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STANDING COMMITTEE ON LEGAL AND CONSTITUTIONAL AFFAIRS
17/07/2007
Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Testing) Bill 2007

CHAIR —We welcome Dr Stephen Chavura from the Festival of Light. The Festival of Light has lodged submission No. 4 with the committee. Do you wish to make any amendments or alterations?

Dr Chavura —No, not at this point.

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

Dr Chavura —Thank you for the invitation to speak and to make a submission. There has been some talk on morality and on the controversy of morality and the controversy of values. I was delighted to hear a philosophical contribution by the learned Dr Martin Bibby, but I think he proves too much. He says that values are too controversial, even hinting that perhaps they are relative. The problem is that then you cannot exclude any values—you cannot exclude Nazism and you cannot exclude extreme sexism and extreme racism. If values are so controversial then on no grounds can you even critique this particular bill, because any critique of this bill is going to be based on particular values. The moment you say that values are too controversial to legislate or to test people on, you close your mouth because you could not possibly have anything of value to say after that.

We live in a liberal democracy but ours is a very particular type of liberal democracy. A liberal democracy is marked by the idea of active citizenship, not passive citizenship—that is, that we actually take part in the process of government. This, of course, goes all the way back to Aristotle, who defined a citizen as someone who involves themselves in the judiciary. We are a social liberal country, and that means we believe in a particular type of freedom which is known as positive freedom. The idea behind that is that the state intervenes and even compels citizens to improve themselves and to give themselves the attributes that will allow them to become effective citizens—citizens who will give value to our liberal democratic values. What are some examples of this? In Australia we have compulsory education. We force people to be educated in order for them to effectively participate in the political system. We force people to vote, even though they do not like it—and I have worked as a scrutineer and I can tell you that they do not like it. We also force them to be involved on a jury. Surely basic English proficiency is necessary for citizens to fully participate in these rights and responsibilities. If there is little inclination on the part of potential citizens to participate in those activities then those activities themselves become devalued over time.

Those speaking on behalf of refugees were making excellent points. The danger of making English learning inaccessible is a good point. In response to that I affirm that we should strive to have learning centres that are easy to attend. I even suggest that the basic text could be the resource book that is used to study for the test itself. The course textbook could be the very resource book that they need in order to pass the test. What else could you do? You could have mock tests throughout the course. The whole course in English proficiency could be geared towards people passing that particular test. I am also very much in favour of increasing the number of hours from 510 to whatever researchers have discovered may be a more reasonable amount of time for people to become proficient enough to pass this sort of test. With regard to the idea of single women with children having to fit in education, I teach at universities; I teach women just like that. They utilise child care and all sorts of other things. It makes it more difficult but it does not make it impossible. So, taking all of those excellent points into consideration, we see that the previous points prove that we should be ensuring that English language is accessible and the test is realistic but I do not think they are sufficient to show that such a test is intrinsically unjust.

To finish, I point out again that a liberal democratic state is not so much one of value relativism or value neutrality. A liberal democratic state is one with very particular and unique values such as personal freedom, intellectual development, respect for others’ rights and public participation. To fully appreciate these and to fully participate in these sorts of things, basic English is something that is necessary, something to be encouraged and even something to be compelled.

Senator HURLEY —Based on the membership of the Festival of Light, I am interested in why the Festival of Light is concerned with English proficiency.

Dr Chavura —That is a good question. The Festival of Light has undergone changes. The Festival of Light has typically been concerned with issues of personal morality, so in this whole Australian values debate it sees itself as having a valid voice simply because it is concerned with values and its values are basically broad Christian values. It is concerned that Australia’s Christian heritage might also be a part of this test—that is, showing immigrants what to expect when they become citizens, to expect public displays of Christianity, to expect Christian holidays, not to be shocked or necessarily offended by these things. The whole values debate has become one of the hottest topics in politics, and the Festival of Light is all about Christian values, it considers it is something worth investigating and speaking out on.

