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Wednesday, 23 June 2010
Page: 6434

Mr LAURIE FERGUSON (Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs and Settlement Services) (10:45 AM) —in reply—I thank members for their contribution to the debate on the Immigration (Education) Amendment Bill 2010, and I will turn to those individually at a later stage. The provisions in the bill reflect the government’s commitment to delivering long-term sustainable settlement outcomes for newly arrived migrants through the integrated, targeted and well-designed programs that support clients in their transition to life in Australia. The Adult Migrant English Program is Australia’s largest and longest running program, having been in place for over 60 years. It is delivered at more than 250 locations around Australia to more than 50,000 clients from 193 countries each year.

Since roughly 20 years ago when I went out to the Villawood migrant centre, which has become a detention centre in more recent times, and met Peter McBorney, George Campbell and other staff—and equally through my sister-in-law Patti Waller—I have appreciated that there is a particular commitment by migrant English teachers in this country. They are like us. We might be interested in overnight allowances, our superannuation et cetera. There is a degree of self-interest with everyone. In some of the struggles around the allocation of hours for teaching et cetera, they are like everyone else and have a degree of their own industrial interest. But I have run across so few groups of people as committed to the clients they work with as these migrant English teachers. They give their time on weekends. They know these people personally. They enrich their lives and are involved with these families. It is worth remembering when we talk about the 60-year anniversary—an anniversary that was saluted by the department of immigration last year—that the people who established the migrant English service in Australia went there on their holidays as volunteers. It is internationally renowned and, as I said, it is full of very committed people.

The Adult Migrant English Program plays a significant role in the government’s social inclusion agenda by providing clients with settlement focused English language tuition and settlement support soon after their arrival in Australia. Participation in the Adult Migrant English Program is the beginning of the path to further education, employment and participation in Australian society. It is a well-established fact that the ability to communicate effectively in English is a key factor in participating in Australian society.

The initial results from the Employment Pathways and Traineeship in English and Work Readiness initiatives announced in the 2008-09 budget demonstrate the effectiveness of the Adult Migrant English Program. Over half of the 1,047 pilot program participants progressed to further education and training and approximately one-third gained employment. For people who are separate from the realities, who are not involved and who are unaware of what really goes on, half might not sound impressive, but I think it is an extremely successful outcome.

We have to understand the kinds of people we are dealing with. I often get, quite correctly, particularly African communities saying to me: ‘Australian politicians and Australian government employees often talk about the fact that we have problems. In actual fact many of us come here through the skilled intake.’ That is very true, and I appreciate that. However, when we talk about the success rate for this program being half of the over 1,000 participants we have to understand that we are talking about a cohort in the refugee intake who have in many cases lived in refugee camps for decades. We are talking about people who have had very limited educational options in life. We are talking about people who come from families that have been destroyed. We are talking about family formations that have had to be recreated when parents were killed—nieces taken over by their aunts et cetera. We are talking about in many cases people who come to this society without any formal education whatsoever and are from families where the parents are illiterate in their own language, let alone English. That is a tremendous outcome for that pilot program, and it has certainly informed the government direction in this field.

The new Adult Migrant English Program business model, which is an amendment in this bill, will provide greater settlement support, flexibility and clarity for clients. Clients will now be able to register for the program within six months of arrival rather than within three months, enabling them to concentrate on establishing themselves and their families when they first arrive in Australia.

That reality very much informed our consultation process last year on the broader issue of our settlement process in this country. It is renowned internationally as the best in the world and has been created by Labor and Liberal governments. But that informs very much our directions on a number of fronts. People are under so much pressure in those first three months: re-establishing in our society, getting to know the education system, getting connected with Medicare, meeting people in their community and being concerned with family who have been left behind and are still in traumatic circumstances. Extending that to six months I think is a very intelligent move.

The introduction of a five-year time frame for completion of the English language tuition will provide clients with an incentive to fully participate in the program soon after their arrival. Clients can move on more rapidly to further education and employment, enabling them to more fully participate and contribute to Australian society. The flexibility established by the bill allows clients to apply for extensions of the program registration, commencement and completion time frames both before and after these time frames have expired. The five-year time frame for program completion may only be extended where—and I stress this—compassionate and compelling reasons exist. This approach ensures that most clients participate in the Adult English Migrant Program early in their settlement period, whilst providing flexibility for a few vulnerable clients in difficult circumstances. As the member for Werriwa indicated, the reality even amongst Australian students is that if people get put off things and drift away from the system for a while the chances of reconnecting are diminished. Quite frankly, this is an overdue change to our requirements.

