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Thursday, 21 June 2007
Page: 42


Mr BURKE (11:38 AM) —From time to time we get a debate throughout the community about a piece of legislation, but then the actual legislation that ends up before us in the parliament does not much resemble it. Look at the public debate from either side of the arguments that have gone on concerning the introduction of a citizenship test. You would think, from some of those who have been arguing as to why it should be introduced, that we have a bill here that involves a radical change from current practice. Some of those who have decided to take up the case of arguing genuinely and passionately against this piece of legislation have also worked on the basis that the bill we have before us involves radical change. While there were genuine expectations that that change would be in the legislation that would come before us, it is pretty difficult to see the bill that is now before the parliament, the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Testing) Bill 2007, as constituting the sort of radical change from current practice which each side of this debate has implied we would see.

It matters to get the debate right. It really does. When you are talking about Australian citizenship, you are asking: ‘What does it actually mean to become a full member of Australian society?’ That is what citizenship is. As members of parliament, we all have the sensational privilege of going to citizenship ceremonies and seeing the moment where somebody whose life to that point has involved other nations, and often radically different societies, becomes as much a member, as much a stakeholder, of Australian society as any one of us who has the privilege of sitting in the House of Representatives. One of the concerns that I have in this debate is an argument that has sometimes been put that, at the moment, people do not take Australian citizenship seriously. You only have to see what we who have that privilege do to see it is a really moving moment in people’s lives. People take a step that they know is not just one that they take on their own behalf but also one that will forever become part of the story of their descendants who will remember them as an ancestor. It becomes part of their journey, their story and their future identity as Australians.

In the context of this debate we have often gone back and forth over whether it is possible to have any sort of test and as to whether it is possible to ever identify Australian values. In that values discussion, one of the arguments we often hear against there being any concept of Australian values is that the values that people talk about are those that you will find in any one of a number of countries. In many respects, that is true. But, when somebody builds a project home, the home they build may look pretty much the same as three or four other identical homes in the same suburb, but they still know that one as their own. The fact that other nations may have similar values to our own does not stop there being some principles about which we can say, ‘Yes, that is part of being Australian.’ That becomes most clear to each and every one of us when a comment is made by someone purporting to be a public leader, in one way or another, and the comment is so out of sync with what the rest of Australia feels. We can often identify Australian values more easily by what they are not. It is not a static thing, and the values and the principles that characterise us change over time.

In February 2000, the Citizenship Council had a go at working out what those sorts of principles might be in an Australian compact. They referred to a commitment to the land, a commitment to the rule of law, equality under the law regardless of race and sex and a commitment to the basics of a representative liberal democracy, including freedom of opinion. They referred to a commitment to principles and fairness—they used the word ‘tolerance’; I probably prefer the word ‘inclusive’—a commitment to the acceptance of cultural diversity, a commitment to the wellbeing of all Australians and a commitment to recognising the unique status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Those sorts of principles all fit in with that discussion and, for anyone who argues that it is impossible to arrive at any set of values, they will always be fluid and they will always change from time to time. But I do not think we do our nation any harm by having and embracing the discussion and by associating it with full membership of our society as citizenship.

As the former minister for multicultural affairs, the honourable member for Moreton, who is in the chamber, would be aware that, given the nature of my shadow portfolio, part of the job is that you do go to an extraordinary number of wonderful celebrations of diversity throughout the country. One concern that I have is that it is sometimes viewed as though there are three Australian stories. There are people who are Indigenous, people who are ethnic and people whose ethnicity is Australian. I like to think that there are essentially two Australian stories of getting here. For Indigenous Australians your cultural heritage is that you have always been here. For the rest of us the story of getting here—whether it is in our own lifetime or in past generations—is part of our Australian journey, part of our Australian story.

While it goes back quite a number of years, and while at particular moments—particularly in criminal terms—it is probably not that proud a history, I remain particularly proud of my Irish heritage. I should add that it is a different sense of pride now—as we found out more about the history of our family. We had always thought our convict ancestor, Bartholomew Taylor, was part of the Irish resistance, because we had been told that he was sent out here for stealing arms. But about 15 years ago, when my sister got the original documents, we discovered that the arms he had been stealing were spelt a-l-m-s. He had been taking money from the local church. Just as I know something about him because his journey here is part of my story of becoming an Australian, in the same way, people who take the citizenship oath provide that same opportunity and that same journey for their descendants—they will probably never know those descendents but their descendants will know them. That citizenship moment is of extraordinary importance and should never be devalued.

