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Wednesday, 8 August 2007
Page: 14

Mrs VALE (9:59 AM) —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. This bill will be welcomed by the wider Australian community because it is the result of a wide-ranging discussion within the community.

On 17 September 2006 the then Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, the Hon. Mr Andrew Robb, released a discussion paper, entitled ‘Australian citizenship: much more than a ceremony’, to seek the Australian community’s views on the merits of introducing a formal citizenship test. The discussion paper particularly sought comment on four questions: (1) should Australia introduce a formal citizenship test; (2) how important is knowledge of Australia for Australian citizens; (3) what level of English is required to participate as an Australian citizen; and (4) how important is a demonstrated commitment to Australia’s way of life and values for those intending to settle permanently in Australia or spend a significant period of time in Australia? Further questions were also asked in relation to the possible parameters of a formal citizenship test and the level of knowledge and understanding of Australian values that applicants for permanent or long-term residence should possess.

A series of face-to-face consultations were held in Perth, Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney, Hobart, Darwin and Adelaide. These consultations were attended by some 129 representatives from a range of government, business and community groups. Participants were also invited to comment on the proposals in the discussion paper. Many also subsequently provided written responses. The consultation period ran for two months, closing on 17 November 2006. In total, 1,644 written responses to the discussion paper were received.

Overall, there was strong support for the introduction of a formal citizenship test. Sixty per cent of respondents supported a citizenship test, while 25 per cent opposed a citizenship test and 15 per cent were unclear. Responses regarding the other key questions were also in favour of testing. Amongst those who addressed the importance of a knowledge of Australia and Australian values to allow effective participation as an Australian citizen, a large majority agreed that a knowledge of Australia is important, at 92 per cent, and only eight per cent disagreed. Amongst those who addressed the importance of English for effective participation as an Australian citizen, a large majority agreed that English is important, at 95 per cent, and only five per cent disagreed. Amongst those who addressed the importance of a demonstrated commitment to Australia, a large majority agreed that a demonstrated commitment to Australia is important, at 93 per cent, while only seven per cent disagreed.

Thinking Australians understand that citizenship is a responsibility, not a right. Australian citizenship is the single most unifying force in our culturally diverse nation. It lies at the heart of our national identity and it gives us a strong sense of who we are and our place in the world. Citizenship provides an opportunity for people to maximise their participation in society and to make a commitment to Australia’s common values, which include a respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual and of others, our support for our parliamentary democracy, our commitment to the rule of law, our commitment to the equality of men and women, the spirit of a fair go, and mutual respect and compassion for those in need.

Australian citizenship brings with it considerable values and benefits. Australian citizens have the right to apply for an Australian passport, the right to register children born overseas as Australian citizens by descent, the capacity to seek election to parliament, the right to vote, access to a range of financial assistance from the government, access to a range of employment opportunities and access to full consular assistance when travelling overseas—to name but a few.

I am informed that, in 2005-06, 103,050 people from more than 175 different countries were conferred with Australian citizenship at ceremonies across the nation. Overall, more than four million people have become citizens since Australian citizenship was introduced in 1949. Some 95 per cent of our population are Australian citizens and there are currently more than 900,000 permanent residents who are eligible to apply for citizenship.

Looking at this bill, we can identify citizenship testing as a key part of the government’s ongoing commitment to help new migrants settle successfully and integrate into Australian society. This test is to ensure that people who wish to become Australian citizens do so by demonstrating a level of understanding and commitment to Australia, our values and our way of life. This is reasonable to ensure that migrants are fully informed and ready to participate in the Australian community. It is also important from a broader perspective as it will support social cohesion and successful integration into the community.

The test will be designed so applicants can demonstrate their knowledge of the English language and their knowledge of Australia, including the responsibilities and privileges of Australian citizenship. It makes sense to encourage the uptake of English if migrants are to take advantage of everything that our country has to offer—both the economic and the social benefits. When people come to Australia they do so because they see it as a land of opportunity. Surely an essential part of our responsibility to them is to ensure that they understand and can use English to their benefit and, of course, to the benefit of their families and of the wider community. There will not be a separate English language test. However, the citizenship test will require the demonstration of a basic knowledge of English comprehension in answering the questions.

This bill will amend section 21 of the act to provide that applicants for citizenship under the general eligibility provisions must have successfully completed a test before making an application for Australian citizenship. The bill will also amend section 40, which relates to requests for personal identifiers. The bill will extend the operation of section 40(1) to allow a personal identifier to be requested from a person who has sought to sit a citizenship test. I am advised that the test will be computer based and consist of 20 multiple-choice questions drawn randomly from a larger group of confidential questions. Each test will be in English and include three questions on the privileges and responsibilities of Australian citizenship. All test questions will be derived from the content of a resource book designed to help people prepare for citizenship. An assisted version of the test will be available for people who have completed a minimum of 400 hours of English language tuition under the Adult Migrant English Program, the AMEP, and are assessed by the AMEP provider as having less than basic reading skills in English. The assisted test will involve the test administrator talking the person through the computer based test.

