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Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Testing) Bill 2007

CHAIR (Senator Barnett)—Welcome. This is the first hearing of the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs inquiry into the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Testing) Bill 2007. The inquiry was referred to the committee by the Senate on 13 June 2007 for report by 31 July 2007, and the bill amends the Australian Citizenship Act 2007 to provide for the testing of prospective applicants for Australian citizenship by conferral. The committee has received 56 submissions for this inquiry. All submissions have been authorised for publication and are available on the committee’s website.

I remind all witnesses that, in giving evidence to the committee, they are protected by parliamentary privilege. It is unlawful for anyone to threaten or disadvantage a witness on account of evidence given to the committee and such action may be treated by the Senate as a contempt. It is also a contempt to give false or misleading evidence to a committee.

The committee prefers all evidence to be given in public but, under the Senate’s resolutions, witnesses have the right to request to be heard in private session. It is important that witnesses give the committee notice if they intend to ask to give evidence in camera. If a witness objects to answering a question the witness should state the ground on which the objection is taken, and the committee will determine whether it will insist on an answer, having regard to the ground which is claimed. If the committee determines to insist on an answer, the witness may request that the answer be given in camera. Such a request may of course also be made at any other time.

The Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia has lodged submission no. 51 with the committee and the Canberra Multicultural Community Forum has lodged submission no. 46 with the committee. Do you wish to make any amendments or alterations to those submissions?

Mr Wong —No.

Ms Messimeri-Kianidis —No.

CHAIR —I invite you to make a short opening statement and at the conclusion of that we will open up the opportunity for questions from members of the committee.

Ms Messimeri-Kianidis —Thank you very much for the opportunity to make a submission to this inquiry, which we welcome and have called for. The Federation of the Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia is a representative body and a peak body representing multicultural communities around Australia. Our members are of the view that a citizenship test for Australia is not needed. We believe that Australia has been well served in the past with arrangements the way they were. They were inclusive. There was a basic English test that sufficed for people to demonstrate that they had a willingness to embrace values and acquire English in order to achieve citizenship.

It has been proven in the past that Australian citizenship is very much valued by the people who arrive on these shores. Evidence of this is the very high levels of citizenship that have been taken up by groups, particularly from non-English-speaking backgrounds. As we know, those least likely to take up citizenship are people from New Zealand and the United Kingdom. Certainly people from non-English-speaking background countries value and embrace Australian citizenship because often they have fled from areas of trauma, war, and they need and want the certainty that citizenship provides.

With that sort of background, we were dismayed at the introduction of a formal citizenship test, especially one that is touted to be a formal, computerised type of test that seeks perhaps to advantage those people who are university or high school trained, English speakers. It may disadvantage and put obstacles in the way of non-English-speaking background people and, in particular, people who are refugees, humanitarian entrants and those who come under the family reunion and may not be from an English-speaking background. Our particular concerns are for those people that have low literacy levels and because of traumatic situations may find it very difficult to achieve the level of English required to pass a formal citizenship test. With those introductory points, we call for a spelling out in any legislation if there is going to be a citizenship test about exclusions for people who fall into those categories that we are concerned about.

As we know, Australia has an increasing level of skilled migration and international student intakes, and many of those students apply for and obtain Australian citizenship. That is a welcome thing for Australia, particularly given our skills shortage. Our concern is not with those people, because we feel that anybody who has gone through university or high school can read through a little booklet, assimilate information and be able to sit and pass a test; our concerns are with refugees, humanitarian entrants and family reunion people with low literacy levels and from traumatic situations.

CHAIR —Thank you for that.

Mr Wong —Good morning. Thank you for the opportunity to be here today, representing the Canberra Multicultural Community Forum, to provide some feedback on this amendment to the citizenship legislation. The CMCF represents the needs and aspirations of the Canberra multicultural community, and we celebrate the achievements of the entire community and foster a spirit of cooperation and harmony. In this role, our key responsibility is to support multicultural communities and people who have experienced the refugee and migration process as well as the broader ACT community.