As a nation we now do citizenship better than we used to. My seat is named after the third Prime Minister of Australia, who, on the official records of this parliament, is recorded as John Christian Watson. Back then there was no such thing as Australian citizenship. To be eligible to be a member of this parliament, to vote and to have what was regarded as full citizenship rights, you merely had to be a member of the British Empire. John Christian Watson was actually not his name. His real name was Johan Christian Tanck. He concocted the story of his own birth. Having been born in Chile, he said that he was actually born on a ship, the Julia, which sailed 50 miles outside Chilean waters into international waters and, because the ship was flying the British flag, the Union Jack, he was able to claim British citizenship even though his father was German and he was born outside the British Empire. Had he told the truth about his citizenship and had our system been more watertight—say, in the fashion that it is today—he not only would never have been Prime Minister but also would not have been allowed to vote. And, because his dad was German, he would have been locked up during the First World War.

Since the Citizenship Act 1948 came into force, we have done citizenship in a much better way. Whether the tests are more rigid or less rigid, there have in fact always been tests imposed. This is why I say that the argument about today’s changes being radical does not really take account of what happens right now and what has happened ever since we introduced Australian citizenship. When the Citizenship Act was first introduced, applicants had to have adequate English, they had to produce three references, they had to declare an intention to naturalise—as the term was then—two years before the naturalisation would come into force and they had to have already lived in Australia for five years. They also had to place an advertisement in the newspaper notifying of their intention. Those were the tests and proof of good character back then.

In a good number of the media conferences that government members have done on this issue, it has been lost that there is a citizenship test at the moment. It is conducted over the counter and it involves a test of capacity in the English language. It has been quite non-controversial and there have not been arguments about it needing to be abolished, which creates some questions as to why what we have before us today is said to be a radical change. The more you look at the bill and the minister’s second reading speech, the more you see that what we actually have in front of us is a formalising which may involve a harshening of the test—but not necessarily. It actually depends on the determinations that the minister makes. Under the bill before us, those determinations can be changed at any point with any extra number of exemptions the minister might choose to put in place.

This bill was first announced just after the leadership change on my side of the House. A joint media conference was held—in, I think it is fair to say, a bit of a rush—by the Prime Minister and the member for Goldstein, who at that time was Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs. In that media conference the government announced that there would be a 30-question multiple choice test for citizenship and that those questions would be drawn from a list of 200 questions that would be drawn from a source document. That night, after consulting with the new Leader of the Opposition, I wrote a letter to the parliamentary secretary, saying that it would be greatly appreciated if the opposition could have a copy of an example of one of the test’s 30 questions—of the 200 questions they were to be drawn from—and a copy of the source document from which all of the questions were to originate. I received a letter from the parliamentary secretary about a week later—though I am not sure of the precise time—saying that they did not yet have a 30-question test, that not one of the 200 questions had yet been written and the source document had not yet been completed.

When I received my briefing from the department on the legal nature of the bill, I put a question to the minister’s office saying: ‘Can you just let me know whether I am going to get a copy of these three things before the vote on the bill, after the vote on the bill or never?’ I have been told that the source document will be made public at some point. That still has not happened, so I guess that means it will be after the vote on the bill. As to when we will see a copy of the 200 questions and the 30-question test—which, from the minister’s second reading speech, has now become a 20-question test—the answer apparently is never.

What that means is that this bill is entirely shell legislation. Obviously we do not expect that the government is going to put each question from a test into a piece of legislation; that would be insane. But in terms of the question, ‘Is the test reasonable?’ the answer to that will have to be determined at a later date. This legislation deals with two questions. It deals with whether, in principle, there should be a test or not and whether, in principle, the minister should have the discretion to create a whole lot of exemptions to take into account different circumstances. As to whether those two questions are outrageous, the answer is they are not outrageous. As to whether there should be a test at all, the answer is yes. Should the minister have the discretion to provide extra exemptions? The logical answer to that is yes again. That is reasonable. There is already a test and it has never been controversial. In the whole of this debate I have yet to hear anybody stand up and argue that the current test is an outrageous restriction on people’s citizenship. It would be quite open for the minister to determine that one of the options is for the current test to continue.

