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Monday, 18 June 2012
Page: 6750


Mrs PRENTICE (Ryan) (18:13): I rise to speak on the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Defence Families) Bill 2012. I believe very strongly in supporting members of the Australian Defence Force. It is one of the fundamental roles of the Australian government to recognise and support the commitment that thousands of our service men and women making each year in the defence of liberty of our nations and its citizens.

For more than 100 years, beginning with Australia's involvement in the Boer War in South Africa under the auspices of the United Kingdom, tens of thousands of Australians have died to defend freedom in the world. Not only should their memory and honour be commemorated; we must continue to support in whatever way possible their ultimate contribution.

Today's bill supports those families of current and future service men and women who are lateral ADF transfer members—that is, members of a foreign defence force who undertake to serve with the Australian military and serve with the Australian flag on their shoulder. We must recognise their contribution, as it is often the families of Defence Force members—parents, partners and children—who serve as the internal support network for a soldier. They also experience the hardships and irregularities associated with living with a member of the ADF, such as the constant rotations and deployments. This bill will support them by amending their citizenship and permanent resident eligibility requirements. Under normal circumstances the residence requirement dictates an applicant for citizenship must have been a resident for a minimum period of four years. In the case where someone completes a minimum amount of time of service in the defence forces or reserves, a shorter period of time is required. That service currently stands at service of 90 days in the Army, Navy or Air Force which may be non-continuous, service of 180 days in the reserves which may also be non-continuous or if they were discharged as medically unfit while in the service of Australia. Today's amendments will extend those same residence requirements to the families of ADF lateral recruits. As the explanatory memorandum notes, this is being done to acknowledge that defence service can be dangerous and the families of ADF lateral recruits bear a share of this danger.

This bill also redresses a situation where the settlement circumstances considered by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship are different for lateral recruits and their families. For example, the current situation does not allow children or dependants over the age of 16 to be included on an ADF member's citizenship application. For a spouse and dependants of an ADF lateral transfer member the current situation can result in significant hardship. For example, while family members are granted only permanent residence they are not eligible to receive Centrelink benefits or university HELP based placement, which can put a significant financial strain on families should they choose to study and plan for their future life in Australia. In the event that the ADF member dies during operations where a lateral member was granted citizenship but their family was not, there is no guarantee that they would even be allowed to stay in Australia, much less access the same benefits and resources available to a spouse of a normal ADF member.

Australians are compassionate and would not like to see any of these situations occur. While the government has given an assurance that families of deceased lateral transfer members would be taken care of, today's bill provides a legislative basis for their care and support. Similarly, if the couple were to divorce prior to the spouse and any dependants becoming citizens, certainly many issues would arise as a result.

As the member for Fadden has previously informed the House, the ADF is presently looking to recruit as many as 300 lateral transfer personnel each year, 90 per cent of whom would have families also wanting to come to Australia. Ultimately, today's amendments will act as an incentive for foreign soldiers to apply to become lateral members and, as such, will assist Australia in attracting highly specialised personnel to all areas of the ADF. This will help Australia save an enormous amount of both time and money building our own defence capability gaps. These people have already been recruited, trained and skilled to very exceptional levels in other countries. It should be noted that the commensurate net benefit that Australia gains from recruiting a lateral transfer member far exceeds any potential costs associated with bringing forward the citizenship status of the spouse and dependants of a lateral transfer member. To provide one example: if Australia recruited a fully trained pilot, who cost approximately $1.5 million to $2 million to train in their country of origin, their recruitment would offset the entire worst-case cost for the proposed changes of either the coalition's or Labor's bills.

Our Defence Force, of course, during this process ensures that a transfer is also suitable for the country from which a new member originates. The Cameron government in the United Kingdom is undertaking a strategic defence and security review which resolves to cut personnel across all of the UK's four defence services. As a result, the Royal Australian Navy has increased its recruitment practices for members of the British navy. In the future I expect that the other two branches of our Defence Force may do the same.