Senator HURLEY —I am sure many of us would know many Christians of a previous generation of immigrants—Greeks, Italians et cetera—who are Christians and yet not proficient in English. My mother-in-law is a Polish Catholic, for example.

Dr Chavura —I am not here to convert people to Christianity.

Senator HURLEY —Why is proficiency in English linked to morality in that sense?

Dr Chavura —It is not necessarily linked to morality; it is linked to being able to effectively participate in citizenship. How do you perform your judicial activities if you cannot understand what is being said, if you cannot read the manuscripts? How do you vote if you cannot read a newspaper? I am not saying that there is a link between English and morality, that is absurd; I am saying there is a link between understanding the national language and being able to participate in the national political system at your best capacity.

Senator PARRY —I could not help smiling about people not reading newspapers and voting. I think that would be a blessing in some respects. It is the first time holidays have been raised and I take on your point. It is a valuable point just to point out to people of different cultures in particular that we do exercise a holiday for certain Christian events in the calendar. In your submission, in number 6 on page 2, you state:

Applicants for permanent residence, other than refugee and humanitarian applicants—

and I notice you were present in the room with the previous witnesses. What is your view about how they should be treated?

Dr Chavura —One of the big issues that came up was post-traumatic stress disorder. That is very real. I teach at a university and some of my students suffer from that.

Senator PARRY —Not from your teaching!

Dr Chavura —I hope not—maybe after they get their mark back, but certainly not before that. I try to take their situation into consideration by giving extensions based on that. I would be happy for post-traumatic stress disorder to be taken into consideration if it is diagnosed and perhaps, if not given an exemption from the English component of the test, then at the very least a greater amount of time to prepare for the test. It should be something that, along with age and mental incapacity, should be taken into consideration. A very good point was made that refugees, in a sense, are compelled to come over here. There is a sense that there is less willingness about their status, and consequently I think their status does deserve some consideration. But I do not think being a refugee necessarily excludes one from having to do any sort of test. In the long run, to request that they take such a test is something that socially and politically would be to their benefit for them to fully integrate into Australia.

Senator PARRY —I refer to the phrase you used within your opening statement about being proficient in English. Do you think a working knowledge, a working level, is acceptable? Do you want to put a measure or a level on being proficient in English?

Dr Chavura —It all depends on what level the test is aimed at, and I would say a level that enables them to understand a basic newspaper or a basic memo, something that enables them to be able to understand what is going on in the country and the responsibilities that they have as a citizen. For example, I drive down the road and I see a big neon sign saying that rules for P-plate drivers are changing very soon and you cannot have more than one person in a car—or something like that. That is very basic English. They need to at least understand that to be able to carry on their duties as citizens. I am not saying they need to be able to read the Sydney Morning Herald or a learned article. Certainly they should read enough to be able to understand the news, read a basic newspaper, communicate and understand a discussion—a regular, everyday discussion—so they can understand what is going on and make their own contribution. I agree: I can see that is a sort of grey area. It is not grey enough to say that no English proficiency is necessary.

Senator TROOD —So, Dr Chavura, you are sympathetic to the need for some accommodation to people who come from a refugee background. I wish to understand this. Does your goodwill on this issue extend to their being excused from testing or is it a matter of their being given extra time and of particular accommodating provisions being introduced to meet their needs?

Dr Chavura —I think there are cases for which there should be exclusion: age, mental inability, illness. I think that any refugee should be able to take advantage of some of those. Again, I refer to simply excluding someone because they are a refugee. I think in the long run that will actually have a detrimental effect, because it does not really show that we are interested in them participating in our democracy. If we tell them, ‘You must learn English if you can,’ that shows that we are actually interested in their input. We are not just excluding them immediately; we are actually giving them a sign that we want their opinions, we want their voice—but I would say actual exclusion of refugees on the same grounds that you would exclude anyone else: age, inability and under ‘inability’ you could have post-traumatic stress if diagnosed. I guess what I am saying is that someone should not be excluded from the test as a refugee simply for that reason.

