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Thursday, 21 June 2007
Page: 66

Mr MICHAEL FERGUSON (1:29 PM) —I thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to speak to the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Testing) Bill 2007. This bill is very important to me and I believe it is a subject that is held in high importance by all members of this House. We need to exercise our obligation at all times for greater social cohesion in this great country. It is also my belief that all candidates for citizenship ought to be able to do a citizenship test voluntarily even if they are exempt from the test, and it is on this point that I express my view that the law may need to be changed in the future. Today I want to outline why the Commonwealth government ought to assist these people and why I ask that it be considered in future reviews of this legislation.

In December 2006, the Australian government announced its intention to introduce a test for certain applicants for Australian citizenship. In announcing the plan, the then Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, Andrew Robb, said that it would help migrants to integrate and maximise the opportunities available to them in Australia. It was true then and it is true now that this measure will be of benefit not just to candidates for citizenship but indeed to our whole country. Under the proposed test, future migrants will need to demonstrate a basic level of English language skills as well as knowledge of the Australian way of life and shared values. At the time, Mr Robb said:

Australian Citizenship is a privilege not a right. This citizenship test is an important extension of the Government’s broader philosophy of mutual obligation.

A practical, commonsense test will serve to enhance the value of Australian Citizenship as something worth striving for.

Community support for such a test came through with more than 1,600 responses to the discussion paper and, of those responses, 60 per cent indicated their clear support for a formal citizenship test. I feel greatly encouraged that such a large number of people and interest groups put forward their positive proposals in helping to formulate the policy that we are discussing today.

New citizens will undertake a web based test requiring people to demonstrate their knowledge of the English language and of Australia, and there will also be an oral component to the test. While all prospective citizens will need to take a test, there will be provision for alternative testing arrangements for people who cannot attain the literacy standards required. Prospective applicants for citizenship will also be asked to sign a statement of commitment to Australia.

As I outlined earlier, I am also of the strong belief that, if they want to, even those people who are not required to sit the test but who are approaching candidacy for citizenship ought to be offered the opportunity to be given the booklet to study for and undertake the test, if for nothing else but their own sense of pride and achievement. It would have the flow-on benefit of increasing the level of English ability and the knowledge of Australia which will stand them in very good stead into the future.

I have a couple of comments about my electorate of Bass in northern Tasmania, which informs my views on the subject. Bass is not a place, and neither is Tasmania, where we have seen immigration levels such as have been witnessed in other states around Australia. Immigration levels have historically been strong in Tasmania, but in recent decades they have certainly not been at the rate experienced in New South Wales and Victoria. Approximately 13 per cent of people living in my electorate of Bass were born overseas, and approximately 900 people per year immigrate to Tasmania. In the financial year 2005-06 there were 177 immigrants from the United Kingdom, 82 from the Sudan, 47 from India, 33 from the United States of America and 34 from South Africa. There is a strong component, particularly from the African nations, of refugee and humanitarian entrants, and by far the majority of people are entering under skilled work programs and family reunion.

I have a strong affection for our migrant community in northern Tasmania. We have an excellent community of people who have a commitment to Australia and to Tasmania and, while there are pulls and attractions to move closer to some of their fellow countrymen interstate in some of the bigger cities, the ones who choose to stay in Tasmania really love the place. I note that the Africans, in particular, struggle with the cold at times—particularly on a day like today, the winter solstice—but they have a love for Tasmania, which is something which has grown in them even though, if they were refugees, at first they may not have had any choice as to where they would be settled.

