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Thursday, 21 June 2007
Page: 62

Dr EMERSON (1:09 PM) —This Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Testing) Bill 2007 provides for the introduction of an Australian citizenship test. The question is: why? Why, after 11 years in office, would the government decide that the time has come for an Australian citizenship test to be formalised? There is already a citizenship test. Citizenship is not handed out like confetti to anyone who has been in the country for a specified period of time. Applicants for citizenship are expected to know about Australia, to have functional English and, basically, to be able to demonstrate that they are of good character. Yet, after 11 years, the government has decided that something new has to be done. Why wouldn’t the government have done this in its first term or even in its second term?

The answer is that there has been a development in the last couple of years, and that development was the Cronulla riots. The Cronulla riots sharpened public opinion, particularly in Sydney but more broadly around Australia, about the whole issue of the contribution or otherwise of people from other countries to the development of Australia. Now, it is reasonable that the Australian people ask such questions, but the truth of the matter is that this government was responding to public opinion polls. If you want to know what really makes this government jump, what really makes it change a position, it is public opinion polls.

This is a political response to an unfortunate set of developments in south-west Sydney. Those developments were not only the Cronulla riots but also the activities of some members of the Muslim community. The sad truth is that the Howard government has sought to capitalise on the anxiety and division created by the behaviour of a small minority of members of the Muslim community in part of Sydney.

Have there been any major developments over the last 12 months or so in terms of the relationship between long-settled Australians and those who have arrived more recently in Melbourne? Perhaps, but I am not aware of any particular crisis that would have caused the government’s changed position. Have there been any such developments in Adelaide or in Perth? Indeed, in my home city of Brisbane and, more particularly, in Logan City, the area that I represent in this parliament, have there been any major divisions or riots, any ruckus? No, Mr Deputy Speaker, there have not.

In fact, in Logan City, we assert that we have the most diverse population anywhere in Australia—not the highest concentration of people from overseas, including people from non-English-speaking backgrounds, but the greatest diversity. We assert that there are people living in Logan City from more than 160 different homelands. The second reading speech described Australia as a country that has welcomed people from 200 different homelands, so we are right up there; we are only 40 short of the total number of countries from which Australia has drawn citizens over the last 150 years. So Logan City is an incredibly diverse area. Different people live side by side. Wave after wave of migrants who come to Australia come to Logan City.

The most recent wave of migrants is from African countries. Initially, they were Sudanese, but now they are Congolese, people from Somalia, people from Burundi—people from all over Africa. And the people who are already settled in Logan City welcome them with open arms. The people who come from these African countries do not live in enclaves. The sort of picture that is created and painted by this government, a picture of nonintegration and people unwilling to declare themselves true Aussies, is not the reality in Logan City, nor is it necessarily the reality anywhere else. Yet that one event, built on simmering tensions, the Cronulla riots, has caused the government to go down this particular path.

In addition to the changes set out in this legislation, the government has made it harder for people from overseas to qualify for citizenship, by extending the qualifying period from two years to four years. Let us be clear about what the government is doing: instead of inviting people to Australia and asking them to make a commitment to Australia through becoming Australian citizens, the government is making it harder to become a citizen. Why would it do that? Isn’t it what the Australian public wants—that those who do come here make a commitment to our country through taking out citizenship?

I argued to the ethnic communities of Logan City that as a federal member I would want as many of them as possible to make a commitment to Australia through citizenship. In my view, it is not a desirable situation for people from other countries to come to Australia and remain noncitizens indefinitely. We should encourage citizenship not discourage it. Yet through those two separate measures, the government seems to be discouraging citizenship by extending the qualifying period from two to four years and by applying a citizenship test.

Originally, with the first measure the government decided to extend the citizenship qualifying period from two to three years. It must have then thought that it was not hard enough, so made it four years, and then accompanied it with the test. There is already a test, but this formalises the testing arrangements. The main test will be the selection of 20 multiple choice questions drawn randomly from a large pool. Each test is expected to include three questions on the responsibilities and privileges of Australian citizenship. The pass mark is expected to be 60 per cent and the three mandatory questions must be answered correctly.

Interestingly, the provisions contained in this legislation are far more moderate than those originally foreshadowed by the minister. To that extent, we welcome the moderation and Labor will support the measures contained in this legislation. Special arrangements will be made for people whose literacy skills mean that they have difficulty undertaking a test. The minister has a large degree of discretion to provide a different test and exemptions for the test. For example, exemptions will include people under the age of 18 or over 60, and also those with a permanent physical or mental incapacity which prevents them from understanding the nature of their application. There has been moderation from the original intent of this legislation and we welcome that moderation.

Labor also understands that people who come to Australia from non-English-speaking backgrounds, especially those who come from very poor countries and often in dire circumstances, need assistance in learning English. When I speak to the Sudanese and other people from Africa who are settling in Logan City, the first thing they say they want to do is learn English. It is not as if Australia is riddled with enclaves of people who do not want to learn English. The people from these African countries know that, in order to get a job, sustain their families and perhaps bring other people to Australia, they need to be at least functionally literate. They seek help to learn English and Labor says that help should be provided. Isn’t that going to the heart of the issue? We want to assist people to learn English and therefore play out a fuller role in our community. Labor is taking a positive approach on these issues, whereas, sadly, the coalition is taking a negative approach.

