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Thursday, 21 June 2007
Page: 54

Mr LAURIE FERGUSON (12:28 PM) —At the outset I indicate that, since the member for Watson spoke, he has received correspondence from the minister allaying remaining concerns of the opposition. In reality he has confirmed that the ministerial determination under section 23A could not be inconsistent with the provisions of the act, and that is especially the case with the general eligibility in section 21(2). Furthermore, he confirmed that the intention is that the capacity to limit the eligibility requirements for any citizenship test will be used to limit access to additional tests that may be necessary if it is found that there is a cohort of people for whom a less formal approach to testing is appropriate. I do not want to have too much backslapping here, but I also congratulate the previous speaker in relation to his role as the minister for a period. I had him in my electorate on many occasions, and he did bring to this portfolio great enthusiasm and interest.

I would agree with previous speakers that, having regard to the way in which the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Testing) Bill 2007 has emerged, it is not of grave concern. There are exemptions regarding those aged under 18 and over 60. There is provision for exemption for those with mental incapacity. The minister has a degree of discretion to look at the situation of people with other needs. There are also provisions relating to those with literacy problems.

However, when people quote and denigrate speakers who have expressed concerns over the last year or so and who have said that the legislation is unfair, we have to remember the context in which the legislation arose. Reference has been made to recent comments by the member for Goldstein, but I remind the House of his initial comments. For instance, on 19 September last year, in regard to citizenship, he made these comments which were reported in the Australian on that date:

They know people are going to come here, but they want it on our terms. That gives them a sense of control.

He was speaking about the Australian people. He also commented—and this was paraphrased in the newspaper article—that ‘the Australian values based regime is designed to give the community a sense of security’. That was said by the article’s author to echo John Howard’s pledge on border protection during the 2001 election campaign. So whilst it is interesting to philosophise on how we got to this far more moderate legislation, the context in which it was originally introduced was such that people would have been concerned.

I refer to the infamous outburst, as I would see it, by the Prime Minister while touring a Greek aged persons organisation in Melbourne, reported by Patricia Kavalas in the Australian. She noticed that the vast majority of older Greeks present at that function did not speak English. She put it to the Prime Minister: ‘These new English tests, Prime Minister, most of the people here can’t speak English, and they have been here for so long.’ The Prime Minister then said, ‘Oh, but they helped build Australia.’ The point I am making is that I believe that the original intention behind this legislation is not reflected by what came out in the end. We see from those comments by the then parliamentary secretary and the Prime Minister that the original intention would have to be seen by any objective person to have involved an emphasis on security and a possible attempt to marginalise people.

It is uncertain why there has been this major change, having regard to the way in which the legislation was originally moving. It could be because of the reaction from the opposition. Equally, it could be because a journalist whom I respect, who had an extensive interview with the parliamentary secretary, was assured that deep down he was a person with a commitment to a multicultural Australia, that people should live together and that it should be about nation building. Maybe there was reconsideration among government ranks. Equally, it is possible that the government concluded that any campaign around security and the marginalisation of minorities was not going to go anywhere because it did not represent the facts.

Whilst I note that the Prime Minister has set himself up for a new task in life, as a major expert on historical writing, even though he has limited academic credentials in that field, we should not forget this country’s history and what could possibly happen. In the First World War, every Greek family in this country was investigated by the precursor to ASIO. Their loyalty was doubted because the then King of Greece was regarded as having affinity for the Germans, as opposed to the democratic government of Venizelos in Greece. Also, during the First World War, the Russian Club in South Brisbane was burned to the ground. In the Second World War, Germans and Italians were incarcerated.

An article in the Royal Australian Historical Journal in the last year or so talked about the situation on the border in Albury, where there were two Lutheran ministers. One of them, a convert from Judaism, was shoved into detention as a possible Nazi sympathiser. Another article in that journal just in the last month or so looked at the situation of Italian fascists in this country. With respect to those people who joined the Fascist Party, in Queensland in particular, it was found that they largely joined because of business pressure from the Italian consulate, and a belief that they would be disadvantaged in trade situations if they did not join. We all know that large numbers of Italians were incarcerated during the Second World War.

