Speech to Parliament: Requirements for Citizenship Amendment

I'm opposed to this bill. It's a lousy and disrespectful piece of legislation from a desperate government. Really, that's what's behind this; the government are desperate. They are falling in the polls and they are desperate to lurch further to the right to try and garner Australian people's attention.

There's no doubt that Australia and many nations in our region are facing challenging times. An increase in terror related activities and the constant threat of domestic attacks are present in many countries in the world, and have thrust the issue of national security into the spotlight. But I want to make it absolutely clear from the outset that Labor is committed to keeping Australia and Australians safe. We have always worked properly and promptly to act on the advice from security agencies and in the national interest, but we also believe in fostering a unified community built on mutual respect.

The bill before us today is deeply concerning. It's concerning because of the clear message that it conveys: not a message of unity and strength but a message of fear and indifference. It's important to note that this bill did not come about as a result of a recommendation from a review or a recommendation from our security agencies. That is very, very important to point out, and has been made clear by the Labor's spokesperson on this issue, Tony Burke. It was not based on the advice of the Australian Federal Police or the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation or any other external or independent review of our citizenship laws and the powers and the means for our security and policing agencies to tackle crime and terrorism. This bill is merely a response to a report by two members of the Liberal Party, one of whom has left the parliament.

Of course Australians should all sign up to our laws and values. Existing legislation allows the government to put forward any questions about Australia, which includes any aspect of Australia and life in Australia, including about our values. Indeed, there is a values test that already occurs for people who seek to become Australian citizens.

The ability to speak the language of our country is, of course, a significant benefit to assist in social and professional situations, and at least a little English does help serve to reduce the level of isolation felt by a person who perhaps did not grow up here and learn English as their first language. Given the many personal benefits of speaking the language, the government should be more committed to assisting immigrants to attain English language levels that allow them to communicate with others and bridge those gaps to take full advantage of the opportunities available to members of the Australian community. However, being forced to obtain a university level of English is a whole other story, and that is exactly what this bill does. It will force people to learn and to undertake a university level of English. The bill requires those seeking Australian citizenship to attain a higher level of English proficiency before they are eligible to apply for citizenship.

As a student of a second language, I know how difficult it can be to learn a new language, particularly as an adult and with many other responsibilities competing for time and resources. It can be an incredibly challenging task to even be able to hold a very simple conversation in another language, let alone reach a level of skill and nuance associated with a university level of language. The test that's proposed here is an increase in the English language proficiency test—the IELTS test in Australia—from level 4 or level 5, which is proficient, to level 6, which is competent. The process here will ensure that many will miss out on the opportunity to apply for Australian citizenship. There are people who have been living in this country for many years as productive members of our society who just cannot attain that additional level and are therefore lost to us as potential citizens of this country.

New migrants to the country do receive some assistance in ensuring that they can improve their English literacy and proficiency, and that is through the Adult Migrant English Program. But the way it is at the moment—the way that program is structured and the support that people get as new migrants to learn English—it will go nowhere near delivering a level 6 competency in IELTS. That is the problem with what the government is proposing here. They're not going to provide the assistance that is necessary for people to reach the level they are proposing in this bill and therefore apply for Australian citizenship. Now, 510 hours is the amount that a new migrant gets in terms of English instruction through the Adult Migrant English Program when they come here. Anyone that is involved in languages and the teaching of languages would tell you that you need at least 800 hours to become proficient in a European-based language such as English, French or Italian. A minimum of 800 hours. So, what the government is offering here is completely inadequate. When you talk about pictographic-style languages, such as Chinese, Japanese or Korean, it is around 2,200 classroom hours before you can even begin to become competent in that language, and a minimum of two years living in the country to be considered for fluency. That clearly demonstrates the challenges that people face in learning a new language, and it becomes even harder the older you get, so we are discriminating against older people here. Unfortunately, the effect of this may be to discriminate against women. It is unfortunate that many women do not reach the same level of proficiency as their husband, as they have in the past, because, unfortunately, they are predominantly the ones that are involved in household duties and raising the children, and do not have the opportunity to undertake the necessary training. So, unfortunately, for many people this requirement will simply be well out of reach.

