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Monday, 18 June 2012
Page: 6739

Mr ROBERT (Fadden) (17:25): I rise to lend the coalition's full support for the bill and to let the government know that we will be voting for the bill, as we always vote for good policy. In this case, good policy did not start with the government. The coalition strongly believes in supporting our ADF personnel and their families. Having been a serving member and having served overseas, and my wife having served at home, I understand full well the weight that sits on the shoulders of families—the wives and husbands, children, parents and grandparents, aunties and uncles, cousins, brothers and sisters. These are the enablers of our ADF personnel. They are the ones who in many ways have the biggest influence on our people remaining in the ADF. They are the ones who offer the greatest support to their serving family members. They experience the greatest hardships and endure sacrifices we will never know.

This bill seeks to look at the ADF lateral transfer members, those members who are transferring from other nations' militaries to move to Australia to join our military. They come from a variety of countries including New Zealand, South Africa, the US and are predominantly from the UK. Many lateral transfer members are from the UK Royal Navy, Marines, Army or Air Force. We have a long and proud history of recruiting members from the armed forces of other countries. We do so in order to fill gaps in our armed forces and in ways that suit the parent countries. For example, the Royal Australian Navy right now is taking advantage of the UK's Strategic Defence and Security Review which, amongst other things, is reducing the number of personnel across the UK's four services, a reduction which, may I say, is unfortunate. However, what is unfortunate for Britain is fortunate for Australia, for in this context the Royal Australian Navy is looking to increase its recruitment of Royal Navy personnel in order to fill capability gaps within critical skills areas.

ADF lateral recruits also bring a range of skills and experiences not only in foreign militaries but also in working with our allies and partners. They save the ADF an enormous amount of money and, more importantly, an enormous amount of time in training our own personnel. For example, if you consider the Royal Australian Air Force taking a Typhoon pilot who has been flying for upwards of 10 years and has absorbed millions and millions of pounds in flight training costs, the advantage to Australia from such an experienced pilot joining our Air Force is immeasurable.

It should be noted that the commensurate benefits that Australia gains from recruiting lateral recruits far exceeds, by an inordinate magnitude, any potential costs associated with bringing forward the citizenship status of the spouse or dependants. The ADF is looking to recruit 300 or more lateral transfer personnel each year in the coming years. It should be noted that about 90 per cent of lateral transfer members have families that they may wish to bring with them to Australia. I suggest most will. Noting the current recruitment environment in Australia and in places like the UK, it is timely to ensure those family members of lateral transfer members who are willing to serve in Australia and the ADF are afforded the same citizenship status as serving members. All lateral transfer members are required by law to qualify for permanent residency visas before the member can take up a position within the Australian Defence Force and subsequently move to Australia. This is necessary as all ADF members are required to be Australian citizens, and permanent residency is a prerequisite to citizenship. It is also important to note that spouses, partners and dependants of ADF lateral transfer members at the time of moving to Australia are afforded permanent residency but not citizenship.

Under the current Australian Citizenship Act 2007 that this bill seeks to amend, a permanent resident may be granted citizenship after completing 90 days permanent service in the ADF or 180 days in the Reserves. These sections are regularly used in support of lateral transfer members into the ADF. But this provision of early citizenship does not include the spouse or partner of the ADF member, hence this bill making changes.

This can and does lead to a range of discords within families of ADF lateral transferees. For example, Australia currently has ADF lateral transfer members deployed on operations. In MTF 3 in Afghanistan there were at least seven lateral transferees—citizens of Australia, wearing the Australian flag on their shoulders in combat operations—whose spouses or partners and children, at home, were not afforded the same citizenship as their husbands, in this case, who were fighting for Australia overseas. It is timely that such a situation be amended and the spouses or partners and dependants, of ADF lateral transferees who become citizens 90 days after joining the ADF, are afforded the same right.

