Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard   

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Wednesday, 7 December 1983
Page: 3366

Mr WEST (Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs)(12.29) —I move:

That the Bill be now read a second time.

The Australian Citizenship Act provides the basis for the citizenship of all Australians, regardless of their origin, or their cultural and linguistic background. The Act provides for the acquisition of Australian citizenship by birth in Australia, by descent through birth of a child to an Australian parent living overseas, and by grant to persons who have come to Australia to settle. It also provides the basis for the loss, renunciation and deprivation of Australian citizenship in certain circumstances.

The Government is committed to ensuring that the Act reflects the national identity of all Australians; that it does not discriminate between persons on the basis of their sex, marital status and present or previous nationality; that it provides for review by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal of decisions to deny or deprive persons of citizenship under the Act; and that it is thoroughly Australian in character. The purpose of this Bill is to give effect to those commitments.

It is important to appreciate that Australian citizenship did not exist prior to 26 January 1949. Before that time all persons living in Australia were either British subjects or aliens. The current Act still retains many transitional provisions which reflect this historical fact and which provide for British subject status to be given automatically to Australian citizens and the citizens of 46 other Commonwealth countries. Many people genuinely wish to become Australian citizens and assume the associated rights and responsibilities as soon as possible after entering Australia. On the other hand, an estimated 1.2 million non-citizen residents who have lived here for more than the present minimum residential period of three years have not applied to become citizens. The Government wishes to encourage both groups of people to become citizens. We believe that the package of measures contained in this Bill will assist those who wish to become citizens as soon as possible after settling in Australia as well as removing what many people see as the disincentives to acquiring citizenship contained in the present Act.

Despite the large number of residentially eligible people who have not taken out citizenship, the number of persons applying to become citizens has increased rapidly in recent years-from 78,000 in 1981-82 to 101,000 in 1982-83. A similar rate of increase is occurring this year. The reasons for the rising application rate are varied but the underlying cause is undoubtedly a greater pride in Australia and in the status of Australian citizenship. This government is moving to change the citizenship requirement for future permanent employment in the Public Service and the defence services from one of British subject status to one solely of Australian citizenship. The Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Public Service Matters, the honourable member for Fremantle (Mr Dawkins), recently announced the Government's intention to amend the Public Service Act for permanent government employment to this effect. Similar changes to the Commonwealth and State Electoral Acts to require Australian citizenship for future electoral enrolments will be proclaimed shortly.

In the face of the increased rate of applications for citizenship, my Department is introducing new computer-assisted processing procedures to streamline the handling of applications and to reduce the time taken to complete each case. The staffing of citizenship sections in each of the Department's offices is currently being reviewed as part of this upgrading of the services provided. In May 1983, my Department entered into an agreement with Australia Post for citizenship applicants in larger country towns to be interviewed by senior postmasters on an agency basis. That arrangement has reduced delays in processing applications from country areas and is proving to be most efficient. This Bill is the outcome of the most extensive review of the Citizenship Act since it was passed by Parliament in 1948 under the Chifley Labor Government. On 6 May 1982 the then Minister announced a set of proposed amendments which had already been the subject of close consideration by ministerial advisory bodies and by State governments. The proposals were widely circulated throughout Australia last year to community organisations and were discussed at public forums in every capital city in June and July 1982. Additional input was obtained from written submissions and informal talks.

The views expressed through these national consultations were summarised in the report on the national consultations on multiculturalism and citizenship by Professor Zubrzycki which I tabled in Parliament on 31 May this year. In preparing this Bill, the Government has carefully considered the earlier proposals, the views put at the national consultations and amendments suggested by the Human Rights Commission which also undertook a thorough review of the Citizenship Act in 1981-82. Of course, the Government's own policy commitments have been included. For instance the Bill:

Reduces the qualifying period from three to two years for citizenship by grant;

allows for appeals on a number of grounds to be made to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. No longer will the Department, the Government or Minister have a final determinative power in these cases. Decisions to deny or deprive citizenship will now have to be justified before the AAT on appeal. I will later include in detail those areas which will be subject to appeal; and

amends the requirement that an applicant for citizenship demonstrate an adequate knowledge of the English language. Knowledge of English is essential to full participation in Australia's social, cultural and political life, but the Government does not wish to deny citizenship to those with limited English who have lived in Australia for some time and who would take pride in becoming citizens. The Bill therefore proposes that applicants for citizenship must have only a basic knowledge of English. Applicants over 50 years of age, though, will be exempted from the new requirement of basic English, recognising the difficulty many older persons have in learning a new language.

The present Act allows the automatic acquisition of Australian citizenship by British subjects resident in or with close connections with Australia in 1949, when the Australian Citizenship Act came into force. It was, at the time, entirely reasonable that British subjects, including those aliens who had been naturalised, should automatically be granted the new Australian citizenship under the new Act. With the passing of 34 years since those transitional provisions were enacted, they are now irrelevant and the amendments will seek their repeal.

There are historical reasons for the status of British subjects in the Act. When Australian citizenship was first created, it was one of many initiated by Commonwealth countries under an all-embracing British subject nationality. The common code concept of uniting all Commonwealth countries under the umbrella of British nationality is no longer valid. All other Commonwealth countries, including Britain itself, have abandoned this notion. Australia is now the only country in the world to continue to use the concept of British subject status in preference to its own nationality.

