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Tuesday, 31 October 2006
Page: 182

Mr GARRETT (8:42 PM) —I have listened with a good deal of interest to the contributions that members have made as they address the Australian Citizenship Bill 2005 and the Australian Citizenship (Transitionals and Consequentials) Bill 2005 and I very much endorse the comments of Labor members who have made a contribution to the debate on this legislation. There has certainly been a great need for the Citizenship Act 1948 to be rewritten and it is important that legislation comes forward which allows citizenship for many people who had lost it or did not have access to it due to former restrictions on dual citizenship. A number of speakers would already have mentioned the situation faced in particular by people from the Maltese community, people who have adopted children from overseas, people from a Papua New Guinean background and others who were disadvantaged by the legislation as it stood. This is an issue that Labor has been alert to. At the last national conference a resolution was passed to the effect that Labor will streamline the citizenship resumption arrangements for those who lost citizenship as a result of previous provisions on dual citizenship in Australian and Maltese law in particular, in recognition of the problems and the difficulties that the Maltese community was facing. There are a number of amendments that the shadow minister has moved which we are urging upon the government. In the general discussion about citizenship, a number of speakers have mentioned the fact that we are now living in a vastly changed environment to that in which we previously lived and which people had experienced on coming to live in Australia in the past.

The whole issue of citizenship is now being opened up into a discussion about the nature of citizenship rights and responsibilities in the modern democratic state and in the light of international developments that are threatening to many people in this country, including issues of security that attach to the prospect of terrorism; issues to do with different cultures making their way, bringing up their children, educating their children and expressing their religious preference in terms of worship in the country; and, most recently, some of the controversy in respect of comments that have been made by religious leaders, including Muslim religious leaders. I will speak a little later on about that aspect of it, but for the moment note that from our perspective it is particularly important that the government does not use the issue of citizenship as a way of continuing a political campaign about the appropriate policies that we ought to have, as executed by any government regardless of its political persuasion, in the country in respect of issues of citizenship and people’s participation in the life of the nation.

As far as the current bill is concerned, I note that the permanent residency requirements have been extended from two to four years; that Australian citizens who have renounced their citizenship under section 17 of the act can resume their citizenship if they are of good character; that children of former Australian citizens who lost their citizenship under section 17 of the old act, which I referred to briefly earlier, can acquire citizenship by conferral; that the new provisions will prohibit the approval of a citizenship applicant who is assessed by ASIO as a security risk, and there have been some informed contributions made on that particular provision already by members; and other measures, including that the age for an exemption from the requirement to have a basic knowledge of the English language has been raised from 50 to 60; that the minister must not approve the person becoming an Australian citizen unless the minister is satisfied of their identity; and a number of other issues as well.

The bill also encompasses changes made to the old act in July 2004 and on 14 September 2005 and 19 September 2005. These are two proposals that relate to issues of antiterrorism, as described by the Prime Minister, and they are: extending the waiting period for citizenship from two to three years, security checks before citizenship is approved and provision for increased personal identifiers.

Labor has said that it will not support policy that delays people from committing to our values in the citizenship ceremony. Neither do we see any good reason for a change in extension of the period from three to four years. There is no doubt that by making people wait four years before they make a commitment to our way of life we are simply extending a burden which seems to be, with respect to the difference between three and four years, unnecessarily onerous. There has been, as I mentioned before, significant comment about the effect that the old legislation did have on people from the Maltese community, and it is appropriate that they should be taken into account in this bill and that is certainly supported by Labor.

In the context of this bill coming into the House, a number of other matters have been raised in relation to citizenship. The most obvious one is the discussion paper on Australian citizenship that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs released in September, which canvassed the option of a formal citizenship test and raised a number of possible components for a test: a written English test, test on a person’s knowledge of Australia, compulsory questions on responsibilities and privileges and so on.

I have to say that I think there are some strong arguments to support the idea of an enlarged citizenship test for people seeking citizenship in this country. I think there is a strong case to invest citizenship with greater meaning generally. Certainly, because the circumstances of culture and history are changing and evolving and the challenges that we do face in the country in relation to making certain that when they come here people are able to embrace full citizenship, fully understanding and comprehending those particular unique aspects of Australia’s way of life and also the responsibilities that attach to it, I think there is some merit in having a discussion about that.

