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Tuesday, 15 September 2009
Page: 6540

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Minister for Immigration and Citizenship) (12:57 PM) —I wish to thank all the senators for their largely positive contributions to the debate on the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Test Review and Other Measures) Bill 2009. I table a replacement explanatory memorandum relating to the bill. The government is very committed to a pathway to Australian citizenship that is robust, involves active learning about citizenship and empowers our new citizens with knowledge of this country, our people, our traditions and our laws. We believe it can play an important role in a migrant’s journey to Australian citizenship.

We also believe that there ought to be pathways for all who seek to join our society and who meet our basic requirements. We do not believe we should place artificial barriers that are unreasonable or unfair in the way of potential citizens. A lot of what this bill is about is making sure that, having seen the experience of the citizenship test, we ensure that there are no false or unfair barriers. I think the Citizenship Test Review Committee did a fantastic job in speaking with the community, analysing their concerns and coming back with recommendations which the government, in large part, have adopted. I think their move to put the pledge of commitment as the centrepiece of our citizenship test provides an intellectual framework that was missing from the previous test. It is a great initiative and that is why the government endorsed it.

We are very keen to get through this bill before question time today, so I will be brief. In this bill we have attempted to respond to the concerns of the committee regarding torture and trauma victims. During the review by the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, their attention was drawn to the fact that the bill, as it is currently worded in relation to this provision, may have been inadvertently focused too heavily on incapacities arising from traumatic events only when they have occurred outside Australia. Obviously there are instances of people who have been trafficked et cetera who may require a broader definition.

I hasten to stress that these provisions are designed for a small group of people who might be incapable of meeting the other requirements. It is not envisaged that they will be used for a large group. They are to deal with a specific group that the committee found to be disadvantaged and perhaps incapable of becoming citizens as a result of those requirements. Senator Hanson-Young indicated she would move amendments that I think will address concerns about incapacity arising from traumatic events, where they have may have occurred inside Australia. I think those amendments are worthy, and the government is inclined to support them. As I say, all the measures in the bill and the measures we are taking in relation to the test are designed to ensure that everyone has a pathway to citizenship, that we meet their needs and that they have a knowledge and understanding of the step they are taking.

I want to focus on why the government will today move further amendments to those we moved on 7 September. Effectively, we will do so in response to the debate we have had not in the chamber but around the parliament. I appreciate that Senator Fierravanti-Wells and others have engaged with us on how we might address genuine concerns with how we originally framed those amendments. I understand they may well move further amendments, but I want to stress that this is our response to the concerns they have raised. We think these amendments adequately address those and are in the best format to address them. I am grateful that people have attempted to deal with these issues in a constructive way, and we think the response is constructive in meeting those concerns. We think the bill will be better for the amendments I will move today. Those amendments have come out of suggestions and concerns raised with us as part of the discussions.

On 7 September in response to a number of organisations and individuals the government circulated a draft amendment to this bill. I know there has been some concern about process, but these issues arose more recently and this is a good opportunity to include them in this bill now rather than wait until we get through the whole legislative process again. The amendments seek to introduce a special resident requirement for a small group of people who did not have a pathway to citizenship due to work related travel requirements. While such people remain in those occupations, they will never be able to meet the current residence requirement for Australian citizenship. This issue has been raised with me by a number of members of parliament, including Liberal members of parliament, who have had constituents come to them. I think Ms Julie Bishop raised the issue with me regarding a scientist in the Antarctic. We were able to resolve it. This is an issue where people basically cannot, as a result of their occupation and being out of the country for long periods, get access to citizenship. They are Australian permanent residents—that is, people who have made their lives here. As we know, we live in a global economy now and people work in quite unusual arrangements.

In order to meet the current resident requirement, people who became permanent residents of Australia on or after 1 July 2007 must have been present lawfully in Australia for four years immediately before applying, including for 12 months as a permanent resident immediately before applying. In this period of four years, a person may have had absences from Australia of no more than 12 months, including no more than 90 days in the 12 months immediately before applying. I remind the Senate that these changes were made in July 2007 by the previous government. The changes increased the residency requirement from two years to four years. If you like, what we are dealing with now are some unintended consequences—that is, issues that were not addressed then—and the impact of moving to the higher residency requirement. I do not think any of the changes run counter to the intent of the legislation of 2007, but with the experience of the new act we have come across a range of problems with pathways for people. These amendments seek to address those.

