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Tuesday, 31 October 2006
Page: 168

Mr HAYES (7:42 PM) —The Australian Citizenship Bill 2005 and the Australian Citizenship (Transitionals and Consequentials) Bill 2005 before us today, as the minister noted in his second reading speech, replace the Australian Citizenship Act 1948 with a new Australian citizenship act. A number of changes will be implemented by these bills. They include but are not limited to the proposals announced by the Prime Minister some time back relating to combating terrorism.

Major provisions in this bill include: the ability of Australian citizens who renounce their citizenship under section 17 to resume their Australian citizenship if they are of good character; the ability of the minister, under proposed subsection 2, to refuse to approve the person becoming an Australian citizen despite the person being eligible to be so approved; the ability of children of former Australian citizens who have lost their citizenship under section 17 of the old act to acquire citizenship simply by conferral; the prohibition on an approval of citizenship to applicants assessed by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation as a risk to the security of Australia; a rise in the age of exemption from the requirement to have basic knowledge of the English language from 50 years to 60 years of age; the requirement that the minister must not approve a person becoming an Australian citizen unless the minister is satisfied as to the person’s identity; the person becoming an Australian citizen on the day that the minister approves the application; the requirement that the spouse of an Australian citizen meet the same requirements of Australian citizenship by conferral as most adult applicants, with the minister exercising discretion in this regard; and an increase in the range of personal identifiers that can be used to establish identity.

As I mentioned earlier, the bills also attempt to graft on a number of changes that were agreed by the COAG security meeting. Measures to address security issues include the extension of the waiting period for citizenship from two years to three years, security checks for citizenship to be approved and provisions for increased personal identifiers such as iris scans et cetera. Further, the security risk assessments prescribed must be undertaken by ASIO in order to get citizenship approvals.

For an individual or a family to move from one country to another would be, I think, quite a significant thing to do in most circumstances. In a move of that nature, nothing would be taken lightly. Moving from one country to another could be considered for a range of reasons, but I would defy anyone to say that moving from one country to another is something that would be based on light decision making by a person or a person’s family. Therefore, it is of great significance when people do come to make a decision to take citizenship in another country.

Similarly, a change in citizenship is not entered into lightly, as most people who attend citizenship ceremonies in this country would appreciate. As the member for Werriwa—and I imagine it is the same for every member in this House—I certainly attend as many citizenship ceremonies in my electorate as I can. The Campbelltown City Council and the Liverpool City Council are the two major city councils that have the right conferred upon them by the minister to award citizenship. The lasting impression one takes away from these citizenship ceremonies is just how proud these people are to become new citizens of this country—which is, after all, their adopted home. No matter their background or their country of origin, you cannot help but be moved by the pride that you see on the faces of these people in receiving citizenship, and I have experienced that at every single citizenship ceremony that I have attended.

Of course, in most cases, they also remain proud of their country of origin. Even those of us who are born here retain certain connections to some degree to our heritage, no matter how long ago our respective families moved to this country. The people that I have seen at these citizenship ceremonies are, quite frankly, fiercely proud of their new adopted country. They are certainly proud to be Australians and are committed to participate fully in life in this country as an Australian. I am sure that I am not the only member who has experienced this. I believe that all members should bear this in mind when we are considering the legislation before the chamber at the moment.

In a series of amendments that were tabled on 12 October 2006, the government decided to amend the amendments it intended to make to the Australian Citizenship Act 1948. The amendments presented earlier this month include recommendations from the report of the Senate Legal and Constitutional Legislation Committee inquiry into Australian citizenship, which was handed down on 12 October 2006, and recommendations from the Standing Committee on Family and Human Services inquiry into overseas adopting. Importantly, the amendments also gave effect to the decision to increase the waiting period for citizenship from two years to four years. In itself, the increase in the waiting period for citizenship from three years to four years is a significant departure from the bill that was presented to the House in 2005. Significantly, the amendment has been included without the government having indicated to the opposition why it is necessary.

Labor supported the COAG agreed position to change from a two-year waiting period to a three-year waiting period. In that instance, Labor received a security briefing and on balance it decided to support the changes for security reasons. It was reasonable in terms of the explanation that was given and certainly in terms of the content of the brief that was received. Labor was provided with the necessary information and it made its decision to support an increase in waiting periods from two years to three years, based solely on information provided by the briefing.

I think even those most critical of the change would agree that, once you had seen and been shown the relevant security material and were convinced on balance that the measures were necessary, that change should be agreed to in the context of what was being proposed in the bill that was introduced in the House in 2005. But this time the change is to a four-year waiting period; the opposition was not provided with the same briefing. It was not given the opportunity to have a look at further security material that backed up the government’s changed position. There was no explanation, no briefing—nothing but an amendment that was introduced on 12 October this year.

Interestingly enough, this amendment, the change to a four-year waiting period, came only after the announcement by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, which launched his discussion paper on citizenship. You may recall that. It only came after the launch of this discussion paper in September of this year. That sort of behaviour, I have to say, suggests to me that there is something more behind the change from a three-year waiting period to a four-year waiting period and, I have to say, I think that change is the realisation of next year’s election. You cannot help but think to yourself that right at the very heart of this is some polling undertaken by this government, launched as a result of the discussion paper, that the coalition has found that there is some electoral attractiveness in extending the waiting time. You cannot help but think that politics has got in the way of public policy on this one, with respect.

