Senate debates

Wednesday, 7 February 2007

Australian Citizenship Bill 2006; Australian Citizenship (Transitionals and Consequentials) Bill 2006

Second Reading

11:30 am

Photo of Kerry NettleKerry Nettle (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

On Saturday I attended a friend’s wedding. It was on Haldon Street in Lakemba. The bride was a Peruvian-Australian citizen and she was marrying a Greek-Australian citizen. I sat at a table next to my Lebanese friend and her Jewish partner, both of whom are Australian citizens. Also at the table were an Italian friend of mine, an Australian citizen, and a guy I went to uni with who is a from the former Yugoslavia. He is also an Australian citizen. It was a great Australian wedding. There was fantastic salsa dancing and fantastic Greek dancing going on.

Australia is absolutely a multicultural country, yet recent government moves that we have seen—for example, the departmental name change, dropping the idea of having a minister for multiculturalism and removing the word ‘multiculturalism’ from Australia’s multicultural policy—not only signal an attempt to deny the reality that we live in a multicultural society but, unfortunately, are also, I think, part of a concerted campaign which seeks to attack multiculturalism and the benefits that the Australian Greens certainly believe it has brought to the Australian community. Unfortunately, we have seen the opposition join in doing this. They have now got a new shadow minister for integration who, in my town’s daily newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, has been talking about his catchcry of the need for ‘integration, integration, integration’, so I think their attitude is also concerning.

The Greens see the Australian Citizenship Bill 2006 as being a part of that attack on multiculturalism. Unfortunately, as we have already heard, the government’s attack has the support of the opposition. We have seen this kind of campaign, the demonising of migrants within our community, in the past, particularly during election years. The Tampa election, as it was called, in 2001, when I was elected, is of course the most recent example that everyone is aware of. Ostensibly, I was elected because both of the major parties agreed that we should reject and turn around those asylum seekers who were rescued by the MVTampa at that time. People in the electorate were looking for a political voice that brought some compassion and humanity into that debate. They found it in the Greens, and that is why I am in parliament.

We have had a number of comments, which I agree with, that this election is shaping up to be somewhat similar. In a speech at the end of last year, Malcolm Fraser said:

There are already suggestions that this next election will be a ‘Muslim election’ as a while ago it was the Tampa election.

The Greens believe that our political leaders should be speaking out about the great benefits that multiculturalism has brought to our shores. This country has been made rich by the multicultural immigration that we have had, both economically and culturally. In my electorate of New South Wales, Western Sydney is a living example of the globalised world that we are a part of and the way in which our society has been made rich by multiculturalism. I can walk down Haldon Street in Lakemba, the one I was talking about earlier, past the printing shop that is owned by my Palestinian friend. He is an Australian citizen and he has made a tremendous contribution to his local community and more broadly. There is a Greek nursing home on that street. There is an Italian hairdresser, there is a grocery store owned by a Pakistani, there is a Lebanese sweets shop and a Chinese bakery, there is a cocktail bar run by an Iraqi guy and there is a Moroccan coffee shop. All are within the space of a couple of hundred metres on Haldon Street. The contribution that all of these people make to our community, the society that we live in, makes this country great. I am proud to be able to walk down a street like that and say hello to all those Australian citizens who are contributing to our community.

I want to hear Australia’s political leaders talking passionately about the beauty of such experiences that have been brought into their lives by the many people from different cultures who have made their lives interesting and made this country great. At the end of last year I attended a presentation day for Auburn Girls High School. All of the girls were beaming with pride when they came up onto the stage to receive certificates. There were a number of Samoan girls getting prizes for a range of activities, including some fantastic sporting achievements. There were Chinese, Turkish and Lebanese girls coming up to get academic awards. If you looked at the program for that presentation day, you would see there were challenges for people in pronouncing all the surnames, because there were no Anglo surnames at all; they were all multicultural Australian ones. When I left I felt so confident about the contribution that these girls were going to make and the sorts of attitudes that they were going to have towards our country while building the future of this great country that we live in. That is the sort of story, one about all the contributions that people are making, that I would love to hear politicians talking about. Unfortunately, what we have heard most recently from our Prime Minister is an attempt to make political mileage out of targeting or demonising certain sections of our community.

I want to look at examples around the idea of bringing in a citizenship test and an English-language test. Everyone agrees that it is much easier for people to make their own way in this country if they are fluent in English. I imagine that all Australians would support making sure that people have available to them adequate services to help them improve their English or learn English, which they might not have when they arrive in Australia.

