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Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Testing) Bill 2007

CHAIR —I welcome officers from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. The Department of Immigration and Citizenship has lodged submission No. 30 with the committee. Do you wish to make any amendments or alterations to the submission?

Mr Metcalfe —No.

CHAIR —Would you like to make a short opening statement, after which we will have questions from members of the committee?

Mr Metcalfe —Thank you, Chair, and I thank the committee for providing the Department of Immigration and Citizenship with the opportunity to make a submission and to appear before this inquiry into the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Testing) Bill 2007.

CHAIR —Before you continue, I remind senators that the Senate has resolved that an officer of a department of the Commonwealth or of a state shall not be asked to give opinions on matters of policy and shall be given a reasonable opportunity to refer questions asked of the officer to superior officers or to a minister. This resolution prohibits questions asking for opinions on matters of policy and does not preclude questions asking for explanations of policies or factual questions about when and how policies were adopted. Officers of the department are also reminded that any claim that it would be contrary to the public interest to answer a question must be made by a minister and should be accompanied by a statement setting out the basis for the claim.

Mr Metcalfe —I want to begin by addressing two issues that were recently raised by the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills. The first relates to whether it is possible to be more specific about the commencement date for the bill. We anticipate that citizenship testing will be able to commence on 17 September 2007 and we are on track to meet this date. However, given the size and complexity of this undertaking, there are a number of requirements that will need to be completed before then, such as the establishment and fit-out of testing centres across Australia, the development and testing of information technology systems and the finalising of the test resource materials. Test commencement will of course be subject to the passage of the bill that is before this committee. Given the substantial list of prerequisites for the introduction of testing, it would not be prudent to be more specific about when the legislation will commence, but I have noted 17 September as our current target date.

The second issue raised by the scrutiny of bills committee relates to the ministerial determination not being a legislative instrument and, if the determination were administrative in nature, whether it should be subject to review. Without repeating in detail the matters contained in our submission, I can advise that it is the government’s view that the determination applies generally—that is, it does not relate to a particular case or cases—and therefore a merits review is not appropriate. It is also the government’s view that the determination should not be the subject of disallowance provisions in the Legislative Instruments Act. This is because the government believes that this is likely to be a source of uncertainty and confusion, especially where potential applicants have sat and passed a test that may then be disallowed.

In a similar vein there has been some concern about the power in the bill that allows the minister to determine eligibility criteria for setting a test. Specifically, the concern is that a determination may establish eligibility criteria that are inappropriate and unfair, with no parliamentary scrutiny and no opportunity for disallowance. Our legal advice is that the determination making power in proposed section 23A does not allow the minister to set eligibility criteria for sitting the test that are inconsistent with the provisions of the act and, in particular, with the general eligibility criteria in subsection 21(2). For example, the determination could not legally provide that only persons with a certain language background or with a certain colour of hair would be eligible to sit the test.

The power is required for two purposes. One is to ensure that the resources available for testing are used only for prospective citizens. The second is to enable access to any special tests that may have to be limited to those for whom the special test is intended. In this regard, committee members may have noted that the bill refers to ‘a test’ rather than ‘the test’. The use of the singular allows for more than one test to be approved by the minister. The introduction of formal testing will be carefully monitored to identify those prospective citizens for whom an alternative test or tests may be appropriate. This approach will enable the development of an alternative test or tests designed on the basis of identified need rather than on conjecture. To help alleviate the concerns about test eligibility criteria, the government proposes to amend the bill by inserting a note that will explain that the power to set eligibility criteria to sit the test does not allow the minister to set criteria that are inconsistent with the act and, in particular, inconsistent with the general eligibility criteria for citizenship.

My final point surrounds public concern that the content of the test, including the questions and answers, may be unreasonable. It is important to note that with one exception the requirement for citizenship under the general eligibility provisions, which applicants will be required to demonstrate by successfully completing the test, are of a longstanding nature. They are the requirements to have an understanding of the nature of the application for citizenship, to possess a basic knowledge of the English language and to have an adequate knowledge of the responsibilities and privileges of Australian citizenship. Indeed the requirement to have a knowledge of the English language has been a feature of Australian citizenship language since its commencement on 26 January 1949. I have been advised that from 1949 until 1 June 1974 the requirements were that the person had an adequate knowledge of English, or that they had lived in Australia for at least 20 years, and that they had an adequate knowledge of their rights and responsibilities as a citizen.

Between June 1974 and November 1984, the tests were that the person have an adequate knowledge of English and an adequate knowledge of their rights and responsibilities. That was amended in November 1984 such that persons now need to have a basic knowledge of English. It is also the case that most applicants for citizenship, including refugee and humanitarian entrants, have been required to satisfy these requirements. The bill proposes the introduction of an objective form of assessment as to whether an individual satisfies these requirements with the addition of a requirement to have an adequate knowledge of Australia. The test questions will be designed to test knowledge contained in a citizenship resource book, which will be freely and widely available to all. We expect that a draft of the resource book will soon be released by the minister, and a copy will be provided to the committee at that stage.

In the view of the government, the resource book will not be a document that should be an instrument or indeed a legislative instrument. It clearly does not fall within the definition of a legislative instrument under section 5 of the Legislative Instruments Act. It will not be of legislative character and it will not determine the law or alter the content of law, will not affect the privilege or interest or impose an obligation, create a right, or vary or remove an obligation or a right. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to make those comments and we would be very happy to answer any questions that the committee might have.

Senator HURLEY —I would like to go through some aspects of the testing. You mention that the resource booklet would be freely available. Will it be available in any different languages?

Mr Metcalfe —No, it will be made available in the English language.

