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STANDING COMMITTEE ON LEGAL AND CONSTITUTIONAL AFFAIRS
16/07/2007
Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Testing) Bill 2007

CHAIR —Welcome. Do you wish to make any amendments or alterations to your submission?

Mr Yates —No.

CHAIR —I now invite you to make a short opening statement at the conclusion of which I will invite members of the committee to ask questions.

Mr Yates —We appreciate your time. I am sure you have had a quick read of our submission, and there are about four or five things we want to comment on. In principle, we support the change. It is right and appropriate that immigrants who wish to become Australian citizens should expect to learn something about our history and culture before citizenship is conferred upon them. Such a process, we believe, would assist immigrants to understand something about the new country they are moving to and therefore help them to play their part in Australia’s future. We also strongly support the minister’s comments that applicants should be required to acknowledge Australia’s Judaeo-Christian heritage. This does not require prospective citizens to share this faith in particular but it should be made clear that it is something factual about this country. We think this is a vital part to put in the test.

Beyond this in-principle support, we noted a number of other things—I think they have been answered subsequent to when we put this submission in. The fees charged to sit the test are now at $240—at the time we were not aware of that. That is a fair price, so it is probably not going to exclude too many people from applying to do it. The Sun Herald earlier in the year printed a number of questions; I am not sure whether they were the actual questions or whether the immigration minister leaked things. The answers to some of those questions seemed ambiguous. If you are going to have multiple-choice questions, we would strongly urge that you make one answer very clear and the others absolutely wrong.

There is a requirement for the basic understanding of English. I assume that if people are going to sit the test they will have that basic understanding. We note the concerns of various other Christian groups that it may marginalise some people but at least it provides a benchmark if you are going to become a citizen. I think it has been the same since 1947. There should at least be a competent understanding. That is a good requirement. Again, this is not necessarily a concern but a point of note: we believe that some natural justice should be observed in the testing process and procedures. We understand that the minister just needs to get on with the job sometimes, and not detailing the exact questions or the nature of the questions in the legislation is not necessarily a bad thing. Even if there is a change of government in future obviously we think the questions should not be politicised, but there should be a process—and I assume the department will pick it up—whereby if somebody is having trouble with the test they will get a little help. A booklet is going to be produced that will outline the basic questions; we strongly support that. Even though the questions may not be that transparent, I hope the booklet will cover those issues. Our last point is that it is vital that the minister approve all the test questions. In summary, our main addition would be strong support for a question which recognises the Judaeo-Christian heritage of the nation.

CHAIR —Thank you for that.

Senator CROSSIN —Who are you representing when you define yourself as the Australian Christian Lobby?

Mr Yates —We are an organisation that has thousands of supporters across the nation. We do not purport to represent a denomination—we are non-denominational. We have officers in each state and one at the federal level as well. We present a broad representative view of our membership.

Senator CROSSIN —I am still trying to get a handle on who you represent. Is it individuals who identify as Christians as opposed to representatives from the Catholic Church or the Uniting Church? Is that right?

Mr Yates —As I said, we do not purport to speak on behalf of a church hierarchy. Our supporter base is very representational; it covers most mainstream denominations. The Australian Christian Lobby is speaking on behalf of its thousands of supporters across the nation, not on behalf of a denomination.

Senator CROSSIN —The current citizenship interview is not so much a test but a process which people seeking to become citizens must undergo. Usually, it includes an interview by someone from the department of immigration. What is it about that that you believe is flawed such that we now need to move to a more formalised system?

Mr Yates —I am not quite sure whether the question of what role the interview will still play in this process has been answered. I am not sure whether it will be superseded by the questionnaire alone. I will say this: I am aware that Holland, the UK, Canada, the USA, South Korea and many other countries already have tests. It seems appropriate to have a range of questions which represent the political structure and the history and some basic things about the country, the culture and the values. I am aware that other countries have had this for a number of years. There does not seem to be any reason why Australia should not move towards that, either.

Senator CROSSIN —They may already be some of the questions that are being asked of people.

Mr Yates —In the interview process? A test does make more objective. In some ways if the department produces a little booklet which explains more about some of the questions that may be asked of prospective citizens of Australia then it is probably a good thing that they have to do a bit of research about the country of which they are going to become citizens.

Senator CROSSIN —There will be some exemptions and the minister will have the discretion to provide a different test or to grant exemptions from the test. What sort of exemptions do you think will be needed?

Mr Yates —We share some of the concerns that have been raised. There should be some exemptions for people, especially those from the humanitarian side, who have a poor understanding of English—for instance, they may have been in the country working a lot and have not necessarily had the chance to learn English to a proficient level. The minister may be able to not have it necessary for them to go through the normal test. That would certainly be one. We agree with the test, and the minister should have some discretion, we believe, for special exemptions for those people who may not necessarily be able to complete in the normal way.

Senator CROSSIN —Thank you.

Senator PARRY —The final paragraph on the second page of your submission states that 68 per cent of people indicated in the 2001 census that Christianity was their religion. You have said that any questions on social norms should aim to reflect that. I am struggling to think of any questions that would fit. I agree with your comment about minor activist agendas and not being biased towards them. But I do not necessarily agree with your comment that we should be biased towards having 68 per cent of the questions being Christian. Can you expand upon that? What questions did you have in mind?