Let us ponder for a moment what the possible rationale for this measure could be beyond capitalising on some strong public opinion emanating out of the Cronulla riots. Let us ask whether this citizenship test would stop bad people from becoming citizens. If a bad person wants to become a citizen, do you think they would set out to fail the test? They would be doing their very best to pass the test. Are we saying that someone who is hostile to the Australian way of life may have terrorist intentions? Who would say, ‘I was going to be a really bad guy, but they tripped me up on that citizenship test. I was just about to get away with some heinous crime and then I did the citizenship test, got less than 60 per cent and failed, so I have been exposed.’ It is just ludicrous that this testing procedure could be, in any way, conceived as a means of filtering out bad people, because strongly motivated bad people will pass the test.

Who might fail the test? One group who might fail the test are women from very poor countries from non-English-speaking backgrounds. They come from poor circumstances, are poorly educated in their home countries and come to Australia with heavy commitments to their families. They could easily struggle with this test. Do we really want that? Are they the sort of people we want to prevent from becoming Australian citizens? I thought we would want to encourage them. Why not recognise the difficult circumstances of women from poor countries of non-English-speaking backgrounds and assist them in learning English? They do not have a lot of time on their hands, they do not have the educational background to be able to pick up a new language easily and they are the sorts of people who could experience difficulty. They are the people that, I would have thought, we would want to become Australian citizens, not the sorts of the people we would want to deter.

Can this test be abused? Can it be abused by the government of the day instructing the authorities to make the test more difficult or the decision as to whether they have passed or not tougher for particular groups? I do not know, but I fear that it could. Could it be used to keep people from particular ethnic backgrounds from becoming Australian citizens? We cannot really answer that because we have not actually seen the test at this stage but I certainly do hope that that is not the motivation.

Having read the second reading speech, I am none the wiser as to the motivation behind this other than, ‘Isn’t it good that people make a commitment to Australia and understand our culture?’ Of course, that is good, but will a citizenship test make that happen? I doubt it. As I said at the outset, it is not as if there is no test already—there is a test. However, because this particular test as outlined in the legislation is far more moderate than that originally proposed, Labor will support it but we would back it up by committing extra resources to the teaching of English.

Australia needs a strong immigration program and I will acknowledge freely that immigration to Australia over the last few years has increased very substantially. This is a good development and I thank the government for presiding over such an increase in immigration. For example, excluding the humanitarian program, in the mid-nineties we had a total program of a bit over 82,000. Now, in 2006-07, it is 144,000 and it is expected in 2007-08 to be more than 150,000. These are welcome developments. The humanitarian program has remained at around 13,000 a year for the last few years. This is very important for Australia’s future.

The Intergenerational report identifies and quantifies the problem of the ageing of the population. As the Treasurer has said, ‘Demography is destiny’. Decisions that were made through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s have caused the current situation so not only is the population ageing with us but there is not a great deal that we can do about it in the short term. Something that we can do is to lift the fertility rates of women of childbearing age and there are plenty of policy proposals that have been put forward which are designed to do that. Most of them come from the Labor side of politics, including from the shadow Treasurer, who has identified problems in the family payment system and the disincentives involved in the interaction of the family payment system with the income tax system plus the high cost of child care which mean that women of childbearing age tend not to go back to work as quickly as otherwise they might. There are issues with our declining fertility. There has been a lift in fertility in the last year or so. Some people say that it is a temporary phenomenon as women who approach their mid to late 30s realise that their clocks are ticking and that they need to have their babies if they are going to have them. It is not assured that the temporary lift in fertility that we have experienced in the last two years will be sustained.

So what do we do about the ageing of the population? We are having debates in this parliament and outside the parliament about productivity. It is vital that we lift the nation’s productivity but there is another way as well to complement a lift in participation in the workforce and that is with a lift in immigration. The difference between the original Intergenerational report and the updated Intergenerational report released by the Treasurer in early April is that the government had not anticipated the strength with which the contribution of an increase in immigration would modify the ageing of the population. That is, the government had not expected that it would be possible to bring in enough younger migrants to help offset the impact of population ageing. It appears that perhaps immigration has greater potential to help offset the adverse consequences of population ageing than had been understood at the time of the original Intergenerational report in 2002. If that is the case, that is very welcome news.

Given that we will not be able to fundamentally turn around the population ageing phenomenon we will need as many younger migrants as possible to bolster the working age population in Australia. There will be shortages of both skilled and unskilled labour not only next year and the year after but right through the foreseeable period. It is understood that there will be skill shortages, but what is not so readily understood is that there will be shortages of people with lower levels of skills as well. With the ageing of the population, we will need working age people perhaps with somewhat lower levels of skills to do a lot of the less glamorous work. We will need people without high skill levels to work in our aged-care facilities as people live through their 90s and become more than 100 years of age. These will be very frail people. So we do need that boost in immigration. I welcome the boost in immigration that this government has presided over but it is vitally important that we make it easier not harder for migrants to come to Australia and we make it easier not harder for migrants to make a commitment to Australia by becoming Australian citizens. (Time expired)