Senator HURLEY —We have had some submissions that indicate that people are best able to learn and absorb information in their own language, even if they are ultimately tested in English. That is not the department’s thinking or why isn’t it?

Mr Metcalfe —The government’s thinking is the fact that the test will be conducted in English makes it important that the resource materials are based in English. But I think it is probably important to regard a person sitting the citizenship test and then applying for citizenship to be part of a journey rather than simply a destination in itself. We are talking about people who will have lived in Australia for some years, who will have had a visa granted on the basis of their work skills, family relationship, humanitarian or refugee need. Many people—in fact, the majority of migrants to Australia—come here as skilled migrants and an understanding of English is very much part of that application. Many applicants come here from non-English-speaking backgrounds and some will not speak English. Some will come from refugee backgrounds where they have had very limited educational opportunities.

The department is placing increasing and significant emphasis on pre-visa or information at the time of visa. We are revamping material that has existed for many years about life in Australia and soon we will be producing a new document called Life in Australia. It will be available in a full range of community languages and provide very similar information about life in Australia as will be contained in the citizenship test book. People will have had access to that sort of material in their own language or certainly in more than 20 languages some years before they have considered applying for citizenship. So I think we regard citizenship as being the final step of fully participating in the Australian community, but it follows many other steps that have occurred in the journey of the person from being a visa applicant to becoming a prospective citizen.

Senator HURLEY —I believe in the US, for example, that the knowledge component of the test can be conducted in the language of choice. Have you considered that?

Mr Metcalfe —I think all options have been considered, and the government’s position is quite clear on that point.

Senator HURLEY —How many questions are the 20 questions to be taken from; how many questions will there be in the booklet?

Mr Metcalfe —My understanding is that there will be a pool of 200 questions or thereabouts that will be derived from the citizenship test book, and the 20 questions will be taken from that pool. That pool will be refreshed from time to time. In addition, there will be three areas of mandatory questioning which go to a person’s knowledge of rights and responsibilities of citizenship similar to the current requirements to have a knowledge of those rights and responsibilities.

Senator HURLEY —Can you give us an example of any of those questions? I am particularly interested in the mandatory ones.

Mr Metcalfe —I can not because the questions have not yet been written. I think it would be unhelpful for me to speculate upon what a question might or might not be like, but some of them will be self-evident. They are multiple-choice questions and they will go to issues that will be contained in the booklet which, as I said, will be released soon. The mandatory questions go to rights and responsibilities. That is an area that has always been the subject of discussions and interviews. They also go to the rights of citizenship, such as applying for and holding an Australian passport, applying for jobs in the Public Service, standing for parliament and voting. They also go to the responsibilities of citizenship such as the right to vote, which is also a responsibility. Those matters, including things such as jury duty, are well understood and will be the subject of mandatory questioning. A series of multiple-choice questions will go to more general information about Australia, its geography, history and its values.

Senator HURLEY —You have to understand that we are only two months away from the projected start of the testing and we are told that the questions have not been written yet. A number of groups are calling for consultation about the questions. That clearly will not be able to be done. It seems that the government is being secretive about the kind of questions that will be unleashed. People have no idea about the questions and that creates a bit of a climate of uncertainty for people who are considering citizenship.

Mr Metcalfe —That may be your view, but I do not agree with it. I think that the government has been quite clear. The minister has talked on a number of occasions about the type of questions, including multiple-choice questions, the sort of areas that they will be based upon and that there will be provision for the questions to be changed and topped up over time. Some illustrations were given at a previous estimates committee hearing. Before this committee there was some discussion about whether certain questions that have been in the newspaper were the actual questions or the sorts of questions. I made it clear at that stage that they had not come from the department but were presumably made up by the journalist and were based upon the public comments that had occurred. I would prefer not to get into speculation as to what a question might or might not be, but I think there is sufficient information in the public domain from statements by the minister for people who have an interest in this matter to be quite clear that we are talking about questions that go to Australia, our values, history, geography, political system and national symbols. That will become more apparent when the test book is soon released. It is not the intention of the government to release the questions. That would seem to be self-defeating. But the questions would clearly be based upon the sort of material that will soon be made available.

Senator HURLEY —We had a submission from the Australian Christian Lobby regarding the desirability of including questions about our Judaeo-Christian background. The questions that you outlined did not include that.

Mr Metcalfe —I did say history, and part of Australia and its history would go to our belief system, so I imagine that that is an area that will be covered in the resource book.

Senator HURLEY —My understanding of the history of Australia is that it was a relatively secular environment and that our laws and institutions are derived in a secular fashion. Are you saying that it will include—

Mr Metcalfe —I think the minister has made it clear in his public statements that the view is that Australia, like a number of other countries, derives its overall values and belief systems from the Judaeo-Christian background. I think it is without doubt that you can ultimately trace our values and beliefs back to the body of knowledge derived from the Old Testament and upon which the Judeo-Christian background is based.

Senator HURLEY —I find that interesting, given that my understanding is that our laws and institutions are derived with the intention of being secular and not based on any of those belief systems. On the right to take multiple testing in the event of failure, my understanding is that people will take the test before they pay their citizenship fee and that they can undertake that test as many times as they like. There have been comments on why the ability to take multiple tests has not been included in the amendment. Can you explain why that is the case?

Mr Vardos —The construct of the test will be contained in the determination.

Senator HURLEY —The ability to take multiple tests; to have a limit to the number of times you can take the test.

Mrs Ellis —In the absence of a limit in the legislation, there is no limit and the minister has stated publicly that people can take the test as many times as they feel they need to.

Mr Vardos —As is necessary until a pass is achieved.

Senator HURLEY —And the fee for a citizenship application will double from $120 to $240.