I particularly draw the House’s attention to two refugees who have come a great way in Launceston, Tasmania. I hope they do not mind me mentioning them: their names are Abdul and Aminata Succoh. They are a wonderful family with a large number of children, including their youngest, Shalom—a beautiful little child—and they have made and are making the transition from languishing in a refugee camp in Africa. One day the truck rolled by, literally, and they were told that their number had come up and they were moving to Australia. They have made a tremendous contribution to our community in northern Tasmania and they are exemplars of the African community which they represent. They have opened a business; they are an enterprising family. They are engaged in tailoring, hair braiding and the sale of products—all things African. I pay tribute to them today as people who represent the African community in northern Tasmania and who—I may say this because I have asked—greatly support the Australian government’s immigration policies, including the citizenship test. They are interested in community; they are not interested in politics. They are interested in watching and supporting their people and helping them to make the transition which they have made and are making to have a better life, to appreciate and be part of the country which gave them new hope and a new future and to enthusiastically embrace it. After all, they fled their home country. That is not to say that they do not miss it and it is certainly not to say that they do not miss those loved ones that they left behind, because they do, but they have a deep affection and a deep love for this country, even a deeper love than many people have who were born here in Australia who perhaps have grown up in this wonderful country of ours and, from time to time, take it for granted.

I will in passing make the unusual step of paying tribute to my late father-in-law, Salvatore Fasano, who passed away a few years ago, and who was an Italian immigrant—in fact, a prisoner of war, taken by the Allied forces in the Second World War and placed on the West Tamar in Northern Tasmania to work on a farm there. At the end of the war, he was given the opportunity to return to his home country, but he had in that time developed such a love for and an affinity with Australia that he—through the usual processes—came back here, found a new life here and started his family here. He was another battler who made his way as a man with nothing and made his contribution to his new country.

It would be interesting to know what Sydney’s Sheikh Taj El-Din Hilaly thought of this idea of a voluntary test. It has been well documented that Hilaly arrived in Australia on a tourist visa but did not leave before the visa expired. In 1988, attempts were made to have him deported for inciting hatred and being against so-called Australian values. This did not happen and Hilaly was in fact granted permanent residence in 1990 because the then Prime Minister, Paul Keating, rejected all advice and legitimised his status, which eventually led to him being awarded citizenship. In more recent times, we have heard a lot in the media about Hilaly. In January this year, Sheikh Hilaly appeared on an Egyptian television program and made a number of comments that resulted in widespread criticism here in Australia—bipartisan criticism from all major parties in Australia. He said that, because many British and Irish settlers had been convicts, Muslims had more right to Australia, because they paid their own way. He also said that prison sentences handed down to Lebanese-Australian Muslims for the gang rapes in Sydney were excessive and influenced by the 2001 terrorists attacks in the United States. The sheik also said that Western people—and he singled out the ‘English race’—are the biggest liars and oppressors. There is no such thing as an English race, so I am unclear if he meant the English people or the whole of the Commonwealth. And, as Andrew Bolt reports, what a symbol of determined apartness he was, with so little English after 30 years here—pretty un-Australian.

As a short comment: what worries me still and makes me feel uncomfortable is that the infamous Hilaly, amid all the rumblings, machinations and internal politics of the Islamic community and the real public hope that he would be impeached, was apparently made an offer to continue in the role by the same Australian National Imams Council which then appointed his successor in the same week.

There are clearly still problems here. I acknowledge that it is very hard to talk about them honestly and openly without opening up a slanging match. But I want to say that I applaud the work of all those who have stretched out the hand of friendship to the Muslim community in Australia in the expectation that there will need to be more and better integration of the Muslim cultural community and other new Australians into the Australian way of life in order for our nation to be a stable and harmonious one into future. This is not about the clash of religions so much as about differences in cultures. Today, I rededicate myself to working positively wherever I can to soothe this problem that I refer to and rededicate myself to maintaining the values that our country cherishes. These values include, as the minister has said, respect for freedoms, including freedom of religion; the dignity of the individual; support for democracy and the parliamentary system; a commitment to the rule of law, under which men and women are equal in every way; respect for all races and cultures; the spirit of a fair go, which is distinctly Australian; mutual respect; compassion for those in need; and promoting the interests of the community generally, making Australia even better.

