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Wednesday, 20 April 1966

Mr OPPERMAN (Corio) (Minister for Immigration) . - in reply - First, I wish to express my appreciation of the interest that honorable members have taken in this debate. Many honorable members have taken part in the debate and I suppose this is because no single factor in the governmental enterprise touches so many of us as does the question of immigration. The suggestions that have been made during this debate indicate the experience of those in this House who have been so closely associated with the day by day problems of new settlers. Some of the matters that have been referred to in this second reading debate will come up for consideration again during the Committee stage, so I do not intend to touch on all of the points which have been raised on both sides of the House. However, so much emphasis has been placed consistently by so many honorable members on the question of the length of residence in Australia that is required before a migrant may apply for naturalisation - the discussion was commenced by the honorable member for Sturt (Sir Keith Wilson) and taken up by other honorable members - that I think I should say a few words on the subject as it will not come into consideration in Committee. There must be a balance of judgment on the delicate question of the period of residence that is required before a person can apply for naturalisation. In immigration matters when we are dealing with regulations and Acts, it is essential that all the factors involved be weighed most carefully because, in endeavouring to do one thing, we frequently find a penalty arises in another area which relates to the very people we are endeavouring to assist.

Honorable members have spoken this evening about eligibility for naturalisation and have indicated a great deal of sympathy for migrants. They have taken naturalisation in their stride, as it were. I must impress upon honorable members, however, that naturalisation cannot be considered lightly or conferred lightly. I think it is fair to require an applicant to have a good enough knowledge of English to understand the oath he is taking and the obligation that he is accepting. I think it is reasonable to expect him to have sufficient knowledge of the country to appreciate the concessions that are available to him and also his duty to his new country. I offer no resistance whatsoever to any alteration of immigration procedures that can be shown to be in the best interests of Australia. After all, we must keep in mind the interests of our country. We want migrants to come here and we want them to be successful, but we must always have a care for the interests of Australia as well as the benefit to the migrants. If the two interests can be evenly balanced we will arrive at a satisfactory conclusion for both.

Let me point out to honorable members that the average time spent in Australia by migrants before they apply for naturalisation is between seven and eight years. In the terrific upheaval involved in their transplantation from the old country to the new they spend the early years in making a complete study of the jobs and housing available, the monetary returns that are possible and all the other things that go towards making a new life in a new country. There are odd exceptions, of course, who can be completely integrated in a very short time. The honorable member for the Australian Capital Territory (Mr. J. R. Fraser) mentioned one who was fluent in English and could readily be absorbed, but his was one of a few rare cases. The average migrant needs to serve an apprenticeship, a settling-in period, before he can say: " I understand this country, I know all about it, I like the people and I will be here permanently." Statistics reveal that it is between seven and eight years before the average migrant applies for naturalisation.

I believe that if we decided, without having given the matter proper consideration, to shorten the qualifying period, paying no regard at all to the time required for a person to gain a knowledge of the language, we would lose all the benefits of the efforts we have been making to assist migrants in this direction. We have arranged to give them instruction on the ships bringing them to Australia and we have arranged for them to attend English classes after arriving here. If we took no account of the desirability or necessity for a migrant to gain a knowledge of English before being naturalised we would find, human nature being what it is, that the migrants would not bother to learn English properly and would merely pick up whatever they could in their particular environments. We would destroy any feeling that now exists that the language should be learned in the first five years. We could also lay ourselves open to a charge by the Australian public that we are indifferent to the welfare of our new settlers who could, if they had an insufficient knowledge of English, become involved in all sorts of difficulties with our laws, with housing agreements, even with simple traffic signs.

