Senate debates

Monday, 13 August 2007

Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Testing) Bill 2007

Second Reading

Debate resumed.

4:28 pm

Photo of Linda KirkLinda Kirk (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I was speaking before question time in this second reading debate on the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Testing) Bill 2007 and the citizenship test that it seeks to introduce. One of the stated aims of the bill is to achieve a more inclusive society. However, in my view, and in the view of a number of witnesses before the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, the test, by its very nature, is a very exclusionary measure to achieve this aim. Tests are, by their very nature, designed to be passed or failed, so it difficult to see exactly how this bill is going to promote a more inclusive society.

It is critical, I think, that this test does not act as a de facto English test or a test reminiscent of a bygone era—namely, the White Australia policy of the past. Whilst the citizenship test will attempt to measure a prospective citizen’s knowledge of Australia and its values and way of life, many average Australian citizens have a very poor understanding of Australia’s history and aspects of government. I would therefore be concerned that a number of Australian citizens may not pass the test if they were asked to sit it.

In the committee hearings, another concern that was raised about this test was that it might result in a higher threshold of knowledge for individuals who are not yet Australian citizens. Professor George Williams from the Gilbert and Tobin Centre for Public Law at the University of New South Wales said to the committee that a test of this kind is an ineffective way of instilling values. Someone who fundamentally disagreed with Australian values could pass the citizenship test by correctly identifying the answers, even if they do not have a personal commitment to the values that the answers express. There is a concern that not only will individuals be answering questions that they might not necessarily agree with, but also that they could simply rote-learn answers to questions, or answer them in accordance with what they know is the right answer rather than with what they actually believe in.

Another factor that was drawn to our attention during the course of the committee hearings is that the government has relied on a number of opinion polls to formulate this legislation and introduce a citizenship test. In my view, and in the view of a number of witnesses to the committee, it is not appropriate for an opinion poll to be the determining factor in the legislative or policy-making process. In addition, the government said that it has relied on the fact that other countries such as Canada, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States have introduced citizenship tests, but when the department was questioned at the committee hearing about the effectiveness of these countries’ citizenship-testing arrangements, we were told that, at least in the UK and Canada, there has not been any evaluation of the citizenship test. The department was able to inform the committee only that they had not seen any evidence of it being a disincentive for people to apply for citizenship. In any event, comparing Australia’s experience with citizenship practices in other countries is not relevant. Every country has an individual history relating to citizenship and a different experience on which to base its policies. A witness from the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission told the committee:

For us to adopt precedents from the UK without understanding the basic differences between our countries would be dangerous.

I move on now to some of the concerns that were expressed in relation to the content and the nature of the citizenship test. The 20-question, multiple-choice citizenship test seeks to test prospective citizens on their knowledge of Australia and of Australian values. It is not clear what exactly our identifiable Australian values are. Can they even be identified? Are they unique to Australia? Values are a very subjective concept, and some values such as freedom, democracy, respect for the rule of law, equality and non-discrimination are values which are held in countries other than Australia. Should we therefore be testing prospective citizens on the presumption that they do not already hold these values? In one submission to the committee, it was said that testing people on common values implies that there is only one set of Australian values and one type of Australian citizen and that this undermines the vital role that multiculturalism and diversity play in Australian society.

One of the most concerning features of this legislative scheme is that it is the minister who will determine what are Australia’s values and this decision will not be transparent for others to assess or even review. It remains to be seen how the minister will determine what constitutes Australian values. However, with this ambiguity about what constitutes identifiable Australian values, and the different backgrounds from which people come to take the test, there is certainly no overwhelming evidence to support the proposition that a multiple-choice test is indeed an adequate way to test and assess a person’s values and whether they are consistent with so-called Australian values.

It was concerning to us as members of the committee that members of parliament have not had, and will not have, the opportunity to review and consult on the likely content of the test questions before this legislation is passed. The entire legislative scheme that the government intends to introduce establishes the structure for citizenship testing, yet the actual test itself remains a mystery. At the time of the committee hearings—and it is still the case—no guidance as to the nature of the test had been provided, nor was the content of the supporting resource booklet from which people will learn for the test provided to the committee. The secrecy and lack of transparency or readiness—whatever it is—on the part of the government in regard to this test is quite concerning. The legislation makes the citizenship test a pivotal step in achieving an important legal status and, in these circumstances, transparency and accountability are critical.

The potential impact of this bill is also of concern, and it was raised by a number of witnesses to the committee. There are some factors which have been identified as being more problematic than others. In particular, it was raised with us that the test has the potential to deter people from applying for citizenship. We heard that it should be expected that the number of applicants for citizenship will fall after the test is introduced. The intimidating and stressful nature of the formal test could act as a deterrent, and people with a low level of ordinary literacy—not to mention computer literacy—could well be deterred from attempting the test and therefore obtaining Australian citizenship. The submission by the Human Rights Education Centre at the Curtin University of Technology raised concern that the proposed testing regime will have a disproportionately negative impact on already disadvantaged and marginalised groups within society, including refugees, women, people with disabilities, people in rural areas and people from non-English-speaking backgrounds. The specific hurdles that people from these groups are likely to face include—for women, for example—the fact that family care obligations often make it very difficult for women to attend English language courses provided by the government.

In the case of humanitarian entrants a significant number of refugees, as we know, are survivors of torture and trauma. They may continue to experience the after-effects of this torture and trauma, and this can quite easily impact on their ability to learn and process new information, let alone a new language. So, there is the potential that the test will have a disproportionate impact on these persons from disadvantaged groups, particularly insofar as it is going to impact on those who do not speak English.

The legislation fails to take into account that people with limited language skills can still make an important contribution to Australian society. In light of the potentially significant impact this test will place on certain persons, it is also concerning to see that the minister has no discretion under the bill to make exceptions for individuals who are disadvantaged by testing arrangements. The only exemptions from the testing requirements are for persons over the age of 60, for those under the age of 18, for persons with a physical and/or mental disability and for people with literacy problems. It was said to us in the committee that there should be an exemption for refugee and humanitarian entrants who have a limited education and/or interrupted schooling, and I think that there certainly is some merit in that.

The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission argued that the bill contains no adequate safeguards to ensure that the creation of different tests does not operate to unfairly discriminate against particular categories of applicants. They also argued, as I have said, that the bill should provide a mechanism to allow the minister to make exemptions or to put into place an alternative process for applicants who are unfairly disadvantaged by having to sit the test.

One of the principal concerns that was raised at the committee hearings was the wide scope given by the bill for the exercise of ministerial discretion. The proposed legislation will include a new section, section 23A, which gives the minister alone the power to approve what will constitute the citizenship test. A number of witnesses before the committee expressed their concern that the test would not be a legislative instrument and, therefore, disallowable by the parliament. The committee heard considerable evidence in this regard, and we were certainly concerned that the test would not be subjected to parliamentary scrutiny. The suggestion made by the committee is that the test questions be tabled in the parliament as a measure at least of some reassurance that there will be the opportunity for members of parliament to scrutinise the test before it is made available and becomes part of the testing regime.

We saw that a considerable amount of funding is going to be spent on implementing the citizenship test. In the view of a number of witnesses to the committee, the funding that is going to be spent on this test would be much better spent on alternative programs to assist Australia’s new and potential citizens. There are many examples of these types of programs—programs that seek to improve settlement, orientation, and language and education programs for new migrants. In addition, there is the need for ongoing community support and integration programs such as employment skills programs. It is also very important to support new families with children by providing affordable childcare options so that parents are able to access employment and attend English language classes. Civics education classes are another way in which new citizens can be successfully integrated into Australian society, as opposed to answering a set of test questions correctly.

