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Wednesday, 23 June 2010
Page: 6424

Mr MORRISON (10:01 AM) —The coalition supports the Immigration (Education) Amendment Bill 2010. It introduces amendments which will encourage more vulnerable migrants to undertake their most important and urgent settlement task, and that is learning English. This bill implements minor changes to the delivery and eligibility requirements of the Adult Migrant English Program. In particular, the proposed act will remove administration fees, at a cost to the budget of approximately $10,000. It will make New Zealand citizens ineligible for taxpayer funded classes and will allow new arrivals up to six months to register for classes but require them to commence classes within 12 months, which is an existing requirement. It will allow migrants five years to complete these courses under the program. It will also give the Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship discretion to adjust time limits on registration, commencement and completion of the program when required, which recognises one of the most important aspects of settlement policy, and that is that everyone’s case is different, particularly when we are dealing with those who have come from quite extreme circumstances under our refugee and humanitarian program. It is important that we recognise the individual circumstances of those individuals and that, wherever possible, we tailor our programs to suit their individual circumstances to assist their integration and assimilation into the Australian community.

The legislation also provides access to the program for 15- to 17-year olds who are not participating in school within the first year of arrival in Australia. The proposed amendments will ensure that clients under 18 years of age will not be subject to the six-month registration time frame but rather will be required to register and commence the program within 12 months. The five-year completion time frame will also apply to them.

As I move around the country and talk to those involved in the settlement services funded by the government—and I think there is a genuine level of bipartisanship on this aspect of the policy—it is always incredibly encouraging to hear stories of young children who have been settled in this country, particularly those coming through that refugee humanitarian program, who have gone to school and done extremely well. They have learnt English and they have gone on to higher education. Recently in Townsville I was talking to those who provide the settlement services there, and I learnt the wonderful story of a young woman who had gone through this exact process, having had very little English when she arrived. She went through this program of going to school, and she has now gone through university. She has achieved extraordinary things, and now her younger siblings are doing exactly the same thing. That is what happens to those who go through school. But there is the opportunity also for those who are not at school, for whatever reason, if they are under the age of 18, to participate in the English language program, which gives them the most necessary skills to make their contribution and to realise their own goals and objectives. That is a very positive thing.

This bill will also allow the program to deliver a citizenship course for vulnerable refugee migrants who are unable to sit the computer based test. This course does not form part of the Adult Migrant English Program curriculum but is in addition to it. It is another worthy initiative in this bill. The AMEP was established in 1950. It is a national settlement program that provides up to 510 hours of free English language tuition for eligible adult migrants and humanitarian entrants who do not have functional English.

Some migrants with provisional visas may be eligible to join the program. The AMEP is delivered nationally by 13 service providers with learning centres in more than 250 locations. Additional tuition is available through the special preparatory program to humanitarian entrants with low levels of schooling or who have had difficult pre-migration experiences, such as torture and trauma.

In 2008-09 the AMEP provided English-language tuition to 52,720 clients and expenditure was $174.5 million. That was money very well spent. Some 56.6 per cent of all AMEP clients were family stream entrants, 26.4 per cent were humanitarian stream entrants, and 17 per cent were dependents of skilled entrants. AMEP clients represent 193 countries of birth. Some 19 per cent of all clients indicated they had seven years or less of formal education, 68 per cent of all clients were female, 77.4 per cent of all clients were aged from 16 to 44, and 22.6 per cent were aged above the age of 44. The most common spoken languages were Mandarin, Arabic and Vietnamese.

Australia is almost unique in the world in the free provision of language tuition to residents. Both sides of politics have a pretty much bipartisan approach to settlement services. We both acknowledge the critical importance of English language acquisition, although we may disagree from time to time about the detail of how that is provided. The provision of settlement services in general is an uncontested area of policy. Again, both sides acknowledge the critical importance of providing services that ensure the successful and quick settlement and integration of new migrants into our community.

I was recently, as I referred to before, in Queensland, but on this occasion I was in Brisbane and I had the opportunity to visit with a group called ACCES, which is a non-profit group that delivers a range of services to newly arrived migrants and refugees in Logan City. It is run by their CEO, Gail Ker, and her team. ACCES Services is a community based non-profit organisation which was established some 25 years ago. They are a committed to fostering community development, settlement and employment initiatives and to providing personal support programs to address the needs of disadvantaged community groups, including migrants, refugees, humanitarian entrants and temporary protection visa holders. Under a social justice framework they are also committed to creating coherence through the development of needs based services and the establishment of collaborative service delivery with relevant service providers.