Mr Vardos —For those people who fall into the categories of being required to undertake the test, the application fee—you are correct—at the time of application will be $240. For those people who are not required to sit the test before they apply, it will stay at $120, which remains unchanged since 1998.

Senator HURLEY —Who will not be required to sit the test?

Mr Vardos —Mrs Ellis can give the full list—for example, persons who have a mental or physical incapacity which prevents them understanding the nature of their application; persons under 18; persons over 60. It is the range of categories that we discussed at estimates in May.

Mrs Ellis —The structure of the legislation of the Australian Citizenship Act 2007 has a number of different subsections under application and eligibility for citizenship. Only one of those subsections, which is the general eligibility provision, has the requirement for the knowledge of English and the responsibilities and privileges of citizenship. It is that subsection that will be affected by the amendment bill. The other subsections, as Mr Vardos has mentioned, cover those with a permanent, physical incapacity, those over 60, under 18, etcetera.

Senator HURLEY —If you have a large family—a mother, father and a number of children—and both parents need to undertake the test, they will pay $240 each; so it will be $480 for the parents. Is that right?

Mrs Ellis —Yes. At the moment, adults are required to apply in their own right, so they apply separately. Children under the age of 16 may be included on a parent’s application. Where the children are included on a parent’s application, the children pay no fee.

Senator HURLEY —So children between 16 and 18 pay the fee.

Mrs Ellis —They are required to pay in their own right and required to pay the application fee. Post-testing, children between the ages of 16 and 18 are not required to complete the test, because they would be considered under a separate subsection of the act, and so the application fee for them would be $120.

Senator HURLEY —Just reinforce that for me: children between 16 and 18 will not have to undertake the test.

Mrs Ellis —Subsection 21(2) is about people aged 18 and over and it is only that subsection where there is the requirement for knowledge of English and the responsibilities and privileges of citizenship.

Senator HURLEY —So a family with, say, four children, two of them under 16 and two of them over 16, would be paying $480 for the parents and $120 for each of the two children between 16 and 18, with no fee for the other children?

Mrs Ellis —Yes, if they are included in their parents’ application. So the only difference post the introduction of testing is that because they are required to have successfully completed the test prior to application, there is an additional $120 for each of the parents. There is no change to the fee structure for the children.

Senator HURLEY —So in other words it is another $240 for that family?

Mr Metcalfe —For the sake of completeness, Senator, I should add that there are fee concessions that are available to applicants who are the recipients of certain pensions from Centrelink and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. The concession fee will be increased to $40 for those who have sat a test and the $20 concession fee will continue to apply for those not required to sit a test.

CHAIR —If somebody sits, fails, pays their $240 and then sits again, do they pay another $240?

Mr Metcalfe —The payment does not actually become ‘eligible’ until the person applies for citizenship, which is after they have successfully completed the test. They approach us and sit the test, and if they fail they can simply continue to sit it. When they are in receipt of a test result that says they have passed, they can then lodge their citizenship application and that brings with it the application fee.

Finally, Senator Hurley, I should, also for the sake of completeness, say that it is proposed that there be no changes to certain fee exemptions for people who have served in the Australian Defence Force or who are former British and Maltese child migrants. So there is a range of current exemptions or concessions that will continue, and the increase will be for those people who are required to sit the test, provided that they are over the age of 18 years.

CHAIR —Would you table that list for us?

Mr Metcalfe —We could certainly provide a piece of paper which sets out the fee structure.

CHAIR —I think that would be helpful to the committee.

Mr Metcalfe —We will do that on notice. We can do that quite quickly.

Senator HURLEY —A number, if not most, of the submissions have made particular reference to refugee and humanitarian entrants. As you said, Mr Metcalfe, a majority of people are now coming to Australia on some kind of visa which requires that they have some sort of English language proficiency, whether it be for work skills or whatever. Clearly, the cohort that is going to have most difficulty in acquiring citizenship is refugee and humanitarian entrants. As a number of submitters have said, this is probably the cohort that is most keen to get citizenship because of their members’ circumstances and their having to leave their country of origin, so I think it is a very serious concern. A particular concern is where those refugees who are humanitarian entrants have language difficulties. I know that certain provisions have been made for people who are illiterate, but there will be people who have somewhat limited literacy and have difficulty in acquiring language sufficient to pass the test once they get to Australia. There is quite a deal of evidence that, even though people have access to AMEP and have a certain entitlement to language lessons, this may not be enough. As the previous person said, a lot of a language class may be taken up by learning to pass the test. What kind of input has the department had as to whether the proposed regime will disadvantage refugees and humanitarian entrants? Has it budgeted for any increase in language or any other help for this cohort?

Mr Metcalfe —Ultimately it becomes a philosophical question as to whether you see the test as a bar or as an incentive. Certainly it is the government’s view that the test is an incentive for people to learn about Australia and to be able to communicate in English given that citizenship is not a tokenistic thing. Citizenship is not something to be obtained simply through having served some time and done nothing else; citizenship is a prized status and therefore should be something that people see as being what it is: the opportunity to fully participate in all aspects of Australia. I have said it before on the record: the department is very proud of the role that it plays in administering Australia’s refugee and humanitarian program. Almost 700,000 people have come here under that program since World War II, including 100,000 in the last 10 years. This year 13,000 people will enter under the program, so we see that as a very significant contribution that Australia makes as a good international citizen. We delight in the role that we can play in helping people find a new life in Australia.

