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Monday, 18 June 2012
Page: 6759

Mr MATHESON (Macarthur) (18:46): I rise today to support the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Defence Families) Bill 2012, which will fast track Australian citizenship for family members of Australian Defence Force personnel who have transferred from the military of another country. I do this because, like the coalition, I believe strongly in supporting our ADF personnel, their families, spouses and dependents. This bill will ensure that partners and dependents of Australian Defence Force transfer members will be eligible for Australian citizenship at the same time as the serving member.

An ADF lateral transfer member is a member of the Defence Force who has served on another nation's military and has subsequently moved to Australia to serve in our Defence Force. They come from different countries around the world including New Zealand, South Africa, the UK and the US. The ADF has a proud history of recruiting members from the armed forces of other countries. These members help to fill critical gaps in our Defence workforce and bring skills and experience to help improve the ADF's understanding of critical issues. I am sure most would agree that if the skills of these transfer members add to the capability of our Defence Force then we should do everything we can to support these serving members and their families.

As a child of an Australian soldier, I understand the importance of this bill for our Defence Force personnel and their families. My mum worried enough about my dad when he was serving overseas; I cannot imagine how distressing it would have been for our family if Dad was considered an Australian citizen and we were not. What would happen to my mum and her children if Dad was killed overseas in the line of duty? I would hate to think of the emotional and financial hardships that would follow. We all know that the spouses of ADF members and their dependents give so much to our nation. Without the full support of their families, many of our frontline soldiers would not continue to serve in the ADF. Not only do the families of our soldiers offer a great amount of support to the serving family member but they are the ones that experience all the hardships associated with being a Defence family.

I know all too well about the regular rotation of the deployments, which are just one of the many stresses placed on ADF families. During my childhood, my dad was stationed at North Head, Sydney; Wacol in Queensland; Malaya and Holsworthy. I was three years old when we moved to Malaya after dad was deployed there in 1961. He served at Terendak Camp Malacca from 1961 to 1963. My younger sister Kerry was born in Kuala Lumpur. Things could not have been easy for my mum bringing up two small children in a foreign country without the support of her family and friends. In 1963, dad was transferred to Holsworthy army barracks where we stayed until the end of his career. With each move we had to start over and build a new life. But I consider us to be the lucky ones. Some members of the Defence Force move around on a regular basis, and this can be a great strain on their families.

I have also experienced the hardship that families go through when a serving member returns from war with post-traumatic stress syndrome. I was a young child when my dad returned from Vietnam. He fought in the Battle of Long Tan. I remember going into his bedroom to wake him up one morning and he jumped up and nearly strangled me. He was still in battle mode in the war zone. He slept with his eyes open and relived the horrors of Vietnam in his sleep. To this day, my dad still relives those terrible memories in his dreams. I know all too well that it is not easy to be a family member of ADF personnel. But it is the love and support of these family members that help our soldiers through the tough times. I love my dad and I would support him through anything. I know that without the love and support he received from my mum and his children he could not have served his country so courageously for all those years. This is why if we want to keep these soldiers in our Defence Force we must look after their families too. I am sure this bill will be a great comfort to many families of those serving our country or currently living in Australia.

So many families would benefit from these changes. The research carried out by the Defence Families of Australia showed that 90 per cent of ADF lateral transfer members have families they bring with them to live in our country. I cannot stress enough how important it is that we support these families and give them the same citizenship status as serving members. As it stands now, all lateral transfer members are required by law to qualify for permanent residency visas before they can take up a position with the ADF and move to Australia. This is necessary because all ADF members are required to be Australian citizens and permanent residency is a prerequisite to citizenship. Under the Australian Citizenship Act 2007 a permanent resident may be granted citizenship after completing 90 days permanent service in the ADF or 180 days service in the reserves. The provision of early citizenship under the act does not include the spouse or partner of the ADF member and it does not include their children aged 16 or over, because they cannot be included on the ADF member's citizenship application. While the partners and dependents of these ADF members are given permanent residency, when they move to Australia they are not offered citizenship.

This situation is simply not fair on these families, especially not in a country which values the family unit so much and understands its importance. Australia currently has ADF lateral transfer members deployed on operations. If one of these members is killed, there is no legislation or guarantee that would allow their families to stay in Australia or have access to the benefits normally received by the spouse and dependants of an ADF member.

I think we need to ask this one simple question: why should these brave men and women join the Australian Defence Force and support our troops serving overseas if their families are not going to be looked after in the case of a tragedy? Yes, in the past the government has made assurances that support would be provided for these families, but there is no reason why these assurances cannot be turned into legislation.

The children of these soldiers also deserve government support for things like their education. Under the current system these young people are not eligible for university HELP based placement, which puts significant financial strain on families. I believe that if a family moves to Australia so one of its members can serve in our Defence Force then that family should be looked after and treated like any other family of an Australian soldier. It is also important to note that the net benefit that Australia gains from recruiting a lateral transfer member exceeds any potential costs associated with bringing forward the citizenship status of the member's family.

The ADF is looking to recruit up to approximately 300 lateral transfer personnel each year, but I can tell you now: this will not be an easy thing to do if we are not offering a fair citizenship process to the families of these personnel. This legislation will provide families of our Defence Force members with peace of mind. It is a policy that is supported by Defence Families of Australia who have been fantastic advocates of our serving men and women.

It is a shame that party politics must be brought into such an important issue, but I question the motives of the government to rush the bill before parliament, especially when it is so similar to the coalition's bill that we introduced on May 21. I would hate to think that our Defence Force personnel are being used by this government to play political games. The Labor government has done nothing in the past four years with regard to this issue; in fact, their own minister for immigration is on the record saying that he did not consider it necessary to amend the citizenship legislation for family members of our lateral transfer personnel. Yet, one day after the coalition introduces its bill, the government introduces a bill that is almost a carbon copy with some additional changes

These changes extend the legislation to include family members beyond partners and dependent children to any dependant, including elderly parents or disabled dependants who are not considered children. It also reduces the relevant defence service criteria for reserve service from 180 days to 90 days and, in the event the member dies before attaining citizenship, their spouse and dependants remain eligible for fast-tracked citizenship.

While the coalition supports these changes in addition to its own bill, the government could have easily introduced them as amendments to the coalition's bill, rather than playing political games and introducing its own bill. But, while I question the motives of the government, this will not stop me from supporting such an important bill for our transfer defence personnel and their families. I believe that anyone who is prepared to sacrifice their life for this country is worth all the support we can give them, as are their families, without whom the courageous men and women in our armed forces would not be able to do the fantastic job they do for this country. It is for this reason that I commend this bill to the House, and I commend the member for Fadden for initiating and bringing this legislation before the parliament today.