Wednesday, 7 February 2007
Australian Citizenship Bill 2006; Australian Citizenship (Transitionals and Consequentials) Bill 2006
The Australian Labor Party supports the Australian Citizenship Bill 2006 and the Australian Citizenship (Transitionals and Consequentials) Bill 2006. I certainly welcome the legislation. It delivers on some long-promised changes that came about partly as a result of a Senate inquiry in 2003 in which the needs of a number of people born in Australia and who are currently living overseas, or indeed are in Australia, were addressed. These changes provide certainty for those people and clarify their situation. It is very important that this legislation is dealt with speedily. Unfortunately, there has been a series of delays in bringing this bill forward. The promises were first foreshadowed on 7 July 2004 by the Hon. Gary Hardgrave, who was Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs at the time, and finally this bill was first introduced in November 2005.
So there has been considerable delay and some changes have been made to this bill along the way. A number of the negatives have been discussed here today and that discussion has overshadowed a lot of the very positive changes that are to occur with this bill. Those positive changes have been awaited by many people living overseas, particularly in countries like the United States of America, Papua New Guinea and Malta. Many people have been waiting on the changes that facilitate dual citizenship and rectify a number of problems for those who took out Australian citizenship and consequently lost or had to renounce it.
For example, I have had correspondence from several war brides in the United States. They left Australia with their husbands and went to the United States of America, where they were required to renounce their Australian citizenship. Those people are now in their 80s and 90s. One woman in particular is 81 and her husband is gravely ill. Once he has died she intends to return to Australia, resume her Australian citizenship and reconnect with her family. But she would have to come as a visitor to Australia were it not for this bill, which will now allow her to resume her Australian citizenship.
So, with all of the controversies that have arisen since the introduction of this bill, we must not lose sight of the fact that it is actually a very positive bill that has been awaited for a long time. It is really the delay in passing it that has caused great problems. For example, Mr Steve Schembri is living in Australia at the moment. He is one of the skilled tradesmen we so clearly require in Australia. He is of Maltese origin and his local member, Mr Brendan O’Connor, raised the point that, until this bill is passed, he cannot stay in Australia permanently. In fact, his visa expired late last year and I am not sure whether he has been allowed to stay in Australia. He may have had to return to Malta until this bill passes and he can resume his Australian citizenship. For him and his wife and two children, this delay has been very poor.
However, that is why the Labor Party is supporting this bill. It does include many positive measures to support dual citizenship and give certainty to the something like one million expatriate Australians overseas and to people who were born in Australia but have lost their Australian citizenship. So I welcome the fact that we are now debating this bill in the Senate, and hopefully it will not be long before it becomes law.
There are certainly some significant changes in this bill. Some of them have been canvassed—for example, the extension of the permanent residency requirement and the fact, which I have alluded to, that Australian citizens who renounced their citizenship under section 17 can resume their citizenship if they are of good character. Another section, which is perhaps a little more controversial, provides that the minister can refuse approval to a person becoming an Australian citizen despite the person being eligible for approval. Children of former Australian citizens who have lost their citizenship under section 17 can acquire citizenship by conferral. There are a number of other significant measures in this bill, including that the age for exemption from the requirement to have a basic knowledge of the English language has been raised from 50 to 60 years of age, which is another very substantial change to the citizenship provisions.
I do want to dwell a little on those section 17 citizens who lost their Australian citizenship by acquiring citizenship in another country. They are very well catered for under these changes and I congratulate the government on that. Regulations in Australia and in other countries relating to dual citizenship change all the time. Some countries do not allow it, so citizenship of a country can be lost if citizenship of another country is acquired. I particularly want to mention those people affected by section 18 who, certainly in one sense, are covered by this bill. If they had to renounce their Australian citizenship—that is, they took that positive step to renounce their Australian citizenship at the time they took citizenship of another country; for example, the war brides in the United States and many people from Malta—recovery of citizenship is now allowed under this bill.
The issue that I want to discuss in relation to these section 18 people has been well canvassed in the lower house by a number of members, but I would like to explain to the Senate how it affects some. Even though it is quite long, I would like to read onto the record a letter from Mr Norman Bonello, who is the Southern Cross Group’s volunteer coordinator for Malta. The Southern Cross Group are a group of volunteers who look after the interests of expatriate Australians overseas. They do an excellent job and have been major lobbyists behind some of the changes introduced in this bill, though they have also expressed some reservations. I will read Mr Bonello’s story because I think it illustrates very clearly what we are talking about. He says:
I was born in Sydney on 18 April 1957, the youngest of four children. When I was about fifteen my parents, both Maltese, who had migrated in Australia in 1955, decided that we would move back to Malta. I didn’t have any say at the time. My older sisters Carmen and Monica, who were already married and had moved out of home, stayed in Australia.
We came back to Malta, and when I was 18, around the time I was finishing high school and starting university in 1975 or 1976, I got a letter from the Maltese authorities. They knew that I was both an Australian citizen and a Maltese citizen. At that time Maltese law prohibited dual citizenship in adulthood. They told me that if I didn’t prove to them I had divested myself of my Australian citizenship before I turned 19, then on my 19th birthday I would automatically lose my Maltese citizenship.
