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Thursday, 21 February 2002
Page: 760

Mr LAURIE FERGUSON (5:12 PM) —In referring to the many submissions received by the Citizenship Council, I particularly acknowledge the persistent efforts of the Southern Cross Group, which represents Australians living and working abroad and their families and which has played a key role in placing this matter on the agenda and keeping it there. In its report, the Citizenship Council strongly recommended the repeal of section 17. It argued:

... as we move into the twenty-first century, the prevalence of dual Citizenship internationally will rapidly increase. The law and practice of most countries with which Australia likes to compare itself permits Citizens of those countries to obtain another Citizenship without losing their original Citizenship ... These countries simply recognise that they have an internationally mobile population and that they can retain connection with this population even if another Citizenship is acquired ...

The Council also believes that to hold and enforce the threat of loss of Australian Citizenship over Australians who wish to live and work overseas in countries where acquisition of another Citizenship is important to their situation is to place a completely unnecessary obstacle in the way of expansion of Australian presence in other societies.

Internationally, the trend has been very much towards dual citizenship, essentially in Europe and North America—both Canada and the United States countries with which we compare ourselves—where dual citizenship has been allowed for many years.

In April 2000, following the Citizenship Council report, the opposition shadow ministry considered the matter and agreed that Labor would support the repeal of section 17. My colleague the member for Bowman, who was then the shadow minister for immigration, issued a media release to this effect. There is no doubt that this decision by the shadow ministry was a major breakthrough in the debate. Subsequently, in May 2001, the government announced that it proposed to introduce legislation. Legislation identical to the current bill was introduced by the government on 23 August 2001 but did not pass before parliament was dissolved in the election.

In indicating the opposition's support for the repeal of section 17, I wish to clarify three aspects. Firstly, I emphasise that the change does not involve the introduction for the first time of dual citizenship into the Australian system. Dual citizenship has long been a fact of life in Australia. Today, more than 4 million Australians are already dual citizens—even by 1986 there were over 3 million—largely because migrants are perfectly free, under Australian law, to retain the citizenship of the country of their origin. Their country of origin may, however, not allow them to hold dual citizenship. An instance is Turkey, which only in the early nineties reversed its previous position. Looking at citizenship take-up rates in this country, the Turkish take-up rate was extremely low until Turkey abolished bans on dual citizenship. Before that time, Turks lost any property that they owned within Turkey if they took up dual citizenship. Once again, that is typical of the trend internationally. If you want to cite a country that is fairly nationalistic and patriotic, it would be Turkey. Even Turkey has moved in this direction before Australia. Section 17 has only prohibited dual citizenship if the person takes action to acquire another citizenship after they already possess Australian citizenship. Even then, it can still be possible in some circumstances to acquire the citizenship of another country without penalty—for example, by marriage or descent—if the person does not do any act or thing, the sole or dominant purpose of which is to acquire that citizenship.

Secondly, the bill in no way alters the position of members of parliament who face disqualification under section 44.(i.) of the Constitution if they hold dual citizenship. That provision has prompted a number of high profile High Court cases, the most recent being the 1999 judgment that Heather Hill was ineligible to be elected to the Senate representing Queensland at the time of the 1998 election.

Thirdly, I note that the bill provides that section 17 is repealed from the date the legislation receives royal assent. The change is thus purely prospective in nature and does not change the position of those who have already lost their Australian citizenship. In this regard, I would indicate the opposition's disappointment that the government is unwilling to revisit the current resumption arrangements as set out in section 23 of the act. By repealing section 27, we are signalling to the Australian parliament a bipartisan approach that we consider it inappropriate to penalise people simply because they acquire the citizenship of another country. You would think that it would be appropriate to simultaneously address the situation of those who have suffered from the application of section 17, particularly in recent times, and all the more so because as early as 1994, as indicated earlier, a joint committee of this parliament unanimously decided that we should move in this direction. Many people have lost citizenship in the interim.

In discussions with the minister, he has indicated that people who have already lost their Australian citizenship will need to make application to have their citizenship restored in accordance with the current resumption requirements. Currently, the first requirement in applying to resume Australian citizenship is that the person must indicate that they did not know that they would lose Australian citizenship as a result of their actions, or that they would have suffered significant hardship or detriment had they not acquired the other citizenship and, if the hardship or the detriment was of an economic nature, the circumstances that caused them to take out foreign citizenship must have been compelling. The other requirements are that the person has been lawfully resident in Australia for at least two years at some time and undertakes to continue to reside in Australia if they are in Australia, or that they intend to resume living in Australia within three years of the restoration of their citizenship if they are overseas and, finally, that they have maintained a close and continuing association with Australia.

Sensible lobby groups like the Southern Cross Group are disappointed that the coalition will not agree to free up the current resumption requirements. These requirements appear to presume that Australian citizenship should only be restored in exceptional circumstances. They require applicants to establish that there were compelling reasons for their action, and that they would have suffered significant hardship or detriment had they not acquired the other citizenship.

The resumption provisions also require an overseas applicant to undertake a return to Australia in three years. These requirements in toto place applicants in an invidious position because if they tell the literal truth their application may be rejected. We are aware of overseas posts, Australian embassies and high commissions telling Australians to lie about these requirements. That is a highly unsatisfactory situation. Essentially people go along there, and they are honest with the post and the immigration authorities, and they explain their problem. The representatives of this country abroad know that it is a rather silly situation so they say. `Look, just sign it; say you're going to go back in three years. That's the best thing to do.' We feel that is very unsatisfactory, and that the government should tackle this matter at this stage.

