Wednesday, 7 February 2007
Australian Citizenship Bill 2006; Australian Citizenship (Transitionals and Consequentials) Bill 2006
My interest in the Australian Citizenship Bill 2006 emanates from two forms of discrimination associated with citizenship that I want to deal with here today. The first relates to how the Citizenship Act has impacted on former child migrants. The second form of discrimination concerns how pre-1984 British citizens—that is, they are non-Australian citizens—continue to remain on the Australian electoral roll while post-1984 British noncitizens and other noncitizens are not allowed the vote.
First to citizenship and former child migrants. Australia has a history of successful migration programs, but there was one program that was not so successful. That was the Commonwealth child migration scheme that operated from early last century, but mostly in the postwar period, up until the early 1970s. Until a few notable books published in the mid-1990s and the 2001 Senate Community Affairs References Committee inquiry into child migration, this dark episode of Australian history had remained largely unknown. It is the story of the thousands of so-called orphaned children from the United Kingdom, Ireland and Malta sent often illegally to Australia early last century without parental consent, peaking in the 1940s and 1950s and ending in the 1970s. Some of these thousands have fared well in their lives since then. However, most have not, at least in important aspects of their lives. It is also the story of a scheme perceived as being right at the time but one that has come back to haunt Australian and British governments and the various receiving agencies. I do not intend to elaborate on the nature of this haunting, only to say it has recently involved moneys being committed to right the record, so to speak. Not sufficient moneys, I might add; nor a sufficient addressing of the issues requiring much greater reparation measures.
One of the issues I want to draw attention to in respect of this bill is that of identity, of which citizenship plays a vital part. Actually, I should say noncitizenship. Evidence to the Senate child migrant inquiry revealed the shock and bitterness felt by many former child migrants when discovering they were not citizens of Australia. To learn they were regarded as aliens in the country they had lived in since they were young children was less than easy, as was the process of later applying for citizenship. I will describe one such case—one of many, I might add.
A former child migrant in his late 50s discovered he had some family contacts back in the United Kingdom. He decided to return there to visit them, which required a passport. In the process of obtaining one he was told he was not an Australian citizen. He set out applying to become one, and subsequently the department of immigration sent him a notice of intention to deport him because he had a criminal record. Here was a man who had been sent to Australia as a young boy, had been raised as an Australian, had been abused by Australians in Australian institutions and had had his life altered and determined by that abuse. He left care as an ill-prepared, uneducated, unsupported and damaged 15-year-old. Little wonder his scrapes with the law landed him in prison.
His story is typical. Another who contacted me pleading for help late last year actually wrote from the Villawood detention centre, where he was awaiting deportation. There are even former child migrants who served and fought for Australia in Korea and Vietnam, or both, but when they later wanted to claim social security they were told they were aliens, not Australian citizens, and if they could not prove how they arrived in Australia and who they were they would be deported. Proof is easier said than done. Anyone who knows anything about the abominable practices of some of the awful priests, nuns and others who ran many of these institutions would know that they not only destroyed key records of the helpless children left at their mercy but it was not uncommon for them to give the children wrong names, wrong dates of birth and wrong family details.
One particular case springs to mind. Although not a child migrant, this man was in institutional care in my home state of Western Australia as a child for many years. Because of the abuse and neglect he experienced, he ran away from his particular institution. Many years later he applied for a passport under what he thought was his name and birth date, only to be told that he already had a passport under that name and birth date. After numerous interviews, including a visit by two federal police, and much pain and humiliation he did receive a passport. But this was just the beginning of his troubles. When he travelled overseas to meet his fiancee’s parents, his passport was stolen in the United Kingdom. When he went to collect a replacement passport he was instead given a new identity document as the authorities believed he had a different name to that which he thought he had. Then, when booking to come back to Australia, he was told that there was no record that he had actually left Australia. Back to the authorities again, and he was issued with a travel document to return to Australia but under yet another name. He accepted this, but under protest.
His drama continued. On arrival back in Australia he was arrested at the airport, detained and then transferred to a lock-up in Melbourne. He was charged with being actively involved in obtaining passports under false names. He appeared before the Melbourne Magistrates Court the next morning where his lawyer applied for bail. This was denied on the grounds that he represented a flight risk. Some six weeks later the matter was finally concluded and he was released as having been caught up in a case of identity confusion.