In conclusion, I reiterate that Labor will be supporting the passage of this legislation, but I think that the concerns of those witnesses who came before the committee ought to be placed on the record because a great deal of thought has gone into their submissions. Senator Lundy has foreshadowed that Labor will be moving an amendment that there be instituted a formal and comprehensive review of the impact of the bill after three years. I think that this is absolutely essential. A number of the matters that I have raised here today and that were put before the committee and detailed in the committee’s report need to be carefully reviewed and scrutinised as the legislation comes into effect so that we can see what the impact is upon citizenship numbers and upon the number of people who apply for citizenship and whether or not the citizenship test is acting as a disincentive or as an exclusionary tool for people who otherwise would become Australian citizens, rather than having the desired impact and making for a more inclusive Australian society.

4:42 pm

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

I was part of the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs inquiry into the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Testing) Bill 2007 that is before the Senate. We heard that it is unnecessary—we heard a lot of evidence at the committee about the fact that our citizenship laws are working quite well—and there was not a case put forward about why there was a failure of the way in which our current citizenship laws operate. We received evidence from the Victorian Immigrant and Refugee Women’s Coalition. They wrote in their submissions that Australia has been well served by its existing, inclusive citizenship laws and that we now have a culturally diverse and socially cohesive collection of people who are proud to call Australia home. So we heard that our citizenship laws are working quite well.

The government puts forward two rationales as to what it thinks a citizenship test will achieve. The first one is about improving the English language skills of migrants here in Australia, and the second one is about improving the cohesiveness of Australian society. I will go to the first issue. I had a look at the census data over the last two census periods which look at the English language proficiency of migrants. Over the period of time that this government has been in power, the English language skills of migrants in Australia have improved so much that the Department of Immigration and Citizenship have had to change the way in which they measure English language proficiency, because the bottom two categories—that is, the two categories with migrants with really low English language proficiency—were meaningless because people’s English-language skills have improved so much.

So the idea behind the citizenship test—that we need to improve the English language skills of migrants—is not based on the government’s own evidence, which shows that the English language skills of migrants are massively improving and have massively improved over the period of time that this government has been in office. The improvement has been so great that the way in which English language proficiency is measured has had to be changed.

The other rationale the government put forward about a citizenship test is that it will improve the cohesiveness of our society. During the Senate inquiry, the government were not able to put forward any evidence about how they would improve the cohesiveness of society. In fact, when I asked them questions about this, the two things that they pointed to were that it operated in other countries and that they had carried out a consultation discussion paper and the majority of people who had responded to that discussion paper had supported it. That is not justification at all. I asked the government whether the countries that had introduced citizenship tests had done any assessment of whether or not the tests had improved the cohesiveness of their society, and their answer was, ‘No, they haven’t been in place long enough for them to evaluate it.’ I do not think that you can argue—and other witnesses appeared before the committee to say this—that the United States society or the United Kingdom society is in some way more cohesive than Australian society. We have certainly seen great friction occurring in both those societies within different cultures in a way that we do not see in Australian Society. So I do not think that pointing to the example of overseas is any evidence that introducing citizenship tests improves the cohesiveness of the society. In fact, what the committee heard is that it has the potential to do exactly the opposite. Tests, by their very nature, are exclusionary. Tests are designed to separate people into one group of individuals who pass and another group of individuals who fail. An eductor who appeared before the committee said that tests are ‘designed to gatekeep; that is what they are for’. So, in seeking to introduce a citizenship test, this piece of legislation is designed to separate people into those who are deserving citizens and those who are undeserving citizens, which will not improve the cohesiveness of our society.

We heard from a whole range of witnesses at the Senate committee about the way in which this will increase division within our society. I think that Australia can and should be proud of the cohesive nature of our society, of the way in which we have promoted multiculturalism, of the way in which we have celebrated the diversity of people who make up this country and of the immigrants who have come to Australia for over 200 years and made this great country what it is. I think we should be encouraging people to come and be citizens of this country. Therefore, I do not think it is constructive and useful to put barriers in place like this proposal for a citizenship test. As I said, we heard from the committee about the way in which a test will create division within society. We also heard about the way in which it may prevent people from deciding to put their hands up to say that they would like to become a citizen of this country. We heard from the President of the Federation of Ethnic Community Councils of Australia that the citizenship test would be likely to discourage many people from seeking citizenship. This is what she said:

Our concern is that a lot of people who would feel uncomfortable about any testing at all, particularly if they have a low level of literacy, will not apply for citizenship but will self-select out.

We do not want to see that. I am sure that nobody here wants to see that. So why put in place a test which not only will divide our society but will actively discourage people who may have a massive contribution to make to Australia from taking out citizenship?

The other thing we heard in the Senate inquiry which is worth noting is that the citizenship test will not improve the English language skills of migrants in Australia but will undermine the existing English language programs that have been put forward for migrants in Australia. We heard this from a number of educators who talked about the way in which teachers change what they teach to ensure that people can pass a test. We heard, for example, from the Australian Council of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages. We heard from their president, who said:

As soon as there is a test, teachers feel the need to get their students to pass the test and students put pressure on to be given what it is that they need to pass the test. Suddenly, lessons become all about passing the test. Certainly from my experience overseas, where everybody is sitting English language tests to prove their English language proficiency, we have huge evidence that all good teaching practice goes out the door as people do test preparation ... It is very bad pedagogical practice because the aim is so limited. Your capacity to pass an English test is in no way an indication of your capacity to operate in the thousands of everyday communications you need to have.

What we see is that putting in place the government’s proposed citizenship test will not improve the English language skills of migrants in Australia. It will in fact undermine the existing English language programs for migrants, because those programs will then start teaching so that people will pass the test rather than having the English language skills they need in order to survive in Australian society.

We heard at the Senate inquiry into this legislation that, firstly, the legislation is unnecessary. There is no failure of our existing immigrations laws. Secondly, we heard that the two objectives the government is proposing for this legislation—improving the English language skills of migrants and improving the cohesiveness of our society—will not be achieved by this test. Far worse than that, this test will undermine the existing English language programs for migrants and contribute to increasing the divisiveness that exists within our society.

The Australian Greens cannot support this piece of legislation. We see it and the proposal by the government as a way of sending a message to those people in the community who have some very racist attitudes towards immigrants coming to Australia. That is certainly one of the things we saw in the submissions that were made to the Senate inquiry. We saw a response to the government’s call-out to racists in Australia, or that dog whistle by the government. One of the submissions the Senate committee received was from a group calling itself Australia for Australians, and in it were their suggestions, their response to the federal government’s call for a citizenship test. They said:

... the test must make clear that they understand that in everyday life they are expected to dress and act like other Australians and that their cultural and religious practises and dress must be restricted either to private, ceremonial or religious occasions.

That is not a view that we see put forward in mainstream Australian society, but this government is sending out a message with this proposal for a citizenship test to particular groups from the community who have racist attitudes, and they responded in the form of this particular submission. Another of their recommendations said:

... 90% of all immigrants allowed in must be of white European or British or North American origin.

A further recommendation said:

In view of what has happened and what is happening around the world in the last 30 years there should be a ban on allowing Muslims into Australia—from whatever country—no exceptions ...

When you send out a message, as this government has done, about a citizenship test that is excluding people from being citizens then you strike a chord with those people in the community who have quite extremist and quite racist views in relation to the value of our multicultural society. This was one group that responded to that call from the government, they responded to that dog whistle, and put forward these extremist views to the Senate committee—racist views that I hope the government does not agree with and that certainly mainstream society does not support.