We recognise the important role of citizenship, both in what it represents and the rights it grants. However, the proposed changes to Australian citizenship will have a negative impact on the multicultural community and the broader ACT community and therefore the CMCF does not support the bill. This is where we align ourselves closely with the Federation of the Ethnic Community Councils and the previous speaker.

The amendment of the Citizenship Act is a significant policy change in the Australian government’s approach to citizenship. The CMCF have deep concerns about the introduction of a citizenship test. We are also worried about the lack of consultation in developing such a test and the ongoing lack of transparency this legislation will cement. The second reading speech says:

The test will encourage prospective citizens to obtain the knowledge they need to support successful integration into Australian society.

The CMCF disagrees. The test will not contribute to the government goal of instilling Australian values or helping migrants to integrate and maximising the opportunities available to them. It is unreasonable to suggest that a short, written, multiple-choice exam will test whether the applicant would be a good citizen rather than just test rote learning. The design and structure of any proposed test should be transparent, objective and open to public consultation and both public and parliamentary scrutiny. The content of the test should not be at the discretion only of the minister. While it could be argued that it would be appropriate to test citizenship applicants on their English skills and understanding of citizens’ responsibilities, the suggestion that Australian values can be tested based on the view of a single minister is totally undemocratic. It is almost impossible to draft questions to test Australian values, particularly concerns like mateship, respect for freedom or commitment to democracy. Testing people on common values, which implies that there is only one set of Australian values and one type of Australian citizen, undermines the vital role that multiculturalism and diversity play in Australian society. A person’s interaction with and contribution to the Australian community over time, particularly now the period of permanent residency has been extended, is a better gauge of good citizenship than any quiz. The proposed test could result in an individual who may have made meaningful contributions to Australia over the past four years missing out on citizenship because of their poor literacy or memory skills.

The CMCF strongly advocate continued commitment to multiculturalism, and we share the strong concerns about the introduction of a citizenship test that many groups such as FECCA have. Multiculturalism has been a cornerstone of the development of our nation. It has enriched and shaped our society throughout our short history, creating the Australian way of life. The proposal to place another barrier in the path of gaining citizenship is an insult to the positive impact that immigration has had on Australia. As the proposed test will prevent some people from gaining the rights of citizens, we should, therefore, look at it from a human rights perspective. People with a disability, those who have low literacy levels, people who have experienced torture or trauma and those who have fundamentally different beliefs are likely to be discriminated against by the test. Consistent with our attitude of a ‘fair go for all’, Australia as a nation has always valued diversity, inclusiveness and tolerance. These values, rather than a one-off quiz or test, are more likely to lead to the social unity that the government is seeking to achieve.

The introduction of a citizenship test is not an efficient use of public resources, as we stated in our submission. There are more practical and effective ways of using funds that will be spent on developing, administering and monitoring the proposed test—for example, on English language classes, ongoing community integration programs, employment skills programs, community support services, reciprocity programs—such as volunteer and community participation agreements—or a range of social cohesion or education programs. The focus of any citizenship funds should be on ensuring successful settlement and on ongoing support to ensure good citizenship, rather than on one-off multiple-choice tests.

In conclusion, CMCF agree that Australian citizenship is much more than a ceremony. A multiple choice test would not change that. Australian citizenship is an opportunity to embrace the Australian way of life, which is different for all of us. Giving one minister the power to determine what is the Australian way of life and what values are Australian or un-Australian is the key issue for the Canberra Multicultural Community Forum. For all of these reasons the CMCF does not support the bill. Thank you for the opportunity to speak.