In this case, the government enjoys the full support of the opposition. However, what the government is doing is particularly vexing and demeans it. The coalition put in a private member's bill on 21 May 2012 after extensive consultation with the sector—that is, with defence personnel, defence families and defence community organisations—to amend what it saw as an inadequacy in the act. The government at the time saw fit to oppose the private member's bill and the next day, on 22 May, introduced its own bill into the parliament. The Hon. Chris Bowen, the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, wrote to Minister Snowdon, the Minister for Defence Science and Personnel, on 4 February 2011—15 months ago—to say to the minister, who was querying the capacity to make these legislative changes, that he would not do it.

I will read two pages of the letter. He went through a whole range of reasons for it not being important or appropriate for the government to do it. He said:

Taking all these factors into account, I do not consider it necessary to amend the citizenship legislation. I would, however, encourage our two departments to continue to liaise with one another on this issue.

So for 15 months it has not been necessary for the government to move on what are reasonably critical amendments, hence the coalition moved a private member's bill in this place. For 15 months it has not been necessary—the minister's own words were, 'I do not consider it necessary'. But the coalition put up a private member's bill to enact sensible legislation and suddenly, the next day, the government considered it necessary to put up almost a carbon copy of the coalition's private member's bill and widened it in some areas to look the same.

Forgive me for being deeply cynical about the motives of this government. If the motives were to repair, fix, close and address inadequacy, surely the government could have agreed with the coalition's private member's motion. If the government honestly thought there were areas that needed to be widened, I told them we would accept any of their amendments in good faith because we believe this is good policy. But no, the government spoke against and indicated they would vote against the private member's motion and then ensured that they put their bill rapidly up the list of the bills to be debated so that it would be debated and voted on prior to the opposition's private member's motion that would be voted on, possibly, this Thursday.

To say that this is disingenuous, to say that this is Labor spin at its most heinous and most base level, is to say the truth on this matter. It is good policy, do not get me wrong. The coalition will vote for it. But the idea that the government could not possibly support a coalition private member's bill and have to rush their own in the next day, with a widening of areas so it looks demonstrably different, is disappointing. It says something to those lateral transfer members currently serving and to their families. I know the minister wrote 15 months ago and said, 'I do not consider it necessary to amend the legislation,' but, goodness, the coalition is now putting a private member's bill because of rank political purpose and opportunism and saying, 'We now consider it necessary.' Let me say to the government, that is disingenuous. It is disrespectful to those who wear our uniform.

I note that Labor extends the provisions in its bill beyond spouses and dependent children to any dependant—for example, elderly parents or disabled dependants not considered children. The coalition accepts that. It reduces the relevant defence service criteria for reserve service from 180 days to 90 days. We accept that. We do not know how many times that may be used but we accept it. And in the event the member dies before attaining citizenship, their spouse and dependants remain eligible for fast-track citizenship and we accept that as well.

We support the changes above. We would have wished that the government had simply amended the opposition's private member's bill. Either way, good policy is good policy and it should stand on its own two feet. Right now, there are ADF lateral members who are citizens in combat operations in Afghanistan. If there are seven in MTF 3 I gather there are some there now whose spouses and children at home are not enjoying the fruits of citizenship. It is important that they are recognised and receive the assistance that changes in this bill will provide.

It is clear that the rushed introduction of this bill is in response to the coalition introducing its bill. However, the peace of mind of families of those currently serving and looking to serve in the ADF is more important than base political argument. It is more important than spill and it is more important than Labor's disingenuous attempt here to be seen as the one doing the legislative changes. Importantly, the policy is wholly welcomed and supported by Defence Families of Australia. Defence Families of Australia have been a wonderful advocate for defence families and across a wide range of issues, from defence housing and spousal support to the need to fix inequities in the families of ADF lateral transfer members. I thank Defence Families of Australia for their ongoing advocacy on behalf of ADF personnel right around the country. I am pleased that today and tonight we will debate and vote on the bill, and I am pleased that it will go to the Senate, where it can be assured a speedy vote from the coalition. I am pleased with the outcome. I am appalled at Labor's process.