This change that I have mentioned, and which I continue to propose, ought to be considered after the arrangements we are today debating have been bedded down. It would ensure that those people who wish to become an Australian citizen can do so by also demonstrating an understanding of and a commitment to Australia and our way of life. To those new citizens who are not required to do the test but still want to, I would like to give an opportunity to make further commitment to this great nation. I am not moving an amendment; I simply signal that this is something that I believe ought to be considered by the government after the changes have been implemented and stabilised.

The proposed test outlined in this bill will require demonstration of a knowledge and understanding of our history, values and culture and of the institutions that underpin our free and open democratic society. And what a proud history that is. Notwithstanding our fair share of mistakes, we have come a long way and we—along with our forebears and the unmistakable guiding hand of God—have shaped and inherited a great nation. While this parliament represents and symbolises much of what is great and democratic about Australia, I suspect not enough is spoken in this House about our proud history as an independent nation since 1901.That leads this former schoolteacher—not a history teacher but one interested in his country—to take the chamber back to some selected democratic and social achievements made by a modern nation.

On 1 January 1901, Australia celebrated becoming a federation of states, as Edmund Barton became our first Prime Minister and Lord Hopetoun our first Governor-General. What I love about that era is the catchcry slogans of the federalists. This is part of our heritage and, I hope, our vision for Australia. Their catchcries were: ‘One people, one destiny’ and ‘Unity is strength.’ In 1902 the Commonwealth Franchise Act guaranteed women the right to vote in federal elections and the right to sit in federal parliament, long before other nations took the same step. In 1903 the Defence Act gave the federal government control over its own Army. The first powered airline flight was made in Australia in 1909. Australia’s population was recorded as 4.5 million in our first census, which was conducted in 1911. The famous Anzac spirit was defined in 1915 at Gallipoli. Sir Douglas Mawson made Australia proud by charting more than 6,000 kilometres of Antarctic coastline in 1931. Tasmania’s own Joe Lyons became my home state’s first Prime Minister in 1932.

I used to teach my science students about the great work of Howard Florey, who, in 1940, along with his team of scientists, developed penicillin for the world. Australia became a founding member of the United Nations in 1945. The Olympics came to Melbourne in 1956 and Sydney in 2000. In 1967 the first Australians, Aboriginal Australians, gained the right to citizenship after an overwhelming referendum result. In 1986 the Australia Act cut all of the remaining legislative apron strings that the UK had to pass laws for our country. In 1999 Australian soldiers were deployed to East Timor as part of a peacekeeping force, confirming our international leadership role which continues to this day in more than 10 places around the world.

There is so much more that could be said, but from what I have said I am sure that you will agree, Mr Deputy Speaker Causley, that our country has offered so much. It continues to be an attractive place for people to call home or to make their home. As a young Australian myself, I recognise my own failure to appreciate as I was growing up the great bounty that we take for granted in Australia.

Many countries around the world have a test such as the one we are discussing today. These include Canada, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and the United States. In Canada the residency requirement is to spend three years out of four living in Canada as a permanent resident before applying. Applicants have to be able to communicate in English or French and they must know about Canada. They must ‘know about the rights and responsibilities of citizenship’. In the United Kingdom, since November 2005, all new applicants are required to demonstrate knowledge of English and also to have passed the so-called Life in the UK Test.

The Netherlands have led the way in the modern era in this regard. Since 2003 they have required that candidates for citizenship undertake a four-hour test on the Dutch language and national knowledge. In our physically and socially close neighbour, New Zealand, the residency requirement is three years permanent residence—although I acknowledge that there is no test of the nature that we are describing today. In the United States, which proudly boasts of being the land of the free, applicants for citizenship must show that they are a person ‘of good moral character’ for a five-year period. They also need to demonstrate that they can read, write, speak and understand words in ordinary usage. They must also demonstrate a knowledge and understanding of the fundamentals of the history, principles and form of government of the United States.

In closing, let me say that a formal citizenship test is a way to ensure that migrants are absolutely committed and ready to participate in the wider community. It is not a foolproof method but it is another layer of security for our immigration program here in Australia. We again extend the invitation to those abroad who wish to live here: they are welcome. (Time expired)