I mentioned earlier that citizenship is part of a journey; it is not a journey in itself. Recently the assistant minister launched a new CD-ROM providing pre-departure settlement information in a variety of African languages for refugees coming to Australia. That will be used in a whole range of situations to provide that initial familiarity with Australia. We understand, and we absolutely accept, that refugees and humanitarian entrants may have low levels of education, they may have low levels of literacy and that being able to sit a test in English and to be able to have an understanding of Australia will be a significant task for them. No-one is denying that but, as I have said, citizenship is about inclusiveness. It is about the opportunity to fully participate in Australia and it is the government’s view that you cannot do that if in fact you do not understand about the country and if you are unable to speak the national language.

You are aware from other questions and briefings that hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on English language training and English language services. The Adult Migrant English Program is certainly accessed by many of our refugee and humanitarian entrants. There are other Commonwealth funded language programs that go to education and to people entering the workforce. As I said earlier, the requirement to have knowledge of the English language has been there in one form or another since 1949, since the concept of Australian citizenship was created. So there always has been for refugees and humanitarian entrants the requirement that they have a basic knowledge of English. In this particular case under the proposed test, that will be established by the person’s ability to understand and to complete a test in English. I also mentioned in my opening statement that we will clearly monitor the test in practice and if there is ultimately seen to be a need for some modifying test or some different form of test to be applicable to certain people, then that is certainly something the government would consider at that time.

Senator CROSSIN —Mr Metcalfe, I have had a look at the department’s website in response to the discussion paper that you put out. Of the 985 that you tabulated who said they were in favour of a citizenship test, how many of those qualified that answer? In other words: ‘We do not support a citizenship test but, if there were to be one, then this should occur’? Were they considered to be responses in support?

Mr Vardos —The way the 1,644 responses were determined was this: if there was a clear, ‘Yes, we support the test unambiguously,’ that was counted as support; those that unambiguously expressed opposition were calculated as such; those that expressed neither view but nevertheless put forward comments of one sort or another were not counted in the ‘for’ or ‘against’, they were calculated separately. We can provide you with a more detailed analysis of the outcome of that process if you wish but, in sum, that is how the submissions were considered.

Senator CROSSIN —In the last week I have had the chance to look at quite a number of them and my overwhelming view is that either the test was not supported or, if it was, the support was severely qualified. Interestingly enough, most of the objections came from either migrant resource centres or ethnic groups.

Mr Vardos —You are correct. Of the 1,644 submissions, in round figures 10 per cent came from organisations and 90 per cent came from individuals. Of those organisations that responded, I would put in excess of 60 per cent in the ‘no’ category. It may even be a bit higher than that—65 per cent, from memory, who oppose the test. When you go to the individual submissions, the numbers are reversed. In excess of 60 per cent support it and a smaller number—

Senator CROSSIN —The individual submissions are not on your website, are they?

Mr Vardos —The only submissions that were put on there were those from people who indicated that they were willing for their submissions to go on the website. Those from people who expressly asked for their submissions to be kept confidential were.

Senator CROSSIN —You are saying that 60 per cent were individuals? So the majority of people who responded to the discussion paper were individuals?

Mr Vardos —Ninety per cent of the submissions were from individuals and 10 per cent were from organisations—that is, in round figures; there may be decimal points missing.

Senator CROSSIN —You do not have any background information as to where those individuals come from?

Mr Vardos —I cannot recall. It is some time since I looked at the complete list of submissions and I am not sure. I prefer not to attempt to answer that question.

Senator CROSSIN —Is there any evidence to suggest that people may feel very intimidated by this test and therefore will be discouraged from applying for citizenship?

Mr Vardos —That has been speculated about but there is no evidence to suggest that that will be a reaction.

Senator CROSSIN —What happens in other countries? Have you looked at the UK or Canada?

Mr Vardos —Off the top of my head I cannot recall what the trends were. Certainly the UK is the most recent marker country to have introduced a test, so I suspect their results are still pretty raw. The Canadians and the Americans have had tests since the 1980s or earlier. There may be more data available in relation to those two countries but I cannot recall it.

Senator CROSSIN —But the department has not done any research or had a look at whether this test would discourage people from applying for citizenship?

Mr Vardos —We are not aware of any research or data that would lead one to conclude that the tests in those countries were a disincentive. It is in fact quite difficult to determine why a person chooses not to apply for citizenship, which is the question being asked. It could be the test, it could be a fee or it could be a million other reasons. So the short answer is, ‘No, we have not seen, to my knowledge, any data or research that would lead one to conclude that the tests were a disincentive for people to apply.’

Senator CROSSIN —I see that there are exemptions for children, very senior citizens and those with a disability. What consideration is given to someone, say, who has been in this country for five years, cannot grasp the English language but donates 100 per cent of their time to, for example, the Red Cross. Is there any thought of compensating people if they cannot pass this test or do not have the skills to sit a test but are doing other community based, mutual obligation kind of work?

Mr Vardos —The first point to make is that here has never been an exemption since 1949 in relation to a person’s inability to grasp the English language. The government has made its position quite clear on this matter and that is: there is the regular test and there is the assisted test for persons who are determined, not necessarily to be illiterate, but to have low levels of literacy that would prevent them from attempting the test.

Senator CROSSIN —Regarding your response to my question, up until now hasn’t it simply been an interview with a person from the immigration department who makes an individual assessment about that?

Mr Vardos —It is an interview at which questions are asked that are drawn from a publication. The questions are about the rights and responsibilities of Australian citizenship. The interviews—certainly the ones I sat in on as an observer—have been conducted in English.

Senator CROSSIN —Why is there a belief that this system will improve this process?

Mr Vardos —All I can do is repeat what was said before and that is that the government’s position is that the introduction of a test firstly is an objective way of assessing the requirement in the act to demonstrate a knowledge of Australia. The incentive is there to learn English and to review the resource book so that you can demonstrate the knowledge of Australia needed to meet the requirements of the act in your application for citizenship.