What we have to go on is what the minister said in his second reading speech, but the Australian public actually think there is more to go on than that. Because of discussions between a couple of the News Ltd papers and the minister, which resulted in a whole lot of questions being put on the front page of a couple of the News Ltd papers, the Australian public actually think they have seen some of the questions. Those questions were not written by the government. Those questions were written by a journalist. I discovered this when I rang the journalist and said, ‘It is only a trivial side point, but one of the answers is actually wrong.’ The question which had a wrong answer—and if anyone applying for citizenship actually knows this, you would really have to worry about how hard they have studied—is a question that is often thrown up: ‘What are the animals on the Australian coat of arms?’ The answer that was given was: kangaroo and emu—most people would say that. If you go to the DFAT website, you will see that the kangaroo and the emu are the animals holding up the coat of arms. The coat of arms is the bit of metal between the kangaroo and the emu. That means that, in a bizarre fashion, the correct answer is: a red lion, a golden lion, a black swan and a piping shrike. That is not generally known to members of the parliament. I did a ParlInfo search, and I think that I am the first person in a good 20 years to refer to the piping shrike within this parliament. But those are the animals on our coat of arms. The kangaroo and emu are not actually there; they are the bearers of our coat of arms.


Mr Hardgrave —This will be on Temptation next!


Mr BURKE —In the same way, the question is often asked: ‘What is the second verse of the national anthem?’—as though that would be an appropriate question for citizenship. Many people would claim that part of being an Australian is not knowing the second verse to the national anthem! Before I get too much of a response from the member for Moreton, I would add that what we view as the second verse of Advance Australia Fair is actually the third verse. Advance Australia Fair has four verses. The second one, which I hope we never get around to incorporating when we sing the national anthem, concludes with the line, ‘Britannia rules the wave’. In terms of the questions that are thrown up, it is the second verse that people often say should be on the test.

What really matters is that we end up with a reasonable test. We do not want this to end up being some bizarre Trivial Pursuit game. We do not want this to be something which sets people up to fail. We do not want this to be a barrier to people who would make fine Australian citizens. Whether it ends up that way or not, we cannot tell from this bill. All we can tell from this bill is that the principle of having a citizenship test, which has been with us since 1949, would remain. As a principle, I am not going to argue against that. That is a completely reasonable principle and that is all that the bill actually tells us. In fact, it has been acknowledged on a number of occasions that originally part of the context of this debate was keeping people from becoming citizens, weeding out undesirables, and the fact that some people had become citizens who should not have and this would be a way to stop them. The member for Goldstein made clear in his media conference that the bill is not designed in any way to keep some people out. In an interview with Leon Delaney, the minister was asked, ‘So it’s not intended to weed out undesirables; it is more an instructive process?’ the minister responded, ‘That’s right.’

If, in good faith, that is what we end up with, then we simply have a codification of a reasonable system. That is what we have. It is quite within the realms of possibility, and certainly within the legislative options for the government, to come up with something that is less reasonable. I think that, as a matter of transparency, the government making the questions available is completely in the interests of citizenship being a process of unifying Australians. It is a logical thing to do, and it is completely in the interests of the government to do so.

At the time of my briefing, I raised two questions which the minister’s office subsequently got back to me about. The first was: will determinations of this nature—of what the different exemptions are for the different tests—be made public, even if the questions are not made public? The second question was: will the government guarantee that it will not put exemptions on tests which then create a situation where someone who otherwise would have been eligible to sit for a citizenship test has no test available to them anymore? On those two questions, we have been told verbally by the minister’s office—this is communication between his office and mine over the phone—that the determination will be made public, and we have been told that the test will be used only in such a way as to guarantee that anyone who, under the act, would expect to be able to sit for a test will have a test available for them. I have put those questions to the minister in writing, and they have been answered verbally. I am not in a position to confirm that they have come back to us, but I would be surprised if those undertakings that were given over the phone have not been confirmed by the time we come to a vote on this bill. I would certainly be surprised by that.

I was pleased to hear the minister raise in his second reading speech some of the concerns about options for people who have difficulty with English literacy. That is a really important part of this debate. The government, with the support of the opposition, has made some decisions on the humanitarian program to really find some of the most desperate people in the world and offer them a new life in Australia, and that has bipartisan support. There has not always been bipartisan support for the quality of the settlement program then offered but certainly there has been bipartisan support for the selection of people by the government, done in consultation with UNHCR.