To some extent you can understand the authorities. But if they do not pay attention to Senate reports and to the history of people from institutions who do not know who they are, where they came from or what their family details are, and who have no records, then this sort of thing can occur. To address such identity and citizenship problems, one of the unanimous 33 recommendations of the child migrant report, Lost innocents: righting the record, deserves comment. Recommendation 17 recommended that the Commonwealth confer automatic citizenship on all former child migrants, with an opt-out provision for those who did not want Australian citizenship. The coalition government refused that recommendation, which—I repeat—was unanimous. What the Commonwealth government did do was agree to fast-track applications, which would be exempt from fees, and to hold special citizenship ceremonies for former child migrants. A number of child migrants have benefited accordingly and are grateful for these concessions by the government.
In spite of these positive concessions, individuals in the department continue to display little, if any, knowledge, flexibility or compassion about the citizenship problems facing institutionalised children. I remind the Senate that there were over 500,000 institutionalised children last century. Ministers and their officers are not familiar with the reports of the Senate. Deportation notices and problems persist, quite a number of which I have attempted to intervene on. The latest case I am involved in concerns a 62-year-old former child migrant who found and visited his mother in the United Kingdom in 1995. He was her only son and she was living an isolated life in Britain, so she came out to Australia to live near him on a temporary residence visa in 2001. She applied for permanent residency one year later. As an 84-year-old mother, her greatest wish was to live out her remaining years near a child she thought had been lost to her forever. The latest development is that the department has informed her that her application is not likely to be considered within the next 47 years—47 years for this 84-year-old lady. However, should she pay about $35,000, her application will be prioritised. This is just shameful. It illustrates a discriminatory and hard-edged attitude to cases deserving of serious and just consideration. It is a far cry from what the then Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs, Mr John Cobb, claimed in the House on 9 November 2005. He said:
Citizenship is readily available to those who make their home here and who are prepared to commit to our common future. ... As Australia has matured, the inclusive and non-discriminatory approach which has developed has seen citizenship become a powerful force in the creation of a united and cohesive society.
Tell that to kids who came here, who were deported here, and then were unable to confirm citizenship. What hollow words for so many former child migrants. They made their home here, they are committed to this country, they have adopted our values and way of life, they are as Australian as could be and yet some have been shunned by their own government.
By allowing their often appalling treatment as children, Australia is, in my view, largely responsible for the adults that former child migrants have become, as well as for any antisocial behaviour that is a direct consequence of their treatment. It is an abrogation of culpability for the government of the day to use the pretext of their birth as foreigners to avoid the expense and trouble of accommodating former child migrants as Australians.
I think two things are essential. The first is that the department put in place a system whereby any matter concerning a former child migrant is automatically red-flagged to be dealt with by officers who have read the Lost innocents report and have an understanding of their issues. It is obviously not possible for the whole department to be across it, but they could do that. What is definitely not appropriate is for such persons to be dealt with by rote. I have suggested that in previous correspondence to the department and the minister but apparently to no avail. The second thing I think is essential is that the government desist from deporting persons who in every other respect are Australian. They have been raised in Australia, they have paid their taxes as Australians and they have often fought in the armed services for Australia. They are ours and our responsibility.
I want to turn now to Australian citizens and their democratic requirement to enrol and cast a ballot at federal elections. Citizens over the age of 18 are entitled and required to enrol; indeed, you can pre-register at the age of 17. There is an exception to this, though. Under section 93 of the Electoral Act, British subjects who were enrolled as at 25 January 1984 are also eligible to vote. According to the Australian Electoral Commission, there were a total of 164,451 British citizens coded as being eligible to vote on 25 January 1984. Granted, there could be some overestimation with this figure, as some may have since become Australian citizens and I presume a number have died. So perhaps the figure is much less today, but it is very difficult to know. At the same time, there might be some underestimation because of some people on the roll on this date not being captured by the Electoral Commission at the time. I acknowledge the figures are bound to be rubbery.
To persist with this anomaly is to persist with a discriminatory approach, since voting is regarded as a consequence of citizenship in Australia. Some British citizens can vote because of this provision, some British citizens cannot vote, some Australian noncitizens can vote in local elections and most Australian noncitizens cannot vote at all. Questions arising from this situation do need to be asked. Does the government think that resident noncitizens should be allowed to vote—and in what circumstances? Does the government think it is still valid to apply the rationale advanced by the then government and parliament of allowing pre-1984 British citizens to stay on the roll even though they are not Australian citizens? What is more, given that over two decades have passed, is that not enough time for those British citizens then enrolled to vote to decide whether they want to be dual British-Australian citizens or not? If they cannot be bothered to become citizens after several decades of residence, should they still be given the citizen’s right to vote?