The government also recognises that it would be unnecessary and unfair for some people to comply with these requirements. Consequently, people under the age of 18 or over 60, those with a permanent physical or mental incapacity which prevents them from understanding the nature of their application and those with a permanent loss or substantial impairment of hearing, speech or sight will not be required to sit the test.

It is also important to note that migrants who come to Australia in the future, whether under skilled, family or humanitarian programs, will not be required to pass the test prior to or upon their arrival. They will only need to pass it when wishing to take up citizenship of Australia, which will usually be some four or five years later. For these people, the Australian government provides services to help them settle into Australia. For humanitarian entrants, settlement assistance begins with the provision of information about Australia before they arrive. The Australian Cultural Orientation Program is a three-day interactive course which provides an introduction to aspects of Australian life. It aims to enhance entrants’ settlement prospects and help develop realistic expectations for their life in Australia.

Also, the Integrated Humanitarian Settlement Strategy, the IHSS, is designed to provide short-term, intensive settlement support to newly-arrived humanitarian entrants on a needs basis. IHSS services are generally provided for around six months but may be extended to 12 months for particularly vulnerable clients with special needs. Services provided under the IHSS include case coordination, information and referrals, on-arrival reception and assistance, accommodation assistance, short-term torture and trauma counselling and advocacy, and raising community awareness. IHSS service providers also provide mainstream agencies with an appreciation of issues relating to humanitarian entrants.

After the initial settlement period, entrants have access to further assistance under the Settlement Grants Program. Settlement support and community capacity building is delivered to humanitarian entrants and eligible migrants with low English proficiency for up to five years after arrival. Services include linking new arrivals to mainstream agencies which deliver health, education and employment services. Community capacity building involves assisting emerging communities to organise and advocate for their own needs. Around $30 million was made available last year for organisations delivering these services. Many of the needs of new arrivals are addressed through mainstream services. An interdepartmental committee of Australian government agency heads is looking into a whole-of-government approach to improving settlement outcomes for humanitarian entrants. The focus is on helping entrants to get a job, to build English language skills and to participate fully in the Australian community.

The Australian government also funds English tuition under the Adult Migrant English Program, the AMEP, for migrants and humanitarian entrants who do not have functional English. Refugee and humanitarian entrants under the age of 25 with low levels of schooling are eligible for up to 910 hours of English tuition, while those over 25 are eligible for up to 610 hours. Other migrants are eligible for up to 510 hours of tuition. The tuition is designed to provide clients with basic language skills to settle successfully in Australia.

The Australian government also funds education authorities to assist with the cost of delivering intensive English tuition to eligible newly arrived students enrolled in Australian schools. The English as a Second Language: New Arrivals Program aims to improve the educational opportunities and outcomes of newly arrived students of non-English-speaking backgrounds by developing their English language competence and facilitating their participation in mainstream educational activities.

There is also the Language, Literacy and Numeracy Program, the LLNP, which provides basic language, literacy and numeracy training for eligible job seekers whose skills are below the level considered necessary to secure sustainable employment or pursue further education and training. It is designed to help remove a major barrier to employment and improve participants’ daily lives. To access the LLNP, job seekers must be of working age, be registered as job seekers with a referring agency, not be a full-time student, and satisfy eligibility criteria relating to benefit and visa status.

I would also like to take this opportunity to welcome the Australian government’s investment of $924,300 to help refugees and other migrants in my local area under the Settlement Grants Program 2007-08. The grants include $858,000 for four projects at the Liverpool Migrant Resource Centre and $66,300 for a program at the Australian Bosnian and Herzegovinian Cultural Association in Liverpool in my electorate. The projects will provide casework and referral services, community leadership and support groups and promote integration, participation and empowerment of the newly arrived Iraqi, Assyrian and Kurdish communities. The projects aim to develop leadership skills and self-reliance for new arrivals, provide youth development initiatives and establish partnerships with service providers to better respond to the needs of women at risk, focusing on African and Dari-speaking communities. The funding will also allow the Bosnian and Herzegovinian Cultural Association to undertake casework and provide referral services and group work to assist newly arrived Bosnian speakers to plan and advocate for services to meet their needs. These are the nuts and bolts that refugees and migrants need to rely upon to integrate quickly into their new communities and to make the most of their opportunities in Australia. Finally, the funding will also provide much-needed support in the crucial transitional period from school to higher education or to employment.

In conclusion, the vibrant diversity that makes up the Australian society today has won renown and respect amongst other nations in our increasingly complex world. Whilst we do not expect our newest citizens to forget or forgo the traditions, culture and history of the country of their birth, it is not unreasonable to anticipate that, as they come to live and work in our cities, towns, suburbs and workplaces as one of us—as Australians—they will embrace our traditions, culture and history, together with our values and respect for our parliamentary democracy.

Because our citizenship ceremony is at the heart of what it means to be an Australian, an appropriate understanding from our newest Australians will mean that they can take their place with us as one people under one flag. This bill will ensure this objective. I commend the bill to the House.