That has meant that we have had in increasing numbers people settling permanently in Australia who not only do not have literacy in English but also do not have literacy in their language of origin. In those circumstances to expect that, in the space of four years, someone will necessarily be sitting in front of a computer reading English well enough to pass a multiple-choice test is potentially highly unreasonable. I was pleased that when the former parliamentary secretary, the member for Goldstein, first raised this he said there would be exceptions in respect of that. The minister in his second reading speech flagged that, where there is a specific literacy issue for people, the test will be done through a conversation, I guess using similar principles to the conversation over the counter which is done at the moment but obviously in a more detailed fashion and taking into account extra questions that might be involved.

We want this test to be something that is not used in a fashion that sets people up to fail. I will come to a second reading amendment in a moment but, to that end, Labor believes it is essential that you do not just test but also you teach. It is not good enough to just test; you also have to teach. You have to make sure there is adequate funding for the Adult Migrant English Program. You have to make sure there is adequate funding for settlement services so that people who come to Australia with the least opportunity and the least advantage do not find themselves in circumstances where it will always be phenomenally difficult for them to take on their role as full members of Australian society.

To that end, some of the statistics for functional English outcomes that have come from AMEP do show a need for a renewed emphasis on resources for teaching. They do show that, although the AMEP does a good job for its limit of 510 hours, if there is a barrier based on competency in English, and potentially a higher barrier to the English test we already have, we need to ensure the resources are there to get people over that hurdle. The best outcome is never people failing the test. The best outcome is people being given the resources to learn English and to have a start in life in Australia. An objection that has been made a number of times is to point to sensational Australian citizens who do not speak much English at all and to say, ‘Are you saying this person should never have been allowed to be a full member of society?’ If anyone is saying that in this debate, I reckon they are wrong. We are talking about some well-established communities that have built so much of this nation. We are not saying that those individuals should be denied citizenship. We are saying how much better would that individual’s life have been if they had had the full opportunity to learn English and been able to have the full discussion over the counter with whomever the shopkeeper was, able to read their own child’s school reports and able to get jobs fully commensurate with the skills they held? Those opportunities all mean that, if you are going to test, you need to teach. To that end, I will later move a second reading amendment in the following terms:

That all words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

“whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading and whilst welcoming the formalising of the current test for Australian Citizenship, the House:

(1)   notes that the issue is whether the citizenship tests to be determined under the legislation are reasonable;

(2)   notes the importance of teaching in the development of English language skills and the acquisition of knowledge of Australian history, culture and values; and

(3)   calls on the Government to provide improvements to the Adult Migrant English Program and other settlement services to assist migrants to participate fully in the Australian community and to pass the citizenship test”.

At the conclusion of my remarks I will formally move those words. How much of a departure from current practice does the bill before us represent? We will know within about a month after it has gone through. We will know only when people who have sat the test start to release what the questions were. That is the current path, and I sorely recommend to the government that, on issues meant to unite, the smart path is to talk to the opposition and let them know what the questions are going to be. It is a smarter path to take, so that there is no question mark hanging over this process. In the same way, I hope the government comes back in writing with the guarantees given over the phone.

This bill has already been referred to a Senate committee inquiry which will look at a number of issues, including that which came out of the inquiry of the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills—that is, whether a determination that is not a disallowable instrument and not open to scrutiny is the appropriate vehicle for the test to proceed under. That is a reasonable question for the Senate to inquire into. We will await the outcome of that inquiry before we make final decisions on amendments to that part of the bill.

I cannot stress enough that what we have before us is not the test that was on the front page of the Herald Sun and the Telegraph. What we have before us is not a test which places draconian new rules on English language. What we have before us is one thing and one thing only, and that is the principle of whether there should be a citizenship test. If what follows this bill is an unreasonable set of questions then there will be an argument to be had and there will be an argument that we will engage in. But the concept of having questions at all is something that has been with us for as long as Australian citizenship has been with us. To have questions and that extra level of value on Australian citizenship is surely a good thing. This is about becoming a full member of what we all regard as the best country on the planet, and that full membership is something to be embraced, not feared. I move:

That all words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words: “whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading and whilst welcoming the formalising of the current test for Australian Citizenship, the House:

(1)   notes that the issue is whether the citizenship tests to be determined under the legislation are reasonable;

(2)   notes the importance of teaching in the development of English language skills and the acquisition of knowledge of Australian history, culture and values; and

(3)   calls on the Government to provide improvements to the Adult Migrant English Program and other settlement services to assist migrants to participate fully in the Australian community and to pass the citizenship test”.


The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms Corcoran)—Is the amendment seconded?


Mr Laurie Ferguson —I second the amendment and reserve my right to speak.