But the idea of citizenship and what constitutes a good citizen has been around for a very long period of time. As I am sure you would be well aware, Mr Deputy Speaker Jenkins, it was something that Plato and others discussed in the ancient times. They discussed it, wrote about it and talked about it. There is no question that embedded in the idea of citizenship is the notion of a full, open and participatory democracy. This is effectively the most essential element of what being a citizen in a democracy is all about. Just as citizens, as individuals, as sovereign persons within the nation-state or the community, have rights and responsibilities, so the idea of the state itself is imbued with a kind of citizenship, and there is an expectation that power attaches to the state—in this case to determine what conditions or otherwise ought to be applied to people who come into a country—and so the state itself has an a priori responsibility and, I would argue, a duty to espouse citizenship as well, and not only to espouse it but to give evidence on it.

So, as we consider the issues of citizenship and as we consider amplifying the idea of what it means to apply for citizenship in Australia, we have to do that in a way which is consistent with our democratic traditions, consistent with our understanding of what a citizen is—in terms of both the individual citizen and the citizenship that is embedded in the nation—which is consistent with our common-law principles and which is consistent with our international obligations, the treaties and conventions which the Australian nation as an international citizen has signed. It must be in that context—not just the narrow context of trying to identify the kind of person you may or may not like to apply for citizenship—that we should have this debate.

It is absolutely critical that conflating a debate about culture or about desirable characteristics of a citizen—debates that have concerns about terrorism attached to them and debates which can be manipulated by governments and manipulated through the media—does not get in the way of sensible proposals and a sensible and rational discussion about what citizenship, if it is going to be enlarged in the context of people applying for Australian citizenship, is all about. I think it is absolutely critical for those of us that are elected to office here, whether we are in the government or whether we are in opposition, to bear that in mind as we consider and discuss this issue.

I want to make an additional point in relation to citizenship. I have not had the opportunity to listen to all the contributions to the debate, and it may be that some members have already raised this. If that is the case, I will be going over well-trodden ground; nevertheless, I think it is important. Next year sees the 40th anniversary of the referendum whereby Indigenous people of this country were recognised by the Australian Constitution. Even though they really did have a right to vote earlier on, it was only in 1967 that they were effectively able to claim their citizenship as a constitutional recognition in the federation. I think that gives us due cause to pause and reflect on what the idea of citizenship really is about. It has been defined—and I think it is a reasonable definition—as a conferring of benefits to which certain responsibilities attach. I would simply say, speaking to this citizenship legislation, that I think there is still a deeper and more important question about the nature of Indigenous citizenship in this country, given that the conferring of benefits that would normally be identified as flowing to them as citizens in actual fact has not occurred or taken place. I do know that there are a number of Indigenous leaders and others who have reflected on this on occasions such as this, when legislation comes through the House, and will certainly be reflecting upon it next year when the 1967 referendum anniversary takes place.

To the extent that all Australians are equal under the law, yes, Indigenous Australians could consider themselves Australian citizens. To the extent that they both have access to and receive the benefits that go with Australian citizenship, I think there is a very strong argument to suggest that that is not the case. Mr Deputy Speaker, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders—as I know you and other members are well aware—have a life expectancy approximately 17 years shorter than non-Indigenous people. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are twice as likely to have low birth weight babies. The rate of communicable diseases is over 90 times higher amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people than amongst non-Indigenous people. This is in a country where individual Australians on a per capita basis have never been wealthier. So I ask a simple question: is the citizenship that Indigenous people are experiencing at this point in time consistent with the benefits that we would expect to be conferred upon Indigenous people as a consequence?

There is a final point that attaches to this issue and to considering this legislation, and it is simply this: citizenship in itself is something which can only be exercised fruitfully and fully if the rights that people have within the nation are properly protected. There is no doubt that whilst it is desirable for people who are coming into the country to have a good and clear sense of democratic traditions, a good understanding of our language and a commitment to the democratic ideals that we all share, it is equally important for us to be very cognisant of the fact that many of the democratic rights that we take for granted are in no way guaranteed under our system of government. There has been a very fruitful discussion, which has fallen on barren ground over the last five to 10 years, about whether or not Australia, in order to properly have citizenship rights protected, ought to have a bill of rights. I want to give notice that I think that is a debate that we ought to re-energise in this parliament.

A citizenship ceremony is a wonderful thing, as I and all members know. Those who are seeking to become citizens of Australia take this ceremony very seriously. They recognise not only the great and very meaningful symbolism but also the practical effect that taking that step actually has upon them, and subsequently upon their families. So that is a big step that people take, and it is an extremely important one in the context of someone coming from one country to another. Those of us who are Australian citizens at this point in time, along with those who come to this country, need to remember that our citizenship depends very much on our rights being protected, particularly under law—and, I would argue, also through the Constitution. It also depends on us exercising our responsibilities of respect for the rule of law, observance of the rules of the Commonwealth and a commitment to participate fully in the life of the nation. On that basis, I shall conclude my remarks.

Debate (on motion by Mr Wakelin) adjourned.