The bill of the member for Fadden and this duplicate government bill, whichever is passed, will go a long way to making Australia a more attractive option for a lateral transfer. With only 300 personnel and their family members, we are not necessarily talking about a lot of people coming to Australia each year, but they do bring important benefits not just to the ADF but also to our economy and society. Defence Families of Australia has reported that the vast majority of personnel come from the United Kingdom but also from New Zealand, South Africa and the United States. While we currently have many lateral transfer members serving in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, their spouses and children are often posted in Darwin, Brisbane and other places along the eastern seaboard. These family members often live in a Defence Housing Authority property; possibly some live at the Gallipoli Barracks in the electorate of Ryan. They shop locally and send their children to community child care and schooling. While less than 50 per cent of families had visited Australia prior to a successful transfer application, they can become part of the local community very quickly.

There were two very important developments in the introduction and passage of this bill today which again highlight the cynical politics and spin of this government. Unfortunately, the specific bills we see before us today are not the result of genuine concern but of the government's attempt to play a game of one-upmanship. Firstly, Defence has been undertaking a lot of good work in the area of lateral transfers and their family members, and I would like to express my gratitude to the organisation and membership of Defence Families of Australia, an independent advocacy group formed by the Department of Defence. This group not only consults and liaises with the Department of Defence but also provides information and guidance to families of Defence Force personnel. In 2009 the Defence Families of Australia conference gave in-principle support to approaching Defence and the government to seek an amendment to the Australian Citizenship Act 2007 to allow partners and older children to gain citizenship at the same time as the member.

The member for Fadden in his capacity as shadow minister for defence science, technology and personnel has worked closely with the defence community and was finally after a long time given the opportunity to introduce his private member's bill, the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Defence Service Requirement) Bill 2012, into the House on Monday, 21 May. The Labor government claim that there were broader considerations which needed to be included in the package, yet they decided not to follow Westminster tradition and introduce amendments to that effect. The coalition made it very clear throughout that process that we were more than willing to work with them if they had any concerns about the design of the bill or if there were any specific amendments they wished to offer. Instead they decided that the coalition's proposal was such a good idea that they would, effectively, copy the text of the bill of the member for Fadden, change a word here or there and try to pretend that it was the government's initiative. In fact, not only have they stolen the coalition's proposal and passed it off as their own; we had evidence of the real attitude of the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship to the bill when the idea was first proposed to him in a letter from the Minister for Defence Science and Personnel of 16 November 2010. The minister for immigration decided this issue was so important that he finally responded—87 days later—when he said, 'I do not consider it necessary to amend the citizenship legislation'.

Although it originally took the minister 87 days to respond to his own colleague, I am very appreciative that it only took the government three days—that is right: three days—to introduce today's bill into parliament following the member for Fadden's private member's bill. This is yet more evidence that this government are more than happy to publicly pretend that they care about our armed forces, but behind closed doors they are really abandoning moral and financial support. The budget announced by the Treasurer included $5.5 billion of cuts to the defence portfolio, bringing defence funding to its lowest level since 1938 as a share of GDP.

More details have emerged this week that recreational leave travel will cease for single members over the age of 21. Members of the Army and the Air Force were able to take one flight home per year, paid for by the government, and members of the Navy two flights. This will affect 22,000 people in the Defence Force, a significant number—and we are talking about individuals who just want to go home to see their family during Christmas or other significant times. These people were told when they signed up that if they were interstate and away from their families the government would support them. This is yet another deceit from the government, all for a measure that would cost the government only $15 million per year. Somehow, out of an annual defence budget of $24 billion, the government cannot find enough empathy in its ranks to say to defence personnel, 'You're supporting this country so we will support you'.

To conclude, the coalition's private member's bill was an opportunity to give families of lateral transfer members peace of mind. It was designed to send the message that we strongly support members of our Defence Force and that we also support their families. Consequently, these bills will act as an incentive to recruit the world's best-trained military personnel to come to this country and to serve under the Australian flag. While this Labor government has used this legislation as a cynical political manoeuvre, I welcome today's changes and I commend the bill to the House.