Rather than ensuring that the support is available, the proposals we are seeing from the government are about putting in place a divisive test designed to separate people into one group that is deserving of Australian citizenship and another group that is not deserving. For example, a newly arrived young man from Sudan has never learned to write in any language, let alone English, and has no English when he arrives. He is expected in less than 10 hours a week to learn English and computer skills to the point where he is able to pass an English-language test on the computer. He is expected to do all of this—an incredible feat for anybody, let alone somebody who has never learned a formal written language—at the same time as he is going out and trying to find a job in the Australian community to earn the money to have a roof over his head. He is also expected to understand how the traffic lights work, so that he can get across the street easily, and how to contribute to and be a part of Australian society and Australian culture.

Leaving your home country—all your friends, your family and the traditions you are used to—is extraordinarily difficult for anybody, even the wealthiest, most well-adjusted Westerner. For those people who have had a lot of hardship—perhaps they have been child soldiers in Africa or have seen family members imprisoned or killed before their own eyes—we as a country should be not only throwing down the welcome mat but also making sure that they have access to all the services that they need in order to rebuild their lives here in this country. Instead, what we are seeing with the proposals from the government is the Prime Minister seeking to create these barriers that new migrants have to climb over before they can be accepted into the Prime Minister’s idea of a white picket fence Australia. I happen to know what Don Bradman’s batting average is, but I do not think that the Vietnamese single mother who lives down the street from me should have to know it before she can become an Australian citizen and before she can fully participate in the new country that she calls home.

The Prime Minister and the Treasurer have sought to target certain sections of our migrant community as not integrating enough. They have used anecdotal stories as a justification for placing new barriers in front of all migrants. I set out to find the basis of the Prime Minister’s criticism, particularly with regard to the Muslim community, whom he chose to single out in his comments about integration and the English-language test. The figures that I have found—government figures—painted a very different picture to that painted by the Prime Minister. I found that the Prime Minister’s rhetoric on English-language proficiency in the Muslim community is dead wrong. During his time as Prime Minister, English-language proficiency for all new migrant groups has improved and Muslims are more fluent in English than ever before. In fact, the English-language skills of new migrants since the Howard government has been in power have improved so much that the government’s own department of immigration have had to restructure the categories that they use for measuring English-language proficiency. They have dropped the bottom two categories because people’s English has improved so much that those two categories are no longer useful in their measuring of English-language proficiency.

The Prime Minister’s decision to point out the lack of English-language proficiency amongst Muslim communities was also not based on fact. If you look at English-language proficiency by religion, you find that Muslims are not the religious group with the poorest English-language skills. In fact, in total numbers, that honour goes to Western Catholics, as defined by the census, and, by proportion, it goes to Buddhists. Yet these groups were not singled out for special criticism by the Prime Minister. Muslims are fourth in a list, by proportion, of the poorest English-language skills, but they would be fifth if the table included that group which has the poorest English-speaking skills—Indigenous Australians. Anybody would be hard pressed to substantiate an argument that the latter group of Australians was somehow un-Australian and not worthy of Australia’s citizenship. Indigenous Australians are the largest group in terms of poor English-language skills.

The Prime Minister’s comments, therefore, seem to be based more in the realm of political point-scoring than on the data that is available to him. It is extremely worrying to have the Prime Minister expressing such falsehoods, particularly so publicly, in the lead-up to a federal election. It reminds me of the sorts of comments we have seen before in trying to target particular groups—the infamous ‘children overboard’ comments that we saw in the lead-up to an election—and information put forward by political leaders that are not based in truth.

The other point to make when looking at the government’s latest proposals about English-language tests is that migrants and prospective citizens already are required to learn English. The main group of visa applicants that are not required to pass an English-language test are humanitarian entrants—that is, refugees. The idea that we as a nation would go through a divisive and destructive debate—and the rhetoric that we have heard from our leaders on this issue has been so—in order to justify imposing an English-language test on people who need our protection and come through on humanitarian visas—that is, more barriers on refugees, the only group that does not currently already have an English-language test—is appalling.

Australia’s secret police, ASIO, have grown in power and resources under the Howard government. Increasingly they not only advise the government on matters of national security but they also wield a veto over significant government decisions, such as the issuing of a visa. We saw how dangerous this can be in the case of American activist Scott Parkin, who was detained and then deported at the say-so of ASIO. His capacity to appeal that decision was hampered by the Attorney-General’s power to keep secret from the courts and the public eye any information about ASIO’s decision. This piece of legislation will mean that ASIO can apply its national security veto to the minister’s decision to approve someone’s application for citizenship. Sections of the bill say that the minister is banned from approving a citizenship application if an ASIO security assessment is in place. This requirement will apply to all applicants for Australian citizenship. In effect, it hands ASIO the power to veto somebody’s citizenship.

