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Monday, 18 June 2012
Page: 6772

Mr FRYDENBERG (Kooyong) (19:43): I rise to speak on the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Defence Families) Bill 2012 and in doing so support many of my colleagues in this House, including the last speaker, the member for Bennelong. This bill will amend the Australian Citizenship Act 2007 to fast-track citizenship for family members of defence personnel who are lateral recruits to the Australian Defence Force.

As the law currently stands, a member of the Australian Defence Force and their children under the age of 16 years can apply for citizenship after that member has completed 90 days of service in the permanent forces or six months in the reserves. Family members who do not fall within this category, including children who are over the age of 16 years, have to wait for at least four years before applying for citizenship. They can get permanent residency but not citizenship. However, under the changes being proposed in this legislation, spouses and dependants will be deemed eligible to apply for citizenship after 90 days of the ADF member's service, which could be the equivalent of 90 days of paid service in the reserves, not the 180-day requirement as currently stands.

There is a strong rationale for this bill. The Australian Defence Force already recruits up to about 300 defence personnel from abroad coming from a range of countries that includes New Zealand, the United Kingdom, South Africa and the United States. Often these recruits come to Australia with the support of their original country. Importantly, 90 per cent of these lateral recruits have families and bring them with them. These lateral recruits fill important capability gaps in our service. We are providing them with a job in our first-class Australian Defence Force, and in return Australia gets a skilled and highly trained military person who adds to our country's defence force's professionalism and skill set. It is in reality a win-win for both sides.

This legislative change before the House tonight enhances the Australian Defence Force's ability to recruit the best on offer. It also recognises that we support not just the ADF personnel themselves but their families as well—the ones who provide the support, who live with the hardships while the Defence Force members are away and whose sacrifice is not necessarily with their own lives but often with their livelihoods, which are interrupted significantly by long periods away for ADF personnel.

Be under no illusions; we need these lateral recruits. If one goes to the Army's online recruitment centre, as I did prior to coming into this House, there is a section for overseas applicants where it lists the positions for which the Australian Defence Force is looking for officers and soldiers. Applications, ironically, closed on 15 June this year, which has just gone, but there is a long list of positions for which the Australian Defence Force is seeking commissioned officers. It includes, in aviation, rotary wing pilots; in artillery, officers with surveillance and target acquisition and offensive support specialisation; in dental, specialised officers who are qualified dentists; in the nursing corps, qualified nurses; in engineering, aeronautical, electrical and mechanical engineers; in the intelligence corps, qualified intelligence corps officers; in transport, officers with amphibious experience in particular; in ordnance, logistics officers; in military police, qualified military police officers; in signals, officers with electronic warfare or cyberwarfare experience; and the list goes on. This shows the capability gaps which we need filled.

This legislation cannot wait, as the opportunities to recruit these laterals and take advantage of, for example, what is happening in the United Kingdom with their significant reduction in military personnel numbers, is right now. In fact, if we act now and lift the incentives for the best and the brightest from overseas to come to our defence forces, we stand best positioned to meet some of these strategic challenges ahead. I remember my trip to Afghanistan last year to meet with some of the more than 1,500 men and women of the Australian Defence Force who are serving our country so bravely in that difficult warzone. I heard from both Australian soldiers and some British troops about the significant changes taking place in the UK military scene, where tough economic conditions had led to a reassessment of priorities by government there and a number of senior military personnel were going to be without jobs.

It is also important to note that, for every one of these lateral recruits that Australia does attract, we do save some of the financial expense that otherwise would have been incurred in training that person up. For example, a fully trained pilot will cost the taxpayer between $1½ million and $2 million. Should you be able to recruit somebody with that skill set, you are saving the taxpayer an equivalent amount.