Mr Kulasingham —Some of the concerns that FECCA has in relation to the bill and the provisions are the ambiguity of the description of how the test will be conducted and of the structure of the test. We feel that there should be more public consultation into more practical questions that should be asked as opposed to the ones that it is rumoured will be asked. From my experience with migrants from the subcontinent, the most pressing issues that citizenship aspirants look for include such things as how to familiarise themselves with the Australian way of filling out a form, renewing their drivers licences, and knowing when something expires, like your Medicare card. We say that if the test is going to progress in that form, they should be tested on things like that—things that have practical uses for their lives in Australia

Senator HURLEY —One of the justifications for bringing in English tests is that, in contrast to the big waves of immigration that occurred after the Second World War and during the fifties and sixties, English is now a more important requirement for getting by in our society. Would you agree with that and would you see that as a justification for introducing this test?

Ms Messimeri-Kianidis —Employment is now found in information technology and in much more sophisticated areas than, say, in the fifties and sixties, when my parents came to Australia and worked in factories. FECCA accepts and welcomes the focus of government on English acquisition and that needs to be stated without a doubt. What we take issue with is that that is then linked to the acquisition of citizenship. We do not feel that the two are necessarily synonymous. We support and actively encourage measures by governments—both state and federal—to devote as many resources as possible in as flexible a way as possible to ensuring that, while people may enter employment at a low skill level, they will have every opportunity to acquire English. This will enable them to get employment in their own professions—if they have got qualifications from overseas—and/or acquire English so that they can be competitive in the wider market. But linking that to citizenship is not something that we welcome. We are particularly concerned about people who may be from a non-English-speaking background and who may not have formal schooling. If you were a refugee from the Sudan who had spent the last 15 or 20 years in a camp with no formal education, learning English is sometimes going to be a life long journey. There are some migrants in Australia who have been here for 30 or 40 years but, because they have worked in unskilled industries, they have not been able to acquire English at a level that is sophisticated enough to enable them to answer the sorts of questions that we have been seeing in the newspapers. While we welcome a focus on English, we do not believe it needs to be linked into a citizenship test. The capacity to become a good and meaningful and productive citizen is not dependent only on the level of English that you have.

Senator HURLEY —There is a proposal to exempt people who are over a certain age and for particular arrangements for people who are illiterate. Nevertheless, will people whose English is, as you described it, difficult, be put off? How do you see it working?

Ms Messimeri-Kianidis —First of all, we have not seen any detail around what those exemptions might look like. There are some rumours—for instance, that the sort of exemption that may be available is that, instead of a person needing to sit behind a computer, reading and answering in a computer way, a department official may stand next to them and read the questions out in English. I do not think that is an adequate level of exemption, and it needs to be teased out, especially if you are talking about a woman who came here as a refugee from Africa, for example. If she has nine or 10 children, which is often the case for women from that part of the world, she may have a need to work straightaway. She needs housing and to look after the children. English is not going to be part of what she is necessarily able to tackle in the first few years of settlement. That person should not be denied the opportunity to become a rightful citizen of this country. We believe that citizenship is important and that no person should be denied that, particularly because of hardship.

Mr Wong —I fully support what Voula is saying, but there is another aspect of having this tacked on English test a prerequisite for citizenship. This English test is not a competency test. What we are talking about here—the objective, if I read the legislation properly—is using the English test to confirm that they know Australian values and that sort of stuff. I think it is sad if you look at that as something more like a job related English proficiency test, because basically we are talking about whether the person will be a good citizen or not. This is what the bill is all about and this test is what I call an indicator for that.

The sad part of all this is that I have not seen any published data from government and so on suggesting that people lacking English are not good citizens. I would be happy to look at that more closely, but the reverse is true: a lot of people who do not speak very good English are very good citizens. They pay their tax, they do their social capital work and they are good corporate citizens. There are many fine examples of that, I am sure. I do not want to repeat it to the learned senators here—you come across it in your constituents on many, many occasions.

Last but not least, I would like to point out something I have read. I picked up this book last night. I could not sleep—I was very nervous, I must confess. This morning when I could not sleep I walked around the house and looked at this book. It talks about Australia and China, and I am ethnic Chinese. I am a Chinese Australian; therefore, I am interested in that. This book was given to me when I first arrived here in the seventies by a very elderly, senior person who had been living in Australia for the last 20 years, in Melbourne. He showed it to me. It is about what happened between Australia and China for this whole period of history. When I opened the book last night, one of the things that struck me—I nearly cry when I read through it—is that the first legislation introduced by Australians after Federation, 1901, was the Immigration Restriction Act. What is this act all about? It talks about the same thing. People who want to be part of Australia need to take a European language test.