Elite athletes, tennis players and professionals such as international airline pilots and offshore oil rig workers often do not meet the residency requirements for Australian citizenship because they travel extensively outside Australia as part of their employment. Some would say I do not meet the residency requirement to be classed as a West Aussie these days, given the amount of time I spend here. But luckily that is not a formal requirement. I keep my biases, which is the main qualification! Many people in this category have partners who are Australian citizens and children who are Australian citizens and attend Australian schools and it is simply because of their professional travel commitments that they have not become Australian citizens. Their partner and their kids may be Australian citizens, but they are prevented from qualifying. This effectively excludes a cohort of permanent residents who are 100 per cent committed to Australia. We do not believe that the general residency requirement as applied to this group is fair. We think it is an artificial barrier that ought to be fixed.

There are some activities, such as those conducted by elite athletes, which further require them to have Australian citizenship to participate in their chosen activity. There is a lack of a variable pathway to citizenship for people who require citizenship and travel for work related activities. They are particularly disadvantaged by the current residency requirements. People in the special circumstances outlined above will under the proposed amendments: need to have been a permanent resident for two years before their application, with at least six months physically in Australia; require citizenship for a specified activity; and have to have their application supported by a recognised national peak body. Specialist professionals such as oil rig workers and airline pilots will need to: have been lawfully resident in Australia for the four years immediately before applying for Australian citizenship, with at least 16 months physically in Australia; travel extensively in the course of their work; and have their citizenship application supported by their current employer. One person in this category I was approached by was an Emirates pilot. He was unable to qualify because of the nature of his shifts.

All applicants will need to be able to show that, despite spending periods of time overseas, their home is in Australia. They will also need to meet all other legal requirements for citizenship, including sitting and passing the citizenship test. We believe the revamped requirements will create a fairer system for people who, due to circumstances related to their work, are currently ineligible for citizenship.

Since moving those amendments, the Liberal opposition and others have raised with me issues that effectively say the amendments, as currently worded, are defined too narrowly. The effect of this is that the amendments may have excluded some people who require citizenship to engage in particular activities which are of benefit to Australia. Therefore, the government is proposing to introduce the revised provisions, which I have circulated, which seek to provide, in schedule 2 of the bill, for a special residence requirement for (1) people seeking to engage in activities that are of benefit to Australia and (2) certain people engaged in particular kinds of work requiring regular travel outside Australia. This takes away what was an unnecessary focus for the requirement of a person to represent Australia at events, which is one of the concerns the opposition raised, and refocus it on the nature of a person’s activity and the requirement for citizenship to engage in that activity. These amendments, while minor, will give the flexibility to include people, as Senator Xenophon mentioned, who are engaged in activities which are of benefit to Australia, activities which require them to be citizens and to travel extensively outside Australia.

I understand the opposition will be proposing an amendment to give more discretion to the minister in relation to these measures. Effectively, I think that puts us in the same policy space and direction but also in an argument about the best way of doing this. If that is the case, and it seems to be, I would argue that the way we have constructed these amendments in response to those concerns expressed by the opposition is a better legislative solution. Perhaps I will be clear on that during the committee stage when Senator Fierravanti-Wells speaks to the amendments.

We reiterate that the bill is an important advancement on the citizenship provisions. It takes advantage of the experience and the work of the Citizenship Test Review Committee. The amendments which I have moved today seek to address a number of problems which have been raised by sporting organisations—such as the Australian Olympic Committee and Tennis Australia—and by individuals and members of parliament on behalf of those individuals who have been frustrated by the lack of a pathway to citizenship. The fundamental approach and principles behind this bill are to ensure there are pathways for genuine applicants for Australian citizenship, that all those who make a genuine commitment to Australia and are of good character can find a pathway to citizenship and can fully participate in our society. It is not in the nation’s interests to exclude people who would otherwise be good citizens. This amendment bill seeks to address some of those issues and continues to build on what is probably one of the world’s leading pieces of citizenship legislation. Australia has been at the forefront of development of citizenship concepts and legislation and I think this will further enhance that position.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.