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Monday, 18 June 2012
Page: 6761

Mrs GRIGGS (Solomon) (18:55): I rise to speak to Australian Citizenship Amendment (Defence Families) Bill 2012, a bill which seeks to recognise the partners and dependants of those members of our Australian Defence Force—or the ADF, as we know it—enlisted through lateral transfer measures in terms of their eligibility for Australian citizenship.

Lateral transfer members help to fill critical gaps within the ADF workforce. They bring skills and experience, enabling them to hit the ground running and thus afford the ADF an opportunity to utilise these skills and experience without the cost and delay of training an individual from scratch.

Lateral transfers and the practice of recruiting experience is not a new phenomenon: in this day and age it is just one avenue or tool to which any employer organisation may access when looking to recruit new staff. In the case of our ADF, they seek to recruit up to 300 lateral transfer personnel each year. This number is entirely the prerogative of the ADF but, importantly, it must be noted that 90 per cent of the ADF lateral transfer members have families who also move to Australia.

The Australian Citizenship Act requires that all lateral transfer members must qualify for permanent residency visas before they can take up a position with the ADF and therefore move to Australia. Simply, this ensures permanent residency is in place, a prerequisite to citizenship and compliance with section 21(2)(c) and section 23 of the Australian Citizenship Act 2007, where a permanent resident may be granted citizenship after completing 90 days permanent service in the ADF or 180 days service in the reserves. Sadly, at present, the provisions for early citizenship as outlined in the act do not include the spouse or partner of an ADF member.

Amendments to this act, designed to bring reassurance to those who may be a spouse or partner in terms of citizenship, are welcomed and supported. Let me quantify the importance of these amendments. I referred to our Australian Defence Force in my opening comments—Australian defence personnel: personnel who, as military representatives of this country are at times deployed offshore in response to the needs of Australia and broader global military representation. We expect that those people serving within the ranks of the ADF, and who undertake the rigours and dangers associated with that calling are Australian by law; yet, in the same breath, we have been unwilling to afford that same level of acceptance and compliance to citizenship responsibilities for partners, spouses and immediate families of these members.

Darwin is home to an extensive number of ADF personnel, including their partners, spouses and families. It is my experience that those partners, spouses and families underpin and provide a solid foundation—a foundation which supports and enables the very efforts we as Australians expect from those within our ADF ranks. In many respects, those who partner and are family to serving ADF members are not acknowledged when we talk of the ADF. We forget the significant impost on them. We forget the emptiness they feel.

We do not see the loneliness they endure, nor do we see the significant impact on families of all that is required of those who fill our ADF's ranks. We do not see the pain when ADF members are injured or killed in the line of duty. Yes, we see the media reports; yes, we see the pain for a fleeting moment as we watch television coverage of a grieving family, but we do not see the depth or extent of that pain. We do not see what happens to the family—to the spouse or dependant—beyond what is evident in that fleeting TV coverage of loss.

There are ADF lateral transfer members on deployment. Sadly, under the Australian Citizenship Act as it stands, if one such member should be killed there is no guarantee that their spouses or dependants would be able to stay in Australia or have access to the benefits normally payable to the spouse and dependants of an ADF member. That, of course, is the worst case. I acknowledge the government has made assurances to provide support in such circumstances; however, this is of little comfort to families without the surety of legislative compliance.

Beyond the worst case, we fail to acknowledge the importance of the support provided to a member of the ADF by their spouse and dependants. We do not take for granted the importance that our own families have for us against the backdrop of a life in politics. We in this place are subject to the rigours of parliamentary obligations, be they sitting days, committee obligations or travel within our own electorates. Our own dependants are left to deal with many of the day-to-day obstacles of life without immediate access to us. We identify and acknowledge the additional pressures on our loved ones as a result of the roads we travel—yet the lives of the dependants of many ADF personnel are far more complicated and impacted and there is often little support for access to family and friends. Long periods of deployment, regular moves and transfers around the country, and irregularity in schooling and access to government services and entitlements are just some of the difficulties they face. More fundamentally, the ability for a spouse or dependent to share those important and life-giving moments—the development of a relationship or a family or the capacity to provide some balance and normality to a child's life—is compromised. To quantify further, the spouse and dependants of ADF lateral transfer members have the additional disadvantage of being away from the country that was once their home and where they had familiarity, stability and networks of friends, family and services to tap into.

I witness these issues on a daily basis. I feel for those partners and dependants left behind and I see the impacts. Currently, as permanent residents, dependants of ADF lateral transfer members are not eligible for university FEE-HELP placement—an additional financial impost. Divorce rates and family breakdowns within the ADF are above the national average, which is not surprising given the realities of life as an ADF spouse, partner or dependant. The current act provides no security of citizenship or access to government support to the spouse of an ADF lateral transfer member in the event of divorce. I highlight the value of the amendments in this bill and support the amendments to the Australian Citizenship Act. Ensuring that partners and dependants of ADF lateral transfer members are eligible for Australian citizenship at the same time as the serving member is, in my mind, clear recognition at last of the true value that should have been afforded to these people when the act was originally progressed. Yet, despite the support I verbalise, I am unable now to simply fold my speech up and sit down without addressing a couple of issues which remain outstanding in my mind.

I remain a little perplexed that, on 21 May this year, the coalition introduced a nearly identical bill. This Australian Citizenship Amendment (Defence Families) Bill, aside from a few minor changes, remains essentially the same. I am unclear why the coalition bill could not simply have been agreed to in a bipartisan manner with the inclusion of the amendments contained in this bill, unless it was political point scoring by the government. Additionally, the introduction of this bill on 22 May comes some 12 months after the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Chris Bowen, wrote to the Minister for Defence Science and Personnel, Warren Snowdon, on 4 February 2011, stating in the second-last paragraph of his letter:

I do not consider it necessary to amend the citizenship legislation.

The introduction of the bill on 22 May comes one day after the coalition bill was introduced.

It is clear that the spirit underlying these amendments demonstrate that both sides of this House recognise the legislation's current limitations and have sought, in an almost identical manner, to address them. It is a pity a more direct and cohesive parliamentary process could not have been achieved, and that is very disappointing. I commend the bill to the House. I would also like to acknowledge the work of the member for Fadden in bringing his bill to this House.