I do not think this country is any worse than others; we are a bit too inclined to persecute ourselves over such matters. Racism and marginalisation have been phenomena around the world. These things are always possible. We do know that since September 11 one community in particular has attracted deep interest from some segments of our population. I refer to people of the Islamic faith. One of the reasons the approach which first led to this kind of legislation would have had no credibility in driving home that campaign is that the statistics do not really assist that kind of campaign. Many speakers have referred to the reality in this country—that, of the large numbers of people who have qualified to become Australian citizens, they are disproportionately of British and New Zealand extraction, with an Italian presence as well. It is worth noting that the citizenship rate for Italians is 65½ per cent. The rate for New Zealanders is 37.7 per cent and for those from the Netherlands it is 78.3 per cent. In contrast, many communities that are newly arrived here are far more keen to become citizens and their rates are very high.

If this law in the next few years were to massively change the requirements in regard to citizenship—and we know it has in one sense, in that there is a requirement that people now have to be permanent residents here for four years rather than what was previously two years—those most affected, those that would be hit the hardest if they decided to become citizens for whatever reason in the near future, would not be, to any major degree, people from the Islamic world. As indicated by previous speakers and by me, they would be predominantly from Europe, New Zealand et cetera.

If we look at the intake to this country over the last few years, what do we find regarding people who might become eligible for citizenship over the next few years? The first reason that not many of them are going to be affected by the legislation is that they are coming here under the skilled category, with increasingly—and quite rightly—more stringent English requirements in order to enter. If we look at the breakdown of the intake over recent years, we see that it is predominantly once again from the UK, as well as India and China.

It is interesting to note the July to December 2006 intake figures into this country: India had a little over 6,000; Sri Lanka about 1,200; China 5,500; Philippines 2,500; Vietnam 1,600; Europe nearly 16,000; the UK 12,000. Not many Muslims have come through from what I can perceive. Over the latter half of last year, Sudan had 1,600, and I would argue that they are predominantly Christians from the south, and Iraq had nearly 1,200 and, to a large degree, they are going to be religious victims of events over the last year or so who have been fleeing predominantly to Syria and Jordan. There might be some Shi’ites in there. The number of Sunnis entering is not going to be worth worrying too much about.

The government has certainly come up with fairly innocuous legislation. There are still concerns about the degree of discretion on what is going to occur. The comments that foreshadowed this legislation were of a very different nature from what we have arrived at. You could not say that the government has succeeded in meeting its expectations of early pronouncements about security, with the Australian people deciding who is going to become citizens. As previous speakers have said, we have had tests since the 1948 legislation. Occasionally you come across people that have been rejected. I have come across one or two myself.

Despite outbursts of marginalisation of people, discrimination and denigration, Australia is, by international standards, an accepting nation. I have often alluded in citizenship speeches to countries of the former Soviet Union. The Russian minority in those countries, which were once so dominant, find themselves isolated, unable to move back to Russia proper, denied citizenship in many of the new nations and some of them have language tests. Over the years we have all watched what happened in Germany: their severe struggle to change citizenship laws. A one vote majority in the Bundesrat was accomplished by the social democrats breaking every convention of West German politics to vote the legislation through, leading to the abandonment of the German situation where people got citizenship by blood. Volga Germans, who had moved to Russia three centuries beforehand, could walk in next morning and become citizens, whereas Turkish and Kurdish residents of Germany who had lived there for three of four generations were denied citizenship.

By any standards we have been liberal, we have been accepting, we have been tolerant. That is still largely encased in this new legislation. As I say, there are reasons to be concerned.  In the Melbourne Age of 11 June last year, when there was some debate around these measures, a young schoolgirl, Adela Aliaga-Yori, talked of her family’s experience. She stated:

I remember both of my parents going every morning to take them—

English classes—

They used to tell me that it is not enough to fully understand the language.

They also had to stop taking the lessons because they had to work and provide for me and my brother. After a few years now, they speak English so much better than when they first came. My father was finally able to get a job in his career because his English improved. My mother also works and is happy to communicate in her new language.

She noted concerns which were understandable. She goes on:

Luckily, my family and I were able to attain citizenship because we came when the law only required migrants to live in Australia for a given period of time before acquiring the citizenship. However, this does not make me any less affected by it because I know and see the complications and fears fellow migrants are experiencing through the test.