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party, Minister for the Arts and Sport) Share this | | Hansard source

But you represent a minority party yourself.

Photo of Claire MooreClaire Moore (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Minister, do not shout across the chamber.

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

Minister, I do not support racism.

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party, Minister for the Arts and Sport) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Brandis interjecting

The Acting Deputy President:

Senator Nettle, do not respond to interjections across the chamber.

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party, Minister for the Arts and Sport) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Brandis interjecting

The Acting Deputy President:

Minister, your point can be made later in the debate.

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

The point that I have been making is that the government sent out a message about excluding people from being able to be citizens. There are people with racist exclusionary views within our society who have responded to that call. They have seen this as an opportunity that the government has created for them to put forward and to gain support for their racist views. That is what we saw in their submission and that is why I have chosen to highlight that particular submission.

The Greens see this citizenship test as a step back from the support for multiculturalism that we think the government of Australia should be promoting. We have seen the government stepping back from multiculturalism. We have seen it even with the way that ‘multicultural affairs’ was dropped from the title of the department. We do not have the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs anymore, and the opposition followed suit by dropping ‘multicultural affairs’ from their senior immigration portfolio as well, replacing it with ‘integration’.

Instead, the Greens would like to see our government talking about the great value of multiculturalism in our society. We would like to see the government encouraging migrants to learn English. We agree that English language skills help you to survive in Australian society. Therefore, I will be moving a second reading amendment on behalf of the Greens that calls on the government to increase funding to and expand upon existing English language programs. In that way we will be able to encourage migrants to learn English language skills.

The Senate committee heard evidence from Ms Katie Wrigley from the Refugee Advice and Casework Services in Sydney. She talked about the limitations on the existing English language hours of study available to new migrants. She was talking about how limited that is and how it would not allow people the English language skills that they might need to pass the proposed citizenship test. She said:

The contents of the proposed test, including questions about Australian values, would be outside the vocabulary scope of basic language classes for those learning a new language with the first 510 hours of study.

And that is all that is currently provided in the existing English language programs for migrants.

If the government were really interested in improving the English language skills of migrants, it would expand these existing programs and ensure that migrants were able to get the English language skills they need. It can take a really long time to learn a language. There are people for whom English is their first language, and it still takes them an extraordinarily long time—many years—to grasp the language. If you are coming to Australia as, say, a young African refugee, you have never learnt your own language in a formal setting, let alone attempt to learn another language in a formal setting. So you would arrive in Australia without any English, without any history of having formal training in any written language, and you would be expected within 510 hours of study to be able to gain enough English to pass this kind of citizenship test. It is just not going to happen.

We have heard about the number of migrants who are not able to attend even the limited 510 hours of study that are available because they have to work, because they have to get money to survive in their new country or because they have small children and family and child-rearing responsibilities. If the government were genuine about wanting to ensure that all those people had the opportunity to learn English, they would ensure that child care was available so that migrant mothers would be able to go and learn the English language skills that are so important for them in being able to engage in Australian society.

There was another issue that was raised in the course of the Senate inquiry into this matter, and that was about the level of discretion that is given to the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship in this legislation whereby the minister is able to determine what shall be in the citizenship test. This is about deciding who can or cannot become a citizen. Surely we, the parliament, should have some say in what kind of test, if there is to be a test, is put in place to determine who should be able to become a citizen.

The Greens believe that parliamentary oversight of any citizenship test, if it is to be introduced, is important, and so I will be moving in the committee stage of this legislation an amendment to ensure that, where the government makes a determination about what questions are to be in a citizenship test, the parliament has some oversight into this. This was an issue raised by many of the organisations that appeared before the Senate committee.

As I said at the outset, I want to see us here in Australia celebrating the diversity of people that exist in Australia and their contribution to Australia. I note that the member for Kooyong, Petro Georgiou, spoke in the House of Representatives about his own father as an example of somebody who has made a massive contribution to Australian life, and of course we all know there are many such people who would not be able to pass the citizenship test that has been proposed. I have spoken with many members of the Greek community in my suburb in Sydney who are extraordinarily concerned about it and who would not pass the citizenship test. Most of them have been in Australia, working and contributing to the Australian community, for between 20 and 30 years—as have people at the Cyprus Club, which is just around the corner from my place. They have all been contributing, yet they would not pass the citizenship test that has been proposed.

I want to live in a country which is made up of migrants who contribute to our society. This citizenship test is not going to increase the number of migrants that can come to Australia and contribute to Australian society. I want to see the government speaking out about multiculturalism and the benefits that it brings to our society. We have seen governments in the past in Australia, right from the White Australia policy at the beginning, that have sought to limit the diversity of people in Australian society. But we have also seen, from the beginning up until now, fair-minded people in society speak up and stand up for the importance of diversity within our community and for the value that multiculturalism brings to our society. We have seen over the whole history of this country that people have spoken out about the value of multiculturalism. Now is an occasion when we as members of parliament can join with those in the community who speak out about the value of our multicultural society and who seek to prevent steps being taken that will limit that diversity within our society. This is an opportunity to stand up and take that position of supporting the diversity of people that make up our society. That is what the Greens will be doing, and we call on other senators to do likewise.

It is really disappointing that the opposition, as we heard from the previous speaker, have decided to support this legislation. I think more foresight is needed to understand the history of how governments have sought in the past to limit immigration, to be exclusionary in terms of who is able to gain citizenship, to the detriment of our society, by preventing people from various backgrounds becoming citizens. I want to see us stand up against that. It is important that other senators join the Greens in standing up to promote and to celebrate the diversity of our society and the multiculturalism that has made us a strong and safe country. I move the second reading amendment standing in my name:

At the end of the motion, add:

                 “and the Senate is of the view that the Government should:

             (a)    increase the hourly funding rate for the Adult Migrant English Programme (AMEP); and

             (b)    increase the funding to expand the Adult Migrant English Programme (AMEP)”.

5:03 pm

Photo of Andrew BartlettAndrew Bartlett (Queensland, Australian Democrats) Share this | | Hansard source

The Democrats have long spoken about the importance of multiculturalism to the future of Australia and about the necessity for all of us in positions of leadership to promote the benefits of multiculturalism and to increase understanding and awareness in the Australian community of just how essential it is to our nation fully redeveloping its potential. The unfortunate aspect of this bill before us, the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Testing) Bill 2007, is that it is poorly thought through. Like quite a number of other election year measures, it is based not on any evidence but simply on assertion and the creation of a perception. At best, it will be an expensive, bureaucratic waste of time. At worst, it will be divisive, destructive and discriminatory.

One of the issues identified in the report of the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs on the legislation is that questions that will make up the much discussed citizenship test will not be made public. We will have a large body of secret questions that will be used to test whether or not people have a supposed understanding of Australia’s values, culture, history and the like. The rationale is to prevent people from rote learning the questions, but to me that is simple sophistry on the part of the government and the minister. People will be given a resource booklet from which the questions will be drawn. It is ludicrous to suggest that having a resource booklet that people can look at, understand and identify is okay but that giving them the actual questions—200 of them, mind you, from which a selection will be randomly drawn—is not okay. It is simply an example, once again, of the excessive control and secrecy which this government likes to put over so many things.