Senator CROSSIN —What sorts of persons are putting together these questions and will put together the test? Are they people who have English as a second language expertise? Are they educationalists? Are they migrants themselves who have come here? Who is devising the questions?

Mr Vardos —I cannot answer questions about each individual’s background such as their circumstances in coming to this country or whether they were born here. But the consultants—the organisation—we are recruiting have expertise in setting tests.

Senator CROSSIN —Who are those consultants?

Mr Vardos —The company’s name is Acer.

Senator CROSSIN —So the putting together of this test has simply been contracted out to a consultancy?

Mr Vardos —The company was selected through a limited tender process based on their expertise.

Senator CROSSIN —Okay. When they put in their tender, did you specify at all that there had to be a demonstration of either educational expertise, TESOL expertise or such like?

Mr Vardos —I cannot recall the detail. I could take that on notice but I could not respond in detail at this point.

Senator NETTLE —Mr Metcalfe, you said that the tests will be an incentive for people to take out citizenship. Is that based on any evidence?

Mr Metcalfe —No, I did not say that. What I said was that you can have a view as to whether the test is a bar or whether it is an incentive to fully participate in Australia. It is the proposition of the government that in order to fully participate in the Australian community it is appropriate that you speak the national language or have a knowledge of the national language and that you have some understanding of Australia, its history, its values, its national symbols and its national geography. Therefore, in order to fully participate in our society, a test of this nature is an appropriate way to measure that person’s commitment.

Senator NETTLE —Is there any evidence that a test is the best way to measure that? I accept that it is really helpful to operate in Australia if you have the English language and you understand the values. The question is whether the test is the most effective way to do that. Is there any evidence that the department looked at when determining that the test was—

Mr Metcalfe —The evidence basis is twofold. Firstly there was the consultation that occurred last year, following the discussion paper that was released by the former parliamentary secretary Mr Robb, which sought public comment and input in relation to whether there should be a test. You may recall the discussion paper from that time. It went through the issues quite explicitly and sought feedback and opinion in relation to that. Secondly, Australia is not unique or alone in embarking upon this arrangement. As was mentioned earlier by Mr Vardos, the United States and Canada have each had a test since the 1980s. The Netherlands and the United Kingdom have similar sorts of tests as well. So there are a range of counties which believe that, in forming a decision as to whether a newcomer to that country should access the rights and privileges of becoming a citizen, it is appropriate that the person have some understanding of the country, its background and its people. That is clearly seen as a worthwhile policy instrument by a number of other countries.

Senator NETTLE —So there was no specific discussion with educators, for example, to work out whether, in achieving these objectives, the test is the best way to get—

Mr Metcalfe —There was a community consultation process and everyone was free to comment in relation to that.

Senator NETTLE —When you talk about the overseas examples, for any of those countries that have citizenship tests, have they done any assessment to determine whether—clearly they have made a decision by implementing a test, but have they done any assessment of the effectiveness of the test in delivering the outcomes and objectives that are presumably the same as those that the Australian government has put forward?

Mr Metcalfe —We do not have any information at the table. If there is anything we can add, we will. I would note that those tests have been in place for quite a long time and so whether there have been evaluations and modifications made as a result of that is something we can see if we can find out. We certainly made it clear in the opening statement I made earlier that we would not see our arrangements as set in concrete, that if there is a need to modify or develop the test in some way then that is something that can occur following a measured evaluation rather than simply on the basis of conjecture, which is where we are now with some submissions to the committee.

Senator NETTLE —Is there any process in place in the assessment of the proposed citizenship test in Australia? Is there something like, ‘In a year we’ll evaluate’, or is it intended to be an ongoing—

Mr Metcalfe —We will clearly evaluate it in an ongoing way. I have not seen any firm proposals as to an evaluation plan at this stage, if that is what you asking, but like all departmental programs we keep them under review. It would be a matter for the government as to what particular time it would seek a more formal evaluation and upon which basis that any modifications might be made, if there were a decision to do that.

Senator NETTLE —Going back to the overseas tests, I am particularly interested in any evidence about whether or not the tests improve the cohesiveness of the community. I do not know if anyone knows that. I wanted to add that in; it is something I am particularly interested in.

Mr Metcalfe —We will check and see if there is any research or evaluation that we are aware of and we will let you know. Ultimately, the fact is that sovereign governments have decided that this was a worthwhile measure and, on some occasions, are possible looking at extending the concept into a test even at the equivalent of our permanent resident stage, which is not something that is being suggested in the Australian situation. The impression I have from talking with colleagues overseas is that it is more likely that there is going to be an extension of the concept rather than a move away from the concept. I assume that they are doing that for good reason.

Senator NETTLE —It is not just the word ‘cohesive’, but you know what I mean in terms of the sense of security.

Mr Metcalfe —Yes, if there is anything we can provide to the committee, we will.

Senator NETTLE —Which countries are looking at extending their tests to permanent residents?

Mr Metcalfe —There has been some discussion in the United Kingdom about that.

Senator NETTLE —In the minister’s second reading speech he talked about responsibilities in relation to citizenship. The ones that he points out are obeying Australian laws, accepting common values, respecting the rights and freedoms of others and being involved in the community. I am wondering whether they are responsibilities that would apply to noncitizens as well as citizens. Obeying Australia’s laws is for anybody living in Australia, not just for its citizens.

Mr Vardos —You could make a distinction between what we call small ‘c’ citizenship and big ‘c’ citizenship. Small ‘c’ is community citizenship and the things that, as a member of the community, you have a moral or other obligation to be involved with. The responsibilities that go with formal big ‘c’ citizenship are, as Mr Metcalfe pointed out earlier on, the requirement to enrol to vote, to serve on a jury if called upon to do so et cetera. You can make a distinction between the two.