Amendments to program eligibility will provide clarity and equality in program participation. By providing for a registration time frame of 12 months for clients under 18 years of age rather than the six-month registration time frame that other clients must meet, the amendments will ensure that clients who are not participating in the school system in the year after their arrival in Australia are able to access the Adult Migrant English Program, as announced in the 2009-10 budget. This measure enables these youth to begin building a positive life for themselves in Australia. Once again, it is indisputable that we do not want these people dropping out of society and becoming marginalised, outside of education, disconnected and ready recruits for antisocial activity. I think this will be universally welcomed as a progressive change.

Additionally, the amendments will ensure continued access to the citizenship course for eligible clients. Only applicants for citizenship who face significant difficulty preparing for and sitting the computer based test will have access to the alternative citizenship course based test. I am pleased to say that, when I was in Adelaide last Saturday, as well as meeting the general African community I had separate meetings with representatives of the Burundian, Liberian and Sudanese communities. The continuation of these courses was stressed to me as a very necessary requirement in their communities. I was pleased to say that the government was continuing these courses through the Adult Migrant English Program. The government firmly believes that the AMEP plays a vital role in the government’s social inclusion agenda by helping newly arrived migrants transition to life in Australia and start on the path to further education and employment. The bill ensures that the Adult Migrant English Program continues to play this role whilst providing greater support and certainty for clients, enabling them to be more fully participative in Australian society at an early stage of their settlement.

I now turn to the contributions of previous speakers. I am pleased to join with the member for Cook, the opposition spokesman in the area of migration and settlement, in saluting the efforts of Gail Ker in gaining the Order of Australia. That is why we appointed her to this nation’s multicultural advisory committee. We recognised the vital work she was doing in Logan City and broader Brisbane. Last Friday I was pleased to be in Brisbane at a very successful refugee art launch in West End. Quite frankly, I think everyone present was absolutely surprised by the quality of material there. I agree with the member for Cook that Gail has been at the forefront of settlement of this country. It is also worth acknowledging that Brisbane has two of the lead agencies in this country—MDA, which is run by Kerrin Benson, and ACCESS, which is run by Gail. To my mind, if we went through the migrant resource centres around the country, these two Brisbane based organisations would be in the top half a dozen. It certainly is indicative of a very professional approach in Brisbane with regard to settlement of people. Both people are acknowledged in this nation as amongst the leaders of thought and action on this front.

I am pleased of course in the broader sense. The opposition spokesman has given bipartisan support for this bill. We have been extremely successful in settling seven million people over the postwar period, including 700,000 refugees, and this scheme—I have said it before and I will say it again—which was recognised by the UNHCR on the visit of their international director as being the best in the world, has been created on an essentially bipartisan agreement over many decades. Whether it is connecting people with society, getting people connected with education or health or putting people through torture and trauma counselling, we are in the forefront internationally. I acknowledge Mr Morrison’s interest in the sector and I am pleased to say that he has played a role in being very positive about the settlement programs in this country. Whilst we might disagree about the refugee policies on detention, temporary protection visas, the rules and working rights, on this matter we do have a commonality of purpose and position.

I also want to refer to the member for Werriwa, who plays a very active role in this policy area. I note he made a speech earlier this week about demands by the Syrian government with regard to Australian migration officials and the question of claims that the Syrian government requires certain information about refugee claimants. Last night the member for Mallee and I had the opportunity to attend a very interesting talk by Diana Buttu on the question of Palestine. I took this issue up with the Ambassador of Syria and I will certainly be pursuing the matter in the future. We certainly do not want to have to give information about claimants’ details to another country. The ambassador put a different point to me. He gave a different reason for that and said that it had largely been sorted out. But it certainly is typical of the member for Werriwa’s interest in this field, most particularly centred around the significant number of Middle Eastern Christians in the Liverpool-Fairfield region. As he notes, his region is one in which there is a high prevalence of, particularly, Bangladeshis and Pacific Islanders, and it is typical of the region and his own personal involvement that the Casula Powerhouse in the next month will be running a nationally recognised, nationally renowned cultural two-day event with regard to Pacific Islander communities. The member for Lowe also made a contribution. Of course he is very clearly associated with hyperactivity in the Italian, Tamil and South American communities! Both of them are people with a deep interest in the realities of multicultural Australia.

I want to end by saying that I have come here this morning from an interview with Korean television about multiculturalism. What we are doing in this country, despite 2GB and a few other people, is really world renowned. It is typical that Korea is now looking at having to go down our road of multicultural policy because they can no longer survive as a monolithic, one-culture society. They need significant people in the workforce. They have a significant number of intercultural marriages. They are here in Australia to see what this country is doing, what they can learn from us and how can they build their structures.

Thank you to all those who have contributed in the debate.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Ordered that this bill be reported to the House without amendment.