Our concern is that it sends a terribly negative message to those people who live here for an extended period of time but, for one reason or another, do not reach a university level of English. It would be understandable for these people to feel disenfranchised and disconnected from the broader Australian community as a result of the government telling them that they are not good enough to become an Australian citizen. These people will never be able to pledge their allegiance to Australia; instead, they will exist as an underclass, forever reminded of their low status, as a result of their inability to achieve that university level of English.

I want to raise here an example from within my own family. My wife's family are Italian, and I think about, 'What if this rule had been applied in the past?' Think about the postwar migrants that came to Australia. Think of the talent and the dedicated Australians that would have been lost to this country, potentially, if this rule had been in place in the postwar migration periods. People would have missed out on the opportunity of becoming Australian citizens. My wife's family migrated, predominantly from Italy, in the postwar period after World War I. My wife's nonna came in 1921, the Natoli family, and my wife's nonno came in 1916, the Casamento family from the Aeolian Islands. When they came here, they hardly spoke a word of English. But they got to work. They started learning the language, predominantly through working and interacting with Australians. And they ran a fruit shop, on the corner opposite St Vincent's Hospital in Darlinghurst. Because they were running that fruit shop opposite St Vincent's in Darlinghurst, one of their kids became interested in the medical profession, went on to study medicine at the University of Sydney and became a very well-respected general practitioner in the Coogee area—and a bit of a local legend, if I may say, to plenty of people in our community—and was the team doctor for Randwick Rugby club for 30 years and did that on a voluntary basis. That's my father-in-law, Joe Casamento—the son of these migrants who came to Australia with very little English and who has made an enormous contribution to the community that I live in. He's got brothers and sisters who've become professionals as well. In fact, from the three migrants that came in the early 1920s, there are now over 100 descendants in that family who have made an outstanding contribution to Australian society but who might have been lost to this country had these laws been in place when those people migrated to Australia in the postwar period. This bill also increases the general residence requirements to require citizenship by conferral, and a person will have to have been a permanent resident for a minimum of four years.

The government claims this bill is also about bolstering national security. That's the rhetoric. But I fail to see how telling someone who wants to become an Australian citizen that they have to wait longer and take an additional step to pledge their allegiance to this new country is going to actually bolster national security. It may have a detrimental effect on a person's psychology, increasing their feelings of isolation and denying them a sense of belonging in our society. It is important to remember that those who apply for citizenship are already permanent residents and undergo rigorous character and security checks before they come here. If they are a security risk—as the government has said they are trying to weed out with this legislation—then they shouldn't be living here, because they shouldn't have been given a visa in the first place. There are plenty of preliminary steps in gaining a visa that ensure that we weed those people out from getting visas to live, on a temporary or permanent basis, in Australia. If there are problems with this process, then the government should be up-front with the Australian public and focus on preventing people who may become or may be a security risk from coming here in the first place.

As I said, Labor is absolutely committed to working with the government to keep Australians safe from serious criminal offences and violent criminals. Such individuals, we believe, should not become Australian citizens and should not be living here. If that's the issue, then we're happy to work with the government. But that's not what this bill is about. This bill is about making people who've lived here and who have passed all of those security checks further isolated and making it harder for them to become Australian citizens.

We note that the bill does contain additional measures, such as an ability for the minister to set aside decisions of the AAT concerning character and identity, where it would be in the public interest to do so. And, although that will be subject to judicial review, it may undermine the role of the AAT as an independent body.

In conclusion, I and my Labor colleagues are opposed to this bill. There is no justification for it. The rhetoric does not meet the reality. All it is going to do is to isolate a very dedicated and passionate group of Australian people who seek to become Australian citizens, by making it simply too hard for them to become citizens of our great nation.


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