I urge the minister to give further consideration to this matter. He seems relaxed about the fact that people continue to be deprived of their Australian citizenship, even after both the government and opposition have indicated their support for the repeal of section 17. He appears to accept that some people will have to fudge their answers in order to have their Australian citizenship restored. I stress that just because the opposition does not wish to hold up this bill which, as we know, has had a fairly long process, he should not assume that dissatisfaction with the resumption arrangements will simply fade away. We act on the basis of lobbying by groups which want this matter finalised. They do not want to see the legislation held up by amendments; they do not want to see debate and argument about this matter, but they do say to the government that the resumption situation should be revisited. I have heard from the minister the example that some people might—if we were to make mandatory decisions to basically give everyone back citizenship—suffer overseas. An instance was given of American taxation laws. A person might be hit with taxes if we summarily gave them back citizenship. However, there is a lot of area between that and other alternatives, and the government should look at this situation.

Resumption arrangements were last eased in August 1995 when Senator Bolkus was the minister. He approved a broader range of circumstances that would be accepted as evidence of `significant hardship and detriment.' These changes were made in the context of section 17 remaining the law. Now that section 17 is to be repealed, it would seem appropriate, once again, to review the resumption arrangements. Whilst noting government indications that some individuals overseas might be disadvantaged if their Australian citizenship is automatically restored to them, I frankly cannot understand the government's refusal to liberalise the citizenship resumption provisions for this group of people.

Currently, the act provides that a person born overseas to Australian parents can obtain Australian citizenship by descent if their parents registered their birth before their 18th birthday. Each year, some 8,000 to 9,000 children are registered in this way throughout the world. Section 10(c) of the act allows people who were born before 15 January 1974 to register after age 18 if they have an acceptable reason for not having registered earlier. There is no such discretion for people born after 15 January 1974. As a result, some young people have missed out on the opportunity to obtain Australian citizenship because they were unaware of the registration requirements or because they failed to register in time. To overcome this problem the bill extends the registration deadline to the person's 25th birthday. This is in line with recommendation 26 of the Citizenship Council report. I note that the government has imposed an additional requirement that adult applicants seen to have obtained citizenship by descent will, unlike those aged under 18 years, be required to satisfy the minister that they are of good character.

Under current provisions only adult migrants are issued with citizenship certificates. The names of children under 16 are recorded on a parental certificate. I think many members would be aware, from their experiences in their electorate offices, that this can create problems when the child later has to provide evidence of their Australian citizenship and can no longer easily access the parental certificate for a variety of reasons. To overcome this problem, the government proposes that eligible children under 16 years will in future be issued with a certificate in their own name. This provision will also be available to those who wish to obtain evidence of an earlier grant of citizenship to them.

The bill makes a number of changes to the integrity provisions of the Citizenship Act. These generally relate to the requirement that an applicant be of good character. Currently an applicant cannot be granted Australian citizenship if they are awaiting trial for a criminal offence or have been sentenced to imprisonment for a term of 12 months or more. People so sentenced cannot be granted citizenship for two years after their release from prison or while they are serving a period of parole. No additional penalty exists for those who are imprisoned on more than one occasion before the grant of citizenship. To address this situation, the bill provides that a `serious repeat offender' who serves more than one such period of imprisonment cannot be granted citizenship for 10 years after that has elapsed.

The bill also provides for the revocation of a grant of citizenship where, before the citizenship certificate has actually been conferred, additional information becomes available to DIMIA that is sufficiently adverse to the applicant that they would not admit the original application requirements. Where the person is charged with a criminal offence in Australia before citizenship has been conferred, the minister may also defer the conferral pending the outcome of the trial. Henceforth, a grant of citizenship can be revoked if an applicant fails without acceptable reason to make a pledge of commitment within 12 months of being notified that their citizenship application has been successful. The grounds the minister may consider acceptable for any such delay will be defined by regulation after passage of the bill. I would hope that these are framed in a sensible way and address situations where a person is unavoidably required to remain overseas. As we know, that is a continuing reality and the number of people affected is growing every day.

Finally, the bill clarifies an existing provision whereby an overseas born person can be deprived of Australian citizenship. The act already provides that a person can be deprived of citizenship where they are convicted of citizenship or immigration related fraud or where they are convicted of an offence that was committed before the citizenship application. This bill includes a preparatory provision to the effect that being sentenced to imprisonment for 12 months or more for a people-smuggling offence that was committed before the grant of citizenship shall constitute grounds for revocation of citizenship.

In conclusion, I again indicate that the opposition is happy to cooperate in seeing this legislation passed without unnecessary delay. We do so because we particularly understand the situation of those who will benefit from repeal of section 17. We believe that measure is a sensible and overdue development. We do not oppose the other changes in the bill. I would emphasise that Labor has a long and proud record on citizenship issues. We take seriously the range of other proposals that the Citizenship Council recommended but which are not included in this bill. As we review our policies, we are committed to maintaining a dialogue with interested organisations on the issues of citizenship and multicultural affairs. We recognise the efforts of the Southern Cross group on the matter. We urge the minister to abandon his timidity and show a willingness to have another look at the current resumption arrangements, which are in need of review.

Debate (on motion by Mr Cadman) adjourned.