Senator NETTLE —I accept what you are saying, but it is different to what the minister talked about in his speech on this bill. This bill is about responsibilities and what you are describing as the small ‘c’ citizenship in terms of members of the community rather than the capital ‘c’ citizen, which Mr Metcalfe—

Mr Metcalfe —Beyond what Mr Vardos has said, some of what we regard as responsibilities are not uniquely Australian. They would apply in many countries. They would not only apply to Australian citizens; they would apply to any members of the community. But there are certain things which taking that step in the journey of becoming a citizen gives you a right to do and gives you responsibility for. It goes to issues as fundamental as the ability to vote, to stand for a parliament, to serve on a jury and to become a member of the Australian Defence Force or the Australian Public Service, and there are responsibilities that go with that as well.

Senator NETTLE —We hear government ministers talk more about the broader set of responsibilities. I totally accept the narrower form of ‘citizen’. The bill talks about the responsibilities and the privileges of Australian citizenship. What are the privileges of Australian citizenship?

Mr Metcalfe —Again, this is not a new concept. For a long time a person has needed to have knowledge of their rights and responsibilities. I think it traces back to 1949. A privilege of Australian citizenship is the ability, subject to the law, to obtain an Australian passport and to receive consular assistance while overseas. If you have children born overseas you have the entitlement to register them as citizens. There are the privileges of being able to stand for parliament and of being able to vote. Many of the rights themselves also become privileges as well. This is not new or groundbreaking in relation to this amendment bill. This is something that we have had for many years.

Senator NETTLE —The phrase used is ‘responsibilities and privileges’.

Mr Metcalfe —That is correct.

Senator NETTLE —Are they all the one thing or is it that there are responsibilities and there are privileges?

Mr Metcalfe —As I think I have said, some of them intersect. Some would argue that it is a responsibility to vote. Others would argue that it is a privilege to vote. It is probably the same thing.

Senator NETTLE —When will the test questions be written?

Mr Metcalfe —It will be some time between now and 17 September.

Senator NETTLE —You cannot be more accurate than that?

Mr Metcalfe —I cannot help you further. Obviously we will need the citizenship test resource book to be finalised and the questions will be based upon that book. As I indicated in my opening statement, we are working on a commencement date of 17 September—subject to the passage of the legislation, of course. I admit that time is tight and, clearly, we have some people working very hard to get things ready in time.

Senator NETTLE —Can you give us a time frame for when the booklet will be available or completed?

Mr Metcalfe —It will be soon.

Senator NETTLE —So the answer is no! I want to ask you about the $240 application fee. Your submission says that it includes a component to recover the cost of sitting the test. Is there any cost breakdown of the $240 in terms of what proportion of it is for the test?

Mr Vardos —The $240 can effectively be divided into two. One half, $120, is the application fee, which is the current cost of the application. The other $120 goes towards partial cost recovery for those persons who are required to sit the test. As I said earlier on, those not required to sit the test will only pay $120.

CHAIR —What does ‘partial cost recovery’ mean? Are you advising us that it does not cover the full cost?

Mr Metcalfe —Yes. We estimate it will cover less than the full cost. I do not know whether we have an estimate of how much of the cost it will recover.

Mr Vardos —We will need to consult with our colleagues to find that out.

Mr Metcalfe —Essentially what this means is that the applicant will be making a contribution towards the cost of administering and processing their application, including the test, but the taxpayer will be making a contribution as well.

CHAIR —Indeed.

Senator NETTLE —We had some discussion with Professor Rubenstein, who was a witness earlier today, about ways of encouraging people to take out citizenship, and there was mention of the television advertisements and other educational components to citizenship. Can you tell us whether those advertisements and other educational components have increased the number of people taking out Australian citizenship?

Mr Vardos —There has been a public information campaign since 2001 both to promote the value of citizenship and to encourage people to apply. Our research indicates that a spike in applications coincides with the running of the promotional campaign.

Senator NETTLE —What kind of level? What kind of spike?

Mrs Ellis —There have been significant increases. I think it is largely because it is a reminder to people. They may have been thinking about it for some time. It may be that the first time they see an advertisement they think, ‘Yes, I’m going to go and do it,’ or it may be the third or fourth time. There may well be other reasons as to why they apply when they do, but certainly our research shows that when there is promotion of citizenship the application rate increases. I do not have the figures with me but if you were to have a look at the figures we produce in the annual report each year you would see there has been a significant increase in the number of people becoming citizens since 2001.

Senator NETTLE —Will there be any comparison of the effectiveness of the information campaigns in encouraging people to become citizens as opposed to the citizenship test and the incentive that may provide for people to take up citizenship?

Mrs Ellis —I think I mentioned that there are a number of reasons why people apply at a particular time. Some of them may be related to the promotional campaign and some of them may not. For some people, for example, it is because they have lived here for a long time, they have decided they want to travel overseas and they would like to do that as Australian citizens. Obviously one indicator of the impact of the introduction of testing will be the number of applications that are made, but another factor that will impinge on the numbers of applications that will be made over the next 12 months or two years will be the changes to the citizenship act. To try to tease out how much is one, how much is the other and how much is other factors could be quite difficult.

Mr Vardos —We should state that there will be a continuation of promotional activities but also an information exercise to explain the new framework that will come into effect in September. With regard to the citizenship promotional campaign—I assume you have seen the ads—there will be a continuation of citizenship promotion activity alongside information dissemination.

Senator NETTLE —Will there be an increase in budget allocation for English language teaching in the lead-up to the citizenship test?