This is disappointing because, as should be acknowledged, it was actually the Liberal Party, back in the days when it was somewhat more accurate to call it a liberal party, that played a key role in developing multiculturalism and cementing it into Australian society, making multiculturalism a reality. Indeed, it is an irreversible reality—Australia is a multicultural society. So it is particular disappointing that it is under a Liberal government that such a poorly thought through and jingoistic attack is now being made on multiculturalism and that the false idea is being promoted that a singular framework can be put forward within a citizenship test to measure people’s suitability to be Australian. To put something like that forward is using public policy and law to promote mythology. That, I would suggest, is not helpful for any nation. To me, it demonstrates an insecurity about Australia, about our nation, and a lack of awareness of who we are as a nation.

The strange thing with some of the notions that are put forward in the arguments in favour of a citizenship test is that somehow we have some sort of problem with migrants having not properly integrated into the Australian community that might somehow be fixed by a citizenship test. Firstly, whilst there are lots of insinuations made about there being some sort of problem with unnamed migrants having not integrated properly into the Australian community, it has never actually been named in any meaningful sense, certainly not by government ministers.

There is no credible argument or effort to demonstrate how testing people who are already permanent residents, having resided here for a minimum of four years, is somehow going to address that problem. If people fail this test they will still be permanent residents. Because they cannot take it, they cannot become eligible to apply for citizenship, and they cannot take the test until they are already permanent residents. So if there is any problem with them with regard to integration, they will already have been permanent residents here for four years. It is a ludicrous mechanism to use to deal with any alleged problem with regard to a particular migrant’s suitability to be part of the Australian community. They will already be part and parcel of the Australian community.

It suggests that particularly migrants from non-English-speaking backgrounds are somehow or other part of the problem. Facts demonstrate that the groups of people most ready and most eager to become Australian citizens are those who arrive here as refugees. They are the keenest to fully commit to Australia and to fully rebuild their lives as Australians. Actually, people who come from English-speaking countries are the slowest to become citizens. According to data I got from the Parliamentary Library, we have close on one million permanent residents in Australia who are non-citizens—people who would be eligible to be citizens but have not got around to it, cannot be bothered or, for some other reason, have not taken up citizenship. Over half of those come from either the UK or New Zealand. So if we have any problem with integration of migrants into the Australian community and with people fully connecting and fully committing to Australia, then we need to focus on people from the UK and New Zealand, using the criteria that the government puts forward to justify this test.

I am not making that particular allegation; it is up to people whether they wish to reside in a country permanently without becoming citizens. That is their choice. Those people still contribute in many ways to the Australian community and, if they want to pay all their taxes and do all the other things without having the right to vote, then that is their business. But if we are using the taking up of citizenship and eligibility for citizenship as some sort of test of suitability for ‘Australianness’ and the full integration of people, then there is a proof, there is the so-called problem. Half of the pool of nearly a million permanent residents who have not taken up citizenship are people from the UK and New Zealand. It just shows the shoddy thinking and the poorly thought through rationale behind the citizenship test.

These sorts of things are particularly problematic because they show a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of citizenship. They show a misunderstanding about the nature of migration, of migrants and the reality of the modern world. It has to be said in any debate on citizenship that it was only as recently as 1948 that any such thing as an Australian citizen came into being. Even though we had been a nation since 1901, there were actually no Australian citizens until 1948. Even until the 1970s we were still seen as British subjects and Australian citizens at the same time. We still have the bizarre anomaly whereby a whole range of people who are British subjects—or were British subjects in January 1984, I think it was—were eligible to be on the electoral roll at that time and are still eligible to vote. So we have a whole bunch of people in the country who are not Australian citizens but have a right to vote yet, at the same time, we have another group of people who are Australian citizens and live in the country but are refused the right to vote because of changes made to the Electoral Act last year—people in prison. We have another group of people who are Australian citizens who are overseas and, in many cases, are denied the right to vote. We have yet another group of people who are Australian citizens who, because of changes made to the Electoral Act, are much more easily knocked off the roll without their knowledge and will find it harder to get back on. They also have impediments in the way of their right to vote.

The inconsistencies in the way this debate is presented are quite considerable. Even that very basic phrase that was used in the government’s very poorly written and quite intellectually shoddy discussion paper at the end of last year—the line that is repeated all the time, the one that sounds great on the surface: ‘citizenship is a privilege not a right’—was just a ruse. They had obviously already decided what they were going to do. It was another of those sham consultation processes that gives the work ‘consultation’ a bad name. It is a privilege—there is no doubt about that, and certainly I feel very privileged to be an Australian citizen—but it is also a right for many people. It was a right that I received by virtue of being born here to Australian citizen parents, but it is also a right solely on the basis of legislation created in 1948 and updated by the new Citizenship Act passed earlier this year. But those rights that attach to citizenship are only legislated; they are not constitutionally entrenched. They can be modified, and indeed are modified as in the examples I gave with respect to the Electoral Act.

What we really need in Australia with citizenship is not some sort of jingoistic test, some sort of Trivial Pursuit quiz, to enable some of us to single out who is an Aussie and who is not. What we need is a proper, grown-up, commonsense debate about what citizenship entails and what we need to do to get full value and an increased understanding of it, which we clearly do not have from some in government who want to put forward this kind of legislation.

As I said before, there is a fair probability that this will simply turn out to be a fairly benign, bureaucratic and expensive waste of time that will not achieve any significant positive benefit nor cause great problems. There is also no doubt that this legislation is causing a lot of anxiety amongst some sections of the migrant community. People know their history—migrants often know Australian history a lot better than natural-born Australians—and a lot of people are aware of the White Australia policy and its deliberate use of administrative procedures in a premeditated, discriminatory way. We all know—or we should all know—that arbitrary language tests were used in the past as a deliberate screening mechanism to keep out people from particular regions or individuals we decided we did not want. People know about that history, and that is why they are concerned that these sorts of tests could be used in that sort of way in the future. I am not saying that that is the intent of the government here but, as always, when we pass legislation we have to look at not just how it might be used tomorrow but how it might be used in five or 10 years time. Putting forward a bunch of secret questions as a way of determining who can be a citizen and who cannot is a practice that frankly does not make me feel particularly comfortable. That reality should be linked to the other existing reality of the extreme powers given to the minister under our Migration Act.

Another thing that many migrants know, and they know it much more clearly and starkly than they did a month or so ago, is that anybody residing in this country—it does not matter if they have lived here for decades or for all but a few weeks—who is not a citizen is always at risk of having their residency right cancelled and being deported. It is a right that any country has, of course, to determine whether or not people who are not citizens—aliens, to use to old jargon—can reside. But the problem is that the Migration Act allows that right of the government of the day to be exercised in an extreme, capricious, potentially politically motivated and extraordinarily unjust way. So every one of those more than a million people who are resident in Australia—in fact, it would be close to 1½ million once you count all the temporary residents—is potentially at risk of having their visa cancelled on the most flimsy of pretexts under some of the extreme powers and the wide-ranging discretions that the migration minister has.

When you combine the potential for an unfair blockage through a secret citizenship test with extreme powers under the Migration Act, for visa cancellations without proper rights of review or appeal, then you get an increased concern and apprehension amongst some people in the wider community. Reducing people’s rights, increasing the power of government over the lives of people and reducing the opportunities for scrutiny of the mechanisms that governments use for merits review and independent appeals have a cumulative effect that reduces people’s rights and increases the risks of injustice, whether arbitrary or deliberately malicious, and is the sort of thing we need to guard against. By putting forward these things, I am not alleging a deliberate, malicious hidden agenda—I think the agenda is pretty obvious here: it is just an election year stunt. The test is not particularly aimed at trying to target particular groups in the community, at least in my view. As I said before, we have to look at how something can be used down the track rather than how it might be used tomorrow.