Luckily her fears, which were legitimate at that stage because of comments, did not eventuate.

Eric Bana recently appeared in a very worthwhile film Romulus, My Father about a Romanian migrant family in this country and their experiences and, being of Croatian and German extraction, also looked at his situation in life. These are very telling comments because he did appear in a film which portrayed the experience of Eastern European migrants:

My father spoke very limited English, my mother was slightly more fluent ...

I know for a fact my grandparents would not have passed any of those tests. I would not be standing here had those tests been enforced in the late 1940s.

These are real-life experiences of people. The Labor Party amendment speaks of the need for more emphasis on English testing, and I think that is right and proper.

Our country has essentially stressed the acceptance of people. If we are worried about security in this country we might feel that it would help if we did not let doubtful people become citizens. One of the earlier speakers, I think it was the member for More-ton, said that most people come to this country to improve their circumstance in life. Most of them come here hoping to be accepted, to get employment, to prosper and for their children to become part of the society. There are a few exceptions. It is normally when they feel that they are ostracised, marginalised and outside the system that they are seized upon and liable to be attracted to extremist forces. My emphasis as an individual would always be on ensuring that we maximise the possibilities of people being accepted.

This test is in the same ballpark as that which preceded it. If we are concerned about security and incorporating people into society, the $123 million that is expended over the next five years might more effectively, to my mind, be spent better in one particular segment: community broadcasting. Yesterday the member for Lindsay presented a unanimous report from a parliamentary committee. Four million Australians listen to community radio during a year. It has trained large numbers of Australians—7,500 a year—in worthwhile communication work and encompasses 23,000 volunteers nationally. Of the 480 ethnic stations that exist, there are seven full-time ethnic stations in this country.

It is worth noting the funding for this sector. If we look at 3ZZZ, the flagship station for the ethnic community in this country, we will find that its funding over the last decade has gone from $48 to $34 per hour. I did not catch the full contribution the member for Lindsay made yesterday, but I think there were some concerns expressed in that report about funding. Some $10 million has been given to digitalisation over the next few years. That will be helpful, but it is not enough. The reason I stress this is that the listening audience in this country is increasingly subject, in terms of globalisation, to penetration by overseas broadcasters. When I go into many households now, particularly in the Turkish community, I find they have seven or eight, who knows how many, television stations broadcasting into their homes 24 hours a day from Turkey. Much of this is innocuous: soap operas, trivia shows and these types of things that the Australian mass audience is also into. But there is, in some cases, the increasing possibility that stations pushing extremist messages will be more widely accepted, viewed and listened to in this country.

When we talk about acceptance and about trying to make sure that people have our values, are part of our culture and are in the same frame of reference as us, it is important that we promote community radio and television in this country in these ethnic communities because the people running these stations are, in 99 per cent of the cases, people who have passed Australian citizenship ceremonies, have lived in this country for many decades and are affected by our laws with re-gard to what can be published and with regard to racial vilification and discrimination. They are people who understand the nuances of our society. They live here, they know what we think and they are affected by it.

During this debate on the issue of citizenship, one thing we should not underestimate for a moment is the need to fund this sector. In some communities, there is a real battle on for people’s minds, and there is heavy subsidisation of overseas television stations that, in some cases, have pushed very extremist messages. It is important that particularly young people are given the opportunity to be influenced by more Australian values.

SBS did a survey some years ago of seven ethnic communities in this country, and it was interesting that the vast majority of their attitudes on a wide variety issues and that what they listened to and were interested in were very close to Australian values in general. One exception was the Lebanese community, both of Christian extraction and Moslem extraction. They stood out because the children said that they got their interest in the media from their parents. Most other communities said they got it from other young people and from the broader society. I have diverged slightly from the main point of this legislation, but that is an example of a community where we need to push Australian-grown media options rather than having it inculcated over a long period that the overseas media is better. In conclusion, the outcome of a very long road—and given the government’s initial much-vaunted promises—is this piece of legislation before the House today, and the opposition supports it. It is not a mirror of what was alluded to and what was inferred; it is very moderate and a very reasonable outcome. (Time expired)