In view of the current interest in and debate concerning Australian values and commitments to Australia, should not voting in federal elections only be available to Australian citizens? What is the opinion of the people of Australia, the parliament of Australia and the government of Australia? The alternative would perhaps be to allow all permanent residents to vote. That is an issue worthy of inquiry as well. For instance, in New Zealand all permanent residents may vote for parliament or local government. In the UK, citizens of 75 countries may vote in local government and some other elections. The general trend in Europe is towards extending the right to vote in local and national elections to all residents, not just European Union citizens, which recognises that taxpayers have a right to a say in how they are governed. That is already the case in the Nordic countries, Ireland, the Netherlands and a number of Eastern European countries.
Should this also be the case in local government elections? With Australia being an advanced democracy, it seems to many of us that property voting rights are somewhat archaic and yet they still flourish in a number of local government jurisdictions. In all states, except Queensland and the territories, non-resident owners and occupiers have the right to vote at the local government level. Additionally, in Western Australia and Tasmania, non-resident property owners enjoy plural votes by being able to vote in each ward in which they have property. In Tasmania, though, this is restricted to two votes.
What I am on about here is that the consequence of the right to citizenship is regarded as the right to vote, and that is why I am raising these issues. What is of interest in these property voting rights for local elections is the question of property owners who are foreign nationals. Resident voters usually have to be on the state roll and hence citizens. A positive view of this can be taken: at least property voting rights have enabled noncitizens to enjoy the municipal franchise and have a say in how their municipal governance operates.
However, a more negative and credible view was put forward last year by Professor Marian Sawer of the Australian National University. In a piece she wrote for the Democratic Audit of Australia entitled ‘Property votes—OK?’, she points out that a significant shift occurred in the 1970s in the functions of local government in Australia. This shift was one away from being primarily a provider of services to property, largely funded by property rates, to being a provider of community and human services for the resident population. She states:
The changing role of local government undermines any argument that it is simply for and about property. It raises serious concerns over non-resident property owners having a say in how local government goes about delivering services to its resident population or protecting the local environment.
The political access and influence of those who can vote in local elections is also relevant to the power exercised by some property developers over certain municipal councils. This was revealed in the 2005 inquiry of the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption into the Tweed Shire Council and the 2004 inquiry of the Queensland Crime and Misconduct Commission, an anti-corruption body, into the Gold Coast City Council. Sawer concludes her article by noting:
While attention has been fixed on moves at the federal level to make it more difficult for eligible voters to enrol and to make it easier for property to make secret donations to political parties, the problematic character of the local government franchise might will be revisited by those concerned about the future of Australian democracy.
Overall, I think it is time the government, perhaps through the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, reviewed discriminatory laws that entitle some noncitizens to vote at federal, state, territory and local levels when all other noncitizens are excluded from this democratic entitlement or have specific inclusion only in a local government context.
I have taken the opportunity of the debate on the Australian Citizenship Bill 2006 to draw attention to two matters. The first one is the unfair and unjust treatment of many child migrants who consider themselves Australians and who have been dealt with harshly because the department, when it has suited it, has taken the view that they are aliens. That is in contrast to the way in which the Senate conducted its inquiry and to the recommendations of the report. It is also, quite frankly, contrary to the way in which the government have reacted to that report. At least on the floor of the Senate, they have been sympathetic to its concerns. The second matter I have taken the opportunity of this debate to outline is a problem with the extension to us all of what citizenship means. To me, one of those primary considerations is the issue of a vote. It seems odd to me that some noncitizens get the right to vote and others do not.
However, I want to conclude my remarks on a positive note. I recently attended an Australia Day citizenship ceremony. The matter was extremely well organised. It was conducted in a thoroughly productive and positive manner. The reaction of those who became new citizens was absolutely joyful and positive. Australian citizenship is something highly valued, and in many respects the department does a terrific job in giving new citizens empowerment through this great privilege of belonging to this country. However, you also have to attend to the warts, not just the good side of what you do. I am afraid that the warts are very uncomfortable, very large and very ugly at times. I would like to see them resolved, and resolved positively.