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Monday, 24 November 2008
Page: 19


Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS (4:48 PM) —by leave—I move:

That the Senate take note of the statement.

Can I say at the outset that I am pleased that the government has decided to continue with the coalition’s citizenship test and that it will continue to be in English. An understanding of the English language is crucial. Migrants with better English skills will be better able to settle, take advantage of the opportunities of our great country and find employment.

The citizenship test was set up to encourage citizenship and to promote citizenship as the single most unifying force in our community. The coalition supports the testing of values, which was part of the old test, but we are disappointed that Australian history and cultural elements will no longer be tested. It is important that the changes do not lose the focus of those core values and beliefs that underpin our Australian way of life. Our history and culture are an important component of new citizens understanding the Australian way of life. We believe that a basic understanding of Australian history and culture helps newcomers to understand how our values and democracy evolved. Most new settlers will never have had any other exposure to our history, certainly not in our schools to any great extent.

The citizenship test is an important values document. New Australians should fully understand and embrace not only the rights but the responsibilities that being an Australian citizen brings. Any changes to the test should not remove the values. Australia should be proud of its history and have confidence in its future as one of the world’s most stable democracies, where men and women are treated equally and the rule of law is paramount.

A citizenship test will ensure a level of commitment to these values and this way of life for all Australians, regardless of where they may originally come from. If people have the knowledge and, more importantly, an appreciation of the events that have shaped this country and the institutions that have been established as a result, it will help foster a nation of people with a common purpose. Many Australians agree that citizenship is a privilege, not a right. This, more than anything, is why the introduction of a citizenship test was not only supported by many Australians but also acknowledged as being a key part of maintaining our national identity.

I would like to take issue, however, with the minister’s assertion that the test had become a test on Australian trivia. The minister states:

… our citizens are expected to be collegiate in our society to obey the rule of law, and to be civic-minded …

This was the reason why the old test had mandatory questions which focused specifically on the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. The media focus on the Bradman question and, indeed, the minister’s statement about other aspects of our Australian way of life regrettably seek to trivialise the debate. The question on Sir Donald Bradman was a sample question. However, it seems to have been taken as the focus of the need for change. There were other questions which were part of that component, but there were no questions, to my knowledge, in relation to the Heidelberg School or the South Australian festival, and regrettably this is misleading commentary by the minister.

In any case, the coalition is pleased that the government has committed to retaining the test, which has been a highly successful initiative since its introduction by the Howard government in October 2007. Despite some criticisms levelled at the test, it has not acted as a deterrent in the path to Australian citizenship. I note that the minister specifically commended the Howard government’s initiatives of allowing the translation of the resources book into other languages and of funding citizenship education programs for migrants. According to the Australian citizenship test snapshot report of October 2008, about 71,000 applicants sat the Australian citizenship test between 1 October 2007 and September 2008 and about 48,000 applicants to 30 June. About 68,000 applicants or 96 per cent passed the test on their first or subsequent attempts.

The department has administered about 87,000 tests, including resits where applicants did not pass the test on their first attempt. On average, about 1.2 tests have been administered per applicant and the percentage of skill stream applicants who pass the test on their first or subsequent attempt is 99 per cent and the percentage of family stream applicants who pass the test on their first or subsequent attempt is 94 per cent. The percentage of humanitarian program applicants who pass the test on their first or subsequent attempt is 83 per cent, which is up from 30 June.

While the minister lamented lower rates of refugees passing on their first attempt, given that many of these people are not literate in their home language a pass rate of 83 per cent is a very commendable result. The minister does not say how many pass soon after on their second attempt. I think changing the questions to values rather than values and history is not likely to change refugee pass rates. What refugees need is better English language teaching in Australia. Also, we need to know who will decide those people who will have the computer citizenship test instead of the English language version of the test. It would be a terrible shame if we were to destroy the one opportunity that some refugees might have to be supported in learning English that will help them in their employment and community participation prospects, just like the African woman referred to by the minister. It is important that we extend to people the assistance required to sit the test. The coalition welcomes initiatives to extend that support.

The report makes assertions that some applicants in the humanitarian program are not taking the test for fear of failing. This does not appear to be backed up by statistics recently given in Senate estimates. The report indicates that a citizenship course should be developed to provide alternative pathways. I note in this context that the coalition provided alternative methods for some cases. When the Howard government introduced the citizenship test, it did so after considerable consultation. A discussion paper was released and over 1,600 responses were received to the paper. Minister Robb then held round table consultations with over 100 representatives from ethnic, settlement, education, sporting, business, religious and community groups, as well as state and territory governments all over Australia. This is far more than the 130 organisations and individuals with which the committee of review consulted. In any case, the coalition welcomes the review. Indeed, when the test was introduced, it was based on an understanding that it would come under review, and we acknowledge that this has been part of an evolving process.

While the coalition welcomes the decision of Minister Evans to retain the coalition’s test in the English language, we have seen nothing of the actual substance of any changes to the test. So we raise a number of questions in relation to the recommendations. Is the government watering down the English requirement in recommendation 3 by changing the requirement from ‘basic knowledge’ to ‘sufficient knowledge’ of English? I refer specifically to paragraph 5.4 at page 20 of the report. Recommendation 11 refers to there being no mandatory questions. I ask: will an applicant be able to pass the test without adequate knowledge of their rights and responsibilities as an Australian citizen? One of the reasons that people fail the test is that they do not pass the mandatory rights and responsibilities questions.

In relation to recommendation 9 is the question about professional educators rewriting the test. Who is chosen will be very important. We would appreciate some clarification as to who will be given this task and how they will be chosen so as to ensure consistency and balance. In relation to recommendation 16, it is important that clarification be given about competency based assessment so as to ensure that, in practice, this is not walking away from the test. We welcome any clarification from the government in that respect. It is important that the English requirement not be watered down. Will this mean that applicants will be able to pass without knowing their rights and responsibilities? Will this mean lowering the requirement of the test to the level of someone who is semiliterate in their own language—to quote from the minister’s statement. The coalition is concerned that the test may be weakened. We would of course welcome clarification there.

In conclusion, we support in principle the changes proposed. However, we would welcome clarification by the government on some of the questions that we have raised, and we will await those details to be provided.

Question agreed to.