TRANSCRIPT: Labor will oppose the Government's changes to citizenship legislation





TONY BURKE: Labor caucus today made a unanimous decision to oppose the Governments changes to Australian citizenship. Australian citizenship, it's not overcooking it to say this is about who we are as a country. This is about how we identify what it means to be Australian because that's what happens when you become an Australian citizen. The Government in its citizenship bill has engaged in a massive overreach in terms of describing what they are doing. And has also taken some steps which put simply, Australia should never take and are inconsistent with who we are as a country.

Can I first knock off the argument that this is in any way about national security. National security legislation is brought in response to reports from our national security intelligence agencies. This legislation is in response to a report from (Senator) Connie Fierravanti-Wells. This is not national security legislation. It only applies to people who are already permanent residents. By definition everybody who was affected by this is a person who Australia has already said should live here and live here permanently and if there is a national security problem for those people then why on earth does the government have them already living here permanently?

The second challenge with the legislation is the delay. At the moment you already have to wait four years before you're able to take on Australian citizenship. The four year wait is already there but many people start on temporary visas, sometimes on a series of temporary visas it can take much more than four years and the requirement is that at least one of those years has to be a year of permanent residence. At the end of that time Australia has had a good chance to have a look at the contribution that somebody is already making. How can it be good for Australia to be further delaying whether or not someone takes allegiance to this country? It's not just whether it's good for that individual. How can it be good for Australia to be saying we've got someone who's ready to fully be part of the society and the Australian Government is going to stand in their way?

And the third issue that we've got to take very direct exception to is the issue of the English language test. Now Peter Dutton got all confused on radio today and claimed that at the moment level five is Basic English. That's not true. Basic English, depending on exactly the definition, kicks in at either a two or a four. They're talking about level six. Go to the websites of a whole series of Australian universities and you'll see that level six for a whole range of universities is the level of English they require for entrance to their university courses.

A very large number of Australians will never reach the level of English that’s being demanded by this test. A very large number of people who are born here will never reach the level of English in this test. What sort of snobbery leads a government to say 'unless you reach university level of English we'd rather you weren't here’? That's not just an argument to potential citizens, that's an argument to a whole range of Australians who don't get their personal literacy in English all the way up to university entrance level. And that in a bizarre act of snobbery is exactly where Peter Dutton and Malcolm Turnbull have landed. But don't just think about the unfairness of what that means to the individual, once you send a test where a whole lot of people no matter how hard they try, will never reach.

*background noise* Now I’ll just pause for a second. Can I check that your audio is working? You sure you're okay? Thumbs up? Okay I'll keep going.

Once you set the test at a level that by definition, large numbers of permanent residents will never reach no matter how hard they try. That changes our country and it's no leap of logic to say we're talking about a fundamental change in our country because this introduces permanently in Australia a large group of people, an increasingly large group of people who will always live here, will never be asked to take allegiance to this country and will always be told by the Australian Government they don't completely belong.

Now that is a big change in how this country operates and it's a change that Labor cannot support. Now the bill deals with a range of other issues some of which might turn out on examination to be reasonable issues and our advice to the Government if that's how the Senate inquiry turns out, would be to introduce those specific measures back into the Parliament in separate legislation. But don't lie and pretend that something's national security when it's not. Don't play this game that they played demanding Labor support something before it was written. Claim divisions, when the only divisions around have been the divisions within Peter Dutton's head. Don't deal with an issue as important as Australian citizenship in a dishonest fashion. So if some of those other measures turn out on examination to have a way of being implemented calmly and sensibly then that should be reintroduced in separate legislation. But this legislation, the main thrust of it will always be wrong the rationale of it will always be wrong and Labor will be opposing it.

JOURNALIST: So Bill Shorten's reaction when this was first announced was to say that the English language test and the waiting period sounded ‘reasonable'?

BURKE: Not at all and as I say, you're talking about something that was carried unanimously. So let's not shift that. That's not how we report everything out of the caucus room. To have something where everyone is on the same page is very strong. Bill Shorten has been right to say it is good to have more people speaking English. That's why Labor has always supported more training in English. The test we already have is in English. If you can't speak English at a conversational level, you can't pass the test. But to lift that to university level is a bizarre overreach from this government. And to lift it to any level which guarantees we will have a new permanent underclass of permanent residents who will never be able to take on citizenship because it's set at a level that many people who were born here can't reach either. That is an act of snobbery on the whole country and a fundamental shift in how Australian citizenship is defined.

JOURNALIST: Mr Burke you've made some comments about not agreeing that the Government should link this to national security. Given the points that you have made about the delay and also the tougher test meaning more people will be here and actually can't become citizens, do you actually think in a perverse way this could actually harm national security or promote further social division?

BURKE: I hear the conclusion you're reaching. I'm not going to project that unless I got that information from national security agencies. I'm not going to play the game that Peter Dutton is playing.

JOURNALIST: What exactly do you say that this has all been about, if it's not about national security?

BURKE: It's a leadership campaign for Peter Dutton. It's a very silly game and a very dangerous game because he's not just playing with some random law here or there, he's talking about the thing that defines who we are as a nation. You don't play games with that and if we question 'has he been playing games' if he wasn't playing games why on earth would he have demanded Labor take a position before he had even written his position down? Why would he demand that we respond to a document that hadn't been written? This has been about politics from the beginning from Peter Dutton. From Labor's perspective citizenship is about how we define who we are as a country and we are not going to play political games with that.