Mr Yates —I am happy to make some comments. Without actually seeing the questions, it might be hard. But we would be concerned if some of the questions were politicised. We do not want to see that. We would like to see the test sticking to the factual aspects of Australia’s history, culture and values. The reasons we have put that in there is to demonstrate that the impact of Judeo-Christianity on the country has been significant. That is a factual element. I am aware that some of the questions may also identify Indigenous issues, but we think that the Christian issues should be put up there as well. Clearly, not everyone in the country is Christian; people who want to become a citizen would not be expected to pass a specific values test. But it is something that should at least be acknowledged.

Senator HURLEY —In my own state, many Christian groups put in a lot of work to assist refugees and understand some of the issues that are facing them, whether the refugees are Christian or of another religion. A lot of the people coming into this country come in under the skilled migrant category. It is undoubtedly the refugees and humanitarian entrants whom we have to be concerned about in this citizenship bill. You mentioned that the English test will require a higher level of English competence than a basic understanding. Are you concerned that some of the refugees and humanitarian entrants will either be deterred from sitting the test or find it too daunting?

Mr Yates —It may. But, with regard to what you are saying about other Christian groups also putting many submissions, I think you will find that the Christian groups are very keen to support the refugees coming into the country. They will also be very keen to help see many of these people gain citizenship. So, whether or not the government is going to help fund those areas, the compassionate and caring nature of the Christian churches will mean that they will assist many of these people to gain an understanding of English and also give them a little more information to assist them with the test. It will encourage more learning about the nation.

Senator HURLEY —So you are suggesting that the volunteer groups might set up English language training courses on this.

Mr Yates —Absolutely. I am sure the government will, but you will find that simply because of the compassionate nature of the Christians and the churches they will want to push an understanding of English and also a correct response to most of the questions that will, I assume, appear in the government booklet about what the citizenship test will contain. So we are a little concerned. There may be some people who fall through the cracks, but we hope that other community based organisations will try to look after those possibly marginalised people. But overall, in principle, we are not in objection to a citizenship test.

CHAIR —Thank you for your submission. It is very much appreciated. With regard to the point that you have been discussing about the importance of Australia’s Christian heritage, you say in your submission that it is important that new citizens be expected to learn something about our history and culture before citizenship is conferred upon them. Then you say that applicants should be required to acknowledge Australia’s Judeo-Christian heritage. Why is it important for applicants to acknowledge the importance of Australia’s Judeo-Christian ethic?

Mr Yates  —Look at some of the tests in other countries. Even in England, which does have an established church, the Anglican Church, they ask who the leader of that church is. In Australia we are not necessarily expecting to see that type of question, but clearly the impact of the Judeo-Christian values on this country is significant. It is factual. We have many people who hold those views. It is even on our notes—our $5, $10 and $20 notes. We are not saying that people have to subscribe to those views, but it is a fact that those values have been the predominant influence within this country. Therefore, it is fair that, even if someone is of another religious faith, at least they acknowledge that.

CHAIR —When you talk about ‘influence’ in this country, are you talking about influence in the political arena, in business, in our legal system, in education? Can you expand on that?

Mr Yates —We would argue that it is certainly across all areas, particularly law. It is political and even economic. Many of the principles of common law have been based on Judeo-Christian ethics. So we are not saying, necessarily, that everyone in the country is Christian, but it should be acknowledged. If you go to other countries around the world—for example, in the Middle East—it is obvious that they share different values and they make that very clear.

The other factor in Australia is the welfare sector. We are aware that the top 23 of the organisations doing welfare in the country have a Judeo-Christian ethic, very clearly, in their objects—

CHAIR —Are they run by Christian organisations?

Mr Yates —That is right—there are various Christian groups. They have in their objects that they have that heritage. We should be bold and acknowledge it. We should not shy away from it. The minister is keen to make sure that new citizens at least understand where the country has come from, and hopefully they can gain a better insight into some of the values that we share.

CHAIR —Sure. So the point you are making is that that history and heritage has infiltrated Australian values. The point that the minister has made in the bill and in his second reading speech is the importance of applicants understanding Australian values and having a knowledge of Australia. You are saying that that flows through to the Australian values that we want applicants to be aware of.

Mr Yates —Yes, that is right. I will read quotes from John Howard and Kevin Rudd: There does seem to be some bipartisan support for the recognition of this Judeo-Christian heritage. The Prime Minister said:

Judeo-Christian ethics, the progressive spirit of the Enlightenment and the institutions of British political culture have been central to the development of Australian values. Christianity has been an enormous force for good and it has shaped, not only the individual lives of people, but also the character of the nation.

Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd said:

Christianity, both in its institutional and spiritual forums, has had a profound and positive impact on what we call Western civilisation. Western civilisation, of course, is a broader compact than just Christianity itself, yet the connection between the two is not superficial, but profound.

So I think it is vital that, if you become a citizen of Australia, you simply acknowledge that heritage.

CHAIR —Thank you. In your submission you made a point about the importance of having a basic understanding of English. Why is that important? We have had some debate about that this morning. It may be an impediment to people from a non-English speaking background.

Mr Yates —It is exactly the same as most other countries that have tests. Again, Holland, the UK, Canada, the USA and South Korea all require a basic understanding of their own native tongue. We do not see why it should be any different in Australia. We do recognise that there are some people on the humanitarian visa side who may not necessarily have a proficiency in English, but to operate in the country we think it is common sense to at least have a basic knowledge of English. So we strongly support that an outcome of becoming a citizen requires that you do have a basic knowledge.

CHAIR —Thank you. I appreciate that.

Proceedings suspended from 10.09 am to 10.29 am