CHAIR —You made a submission towards the discussion paper last year which is quite extensive and which you have attached to your submission to this committee. I note you refer to the privileges and responsibilities of Australian citizenship. Why is it important that applicants actually understand the full extent of those privileges and responsibilities? I note that you have actually set them out in dot point format, which is unlike other submissions.

Dr Chavura —As to the responsibilities, it is important that the applicants understand them so they know exactly what they are applying for when they apply for citizenship. It is like buying a box and not knowing what is in it. They need to know exactly what is going to be demanded of them. They need to know that if they do not vote they will be fined and that if they do not want to sit on a jury they will be fined. They also need to know these things to soften them to the requests for English proficiency, because all of these things require English proficiency.

In many ways, we are living in an age of rights. Human nature is such that we do not need to emphasise rights too much because it is our immediate inclination to look out for our rights. It is just part of the human condition. You also need to speak to people about their responsibilities, because it is the responsibilities that impose penalties if they are not carried out. The responsibilities require English proficiency, so it makes sense to show people what their responsibilities are, which then makes fuller sense of why we are asking them to bother or even telling them that they have to bother with the language. As to rights, I am sure that you would want to know your rights in any country that you came to.

CHAIR —Sure. But does a similar argument apply to the privileges that you have listed, like the privilege to vote and to stand for parliament and so on?

Dr Chavura —Voting is certainly a privilege. It applies because, if they want to fully take advantage of these privileges, these rights, English proficiency is necessary. You cannot stand for a seat in parliament if you do not understand English. It also shows them that we are prepared to do things for them; it is not a one-way thing. If, after all of that, they are not prepared to integrate themselves to that extent, perhaps they should not be trying to come here in the first place, because you do not get much better than this.

CHAIR —At the Canberra hearings yesterday, the Australian Christian Lobby talked about the importance of applicants acknowledging Australia’s Christian heritage and history. You referred to it in your opening statement. Why is that important?

Dr Chavura —After World War II, we tried to get a lot of immigrants from Britain and failed, so we started getting them from eastern Europe. My grandparents fled Stalinist Russia to come here. What they had in common was a basic Judaeo-Christianity. This is something you read about in Mark Lopez’s excellent book on multiculturalism in Australia. Multiculturalism as a movement started in Melbourne in the late sixties and early seventies. It is different from multiculturalism today because all of the groups involved in the origins of multiculturalism were Judaeo-Christian. There was no problem with Christian holidays. There was a basic unanimity on values and things like that. Since the 1970s, we have been bringing in more people from cultures that either have nothing to do with any Judaeo-Christian heritage or are positively against it. Consequently, we need to tell them that, if they really want to come here, they will be faced with public Christianity. At Christmastime, they are going to see nativity scenes and things like that in shopping centres. Also, if you tell them what to expect, they will be more informed as to whether they want to stay in Australia or seek citizenship status elsewhere. It is an important part of our heritage, and it is still visible today. If they want to understand the society that they are coming into, our basic world view and where our social liberalism has come from, then having some knowledge or at least being informed of our Christian heritage will give them some idea of what they can expect when they do settle here.

CHAIR —I notice in the attachment on page 2 of your submission that you refer to the pledge that is spoken by applicants when they become citizens. You note that that has been the case since 1994, under the Australian Citizenship Act, and that at least a pledge does refer in part to the values that are embraced by Australians. Do you see that as important? Would you like the use of such a pledge to be continued?

Dr Chavura —I am happy for that pledge to continue, although I share Dr Bibby’s concerns about placing too much emphasis on values simply because they are held by people. He is absolutely right about that. I am quite happy for that pledge to continue. But you cannot have a pledge that is so philosophical that only the Bibbys and the Peter Singers can understand it. You need something that everyone can understand. I am quite happy for that one to remain, but I do recognise his excellent point there.

CHAIR —Thank you and all the other witnesses today for giving their evidence to the committee. I declare this meeting of the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee adjourned.

Committee adjourned at 12.00 pm