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Ethnic councils criticise proposed new citizenship rules.

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Friday 15 September 2006

Ethnic councils criticise proposed new citizenship rules


MARK COLVIN: The Prime Minister today pointed to the Nation's Greek population as the yardstick for other nationalities who migrate to Australia.  


Announcing his proposal for tougher measures for Australian citizenship, John Howard said the Greek community had demonstrated a brilliant ability to assimilate to Australian life.  


Among the changes the Government's bringing in, an increase in the waiting period for citizenship from three to four years and a requirement that immigrants be proficient in English before they become Australian. 


Cultural groups say the changes are unlikely to have a huge impact on the number of people seeking to become Australians. 


But some say many of Australia's most successful migrants would never have made it here if they'd had to be fluent in English first.  


Daniel Hoare reports. 


DANIEL HOARE: The Prime Minister today addressed the Hellenic club in Canberra, and he used the occasion to praise the contribution made by the Greek community in Australia.  


He says that contribution should be seen as the yardstick for other nationalities. 


JOHN HOWARD: The key thing is that people should integrate into the mainstream of Australian life, and the Greeks have done it brilliantly but they're still very proud of their Greek background and isn't that great? I mean, that's what it's all about. 


DANIEL HOARE: The Prime Minister today foreshadowed tougher requirements for migrants. They'll now have to wait four years rather than three to gain citizenship and they'll have to speak English before they get here. 


JOHN HOWARD: There's overwhelming support in the Australian community for an expectation, indeed a requirement, that people who become Australian citizens have a working knowledge of English. 


DANIEL HOARE: Waleed Ali is from the Islamic Council of Victoria. 


He doesn't believe that increasing the waiting period for citizenship will prevent anyone aspiring to become Australian. 


WALEED ALI: There are other countries that have got longer waiting periods before people can become citizens. Australia, I think, it was at one stage two years and now it's three. So, I'm not entirely sure that it's going to make all the difference.  


I think that if we're worried about people becoming Australian citizens who are not fully Australian, I don't think that one year is really going to make any difference. 


DANIEL HOARE: The President of the Refugee Council of Australia, John Gibson, describes the new requirements as unnecessary and unjustifiable.  


He says that the majority of refugees embrace Australian culture. 


JOHN GIBSON: The reality of it all is that people come to this country particularly as refugees and the great majority of them become citizens. They embrace this country, whether they are fluent English speakers or not. 


We have a whole range of people who've come from different countries with different needs and all of whom, from a refugee perspective, have been persecuted.  


From sort-of semi-literate people who work in agriculture, to people who are surgeons and lawyers in their country of origin, they have one thing in common - they have all fled. 


DANIEL HOARE: The Refugee Council John Gibson says, those fleeing persecution are unlikely to be able to speak fluent English.  


JOHN GIBSON: Because our off-shore refugee mentoring program takes people essentially on the basis of need, in other words people who are fleeing persecution as well as those who actually come here and get a change of status and succeed.  


That is the defining thing, it's not necessarily how good they are at English or what education they've had, and so, in a sense, we take refugees as we find them. 


DANIEL HOARE: Voula Messimeri is Chairwoman of the Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia. She says her group supports any initiative to encourage migrants to speak English, but it shouldn't be compulsory.  


VOULA MESSIMERI: From the point of view of actually making English compulsory, to acquire or to gain the Australian citizenship, we don't agree with that because we feel that it would disadvantage non-English speaking background people and in particular, refugees. 


DANIEL HOARE: Voula Messimeri says Australia would not be the country it is today if it all of its migrants had been required to speak English before arriving. 


VOULA MESSIMERI: I think that the bulk of migrants, actually, over the 60s and the 70s would fall within that category. 


They were the people, of course, that came and worked in industry predominantly. They spoke very little English and for most of them, they continued to speak very little English. But at the same time they have made, on the whole, exemplary Australian citizens and their children are now in all walks of life. 


DANIEL HOARE: The Federal Government will officially announce its changes to citizenship and migration this weekend.  


MARK COLVIN: Daniel Hoare.