I will read to you, if I may. The book is called Australia and China: The Ambiguous Relationship and it is by Andrews from the University of Newcastle. It talks about the European language test: ‘The number of people who passed this test fell from 33 in 1902 to 13 in 1903, one in 1904, three in 1905 and none in 1907, and one each in 1908 and 1909, when the last person passed the test.’ That came from a book about the documentation of our forebears, about the introduction of the Immigration Restriction Act. It was considered quite okay at the time. It was fair. Everything was okay at that point in time, back at Federation. But is it okay now that we look at it? No. But the same thing applies here, if you look at it on a more constructive basis.

Senator KIRK —Thank you for your submission. I want to explore with you the exemptions you speak of. There have been suggestions that there might be exemptions on the basis of age but it seems to be limited to that. You say on page 6 of your submission that the exemption should be spelled out explicitly in the act and made known to the applicants prior to their sitting the test. How exactly do you envisage that this would occur? You mentioned the various categories of people who no doubt will be disadvantaged by this citizenship test. If it is a matter of setting the boundaries, how do you define the categories of persons who, in your view, ought to be exempted? Or should it just be done on more of an application basis—where you make an application that you have certain difficulties or disadvantages and then it is left to the minister or some other official to make a decision?

Mr Kulasingham —Our concern with the language in the bill was that the word ‘may’ was used in the line, ‘You may have to take a citizenship test.’ While we are certain that the government will objectively cover the people who would need to be exempted—the elderly, the young and those people who would not be able to take a test—we are concerned that the ambiguity of the wording means that, for example, a business migrant could be waived from having to take a citizenship test. We are not sure if that is spelled out accurately in the bill and we would like to see some more detail on that.

Senator KIRK —That is kind of the opposite to what I was thinking of. You are suggesting in that case that the person ought to be required to take the test. I am thinking more of the socially disadvantaged and about what the process should be for a person who has difficulties yet still wants to become a citizen. Is it just a matter of their applying for an exemption or should the act actually list the criteria? How do you do that?

Ms Messimeri-Kianidis —Our concern is that a lot of people who would feel uncomfortable about any testing at all, particularly if they have a low level of literacy, will not apply for citizenship but will self-select out. Part of the deep concern we have about the introduction of a formal citizenship test is that it will create a two-tiered society, with the people who have been accepted into this country under humanitarian refugee settlement schemes in one tier. Australia is a welcoming and tolerant country in regard to its international obligations but, once we have accepted people as permanent residents, as opposed to having full citizenship, they will forever stay within that limbo.

I do not have a clear answer to your question, but it seems to me that people who have low levels of literacy even after going to classes and attempting to learn English should be able to apply for an exemption and use what there is at the moment—a basic English test showing their willingness to embrace Australian laws and to live in peace and harmony and to work for this land and for this society. We believe that those people should be able to pass the cursory test that already exists. That is why we do not approve of a more formalised test. The current test is done in a non-bureaucratic way. People can have somebody there from their family to perhaps help them through up to a certain extent rather than sitting for a formalised high school or university entrance type of exam. Our concern is for women of a non-English-speaking background and refugee women, in particular, because they have the huge burden of settling in this country. It is well-documented that it takes a long time to acquire the basic needs to look after yourself and your family here.

Mr Wong —A nation like Australia is not about how to make the rich and powerful happier or how to give them stronger status. That is why I came to Australia and why I am proud to be an Australian. We should look after the weak and the socioeconomically deprived. Therefore, I think that having this test would not be a good thing.