As I indicated earlier, and as others have already indicated during this debate, Labor was prepared for the change to a three-year waiting period, but it has serious questions about the extension of the waiting period to four years, because it seems to have been done without rhyme or reason. I simply do not understand the logic to it. I cannot understand why the government would seriously believe that it makes for better immigrant integration to exclude them for another 12 months. That just does not seem rational.

Those who have been through citizenship processes—those who have come to love this country and who would protect it—must start to question this approach. What message are we sending to the world if we are saying, ‘Well, you have to sit outside of society for four years before we consider you committed enough to become an Australian citizen’? What are we really telling immigrants and potential immigrants to this country?

Labor have been clear on where we stand when it comes to adopting Australian values. We, along with other Australians, want people to be aware of the values that we pride ourselves on. We want people to know what is expected of them while they are in this country. Those same values apply whether you are here for a short time or whether you are going to move here permanently. One underpinning thing about values is the concept—a colloquialism, no doubt, but nevertheless there is still some substance in it—that we do stand for a fair go for everybody. You may not think that by looking at what this government has attempted to introduce and has introduced in terms of Welfare to Work or through Work Choices. It has certainly thrown the concept of a fair go out of this country in its undertakings of late. It certainly does not subscribe to fairness and decency in those instances that I have referred to. Fairness and decency have certainly been casualties of the approaches that have been adopted by this government.

When I speak at citizenship ceremonies, I often refer to the very thing I instructed my own children on as they were growing up: the concept of a fair go for everybody. Perhaps the government should think more about that and the way it parcels its legislation in other forms. Given that the opposition is yet to receive any clear reason or even any indication from the government as to why the waiting period is being extended to four years—the government has refused to give that—I cannot support that part of the legislation.

Having outlined my concerns about the extension of the waiting period for new citizens, I would like to take a bit of time to comment on some other provisions of this bill. I would like to lend my support to the provisions that give children of former Australian citizens who have lost their citizenship under section 17 of the old act the opportunity to reapply for citizenship in this country by conferral. Where the parents have moved to another country and, as a consequence, have had to forgo their Australian citizenship, their children, on applying, can have citizenship conferred on them. That is a very positive thing I draw from this bill.

Having said that, I am particularly concerned about what the government proposes to do with its migrant English programs. I, for one, believe it is important for migrants to make every effort to learn English, to adopt the language of their newly adopted country—and I would trust that, throughout this House, we are one in that assumption. However, I accept that learning a new language is never easy and, therefore, it should be supported. Senate estimates yesterday revealed that $10.8 million has been cut from the migrant English program. I believe that everyone, especially new migrants, would be best served if that funding were restored. I believe the government would be best served by that restoration, particularly if it is serious in its view that migrants should have to learn English. As I indicated, I support people adopting the English language in their newly adopted country. But can you believe that? While the government is saying those things, it is slashing $10.8 million off that budget.

There are no doubt some national security considerations to be taken into account when any nation is considering permanent or transitory migration to or from its shores. We have all seen and heard of the experiences of other nations that have been subjected to terror attacks launched by citizens from other countries and, in particular, by citizens of their own country. There is no doubt that in the post-September 11 world we have all become more acutely aware of our new realities and we must be prepared to live with a heightened sense of potential threat. Regrettably, that is now being seen as part and parcel of a modern world. I do not shy away from that reality. Quite frankly, I know that our actions on the world stage to date have probably increased the likelihood of an attack on Australian soil.

A document—I think it was a newsletter—that was recently translated from a known al-Qaeda website indicated that this terror group considers Australia to be a proper target. Its Indonesian offshoot, Jemaah Islamiah, has also made it clear that it considers Australia to be a target. Even the former head of the Australian Defence Force, General Peter Cosgrove, believes that terrorism is a long-term threat to Australia.

However, vigilance is one thing; paranoia is something else. Given that the opposition has not been privy to any material that would lend itself to an easy rationale for a change in the waiting periods, and given that this proposed change has come so quickly after the government’s release of its discussion paper on citizenship, I cannot help but conclude that paranoia about security and, more importantly, electoral paranoia are driving this change. It disappoints me that we have got to a stage in the political debate where a change is proposed that has not necessarily a direct link but perhaps an indirect link to security related issues.

While it is important that the bill has a speedy passage through the House, I do not believe that should create an environment in which any provision, no matter how seemingly innocuous, is pushed through without due consideration of its impact. There was agreement on both sides of the House on the provisions for extending waiting periods from three to four years. That was considered to be acceptable, but the government has unilaterally changed that. I cannot help but think that, once again, this government is in a mid-term slump. It is not only me who believes this; I think everyone else believes that to be the case, including those on the other side. The government is struggling to hold back issues on many fronts, and the minister, or perhaps even the Prime Minister, has decided that it is time to blow the dog whistle once more.

I agree that appropriate measures need to be taken to ensure that those who want to come to Australia and become Australian citizens are of a character that we would expect. It is appropriate that necessary checks and tests are undertaken and that all candidates for citizenship meet those checks. However, it should not be considered appropriate to introduce provisions in this bill that seem to have no public policy basis and that merely rely on some sense of fear of foreign nationals becoming Australian citizens. It is not appropriate to introduce legislative provisions driven by fear rather than by rational thought.