Mr Vardos —As you are probably aware, the principal program administered by our department is the Adult Migrant English Program. By my simple arithmetic, it has grown by 68 per cent since 2003-04 when it stood at about $99 million. Although the final figures are yet to come in for the last financial year, we are estimating an output of about $156 million, and the forward estimate for 2007-08 is at about $166 million. So it is a demand driven program and the resources are always there to meet the level of demand. As you can see from those figures, there is a steady growth in the volume of resources dedicated by government through our portfolio, but at the same time you have the Language, Literacy and Numeracy program run by DEST, the Workplace English Language and Literacy Program and ESL for new arrivals run through schools. The latest figure I have is that, when you take all programs combined across all portfolios, the estimated outcome for 2006-07 is in the order of $285 million. So there is growth over time.

Senator NETTLE —Is any of that growth connected directly with the citizenship test or is it all about the growth that is already occurring in each of those areas? I am trying to see whether there is anything associated with the test.

Mr Vardos —Clearly it is too early to make any judgements as to whether the test is acting as an incentive for people to take up their entitlement. Some people choose not to take up their entitlement. Others take all of it and wish they had more. Some take an average of 400 hours, which is the average of the last couple of years. So it is too early to say whether the citizenship test is having an impact on a person’s decision to take up their full AMEP entitlement.

Senator NETTLE —But there is currently no specifically allocated money that is associated with the citizenship test.

Mr Vardos —Not in the AMEP, but there certainly have been activities, which were part of AMEP, that you could say were related to a person’s interest in taking out citizenship. I am referring to the Let’s Participate course. With the introduction of the test, we will need to look at whether that material is still relevant—whether it needs to be adjusted or changed. But to my knowledge—and it is not part of my patch at the moment—there is no intention to excise that from future AMEPs. In fact it will probably go in the other direction and be enhanced and made more relevant to the existence of the citizenship test.

Senator NETTLE —I recall a comment that was made, I think, by either the former parliamentary secretary or by the minister to the effect that, if we need to increase the amount of funding available for English language courses as a part of the citizenship test then we will do that. I was checking to see if that has happened or if it is something that may happen down the track.

Mr Vardos —I think you can take that as an articulation of the government’s willingness to do something in this area if the evidence suggests that more needs to be done.

Senator NETTLE —So there is no evidence yet, but there may be something down the track. That is what I was trying to work out.

CHAIR —On that last point, there have been some questions put in a range of submissions, including some today from witnesses, in regard to English. Could you clarify for the committee current arrangements for assessing the basic knowledge and understanding of English? This has been occurring since 1949, but I would like to know about the current arrangements. Secondly, what are the arrangements under the new testing regime? Finally, Mr Vardos has answered, at least in part, the question about funding support measures for people who require English as a second language training et cetera and the different government departments which do that. Perhaps on notice you could clarify the measures that provide support for people to learn English and outline the costs or the investment by the government in those measures.

Mrs Ellis —Currently, of the people who make an application for citizenship, adults are required to attend an interview. Most people would attend an interview with the department. In the rural and regional areas they can attend an interview at a post office. There is what is referred to as a ‘standard interview framework’ which the interviewer works through with the applicant to ensure that all of the information on the form is still current. It asks a number of questions to test their knowledge of the responsibilities and privileges of citizenship. So the overall interaction in dealing with the application—checking that all relevant information is there and asking the question specifically on the responsibilities and privileges of citizenship—is used to assess whether the person has a basic knowledge of English.

CHAIR —And under the new regime you would be moving to a more objective assessment. Is that your response to the committee?

Mr Vardos —For the majority of people there will be no interview. It will be replaced by the test. For some people—those particularly who are not required to undertake the test—there will still need to be a face-to-face exchange with the department to verify their identity et cetera. So for that small cohort there will still be that direct exchange with the department. But the interview will be replaced by the new testing framework which will commence in September.

CHAIR —You have also advised the committee, as has the minister, that there will be exemptions for those who are under 18 or over 60 and for those who have a mental or physical disability or incapacity.

Mr Vardos —Which prevents them from understanding the nature of their application, which is the key.

CHAIR —Are there likely to be any other cohorts where an exemption may apply?

Mrs Ellis —The way the legislation is structured, only those people who are seeking consideration under the general eligibility provision will be required to have the knowledge of English and of the responsibilities and privileges of citizenship.

For other groups of people, there are other provisions for people to apply under. For those under 18 and over 60 and for those with a substantial or permanent loss of sight, hearing and speech et cetera, there is no requirement to have knowledge of English or the responsibilities and privileges of citizenship. Therefore there is no question of them needing to complete a test. So the way the legislation is structured at the moment, it is not an exemption as such; there is simply no requirement for them to have that knowledge.

CHAIR —A range of submissions have been put to us saying there should be discretion or an exemption for refugees or people on a humanitarian basis or perhaps for some other reasons. How will those people be assessed? Will they be considered in a separate light or will they have to meet the general assessment approach?

Mrs Ellis —They will be treated in the same way as people who enter on those visas have been treated in the past. If they are applying under the general eligibility provisions, they will be required to have successfully completed a test to satisfy the minister that they have the required knowledge of English and the responsibilities and privileges of citizenship. Obviously if someone has entered as a refugee or on a humanitarian visa and they are under the age of 18 or over the age of 60, or fit into one of the other provisions where there is no requirement to have the knowledge of English or the responsibilities and privileges of citizenship, then they will not be required to sit the test. But there has never been separate treatment for people based on the type of visa they had to enter Australia on.

CHAIR —How will people in rural and regional Australia access this test? It is an issue for me and I know for many others, so can you answer that?

