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Tuesday, 15 September 2009
Page: 6536

Senator BARNETT (12:37 PM) —I stand to speak on the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Test Review and Other Measures) Bill 2009. I would draw the Senate’s attention to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee report just tabled, in September 2009, and in particular the Liberal senators’ comments in that report. I note that the bill was referred to the Senate committee on 25 June, to deliver a report by 7 September.

The bill seeks to amend the Australian Citizenship Act 2007, and we know that it makes changes to the citizenship program which you might consider technical and administrative but are actually very important. The funding for the citizenship program is $123.6 million, provided over five years in the 2007-08 budget, to establish and implement the test. The need for the test has certainly received strong community support. There has been a review of the citizenship test. The Hon. Dick Woolcott headed the Australian Citizenship Test Review Committee, undertaking that review with others and delivered a report, which of course took many months.

I give that as the background, because, just days before the report was tabled by the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee on September 7, the government introduced amendments to their own amendments. And then, subsequent to that, they introduced further amendments to those amendments. What we have here is a problem for the government in terms of process—in terms of getting their act together to ensure that the parliament, the public and certainly the people in this chamber have a proper opportunity for full and frank discussion to take place with respect to the merits or otherwise of these amendments. Senator Hanson-Young has quite rightly noted on behalf of the Greens the concerns that she has in this respect. She needs time to review those amendments and consider them. Of course she does; all senators should have adequate time to consider and review them. So there is a real problem there.

The government have had time. They had so many months during the Woolcott review, the Australian Citizenship Test Review Committee. The review committee went all around Australia, took submissions, listened to members of the public and delivered their report. The government acted on that report, but subsequent to that they had a knee-jerk reaction and introduced further amendments. I will come to those shortly, but, clearly, the cart has been put before the horse.

The substantive bill, prior to those recent amendments, provides:

… that certain applicants may be eligible for citizenship without sitting the citizenship test if, at the time of application, they have a physical or mental incapacity that is as a result of suffering torture or trauma outside Australia …

Senator Hanson-Young referred to this provision, and the committee report made it very clear that there were concerns, certainly from the Liberal senators’ perspective, about the focus on the torture or trauma being ‘outside Australia’. I will come to that in a minute. The bill also provides:

… that the citizenship test must be successfully completed within a period specified … and

  • provides that to be eligible for citizenship by conferral, applicants who are under 18 years of age must be permanent residents at both the time of application and the time of decision.

The bill also streamlines the application process so that citizenship testing and citizenship application can take place in one visit to an Immigration office.

The Senate committee had 21 submissions, with a public hearing in Melbourne on 27 August. At this point in time I would like to register my thanks to the committee secretariat for their great support and assistance: Peter Hallahan in particular, Tim Watling, Cassimah Mackay and others in that team. We had some very capable, competent witnesses, including Professor Kim Rubenstein, who sat on the Citizenship Test Review Committee; she provided invaluable advice. We thank her and the other witnesses for their submissions.

Concerns expressed about the bill in the opposition senators’ dissenting report made it very clear that the effort to remove the requirement for a ‘permanent’ physical or mental incapacity was not on. We did not support it, we still do not support it and we note that the government has now amended the bill to substantially accommodate at least the coalition senators’ views, and, I believe, other people’s views, to ensure that that is taken into account.

Concerns were raised at the hearing about the extension of the exemption to one category of people, namely those who had suffered torture and trauma outside Australia, to the exclusion of others—for example, women who have suffered torture and trauma in Australia as a consequence of trafficking. That is a very important issue. In fact, I know that you, Mr Acting Deputy President Bernardi, view that with abhorrence. Why should they be excluded because it happened in Australia? The government have tied themselves up in knots by identifying one group only, to the exclusion of others. Even this week we have heard from the Voices for Justice people, who support the Make Poverty History campaign and the Millennium Development Goals, and we know their views with respect to people-trafficking, whether it is in Australia or in another country. They certainly oppose it, as do I, and I know others in this chamber do also.

The methodology suggested by the Citizenship Test Review Committee is simpler and non-discriminatory, and coalition senators suggested in their dissenting report that the review committee’s proposed amendment be adopted, with the addition of the word ‘permanent’. We have an amendment circulating in the chamber, and I know Senator Fierravanti-Wells, during the committee stage of the bill, will prosecute the case to ensure that we get a balanced, fair approach rather than a discriminatory approach, as was listed in the primary amending bill.

What we do support is providing as much assistance as possible to people who perhaps for physical or mental incapacity or whatever other reason are prevented from sitting the standard test. That is set out in our report. For example, the administrator may read aloud the questions and multiple-choice answers, ask the person which answer they think is correct and select on the computer the answer that the person indicates, and an applicant would have 90 minutes to complete the test, double the time allotted for others. So we support extending the assistance available to people to help them pass the test rather than opening up the category to a wider group of people and hence to potential exploitation.

I note the fact that the Hon. Chris Evans, the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, provided the amendments to our Senate committee in a letter dated 31 August. As I indicated earlier, we had to deliver our report on 7 September, so there was an entirely insignificant and inadequate amount of time to consider those amendments. There were some four pages of amendments and some seven pages of notes, which obviously had to be considered on their merits. I also note that the government has now amended those amendments, which puts everybody under pressure and makes it challenging and difficult at the very least. So the onus is on the government to outline the urgency of waiving the residency requirements for athletes and other categories. In the ordinary course, the proposed amendments ought to have been open to proper examination and scrutiny by the committee and by groups and organisations wishing to make submissions on them. That will now have to take place in an ad hoc and challenging way.

I will speak very broadly to those amendments. There appear to be two significant additional amendments. One relates to elite athletes. That has been rushed into the bill. The other relates to discounting the residency requirements for citizenship for professionals whose work takes them regularly offshore. With respect to elite athletes and, indeed, non-citizen tennis players currently unable to satisfy residency requirements for citizenship in time for international competitions where they would like to represent Australia, I have to say, frankly, that I am a very keen tennis player, as many senators and members know—I play tennis on a Thursday morning with colleagues to ensure a healthy, active lifestyle in and around Parliament House—and I strongly support Tennis Australia and the work that they do. However, with respect to determining the appropriateness or otherwise of certain tennis players for citizenship purposes, I am at a loss to understand why the government would want to go down the track of picking out Tennis Australia and certain elite athletes and passing an amendment specifically for them.

What is wrong with the ministerial discretion approach, where the minister can take into account the public interest and the circumstances of the person concerned and pass that person in terms of their citizenship test? Why not go down that track and ensure that the minister has that discretion? I think that is a far better and safer way to go. Perhaps there is a workload issue there for the minister, but that is what ministers are for. Particular with respect to immigration, they are to provide the check and balance in the public interest, to determine what is right and wrong, to look at the merits of the case and to make that decision. We can still accommodate the needs of any particular stakeholders or people concerned, so long as that is in the public interest and so long as they meet the relevant requirements of the citizenship test.

We look forward with interest to the committee stage of this bill and to the government fleshing out in further detail the reasons they have introduced not only the initial amendments but the amendments to the amendments. We want to get a good grip on the government’s objectives and to express the coalition’s views in response to them. Again I commend Senator Fierravanti-Wells for her work and effort in prosecuting the case to ensure that we get a balanced approach.