The other reality of this test—particularly if the questions are kept secret, but even if they are not—is a very real probability that there will be a higher benchmark for migrants who wish to become Australian citizens versus those of us who are Australian born and get citizenship as a legal right, at least as the law stands at the moment. There is a very real prospect that people who are required to pass the citizenship test will have a much better understanding and knowledge of Australian society, history, rules et cetera than many Australian-born people. That is one of the reasons why the Democrats recommend that any test that is put forward for migrants to take should first be tested on a representative sample of existing citizens and Australian-born citizens. We need to test the test to make sure that the vast majority of Australians can pass it. If you are requiring migrants to pass a test that many Australian-born people cannot pass, then it is discriminatory and unfair. Apart from anything else, it would highlight the ludicrousness of the whole concept. It is important to ensure that the test is properly tested on people to make sure that it is something that most Australians can pass. If the government is serious about ensuring that people who migrate to this country—who seek to settle here and become citizens—are able to demonstrate some understanding and ability to integrate with Australia via the taking of a test, then I do not see why it would be unreasonable to expect that the test be also tested on Australian-born people.

I note the Senate committee report into the legislation included a unanimous recommendation from the committee that the proposed citizenship test questions be tabled in the parliament, and it is one that I support. As I understand it, it was not supported by the government in the lower house. I urge the government to reconsider this recommendation when we get to the committee stage of this debate in the Senate. I also draw the attention of the Senate and of anyone else who is following this debate in the wider community to the dissenting report that I put forward to the legislation, which contains the formal response that the Democrats put forward to the government’s discussion paper, towards the end of last year, on the merits of introducing a formal citizenship test. It outlines some of the issues that we in the Democrats believe need to be given much better consideration.

If we are going to have a genuine debate about increasing the understanding and value of citizenship and the role that citizenship can play, it is time that we recognised that citizenship is not just about some sort of jingoistic loyalty such as cheering on your football club. There is nothing wrong with cheering on your football club, but citizenship is a much deeper and more complex concept than that. We in Australia live in an era in which many people are dual citizens and in some cases are citizens of more than two countries. In those sorts of circumstances, this narrow nationalistic atmospheric that some in the government like to put forward when promoting and debating these sorts of issues simply does not fit. It does not work in a modern world and it should not work in a modern world. Multiculturalism is something that we should be celebrating and promoting as a positive. The Liberal Party in a previous era played a positive role in doing that. The Democrats continue to do that today. We would urge those within the government who still recognise that history—and I know that Senator Brandis is one of them, because I have heard him speak quite eloquently on that in the past—to continue to make those efforts. (Time expired)

5:23 pm

Photo of Annette HurleyAnnette Hurley (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Citizenship has in many ways been taken for granted in Australia in the past, and it is quite good to get some debate about what citizenship means in Australia, what its value is and how people become citizens of Australia. The current act, in subsection 21(2), sets out the general eligibility for citizenship, which is that applicants must understand the nature of application for citizenship, must possess a basic knowledge of the English language and must have an adequate knowledge of the responsibilities and privileges of Australian citizenship. After many decades of accepting the current form of assessing them—which is basically by a personal interview—the current government has decided that, whereas those aims are worthy, we need to change the way in which they are assessed. The government wants to change the personal interview to a test. In my travels around the country, there has been quite a large measure of support—including by many migrants, who have a deep understanding of Australian culture and want to display that knowledge—for some perhaps more rigorous form of testing for citizenship. However, the government has not set out very clearly the reasons why it has gone to the particular form of testing that it has, what it hopes to achieve or what it regards as the criteria for citizenship.

Most of the questions that I have asked have revolved around what has been happening in testing overseas—in particular, in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands but also in the United States of America and Canada. Whether this merits support will depend on the implementation of the testing. Although there are some claims that overseas testing has been examined in detail and that the Australian testing will be modelled on it, as I see it there are some very important differences between the proposed Australian system and the overseas systems. Whereas the proposed Australian system has very limited exemptions in areas like physical and mental disability or age and some flexibility where there is a literacy problem, other countries have a much more flexible system—for example, in the United States applicants have the ability to take the knowledge component of the test in the language of their choice. Not only is that not the proposed system for the Australian test but the literature around citizenship—the resource booklets and so forth—will be printed only in English and not in any other language. Prospective citizens will thus need to have a fairly good grasp of English before they even start on the process and before they can read about what the government regards as Australian values and the Australian way of life. I have concerns about that. What it will mean in fact is that various migrant groups will spend their resources on producing booklets in different languages, and prospective citizens will probably have to pay for some training in how to do the test or pay for booklets that describe it. This is one area in which the Australian test is more rigorous than the overseas test which it is modelled on.

The other particular problem that I have is that there is no doubt that this change in the regime of citizenship will affect people who have come in as refugees and humanitarian entrants far more than it will affect other groups. The great bulk of migrants to Australia come in under a works skills program of some description or are students, and they need to pass an English language test before they even get their visa. They achieve a level of functional English before they even come into Australia, so if they get a permanent visa once they are here and decide to apply for citizenship then obviously they will have a particular level of English that will facilitate their citizenship application. However, refugees and humanitarian entrants do not necessarily have that English language facility. They also often have considerable problems with literacy or have had problems with schooling in their past and need to make up a lot of ground. Many of them also suffer from trauma. They may have difficulty in accessing English classes and in dealing with the bureaucracy involved here. They are other particular problems that I have.

This is a group which would be most anxious to take up citizenship, to get an Australian passport, to have their right to be in this country regularised in that way. That has indeed been proved in the rate of take-up of citizenship among that group of refugee and humanitarian entrants. Many of that group are very anxious to get Australian passports to be able to travel back to their country of origin to see friendas and relatives, with the security of knowing that they will be able to return to their citizenship in Australia. It aslo assists them often in getting a job or accessing the ability to bring relatives over. So this is one group that I have great concerns about. I will very closely follow what happens to their rate of uptake of citizenship, their ability to pass the test in future and whether there will be any deterrents in the new system. I hope that the Department of Immigration and Citizenship will keep very good records of those results. We have heard from the department that the countries on which the test is modelled have not undertaken comprehensive reviews. If this is done in Australia, it will provide a good service not only to the multicultural community here but also, presumably, to those overseas. I hope and expect that very good records will be kept about who passes and fails, what the rates are and any changes in the take-up of citizenship.

The third area where I have concerns, and this has been expressed by many of the speakers, is with the English language training. The booklets will be produced in English and facility in English is obviously critical to passing the test. It has been mentioned by other speakers that the Adult Migrant English Program is quite limited in many ways. For most eligible people the program will only provide 510 hours of English training and slightly more for people who are assessed as being in more need because of their particular literacy or low education problems. The trouble with the AMEP course is that for many people it is not sufficiently flexible to enable them to take up even their 510 hours, and this is shown in departmental statistics. Only something like 10 or 12 per cent of participants in the program successfully complete it with the required certificate in functional English.

The very people who have the most need for the program to get their citizenship tend to be those who have the most difficulty in accessing AMEP. As I understand it, there are a couple of major reasons for that. One reason is that people tend to grab a job if they can get one. It makes it difficult for those eligible for the program—and they tend to be from the refugee and humanitarian entry group—to keep up their job, their home responsibilities and their English language training. Another major reason is that for women at home, people who are ill and people in remote areas, the program is not sufficiently flexible. For example, people have difficulty accessing child care for some programs and in remote communities there may not be enough people to form a class, so people end up not completing the course.