I was particularly impressed with their commitment to putting migrants into work as quickly as possible, and their hands-on, practical approach to ensuring that people can stand on their own two feet as quickly as possible. They have developed a number of very innovative ways for doing that—for example, outreach to a wide variety of potential employers to discuss employment opportunities and tell the good stories of employment success, particularly for those who have come through the humanitarian program. This includes discussions about cultural differences and practices and the importance of mentoring. Word of mouth is the most important PR tool newly arrived migrants have, once employers know how eager these people are to work and how committed and loyal they are to the companies that have put faith in them. They have found a number of willing employers and newly arrived migrants on their way to self-sufficiency.

Gail told me the story of one individual who was walking two hours to and from work every day. If only that level of enthusiasm was repeated more around the country it would be a great thing. I think it highlights the gratitude and the real sense of value that is placed by those who come to Australia on the opportunity that they have been given—and that they have been generously given by a generous nation. I noted also that ACCES had created and developed small business opportunities which employ migrants and refugees. For example, they have established a furniture removal business and even an asset maintenance business, with lawn mowing and things of that nature. They established a hub for migrant services, which is truly innovative, bringing together a range of government departments and service providers to help newly arrived migrants find their way. They have also obtained funding from a range of sources in order to provide more tailored services to the almost 500 clients they take care of each year. It is one of the most innovative and successful service delivery models I have encountered in the time I have been in this portfolio, and if this bill were consolidating these initiatives into the AMEP business model then it would be sure to be a great success.

When I was in Brisbane I met Mohammed Olad Salad, who was teaching English to some primary kids. They were Abdiaziz from Iraq, Umucaltum, Abdiwadud and Hamdi, a family from Somalia, and Maung Lwin, Tha Ku and Mumu from Burma. It was marvellous to witness the enthusiasm and commitment of these young kids of such diverse backgrounds and circumstances engaging with the programs and settlement opportunities that were being provided to them. It is a hope for all of us that these children not only learn English in the supportive environment provided by places like ACCES but learn the lessons about each other and the values of the broader Australian community, which I know they do.

There are a range of programs offered under our settlement strategy and policy. I think it is a great credit to this parliament that these settlement programs are supported by both sides of politics regardless of who is in government. I am aware that recently the parliamentary secretary, Mr Ferguson, has engaged in wide-ranging consultation with service provider groups all around the country. There has been feedback from those groups. The parliamentary secretary said to me, when we were both at a function, that he was a bit surprised that the feedback was so good and asked for it to be checked. I think it is great that he had that level of appreciation of the need to ensure that the feedback was right. But the feedback was, indeed, right and the policy parameters that have been put into these programs over a long period of time by our government, when we were there, and by this government have received a very good reception. There are always things that can be improved; they are being improved and there is always good advice.

The one thing I take away when I visit places like ACCES is that the key to the success of this model has been in engaging community based organisations in the delivery of these services. Gail, who was recently awarded an Australian honour—deservedly so—has created an integrated hub of service delivery that seeks to link people to services and to link people to each other. The more that we can empower Gail Ker and her colleagues all around the country who are engaged in this business the better. The more we can get out of the way and give them the tools they need to do the job they are so passionate about doing I am very optimistic about.

I am very optimistic about the success of our settlement programs. There is no doubt that around the world our settlement programs in Australia are perceived as the best in the world—long may that continue. People and governments come from around the globe to see how we do it. We do it well. We need to continue to do it well so, on behalf of the opposition, I am pleased to continue to give our support to working on the success of these settlement policies, to continue to engage with the sector and to listen to them about where the improvements can be made. We must continue to give them the assurance that this parliament stands behind the Gail Kers and all of Gail’s ilk all around the country as they stand in the breach and deliver these services, not just as a job, but out of a real sense of passion, service and commitment, which I know is represented by many, not only in that area but all throughout out community. It is an excellent model.

This bill, which seeks to make some minor amendments to the way that the English language program is delivered, takes another albeit small but good step forward. There will be more small steps and there will, hopefully, be some large steps as well. There is nothing more important than giving someone who comes to this country the language skills they need to be functional and to make a contribution. Without the language it is harder to get a job. Without the language you do not know how to get on a bus or you do not know how to access services. We all know of people in our own electorates and through our experiences who may not have had access to these services 30, 40 or 50 years ago and to this day are hamstrung by their ability to read the most simplest of things such as letters from government departments or agencies informing them of various things.

The fact that we are now ensuring that a much higher proportion of migrants who come to this country have those language skills, I think, is a very positive thing. It builds social harmony. It moves away from the situation where people tend to stay clustered in enclaves and that more have an open outlook to the Australian community and are invited to engage. These are the tools that we want people to have. These are the tools that should be funded to be provided to those who are delivering services on the ground.

I commend the government on this bill. The coalition is very happy to support it and to continue to work with the government and, more importantly, Gail Ker and all the Gail Kers to ensure that we deliver these programs effectively in the future and maintain our reputation as being the best in the world in this area.