It is obvious from the tone of the debate that all honorable members are in sympathy with the migrants. We are, of course, closely associated with them and their problems. We must realise, however, that there are hundreds of thousands of Australians who go about their work from day to day and have only a cursory or generalised knowledge of the problems of migrants. Therefore I believe that if we allowed too early naturalisation without bringing some pressure to bear on the migrants to learn English we would be reproached by the Australian people for allowing migrants to become naturalised without their first having satisfied all the elementary requirements of their Australianisation, if I may use such a word. It is essential for the success of our immigration programme that we have the goodwill and support of the public. Therefore I suggest that these matters must be watched closely. We must not appear to grant naturalisation so freely or irresponsibly that people will say we are lax in our attitude towards migrants. A delicate balance of human relationships is involved, and any alterations to our procedure must be considered as carefully as the alterations to this legislation are being considered this evening. This does not imply that the suggestions that have been made will not be given full consideration. It is obvious that they have resulted from careful study by honorable members who are close to the subject and have applied themselves to immigration problems.

Some members have suggested that integration should take place as quickly as possible and that naturalisation can assist in this direction and can prevent the formation of national groups. I think that to some extent this is an exaggeration of the position in Austrafia. Obviously the first generation settlers tend to keep together for companionship in the days when they cannot speak English, but the members of the second generation are more quickly integrated because they go to our schools, learn and speak English and quickly become integral parts of the community. Any lessening of the need to understand English would tend to foster the collection of national groups. The better they learn English the more quickly they will be assimilated into our community. This applies even to the older generation.

Honorable members are well aware of the cities within cities in such large aggregations of people as there are in places like New York. In a square mile of that city one might find only one language spoken and newspapers printed only in that language - not the English language. Having such developments in mind I believe that we should, without placing tremendous emphasis on the need to understand English thoroughly, make it clear that migrants should acquire a fundamental knowledge of our language. Several honorable members have mentioned that the Department considers each case according to its circumstances. If in a particular case it is obvious that there are difficulties in the way of learning English I can assure the House that a sympathetic attitude is displayed. I repeat, however, that I think it is necessary to foster the impression that an understanding of English is necessary before naturalisation can be granted.

I followed with interest the remarks of the honorable member for Henty (Mr. Fox) about the methods used in other countries. We can find out and have found out what is done in other countries, but I can tell the House that many other countries which accept immigrants and grant naturalisation have studied our Australian methods and have been impressed with them. Whatever is done, as we have learned from the ex perience of our other efforts, publicity can be effective. We saw this recently with respect to the registration of aliens. Registration by September was imperative, and at the time a great deal of publicity was given to naturalisation. We have seen the stimulating benefits of that publicity, but after all, it must be recognised that this is a free country. Time and again, we portray Australia as a free country and we must not at any time do anything that appears to be evidence of coercion or pressure on our new settlers to become naturalised. We can only hope that when they come here, work among us, pay their taxes and behave as good citizens our example and our attitude towards them will more readily induce each of them to become one of us.

Australia is not alone in facing these problems of immigration and naturalisation. All countries face them. I read recently, I believe in a book by Elspeth Huxley, that many thousands of Poles who had been driven out of their own country by conditions of great privation and hardship went to live in England. Though they have feelings of tremendous affection for the country that gave them succour and shelter, 20 years afterwards nearly 100,000 of them are still unnaturalised. They speak English and to all intents and purposes have become part of the country. Many of them have visited Poland and returned to England realising that it has now become their country. Despite this, there is still a natural link between them and the country from which they came, and they remain unnaturalised. So Australia is not alone in being confronted by this desire of people not to break off the link with the country of their origin although many of them, perhaps insensibly, have become so much part of their new country that they could not possibly return to live happily in the country of their origin. I believe that our best reaction to this situation is to continue to display a warm and genuine interest in migrants. I am sure that if we do this, as time goes on the percentage of naturalisations will increase. As I said when I initiated this debate, I do not want it to be considered that any of us resists any proposal that would be for the betterment of migrants, but it is just as well to have all aspects of any important suggestions discussed before any final conclusions are reached and any action taken.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time.

In Committee.

Clauses 1 and 2 agreed to.

Clause 3 (Definitions).

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