There are some people who will always have difficulty in acquiring another language. We saw that with the wave of immigrants who came here after World War II. Some of those people picked up English very quickly while others, often because they were women at home with little exposure to other English speakers, never really acquired the full facility of the language and to this day require help with translating from their children. I am concerned that those kinds of people will from now on be excluded from citizenship. I expect that as the department and the minister monitor this program they will tend to make adjustments to ensure that people are not unduly disadvantaged in the acquisition of citizenship. I can think of examples, such as the wife at home who might not be able to acquire the English language. While her husband and children acquire citizenship, she may be the only one left out. The Labor Party policy of improving the funding and the flexibility of AMEP is the answer in this instance. Our policy is about education and giving people the proper opportunity to study the language and really assist them to participate in that citizenship. That is something that we all want to see. We all want to see people acquire English language skills, the dominant language in our country, so that they can access in full the advantages that Australia can give.

I urge the government to review the program well and to be flexible in its implementation, and I urge them to look at the AMEP program to see whether more funding can be provided. One of the things about this proposed new test is the significant funding involved: the cost will be $123 million over a five-year period. The fee will go up from $120 to $240, so there are significant costs involved for both the government and those who need to take the citizenship test before they can apply for citizenship. That is why it is important that we make sure this test achieves its aims, and that it does so fairly and correctly. That kind of money could be well spent on providing good programs for migrants to this country—for instance, assisting youth to integrate into schools and into our society and so on. So the significant costs involved mean that we should be fairly rigorous in monitoring the outcome of the new system.

In participating in the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs inquiry I was a bit dismayed to hear that there is still no sight of the resource booklet upon which the test questions will be based and that the values statement, the booklet, to which the Secretary to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship said there had been very limited departmental input, will be produced within the minister’s office. As I understand it, there has been no input from FECCA in this process. We are still waiting for some kind of indication of what will be in the booklet. But, more than that, there will not be an opportunity for FECCA or any of the other groups involved in multicultural life in this country to have any kind of say as to what is in that booklet.

I think that relying on a value judgement of the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship and the government to decide what are Australian values and what is Australian life, without reference to groups in the wider community—not only to the multicultural groups but to other groups that might want to have a say about what Australian values are and what represents our way of life—is not a good way to proceed. I think that is particularly poor policy and practice from the government. In its haste to implement this policy, and probably because this is an election year, the government is skipping a very essential part of the process of developing a good system that it can defend with confidence.

I support the foreshadowed Labor Party amendment to this bill and the recommendation that there be a review of the operation of the new test so that we can properly assess that it is fair to all Australians, so that it will not be a blemish on our recent proud record of welcoming people from all races and cultures to our country. The Prime Minister has very often said that the Australian people are very generous in offering refugees sanctuary in our country, and I like to think that that is indeed the case: that Australians are generous and do support the principles of fairness, that they will give people a chance to settle in our country even though they may not be perfect in their English or in their understanding of our way and that they will accept the enthusiasm of migrants to be Australian and to get on with life and make a success of it at its face value. I think that should be supported by the people in this country.

5:42 pm

Photo of Anne McEwenAnne McEwen (SA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Testing) Bill 2007 has been of some controversy in the western suburbs of Adelaide, where my electorate office is, so I would like to take this opportunity to address an important matter and to attempt to assuage the concerns of people in my area who have a particular interest in migration matters.

The Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Testing) Bill 2007 amends the Australian Citizenship Act 2007 to provide for the testing of prospective applicants for Australian citizenship. When implemented the measures included in this bill will mean that persons who wish to become Australian citizens will firstly need to successfully complete a new citizenship test before making their application. One of the stated objectives of the test is that applicants understand the responsibilities and privileges that attach to Australian citizenship. If that is achieved, that will be a good thing. Labor supports applicants for citizenship achieving that level of understanding.

When news of this bill first emerged it faced strong criticism, and sometimes ridicule, from community groups, the media, members of parliament from all sides, and many members of the public. Comments made by the government exacerbated community concerns that this legislation required the testing of people for some ill-defined concept of Australianness. There were also concerns that the testing regime itself would discourage people from applying for citizenship.

My office, which is located in an area of Adelaide where consecutive waves of migrants have settled, has received countless phone calls both from concerned constituents and from prospective constituents wanting details of the bill and of the test. One of my constituents, who voluntarily teaches English to immigrants in Adelaide, phoned, fearing for her students. She was very confident in teaching her students how to speak, read and write in English, but she did not know how she could teach people and prepare them for this mysterious test. Thankfully, since the initial floating of the bill, it has changed considerably and it is somewhat more moderate in intent and objectives than was first indicated. The motivation for those changes is unclear but, whether it is poll driven, as much government policy is these days, or whether it was an acceptance by the government that the original plan was potentially very divisive, Labor welcomes the moderation.

Of course, Australia does have—and always has had—a type of citizenship test that applicants must complete. As outlined by the Australian Council of TESOL Associations, that test is in the form of an English language interview with an immigration officer, with questions regarding Australia’s laws, responsibilities, governance and history. The majority of migrants in Australia prepare for this interview by completing a 20-hour citizenship education course run through the Adult Migrant English Program.

Given that the government has provided no evidence that the current test is ineffective, it is difficult to understand exactly why the proposed computer based written test is necessary. A number of submissions to the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs inquiry into this bill expressed similar views, questioning the necessity of a new test. The current system allows an officer to speak with applicants in an interview, which is, arguably, the best way to determine someone’s character. In an interview you have to do more than simply remember answers to questions; you need to express both your desire for citizenship and an understanding of the responsibilities that come with that honour. The Refugee Council of Australia noted in their submission to the Senate inquiry:

... there remains little evidence forwarded as to the practical, positive impact that English language testing beyond that which currently exists within the citizenship process, or a quiz on “the Australian way of life”, will have on ensuring a higher “quality” of Australian citizen. The current testing is adequate in determining who should become an Australian citizen.

It is obvious that the new test will further advantage well-educated migrants who are comfortable with the English language. These applicants for citizenship will not have to overcome the language barrier, learn study techniques or learn how to become comfortable in using a computer. Therefore, it is unlikely that the new citizenship test will deter them from applying for citizenship. Unfortunately, those with little education and those for whom English is not their first language or a language that they are comfortable with could be deterred. The stated objective of this bill is not to slow the migration of those from linguistically diverse backgrounds, but that may well be the outcome as people are discouraged by the imposition of a test that is not well understood.

During a period when our country is experiencing a massive skills shortage, the last thing we should be doing is making potential citizens jump through an extra hoop. The government has invested money in schemes like the so-called baby bonus to increase our population, but that will not help us in the short term. More attention to skilling Australians through investment in training and education is urgently needed. But the government has neglected the skills crisis for a decade or more, so we cannot expect any quick fix there either. An imperfect but more immediate solution is to encourage people to migrate to Australia. We need to ensure that the test will not deter people from applying for Australian citizenship, not only because we are desperate for skilled workers but also because of what people from other nations and other cultures bring to Australian society. One of the best features of Australia is our cultural diversity. We are a multicultural nation. We have welcomed people from 200 different countries to become Australian citizens, and the effect this has had on our country has been remarkable. The rich culture of our country is now a lot more than just Vegemite, AFL and the Uluru snow domes.