Senator, going back to your question, it is spot-on, and one I would like to ask as well. So far we have not got any evidence as to how those groups will be affected. The department or the minister who introduced this bill should have given clear information on how those groups are going to be affected—how many people, based on the current intake of immigrants and the number of people who apply for citizenship. I have not seen any of that data. We are postulating and, as our federal chair said, we do our best from the non-government side to give you the best information. The government, if they introduce the bill—and your learned senators are here; I am glad they are here—should determine how many people will be affected and what sort of assistance they should be given. As a non-government organisation, we would be delighted to work with you guys provided we have that information because we are not funded to get that information from the government.

Senator KIRK —Hopefully, we will have the chance later on this morning to ask the department about a number of things you have raised.

Mr Wong —We are very grateful for that.

Senator KIRK —On page 7 of your submission you say that—this is FECCA—your consultations:

... returned opinions that any proposed test, if implemented, should be simple and limited to practical aspects of Australian life that will benefit all new citizens encompassing questions that existing Australian citizens would have a reasonable chance of answering correctly—

What was the nature of the consultations that you undertook? Was it a formal process of consulting the people you serve?

Ms Messimeri-Kianidis —Very much so. The federation is made up of each of the state and territory bodies and they, in turn, have membership—say, in Victoria, there are about 130 member organisations and some of those organisations have a membership of up to 50,000 or 60,000 people in their own right.

Senator KIRK —So you did a formal consultation.

Ms Messimeri-Kianidis —There was a formal consultation in each of the state and territory bodies and that information was fed to FECCA.

Senator KIRK —Were you consulted by the government in relation to this; by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship?

Ms Messimeri-Kianidis —We put in a paper to the initial discussion paper.

Senator PARRY —On page 7 you have set out some model questions which you feel would be ideal questions if a test were to be implemented. I gather from that that you are implying that you are not objecting to a set of questions as long as the questions are fair and relate more to citizenship applications than to general knowledge, if I can use that as a framework. The methodology of asking of the questions is also of concern. Again, you are comfortable with questioning, providing questions are asked in the right way for those people who do not have the skills to operate a computer to answer questions or people who need assistance for a variety of reasons. Given the two points I have just made, my question is: is it about methodology and content?

Ms Messimeri-Kianidis —We are trying to be constructive. Initially FECCA’s preference and that of its members is that there be no citizenship test for the reasons we outlined. However, we are trying to be constructive around this process. If a test regime is introduced and implemented, then we would like to see something simple and practical, rather than the type of questions that were printed in the papers. We outlined those areas because there is a process of pre arrival and upon arrival settlement programs, particularly for non-English-speaking background people, through migrant resource centres and other settlement organisations. These programs introduce new arrivals, migrants and refugees to aspects of necessary skilling, if you like, in order to live in Australia, be safe in a new country and take up opportunities but they also introduce them to their obligations as residents of this country. That is why we included those areas, rather than other things out of the box.

In terms of methodology we are very much aware that people who may not have had any formal education would find, even after four years of living in Australia if they are unskilled people, working behind a computer in a formalised scenario very difficult and confronting and, therefore, they would probably choose not to present for citizenship. If a test goes through, it needs simpler, more practical questions and a methodology that is not confronting and that would make it okay for people to be able to present for and, therefore, have half a chance of passing a test.

CHAIR —I will get some clarity from witnesses about your understanding of the requirement for a knowledge of English. The department and others suggest that it is not a new requirement. It has been in the Australian Citizenship Act since 1949, I understand. Is that your understanding? What is so different about your argument under this legislation?

Mr Kulasingham —When I applied to migrate to Australia I was interviewed by a High Commission official in Kuala Lumpur who spoke to me in English. Basically, I was evaluated to see how I could answer the questions regarding my application. When I applied for Australian citizenship I was given the same interview by a department official. At both times I knew they were assessing my ability to understand the questions that were being asked—I apologise that I cannot remember the exact questions; it is a while ago. We believe that is sufficient, because it gives an objective consular or department official enough indication of whether a person understands what they are applying for or what they are doing. FECCA feels that an English test probably would be a disincentive to anyone who was, as Voula outlined earlier, concerned about their level of English.

