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Tuesday, 15 September 2009
Page: 6538

Senator XENOPHON (12:49 PM) —Before addressing the specifics of the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Test Review and Other Measures) Bill 2009, I wish to make a few comments about the history of the citizenship test. The stated rationale for the introduction of the test was to make sure that new citizens had a good comprehension of the rights and requirements of citizenship, that they had a sound understanding of the application process and that they had a basic knowledge of English. That first test commenced, as I understand it, back in October 2007.

The original testing process was to answer a series of multiple-choice questions which were selected randomly and answered via a computer. This immediately raised issues of fairness around the level of computer literacy of those undertaking the test—in other words, a person may have had a basic ability in English but they may not have had any experience with computers. This is a challenge that is not unique to people new to Australia. Computers can be daunting for many people who are already Australian citizens—such as me!

Other questions were raised about the confidentiality and content of the questions that were included in the test. And, given that the questions were selected randomly, some asked why it was a requirement for the questions to be confidential: surely if this information is so important for all Australians to know, it can hardly be a secret? There was also some public concern that historical and sporting figures and facts were included amongst the list of possible questions. Most notably, the media coverage was quite extensive about questions on Don Bradman’s performance in test cricket. It was in the information booklet, and perhaps the minister can correct me if I am wrong, but I do not think it was actually in the test itself. It may have been alluded to obliquely in one of the test questions, but it did become a focus of public and media concerns.

Due to these concerns the government announced an independent review into the citizenship test and its report was released in August last year. This bill seeks to implement the findings of that review. However, there is much more to the story of this bill than this brief history of it. There has been a debate about the nature of the test and what is the fairest and best process for becoming an Australian citizen. One of the key findings of the review was that there was a need for a greater emphasis on education and the civic responsibilities required of Australian citizens. I welcome the change stipulated in this bill to put the emphasis of testing on the pledge of commitment, while information about the history and lifestyle of Australians has become an important but untested resource provided to test applicants. I also note that the review was critical that there was not enough allowance for those who understood the requirements of citizenship but struggled to retain the English language due to mental incapacity, traumatic experiences or other incapacities. I welcome the spirit of these changes made in this bill, although I am aware of the coalition’s concerns in relation to aspects of these changes.

In relation to these specific changes, the bill firstly seeks to make it easier for certain people who have a mental incapacity due to torture or trauma suffered outside Australia to be eligible to apply for citizenship by not sitting the citizenship test. Secondly, it allows prospective applicants for citizenship by conferral to sit the test at the same time as making the application. Thirdly, it makes arrangements for applicants under 18 years of age who apply for citizenship to be permanent residents both at the time of application and time of decision.

On the whole I think it is fair to say that the main thrust of the bill was supported by all parties. That said, I note the Greens have raised concerns about the definition of torture and trauma used for exemption from the test, the need to include trauma caused within Australia as a criterion and the importance of matching the international standards of the rights of the child when considering conferral. I discussed these with Senator Hanson-Young last night and I am quite persuaded by the arguments she has put forward. I can indicate that I am supportive of the amendments to be moved by the Greens.

The government has also foreshadowed amendments to the bill. These amendments have been the subject of a more concerted interest in the last few days. My office has had consultation with the offices of the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship and also Senator Fierravanti-Wells over the past few days in relation to these amendments. I would like to thank both the minister’s and Senator Fierravanti-Wells’s offices for their assistance.

The purpose of the government’s most recent amendment is to provide for a reduced period of residence for persons in special circumstances who wish to become Australian citizens. My understanding is that originally these persons included athletes for whom the full residence period would prevent them from qualifying for international sporting events and offshore workers whose work, by its nature, requires them to be away from Australia regularly, such as offshore oil workers or airline staff. The government has argued that without these changes their professional opportunities would be inhibited, making it impossible for those who must travel overseas for work to ever become Australian citizens.

I am aware that the coalition has expressed its concern that these amendments need to be more overtly in the public interest and more transparent. Further, in relation to the access for athletes to shorter qualification periods, I understand the coalition is concerned about any move that may represent ‘medals for citizenship’. In information received by my office this morning, the minister’s office has flagged further amendments to expand the definition from ‘athletes’ to ‘a specialised activity’ and I think that is much better approach. This would broaden the category to other important groups, such as scientists or musicians, who contribute to the public interest in a sense. They have valuable skills that this country would benefit from. I am looking forward to the committee stage in relation to these changes, but I can indicate that I think that broadening the category is a much better approach. I am also looking forward to the committee stage debate on a number of these matters. In relation to the other coalition concerns about the definitions of torture and trauma, as well as the whole issue of permanent or long-term incapacity, I understand that these will be supported and I think that Senator Hanson-Young has a number of amendments in relation to these issues.

I think the public interest test and greater ministerial discretion over decisions will be the main battleground of this bill. My understanding is that the government is concerned that a public interest test would open a floodgate of applications. I note that the minister has shown a disinclination towards greater ministerial discretion on a number of issues. He has set that out clearly in the past and I am sure we will hear more about that in the committee stage. I would like to hear the debate on the issue of the public interest test, along with greater transparency of decision-making processes. In relation to the issue of immigration, citizenship and Australian identity, I think in the past there has been a bit of ideology used, but I think that what the government is seeking to do is, on balance, a good thing and that broadening the categories is the right thing to do. I look forward to having an improved citizenship test process because Australia is one of the countries that has been built by immigration, particularly in the post-war period. Australia really has a proud record of multiculturalism and being welcoming to citizens from all around the world.