One of the great privileges of being a senator is being able to attend citizenship ceremonies, where we meet people from so many nations who have decided to become citizens. Australia is a richer and better place for having had people from other countries choose to come and live here. My state of South Australia mirrors the rest of Australia in that it has a diverse population, with only 74 per cent having been born in Australia. Of South Australia’s population, 6.7 per cent were born in England and 1.5 per cent were born in Italy. In 2004-06, more than 6,000 people settled in South Australia, with the top five countries of origin being the UK, the Peoples Republic of China, Sudan, India and New Zealand.

I grew up in a neighbourhood in Adelaide which was home to a large number of migrants from Europe who came here to build a better life for themselves and to help build the infrastructure and industries that have become integral to the economy of South Australia. Those migrants faced numerous struggles, including racism, yet they managed to contribute greatly to our society, just as their children and grandchildren continue to do. They have added immeasurably to our economy and our culture. We needed them back in the 1950s and we need them now.

Labor is disappointed with the lack of detail about this bill provided to parliament and to those organisations and persons who made submissions to the Senate committee inquiring into the bill. Without knowing the content of the test, we cannot make well-informed decisions as to the impact the test will have on Australia and our prospective citizens. We can only hope that the test will not place unreasonable barriers to individuals securing citizenship and participating fully in Australian society. We do know that the test is likely to be a multiple-choice test with questions regarding so-called Australian values. Such a test, as pointed out by the St Vincent de Paul Society—a very conservative organisation, in my experience—runs the risk of promoting ‘a monoculture that destroys our multicultural heritage and ignores Indigenous Australia’. They were very salient comments from the St Vincent de Paul Society, which has a long history of assisting migrants and refugees in Australia.

By introducing a new test, it may be seen that we are sending a message to those wanting to apply for citizenship that we want them to leave their own values and culture at the door while encouraging them to have a beer and go to a footy game. If we want to ensure the bona fides of people applying for citizenship, and if we want to present Australia to the world as a nation that welcomes difference and is not racist or discriminatory, we are not going to do it by encouraging people to learn the team colours of our cricket team or the lyrics of our national anthem.

No doubt one of the government’s initial imperatives for introducing this test was to give the impression to the Australian public that we can stop undesirables from becoming Australian citizens, but no citizenship test will stop people considered to be of bad character from becoming Australian citizens. In fact, we are creating a standard test on which someone who guessed every answer would get at least 25 per cent correct. So it stands to reason that someone who has studied hard would be able to get the required 60 per cent correct. This testing will not filter out bad people. Strongly motivated bad people are likely to pass the test with flying colours. If someone wants to become an Australian citizen and commit illegal acts it is highly unlikely that they will be deterred by a multiple-choice test. Passing any test does not require a strong commitment to Australian values but simply a good memory.

I acknowledge that some exceptions to the test have been made—those younger than 18 years of age or over 60 will be exempt, as will people considered to have a physical or mental disability that prevents them from understanding the test. Those applicants with literacy difficulties will now be talked through the test. The bill also provides that further exemptions and variations can be made. Whether those exemptions and variations are workable and whether they are applied consistently remains to be seen.

National Legal Aid expressed to the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs its concern that a citizenship test has the potential to impact negatively on vulnerable groups such as refugees, humanitarian visa holders, victims of domestic violence and people with mental health problems. National Legal Aid went on in its submission to discuss the reality for refugees unable to obtain citizenship, describing citizenship as providing a sense of ‘belonging to a supportive nation’. Do we really want refugees who have fled devastating circumstances in their home countries to come to a country that requires them to sit a test that is written in English and based on topics that include our national sport? How will this confronting situation assist their ability to recover from an already traumatic beginning to life in Australia? National Legal Aid explained that citizenship is ‘an essential part of the healing process for torture and trauma victims, who often experience flashbacks linked with the fear of return’.

In my experience, a group who may be distinctly disadvantaged by a test such as that proposed in this legislation are women without an English speaking background who come from countries where women typically do not engage in any formal education, except perhaps the most basic education, and may not even have literacy in their own language. As well as having little or no literacy, these women often have responsibilities to their families and commitments which prevent them from learning effective English or from getting out and about so they develop a broader understanding of the Australian culture. We need to make sure that the personal circumstances of women, particularly those with family-caring responsibilities, do not preclude them making the grade for this test, upon which citizenship is contingent.

This legislation must be teamed with a commitment to increasing the amount of quality support and education available to migrants, particularly those with no or little English literacy. The estimated cost of implementing the proposed citizenship test is more than $120 million over five years. We have to ask whether that is money that would be better spent ensuring that all migrants who need it have access to English language and literacy classes that adequately equip them for living in Australia and participating fully in our communities. There is plenty of evidence that the 510 hours of English language education currently provided to non-English migrants is woefully inadequate, particularly for people from non-literate backgrounds.

Labor will be supporting the bill, but our approach to its introduction will be very different to that of the government should we win the upcoming election. Labor will place a strong emphasis on English language education and preparation for employment. Labor will spend almost $50 million to improve and expand English language tuition. We will introduce a traineeship in English and work preparation designed to allow new entrants to develop skills, knowledge and experience in Australian workplaces as well as allowing them to continue their English language education. Our new residents will then be better equipped to apply for jobs. Working in meaningful employment or having some family members in employment is the best way for people to learn and accept all aspects of their new nation’s culture.

Labor acknowledges the concerns expressed by many that this test could be abused in the future because so much power with regard to its application lies with the minister, who will approve by written determination the content of the test and specify what grade must be earned to complete the test successfully, and who may decide that certain mandatory questions must be answered correctly. With such important elements of this legislation being left to the discretion of the minister it is possible for the test to be abused by any future government. This test has the potential to be used to stop people from particular ethnic backgrounds from becoming Australian citizens. That is a very concerning possibility and one the parliament must be vigilant to prevent.

The introduction of the new citizenship test has the potential to disadvantage or frighten off many prospective citizens; therefore, there must be great caution taken in its implementation. The test must be matched with support and resources to help new migrants become fully engaged in Australian society. We also need to monitor the implementation and outcomes of this legislation. Accordingly, I urge the Senate to agree to Labor’s very sensible amendments which go to that issue of ministerial review of the efficacy and outcomes of the new testing regime.

The concerns expressed by those who are anxious about the impact of this bill may have been laid to rest if the detail of the legislation had been provided to the Senate. The lack of detail has created uncertainty about what might well have been a less controversial bill. When this detail is provided, we will be able to make a better judgement and assessment of how reasonable the exemptions by the minister are, what questions will be included and the finalised structure of the test.

With the necessary support and resources provided, I hope that the citizenship test will achieve its stated objectives of ensuring applicants understand the nature of their application, possess a useable and useful standard literacy in English and have an adequate knowledge of the responsibilities and privileges conferred on them by Australian citizenship. I certainly hope the test achieves those objectives but I also hope it encourages our new citizens to hold onto their own cultures and to share their cultures with the rest of Australia, as has been the case for the whole of Australia’s history.

6:00 pm

Photo of George BrandisGeorge Brandis (Queensland, Liberal Party, Minister for the Arts and Sport) Share this | | Hansard source

On behalf of the minister with principal carriage of the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Testing) Bill 2007, Senator Ellison, may I thank honourable senators for their contributions to the second reading debate. First, may I deal with some questions that have been raised by senators in their speeches on the second reading. Senator Nettle and Senator Hurley both raised the question of the funding of the Adult Migrant English Program. I inform honourable senators of the following matters concerning that program. The government has consistently demonstrated that it is willing to assist in settlement services to assist migrants and humanitarian entrants to settle in Australia and to learn English. In the 2007-08 budget, the government provided an additional $209 million over four years to six Australian government agencies to enhance services for humanitarian entrants. In addition, the Australian government currently spends $285 million annually delivering English language programs to new migrants and refugees.