One of the other important flow-on effects from this legislation is that it helps mitigate the likelihood of, in the terrible event that an ADF member is killed, the dependants being unable to stay in Australia or access benefits because they are not citizens—benefits that may otherwise be payable to an Australian spouse. Now we have lateral recruits who are serving in ADF combat operations in Afghanistan. It is personnel like these whose spouses and family members will get real benefit from this legislation, because fast-tracking citizenship for them could mean that they are also going to be able to access benefits which otherwise might not be available.

I want to say that this legislation introduced by the government is virtually identical to that which was introduced by my friend and colleague the coalition shadow minister, the member for Fadden. He took the initiative when the government did not. He got the support of Defence Families of Australia. He advocated for change because he was in touch with the needs of Australian defence personnel and their families. His bill was introduced first and the government shamelessly followed. I do welcome the government's bill before the House tonight, but I acknowledge that it took them a long time to change heart. In fact, the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Chris Bowen, in a letter dated 4 February 2011, specifically rebuffed the Minister for Defence Science and Personnel, Warren Snowdon, on this point when he said, 'I do not consider it necessary to amend the citizenship legislation.'

Now we have the government backflipping yet again—and don't we get used to it. However, this time, fortunately, it is in pursuit of a good cause, and I support the bill before the House. But I acknowledge that it was the member for Fadden and our shadow minister in this portfolio who took the initiative, who led the charge and who shone a light on this government's deficiencies. It is because of his effort that the government has followed with its own bill, and it is because of his effort that we are now seeing a change for the better for the Defence Families of Australia, who deserve our support.

The world is unstable. We are seeing the economic crisis in Europe. We are seeing the United States in an election year galvanised by $14 trillion of debt. We are seeing a rising China, a rising India, and we are seeing tensions in our own region in the South China Sea which is leading to some countries—Vietnam, the Philippines, Singapore and others—balancing against what they see as an increased power play by China. In fact, we in Australia have seen that the US Marines are going to rotate through Darwin and perhaps elsewhere. They are all significant changes that reflect the sense of instability in our region.

During this period of instability there is no more important Australian institution than our Defence Force. The men and women of our Australian Defence Force are our last line of defence. They uphold our values and help ensure that the world and our region is a better place. That has been the role played for more than a century by our Australian Defence Force. That is why it is unconscionable that so much of the defence budget has been ripped out by this government. According to ASPI, it has been more than $20 billion in the last few years alone.

Mr Sidebottom interjecting

Mr FRYDENBERG: It is not a laughing matter.

Mr McCormack interjecting


The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Hon. BC Scott ): The member for Riverina, the member for Kooyong has the call.

Mr FRYDENBERG: It is not a laughing matter, as Sid Sidebottom is having—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: The member for Kooyong will refer to members by their title or their electorate.

Mr FRYDENBERG: The member for Braddon, may I say, from Tasmania. Can I say that he should not be laughing at what is a very serious point, which is actually this government's undermining of defence.

I want to finish here, because we are talking about a bill which will enhance Australia's strategic depth and ensure that we can continue to attract the best and brightest from overseas. That is what this bill is about. I commend this bill, but I acknowledge that it is in the context of following the initiative of the member for Fadden and it is in the context of this government ripping billions of dollars out of a crucial defence budget at a time when our region is unstable and when we are seeing heightened tensions. I do support this bill. I think that giving lateral recruits fast access to citizenship for their families, for their spouses, for their dependents and for their children over the age of 16 is a very positive initiative.

With 300-plus lateral recruits coming to this country every year, absolutely critical positions, as I outlined, in aviation, in the nursing corps, in engineers, in the intelligence corps, in ordnance, in military police, in signals, in artillery and in a lot more of these critical areas, enhancing these lateral recruits' and their families' ability to access citizenship is a positive development. But I say to this government, 'Don't play the politics of defence', because in this climate our Australian Defence Force deserve all the moral and financial support that this parliament can muster. I pay tribute to the legacy of the Howard government in defence and to the efforts of my colleague the member for Fadden in taking the initiative on this bill.