JOURNALIST: So if the Government comes back and says if you whittle that back down to two years and we won't require university level English, will that be good enough?

BURKE: We will oppose this legislation. We've made the decision we will oppose this legislation. The national security claims of dishonest handling of this debate from the Government means we're not going to offer them an olive branch after they have behaved the way that they have on an issue as fundamentally defining as our citizenship act. We're not going to be involved in playing that game. If the Senate report ends up bringing forward issues that Labor views are sensible, administrative changes they can bring that forward properly through the normal processes in separate legislation. We are not going to be part of this game.

JOURNALIST: But are you opposed to the idea of a standalone test or is it just the level that you oppose?

BURKE: A separate English test? We already have a test, let's not forget. The test that we have at the moment is a test which the Government can vary whenever they want without reference to the Parliament. There has been a whole lot of noise about new questions they might want to ask. The Government of the day can change those questions and I haven't seen them propose any of the questions that they've leaked out that wouldn't be available under the act as it currently stands. They are able to change the questions whenever they want and those questions are in a test which is written in English. If you can't speak English you can't pass the test. You have got to have it to basically a conversational sort of level. The challenge with the English language test that they have set it so high is just ludicrous and absurd and dumb. But there is also the principle that if you set it at a level where many people born in Australia wouldn't be able to reach you guarantee there will be a group of permanent residents who live here their entire lives and are never invited to take allegiance to Australia and are never able to be told by the Australian Government that you belong. That is a fundamental change in our country and we will not support that change occurring. There are a number of places that you could set an English language test and that problem will still be there.

JOURNALIST: *inaudible*

BURKE: Well to deal with the second question first. I can simply define the motivation is about politics all over. It's about politics all over and I don't know, I'm not going to try and psychoanalyse Peter Dutton but whether it's about the internal politics of the divided Liberal party or whether it's about the politics of who gets the vote, I don't know. All I know is it's not based on policy, it's not based on principle and it is certainly not based on national security or of an understanding of modern Australia. By definition, what he is doing says that a whole lot of people who are currently becoming citizens should not be. By definition what he is proposing says to a whole lot of Australians whether they are here by birth or by citizenship ceremony that if he had the choice he would have preferred they never became Australians. Now the politics of that goes way beyond voting and goes to identity. On the first issue could you just put it to me again...

JOURNALIST: *inaudible*

BURKE: I think you could only support legislation of this nature if you were pretty unimpressed with modern Australia. Now to define people being unimpressed with modern Australia as a form of patriotism, I find odd.

JOURNALIST: Is there a problem with the executive choosing what Australian values are?

BURKE: I've got to say, if you're going to have a test, and we support there being a test, you then have to ask how do you arrive at what the questions will be? I think it is a sensible issue for that to be dealt with by the executive, I've got to say. I would hate to be having debates in motions back and forth in Parliament, question by question. I just don't think it would be an effective way to arrive at the test. You then rely on the Government being sensible about it and if the Government is not sensible about it, then the time you deal with that very much is at an election. I should raise though on a whole range of these issues the arguments that I just put, I expect none of these arguments that I am putting here in this house today are the first time these arguments are being put to the Government. I expect in the thousands of submissions they have received during their consultation these arguments have been put there as well. The Government in choosing to not release those submissions, to keep them secret is basically giving in to the fact, to all of us, that the submissions reflect very badly on this Government. If they didn’t, they would make them public.

JOURNALIST: What about the aspect of the values test?

BURKE: The question at the moment allows you to... the legislation at the moment allows you to ask questions about Australia and by definition if you're asking questions about Australia you can already ask questions about Australian values. They have inserted the word 'values' into the legislation, not because it was required but because they wanted to have this particular debate. They can already change the questions. We changed them when we were in Government. There were a different set of questions when the Howard Government was here. You don’t need a fanfare to be able to update the questions.

JOURNALIST: The unanimous vote you've spoken very strongly of today, Nick Xenophon said he was broadly supportive of the base of it so it looks like there is a pathway for this to get through the Senate anyway. Can you commit to rolling it back if you form Government?

BURKE: Our position...this and I'm not going to use up all the oxygen for all our policy announcements today and I’m not going to presume defeat. Okay? But I think I’ve spoken strongly enough that it would be hard to view my position here as other than this is absolutely where Labor is at. So the only reason that I’m not going to answer that directly is because I’m not contemplating that this will become law. It is a fundamental change of who we are as a country. Since Australia adopted formal policies we’ve been a multicultural nation. We have never accepted that it is okay to have a permanent underclass of permanent residents who are never allowed to fully belong and our position is very strong.

JOURNALIST: *inaudible*

 BURKE: Well as I say if the Senate Inquiry turns up, and there are a number of other smaller issues there. If the Senate inquiry comes back with a number of recommendations then we’ll be willing to look at that. But still, we will be opposing a second reading, third reading. We are opposing this legislation. 

JOURNALIST: *inaudible*

BURKE: You might have noticed we did ask in question time, with the role that I have personally I’ve always had a role that the politicians should deal with the political issues, not the staff. We don’t ask questions about staff, I don’t comment on staff. I don’t want us to go down an American style where staff has become the political issue. Members of Parliament should take it on themselves. If there are arguments to be thrown against Members of Parliament then that’s our job, not the job of our staff. I don’t agree with anybody being isolated.


Tony Burke