. As a government, we're continuing to work on reducing that backlog. I have held a couple of citizenship ceremonies myself, through my office, to assist with that as well. So, if there are people in my electorate of Forde needing assistance, I'm more than happy to assist them deal with those issues so they can move on with their lives.

In closing, I want to say thank you to all of the people for the contribution they have made. We have seen, over the past 150 years, that the contribution has built a society we should all be rightly proud of. Far too often we hear those who talk down the success of Australia as a country that has welcomed migrants from the four corners of the world, but my experience is that those people come here with a genuine heart and a genuine desire to build and grow their families and achieve the success and the outcomes, and they see this country affording them the opportunity to do so. I want to thank them for the contribution they make each and every day to our community.

Photo of John McVeighJohn McVeigh (Groom, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The time allotted for this debate has expired. The debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.