Funding for the Adult Migrant English Program has increased from $98 million in 2003-04 to $156 million in 2006-07. The government is also considering providing further assistance to help migrants and refugees to prepare to pass the new citizenship test. Under the Adult Migrant English Program, migrants who do not have functional English are legislatively entitled to up to 510 hours of English language tuition or until they reach functional English, whichever comes first. In addition to the 510 hours, under the special preparatory program, humanitarian entrants under 25 years of age with low levels of education can access a further 400 hours. In 2006 the Prime Minister agreed to the formation of an interdepartmental committee (IDC) on English language chaired by DIAC. The IDC recently considered options for the provision of more flexible, vocationally focused and better integrated English language training to meet the needs of migrants and refugees. The government acknowledges that citizenship test preparation assistance funded by the government may need to be made available to the community.

Can I then deal with the question of the test, an issue that was raised by Senator Nettle. The bill refers to ‘a test’, the indefinite article, rather than ‘the test’, the definite article, so that it is clear that more than one test may be approved by the minister. Among other things, this approach means that we are not discriminating on the basis of the type of visa which a prospective citizenship holds. That has never been a factor of Australian citizenship policy and law.

Senator Nettle also raised the question of Senate scrutiny over the determination and test questions; that is, the determination of citizenship and the test on which that determination is based. The government does not believe that the determination, which will approve the content of the new citizenship test and include the test questions, should be subject to the disallowance provision of the Legislative Instruments Act 2003 for the following reasons: in the government’s view there is likely to be uncertainty and confusion if potential applicants have sat and passed a test which is then disallowed. There may then be a question about whether such persons would need to re-sit the test in order to satisfy the general eligibility criteria. The determination does not in any event fall within the meaning of a ‘legislative instrument’ as defined by section 5 of the Legislative Instruments Act: it is not of a legislative character; it will not determine the law or alter the content of the law.  I trust those observations meet the concerns raised by individual senators on those matters.

Let me turn to summing up the bill overall. The Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Testing) Bill 2007 amends the Australian Citizenship Act 2007 and provides for the introduction of formal citizenship testing for citizenship applicants. People living in Australia enjoy many rights, including equality, before the law, and freedom of religion and expression. Australian citizens also have the right to vote and participate in our democratic processes. We also have responsibilities: we must obey Australia’s laws, respect the common values, and respect the rights and freedoms of others. We are also encouraged to become involved in the community to help make Australia an even better place. The material which will form the basis of the tests will highlight the common values we share as well as our history, heritage, symbols, institutions and laws. It will give migrants to Australia the information they need to better understand what it means to be Australian, their rights as Australian citizens and what is expected of them in return.

The Australian Citizenship Act 2007 requires that applicants for citizenship, by conferral under the general eligibility provision, understand the nature of their application, possess a basic knowledge of the English language, and have an adequate knowledge of the responsibilities and privileges of Australian citizenship. This bill provides that these applicants must have successfully completed a test before making an application for citizenship to demonstrate that they meet these requirements. People who are not required to have knowledge of the English language or the responsibilities and privileges of Australian citizenship will not be required to sit the citizenship test. This includes applicants under the age of 18 or those 60 years or over, and those with a permanent physical or mental incapacity which prevents them from understanding the nature of their application. The citizenship test will provide prospective citizens with the opportunity to demonstrate in an objective way that they have knowledge of Australia, including the responsibilities and privileges of citizenship and a basic knowledge of English. The requirement to sit a test will encourage them to obtain the knowledge that will support successful integration into Australian society and enable them to maximise the opportunities Australia has to offer.

Concerns have been raised regarding the power in the bill that allows for a ministerial determination to establish eligibility criteria for sitting a test. Specifically, the concern is that a determination may establish eligibility criteria that are inappropriate and unfair, with no parliamentary scrutiny and no opportunity for disallowance. Legal advice confirms that the determination-making power in proposed section 23A does not allow for the setting of eligibility criteria for sitting the test that are inconsistent with the provisions of the act and, in particular, the general eligibility criteria in section 21(2). For example, a determination could not legally provide that only people of French-speaking background are eligible to sit a test.

The power is required for two purposes. One is to ensure that the resources available for testing are used only for prospective citizens. The second is to enable access to any special test that may be needed to be limited to those for whom the special test is intended. In this regard the bill refers to ‘a test’ rather than ‘the test’ so that it is clear that more than one test may be approved by the minister. This is the issue which I addressed earlier. The introduction of formal testing will be carefully monitored to identify those prospective citizens for whom an alternative test or tests may be appropriate. This approach will enable the development of an alternative test or tests to be designed on the basis of an identified need rather than conjecture. To help alleviate the concerns about test eligibility criteria, the government has proposed the insertion of a note to explain that the power to set eligibility criteria to sit a test cannot be inconsistent with the act and, in particular, general eligibility criteria for citizenship.

I will now address the recommendations of the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, which recently completed an inquiry into the bill. I acknowledge, Mr Acting Deputy President Barnett, that you chair that important Senate committee. The first recommendation was that the operation of the testing regime be reviewed three years after the bill’s commencement. As has been stated publicly, the test will be monitored closely, particularly for the first six months, to determine whether any patterns emerge suggesting a particular cohort has difficulties with the test. The government agrees with the committee’s recommendation that a formal review of the testing regime should be conducted three years after commencement of testing.

The second recommendation was to table the proposed citizenship test questions in parliament. The rationale behind making the test questions confidential is to provide an incentive for people to read the citizenship test resource book, which will help them gain an understanding of the concepts contained in the book. Publicising the questions will serve to promote rote learning of the answers; for this reason the test questions will remain confidential and will not be tabled in parliament.

The third recommendation was that clause 23A(1) of the bill be amended to specifically require that the test relate to the eligibility criteria in proposed sections 21(2)(d), (e) and (f). Legal advice has confirmed there is no ambiguity with this subsection of the bill. However, to ensure no further conjecture about this issue, the government has proposed the insertion of a note that will explain that citizenship tests must be related to the general eligibility criteria in the new sections 21(2)(d), (e) and (f). These criteria require applicants to have an understanding of the nature of the application for citizenship, to possess a basic knowledge of the English language and to have an adequate knowledge of Australia, including the responsibilities and privileges of Australian citizenship.

Concern has been raised that the content of a citizenship test, including the questions and answers, may be unreasonable. It is important to note that, with the exception of knowledge of Australia, these requirements for citizenship under the general eligibility provisions, which applicants will be required to demonstrate by successful completion of a test, are longstanding. Indeed, the requirement to have a knowledge of the English language has been a feature of Australian citizenship legislation since its commencement on 26 January 1949. It is also the case that most adult applicants for citizenship, including refugee and humanitarian entrants, have been required to satisfy those requirements. The bill will introduce an objective form of assessment as to whether an individual satisfies these requirements. As has been noted previously, the test questions will be designed to test knowledge contained in the citizenship resource book, which will be freely and widely available to all.

In summary, this bill will ensure that new citizens have the necessary knowledge of the Australian way of life to which they are required to commit. This will aid their successful integration into our society. I commend the bill to the Senate.

Question negatived.

Photo of Guy BarnettGuy Barnett (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The question now is that this bill be read a second time.

Original question put.

Bill read a second time.

Ordered that consideration of this bill in Committee of the Whole be made an order of the day for the next day of sitting.