CHAIR —Do you accept that it has been a requirement since 1949 to have a basic knowledge of English?

Mr Kulasingham —Yes.

Ms Messimeri-Kianidis —Yes.

Mr Wong —I went through those tests in 1977—I was a bit younger then, of course. The test at that time was very friendly. Usually the person interviewing basically talked. It was not a test; it was an interview. It was a much warmer and very courteous environment, and the questions were put to us in a very mild and very friendly manner. If you start having a test in an environment using a desktop or online computer, it is a different kettle of fish. I agree with you, Senator, about checking proficiency of general knowledge in English. But the test has never been seen by me—I would like to be corrected—as a proficiency test. Rather, it is an interview process with two-way communication to make sure that things on the application are correct, and so on.

CHAIR —Thank you. I want to ask a quick question about consultation because you expressed some concern in regard to the consultation process and I am seeking clarity. You made a submission to the government’s discussion paper and had some consultation. I am of the understanding that it was released in September last year and the government announced its intentions in December last year following that consultation. I am also advised that there were over 1,600 submissions, which is quite a lot. Most people would suggest that is a lot of consultation, but is it your view that it was inadequate?

Ms Messimeri-Kianidis —The point we were making was about consultation around any proposed questions and the impact of it. I want to make a point also about the level of submissions. I have not gone through every submission that was made, but it is said that 60 per cent of them were in favour of a citizenship test. There are some questions about the weighting of some submissions. If a submission came from a local government, for instance, that represented 200,000 people and said no to citizenship testing, does it have the same weight as a submission from an individual that may say that they are in support of it? We had some questions of that sort around the process.

CHAIR —So you dispute the fact that a majority of Australians support a citizenship test?

Ms Messimeri-Kianidis —I think there may be some room to have look at those submissions in light of the level of representation of some of the submissions that were against a formal citizenship test.

Mr Wong —I think you have asked a very good question about so-called consultation and having 1,600. This is what we put in our submission and we did check the numbers and so on. So many people wish to voice their opinions about this situation but, interestingly enough, I have not seen any very selective group come and talk to you in Canberra. I would have thought that there would be more face-to-face consultation in some of the smaller towns and rural areas than capital cities and also people—not like me—speaking to you. In fact, I am a bit scared to speak in such an environment but I am doing it anyway. If Australia is to be genuinely democratic, we should at least spend a bit of time on this. This paper came out in November and we did everything we could to provide information. Now it is July. For such an important cornerstone of our immigration policy to be rushed through before the election, I do not think the consultation process has been comprehensive or supported by the majority. I am talking about the process.

CHAIR —Thank you very much for your submission. Senator Crossin is on the telephone.

Senator CROSSIN —Hello, everybody. I think my question is the same as what the chair asked but I wanted to clarify it with people who were there. I am failing to see how the proposed new testing regime will be an improvement on the existing informal interview that you have mentioned consistently throughout your evidence today. I think some of you touched on this when you went through your own experiences, but I have not seen or heard any evidence where the existing process of defining citizenship is flawed in any way. Have any of the members of your community organisations come to you and said, ‘I went through this process and it’s flawed and it needs changing’? Have any people made that sort of request of you?

Mr Kulasingham —Not in my experience. I work with a lot of the subcontinent migrants and many of them have sailed through the system and have said there is no need for a change. The ones who are currently permanent residents are fearful. They think it is a disincentive. They would rather remain permanent residents than step up towards the citizenship plate.

Mr Wong —I concur with my colleague. I have not heard anything from the Chinese community, in which I have a lot of connections here in Canberra, other than what you have just confirmed. Interestingly, those people in the FECCA submission speak a lot of English as they are from New Zealand and the United Kingdom. They are not likely to become citizens. I am not sure this is a reflection of their loyalty or patriotism.

CHAIR —I thank the witnesses for their evidence, We appreciate it very much.

[9.50 am]