The Greens believe that the power to grant citizenship should reside only in the hands of a democratically elected government, not in the hands of a secret police. It is a view that is shared by many legal organisations, including the New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties. In their submission to the inquiry into this bill, they call it:

... an unwelcome intrusion of faceless secret agents into the process of defining who is a citizen in our free and democratic society.

They go on to say:

The proposal violates the Statelessness Convention because the Minister will not be able to prevent a person from becoming stateless—

and that they are:

... concerned that, in the current political climate, this proposal will disproportionately impact upon the Muslim community. This could undermine the desirability of Australian citizenship in the eyes of some, rather than fostering a strong multicultural community of citizens—our strongest defence against terrorism.

The Greens will move an amendment to remove ASIO’s citizenship veto from this piece of legislation, when we get to the committee stage.

It is interesting to note that all of the asylum seekers on record who have received adverse security assessments by ASIO have had them overturned—that is, the initial assessments by ASIO were incorrect. In all of these instances their names were Mohammed. Last week, a prominent refugee advocate wrote:

It seems all it takes for a refugee to get an adverse security assessment is to be called Mohammad. There have now been four Mohammads who were designated security risks and then at political whim found not to be security risks.

She continued:

What ASIO giveth they can also taketh away at a word from government. It would seem that these men have been victims of the Australian government’s instructions to ASIO to find a few security risks to shore up fear in the Australian electorate.

That is a horrible thought and let us hope, for all our sakes, that it is not true. We are a multicultural country and always have been.

The Australian of the Year, Tim Flannery, wrote in his book The Birth of Sydney:

One might imagine that Sydney was a purely British creation, but that would be quite wrong. Quite apart from the Aborigines who had been there for 50,000 years, the Maoris and Pacific Islanders, West Indians and Americans, Malays and Greeks put in early appearances, just to name a few.

He went on to say:

Within a few years, Muslim sailors would be constructing extravagant temples and filling the streets of the town with exotic Eastern Festivals.

Let us not allow the government of the day, whomever it may be, to return us to the dark old days of the White Australia policy. There is something eerily familiar in the ALP’s immigration policy of 1966 which outlines how it is based on ‘the need to avoid the introduction into Australia of the difficult social and economic problems which will follow from an influx of people having different standards of living, traditions and customs’. As a nation we should be coming together to shout from the rooftops about how multiculturalism has made this country great.

The original draft of this bill extended the residency requirement for citizenship from two years to three years. The government claimed this was necessary to protect us from terrorism. Now the government has amended its own bill to raise the threshold to four years of residency. This is part of the government’s campaign to make citizenship more exclusive. There is no evidence that people do not already value Australian citizenship. But this government has never let facts get in the way of exploiting the fear of migrants for political gain. That is its track record.

The government’s current actions on this front are not a great advertisement for people taking out Australian citizenship. It is almost like they are sending a message to say, ‘Take out Australian citizenship or we’ll deport you.’ In the case of Robert Jovicic, the message is, ‘Take out Serbian citizenship so we can deport you.’ But if your name is David Hicks or Vivian Solon, Australian citizenship does not stop you from being locked up or deported. Those are not the only instances. The Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, as it was at the time, reported that 26 Australian citizens had been incorrectly put into detention in Australia.

This whole drive on citizenship is about defining the ‘other’—dividing us into citizens and noncitizens, Australians and non-Australians, us or them. Underneath the debate about the value of citizenship—the tests, the language requirements, the security assessments—lurks the real message of the Howard government. That real message, being dog-whistled by Mr Andrew Robb, Mr Howard, Mr Costello, former Minister Vanstone and now Minister Andrews, is: ‘Some ethnic communities aren’t like us and they don’t fit in. They should be excluded from our community.’ The government wants to impose a dominant monoculture that excludes certain communities from its ranks. Multiculturalism is a fact and something that our political leaders should be promoting. The Greens will certainly continue to talk about the benefits and, unfortunately, the need to defend multiculturalism in this current electoral climate.

I just want to foreshadow that the Greens have a second reading amendment to this bill. It condemns the government for promoting legislation that is aimed at dividing the Australian community and creating suspicion of certain migrant groups. We call on the government to rename its new department so that we have a department of multicultural affairs. (Time expired)


No comments