The amendments will provide for the repeal of the definition of British subject status from the Australian Citizenship Act at a date to be proclaimed following an examination of the implications for the operation of other Commonwealth and State legislation which at present depends upon the Citizenship Act definition. Let me emphasise that the changes to the Act relating to British subject status derive from the need to provide equal rights for all groups, and have regard to developments overseas and the changes which have occurred in Australian society since 1949. We do not seek to prejudice the position of British settlers. Rather , we see it as fitting that Australian citizenship should have a unique status in Australia and be the basis in future of citizenship rights and privileges.

I said the Bill proposes that the residence eligibility period for citizenship by grant be reduced from three years in the previous eight years, to two years in the previous five years. It also proposes to relax the continuous residence requirement from the 12 months immediately preceding the application of 12 months residence in the previous two years. This change recognises the increasing difficulty which the current requirement can cause to people in a world which is increasingly internationally mobile. This Bill proposes, however, that in future only legal permanent residence will count for residence purposes and that applicants will have to satisfy the minimum requirement before they can apply.

Currently, there is a legal obligation upon the Minister and the Department to either approve or reject each application when processed. This has meant that some applicants who were not quite able to meet the requirements have had to be summarily rejected despite the likelihood of qualifying soon after. A new provision will allow a decision on an application for the grant of citizenship to be deferred for a period, or periods, of up to a total of 12 months to enable the applicant to meet one or more requirements. It also provides that persons serving a prison sentence, or under various other forms of detention or good behaviour probationary orders, are not eligible to be considered for citizenship .

The declaration of allegiance made at the time that Australian citizenship is granted is, quite properly, regarded as of singular importance by many people. It incorporates three separate elements: The renunciation of former allegiance, a commitment to observe the laws of Australia and the declaration of new allegiance to Australia. There has already been considerable community discussion on this issue. There was strong support at the national consultations for wording which is distinctly Australian in character, which expresses full commitment to Australia, its laws and the Constitution, and which avoids the requirement to swear allegiance to a sovereign resident elsewhere. The report on the consultations makes it clear that these views were shared by people from a variety of backgrounds including holders of imperial awards and persons who expressed in other ways a wish to maintain a link with Britain. The honourable member for Balaclava (Mr Macphee), as Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, drew attention in May 1982 to the confusion caused to many new settlers by this aspect of the existing oath and to the resistance of many people to taking such an oath.

The Government has given careful consideration to whether it is desirable to have one form of allegiance which would avoid the public division of people which occurs now at citizenship ceremonies with persons separated into two groups wishing to take either the oath or affirmation. This has been criticised for serving to accentuate people's differences of belief at a time when we should be emphasising their common commitment to their new nation. On the other hand, we recognise that many people wish to swear an oath before God when giving allegiance to their new nation. So we propose to adopt a new pledge of Australian citizenship to be made by all new citizens in either of two forms. The proposed wording for the first form is:

I renounce any current citizenship and allegiance to any State other than Australia. I pledge that I will faithfully uphold the Constitution, obey the laws of Australia and fulfil my duties as an Australian citizen.

The second form of allegiance pledge proposed is:

I renounce any current citizenship and allegiance to any State other than Australia. I swear by Almighty God that I will faithfully uphold the Constitution, obey the laws of Australia and fulfil my duties as an Australian citizen.

Mr Hodgman —So the atheist republicans got the numbers. Is that right? Treason.

Mr WEST —No. The honourable member for Denison can see that we have retained a right for people to swear by Almighty God. The present renunciation of allegiance is ambiguous and does not make it clear whether people are being asked to renounce their previous nationality, their previous language and culture, or all three. I believe it is important that the future wording of the renunciation makes it clear that it is only allegiance as a citizen to one's former state or country that is being renounced.

As a result of recent statements I have made in this House and elsewhere about the desirability of having a more Australian form of allegiance, some members of the Opposition have sought to make this a divisive public issue. They have been supported by a minority in the community which does not appear to accept the reality that Australia is now a multicultural community and also an independent nation. People will simply be asked to swear allegiance to Australia and its laws and Constitution. The two forms of the pledge, both religious and non- religious, that I have proposed will allow all people, whatever their views or religion, to make a full commitment of allegiance to Australia. Neither form differentiates between Australians on the basis on their attitudes to the monarchy. While there may be legitimate differences of views on this issue, they should not, in the Government's view, be invoked in a Australian citizenship ceremony.

In the case of a person obtaining Australian citizenship by fraud, deceit, the concealment of information or any other dishonest means, the Minister will have discretion to deprive that person of citizenship. This discretion also extends to a person convicted of a major offence committed, but not known about, before that grant of citizenship. I stress that deprivation of Australian citizenship could only occur for offences committed before the grant of citizenship. Moreover, it will occur only if the responsible Minister, after careful consideration of all the facts, is satisfied that it is in the public interest for a person not to remain an Australian citizen. The law will not allow a person to be deprived of citizenship if it has been obtained properly and honestly.

The existing Act discriminates on the basis of sex and marital status. Mothers, for example, do not have the same rights as fathers in determining their children's citizenship. It has been decided to amend the Act to place mothers and fathers on an equal footing for all purposes related to their citizenship, and the citizenship of their children. All other discrimination on the grounds of gender and marital status will be removed.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. Les Johnson) —Order! Before the honourable member proceeds, it being 12.45 p.m., the debate is interrupted in accordance with sessional order 101A. The debate may be resumed at a later hour. The Minister will have leave to continue his speech when the debate is resumed.

Sitting suspended from 12.45 to 2 p.m.