Mr Vardos —The test will be available in 47 locations around the country. Thirteen of those locations will be the DIAC offices, which are in the capital cities, Torres Strait, Southport and Cairns I think. The other locations will be in Medicare and/or Centrelink offices and we are currently in negotiations with those two organisations. We estimate, on past business levels, that the DIAC network will account for some 90 per cent of business, so the balance, 10 per cent, will have access via Centrelink and Medicare. In the short to medium term it will be DIAC staff who travel to those locations to administer the test using the facilities of our colleagues in those two organisations. The 47, as I think I mentioned, were mapped according to business levels. Clearly the current spread of Australia Post offices is much wider than that, but some of those offices may not have seen a citizenship interview for some years, a decade or more.

CHAIR —HREOC has made some observations in its submission, and earlier today we heard from Professor Rubenstein with regard to section 21(2) and also 23A(3). HREOC say on page 9 of their submission:

The inclusion of additional eligibility criteria in s 23A(3) might lead to a situation where the Minister has a discretion to block a person from sitting the test who would otherwise meet the eligibility criteria in s21(2).

What is your response to that observation?

Mr Metcalfe —I refer you to my opening statement in which I indicated that, on advice available to the department, the test has to be consistent with the overall objectives of the act and that it would not be legally feasible, should a minister ever wish to do so—I hope that that would never be the case—for the test to be inconsistent or discriminatory in some way.

CHAIR —So the foreshadowed amendment will deal with that matter?

Mr Metcalfe —Certainly the note that has been foreshadowed will advise that, but that is quite plain. We understand the concern that has been raised, but we disagree with it.

CHAIR —Professor Rubenstein referred earlier to section 21(2) of the legislation, and you referred to the advice of the Scrutiny of Bills Committee, of which I am a member, so I would like to come back to your response to that advice and get some clarity on that. I think you said that the 200-odd questions would be refreshed from time to time and the view was put that that could be done via a legislative instrument when required. What is the problem with going down that track?

Mr Metcalfe —The legislative instrument track?


Mr Metcalfe —The government’s policy position, as I explained in my opening statement, is that there could be some uncertainty that develops as a result of the potential disallowance of a legislative instrument, particularly if a person has already sat the test and it is then disallowed. The policy position taken by the government is that the determination not be a legislative instrument within the meaning of that act.

CHAIR —I can see the reason for that. There has to be a surety that those questions are spot-on and not outside the ambit of section 21(2). I guess that is the confidence that you would have in going down that track?

Mr Metcalfe —In establishing the questions and refreshing the questions we will be very mindful of that requirement.

CHAIR —Mr Vardos, in response to Senator Crossin, you advised the committee that the consultant Acer had done some work for you. That is work that will come back to the department, or has come back to the department, and then you will review their report and recommendations and apply that accordingly. Is that how it works?

Mr Vardos —Once the resource book is launched or released by the minister then the resource book will go to the consultants. They will start drafting a bank of questions based on the content of the resource book. That bank will go through processes that the development of questions for any testing regime will go through. The final set of questions will end up in the IT system that will run the test and that system will randomly generate 20 questions for each test-taker.

CHAIR —Earlier witnesses also asked us whether a majority of submissions were put in support of a citizenship test and in support of English coming through. You have advised us, based on your advice and a review of the figures in last year’s report, that a majority of submissions were supportive. This morning I referred to an Australian article concerning a Newspoll survey of December last year. Can you advise the committee, or perhaps take it on notice, whether you are aware of any other surveys, opinion polls or advice which indicate the view of the Australian public about the citizenship test, the inclusion of English or related matters?

Mr Metcalfe —We will take that on notice.

Mr Vardos —If I can put on record the factoid I was searching for during Senator Crossin’s questions, which I could not put my finger on: 64 per cent of the submissions that we received were marked ‘confidential’—that is, the authors of them did not want them to be made publicly available.

Senator CROSSIN —Thank you.

CHAIR —Were their views represented in your percentage?

Mr Vardos —The views as to support, neutral or against were represented in the analysis but they were not put on the website because 64 per cent of the total received were marked ‘confidential’.

Senator HURLEY —You were saying that Acer were responsible for compiling 20 questions out of 200. They did the 200?

Mr Vardos —No. They will—future tense—compile the complete bank of 200 or so questions. It could be 190, it could be 210, but we are talking 200 questions.

Senator HURLEY —They are now doing that?

Mr Vardos —No. They will when the resource book is released.

Senator HURLEY —So the resource book goes out. Who is compiling the resource book?

Mr Vardos —It is a government publication that is being prepared, as we discussed.

Senator HURLEY —Within the department of immigration?

Mr Vardos —We are certainly responsible for the production of the resource material.

Mr Metcalfe —The Minister for Immigration and Citizenship is overseeing the production of the book.

Senator HURLEY —So it is occurring within the minister’s office?

Mr Metcalfe —It is an iterative process, as these things usually are. The department certainly had input and the minister has certainly taken the lead in preparing the material.

Senator HURLEY —Has the minister had input from anywhere other than the department?

Mr Metcalfe —I imagine he has.

Senator HURLEY —Do you know from where?

Mr Metcalfe —I do not know the full answer to the question.

Senator HURLEY —Partial will do.

Mr Metcalfe —I know that the minister has consulted with other members of the government. Certainly, his own staff have also been involved in providing advice on the development of the book.

Senator HURLEY —Have they consulted with any organisations such as FECCA, which are concerned with—

Mr Metcalfe —I think the answer is no. I will correct myself on notice if that is incorrect.

CHAIR —I thank all witnesses who have given evidence to the committee today. It is very much appreciated.

Committee adjourned at 12.56 pm