I was still living at home with my parents, and was financially dependent on them. I could not have afforded to finish my tertiary education in Malta without Maltese citizenship. Foreign student fees at that time were more than my father’s income for an entire year. If I had not renounced my Australian citizenship, I could not have stayed in Malta as a foreigner. Even if I had managed to pay foreign student fees, or had not continued my education, I could not have worked in Malta as a foreigner, and any residency permit would have continually had to have been renewed. I wouldn’t have had access to Maltese health care, bank loans or mortgages or government student scholarships.
If I had opted to keep Australian citizenship at the age of 18, I would have had no option but to return to Australia almost immediately by myself as a teenager with an unfinished education. Financially this was out of the question, and although my sisters were there, even if I could have come up with the fare to get there, it would have been too much to expect my sisters to take responsibility for me. They both had young families to support and lives of their own.
So with a very heavy heart I renounced my Australian citizenship. I was a just a naive kid. When we’re 18 we think we know everything but we have so much to learn. The full ramifications of the step I was being pushed into taking as regards my citizenship weren’t clear to me at the time. I suppose somewhere in the back of my mind I thought or hoped that somehow it would all be able to be sorted out later on, and that once I had finished studying I could go back to Australia then.
I will skip a little because it is a long letter. He goes on to say:
In 1995 I married my wife Mary, who is a Maltese citizen and a graduate primary school teacher. We have two beautiful daughters, Kim, 8, and Claire, 6, full of life, energy and hope. As children born overseas to an Australian-born person, they would have been Australian citizens by descent if I’d never had to use Section 18.
… … …
I’m deeply pleased that I’ll shortly be able to apply to resume Australian citizenship. I have always felt Australian inside and it’s part of my identity. Having my citizenship back, and being able to carry an Australian passport again is of huge symbolic significance to me.
Again, I will skip a little. He goes on:
When the Bill was finally tabled last November, though, it was a bittersweet moment, as I realised that Kim and Claire—
had been explicitly excluded. Of course, once I’m a citizen again, I could sponsor my wife and children for migration to Australia, and they could eventually become naturalised Australian citizens that way. But I just don’t think it’s going to be feasible for us to move as a family to Australia once I’m a citizen again, at least not in the foreseeable future.
… … …
In his letter, he further says:
So on a practical level, for myself and my wife, the fact that the Government is going to allow me to get my citizenship back has probably come too late to change the course of our lives. It’s far more important to Mary and myself that Kim and Claire be given opportunities that I was denied. We want them to have Australian citizenship so that they’ll be able to enjoy their Australian heritage in whatever way they decide is appropriate when they leave the nest.
In a nutshell, that is the problem the Labor Party have with what are otherwise very significant and good changes in this bill. We want the children of those Maltese citizens to be able to take up Australian citizenship without having to go through the process of returning to Australia and applying for their spouse and their children to become Australian citizens. I think dual citizenship is on the increase around the world. Most countries encourage it. It provides an important flow of skills and an important flow of people. They may have a commitment to perhaps two countries, but it allows them to come back to a country to which they feel they have strong ties and give their skills to that country.
I think the government needs to recognise that it probably will in the end—as it had to with the changes for those section 17 people who lost their citizenship—have to do something to assist people who have lost their citizenship under section 18. I urge the government to accept the Labor Party’s proposed amendment on that score and I certainly hope that that will be the result of the Senate’s deliberation on the bill.
I also want to talk a little about some of the amendments brought in by the government following the introduction of the bill—and they have been canvassed to some extent by speakers already. They relate to the security measures that came in as a result of the government’s concern about world terrorism, and to increasing the residency requirement to three years and four years. As our shadow minister has stated, the four-year requirement has not been clarified. On the one hand the government is encouraging people to come to this country to increase our population—which is much needed—and to improve skill levels to fill critical requirements if we want our economy to continue to grow. Yet on the other hand the government it is increasing the length of time they have to stay before they are able to make that positive commitment to stay permanently in Australia and be recognised as Australian. It seems to me very contradictory.
I think it is something that people do consider when they come to this country. We have to recognise that it is not only Australia but a number of countries around the world that want highly skilled people, and people have a choice of where they want to go—do they want to go to the United States, to Canada, to European countries, or do they want to come to Australia or perhaps New Zealand? Certainly, other countries have longer periods of residency as a requirement. But it may be that one of the factors that people have in mind when deciding to which country they will eventually bring their skills is that there is a shorter residency period required before they can become citizens and get an Australian passport. And unless we have a cogent, clear and strong reason why we need to increase that period to four years, it is difficult to see why the Senate would agree to that.
Security checks and stronger personal identifiers are very important in today’s uncertain world, and at the COAG meeting the premiers quickly agreed to that. I think that the Labor Party is required to acknowledge those recommendations and agree to those security checks. I think it is critical that those checks happen before people come to this country rather than at the citizenship stage, but I do see the importance of that backup check before we make the final commitment and allow people to become Australian citizens.
So, generally speaking, the Labor Party and I welcome a lot of the changes to the citizenship legislation. In a way, I am a bit dismayed that we probably will face another citizenship bill as other proposals for citizenship tests and so on flagged by the government will cause other changes in this legislation. Of course, we need to constantly update legislation. But I would have hoped that, in this large and comprehensive bill, we might have reached some finality so that people overseas who may be affected by this could have had some certainty and clarity about what was going to happen—what checks would be required, what the requirements were going to be and how they would operate. Then we could have disseminated that information and have had an education campaign about citizenship requirements so that we could have let everyone know what Australia’s attitude to those requirements was. While we get different ministers shifting every time, that makes that very difficult. But I am pleased to support the bulk of the bill.