TRANSCRIPT: Interview with Sky News AM Agenda - Citizenship legislation changes


SUBJECTS: Citizenship legislation changes

DAVID SPEERS: Tony Burke joins me now. Thanks for your time. The PM there quoting what you wrote in the Daily Telegraph.

TONY BURKE: 11 years ago this would be.

SPEERS: Nonetheless, ‘we need stricter English speaking requirements for wanting to work in Australia’. Has your view changed in 11 years?

BURKE: That was with respect to visas and Labor has kept policies of that nature for a long time with respect to what happens with temporary work visas and also in making sure that students, if they are coming to Australia, for the purposes of university education, are in a situation where their English level is good enough to be able to participate.

SPEERS: If you wanted stricter English speaking requirements, then for people coming in getting a visa, surely that would also mean you want them having stricter English speaking requirements to become a citizen?

BURKE: Well, no. If you're talking about the English language level required for somebody to come here on a visa for the purposes of attending university, then by definition, you would want them to have university level English. Because that is what their visa is for.

SPEERS: Were you talking just about student visas in that remark?

BURKE: That is what the article is about. I have not read it for 11 years in fairness so I went and had a look. The article is about, at the time under the Howard government, and the Howard Government ended up acting on some of this, so it is no longer a party political divide, but you had a situation where overseas students were coming into degree courses at universities, with very little English at all. You then had students here who were complaining that they were in group work assignments and in group work which would affect their own marks, where some of the other students had no capacity to communicate with them.

SPEERS: So you're talking about students, the problem was fixed up by the Howard government. BURKE: That’s right and the purpose of that visa was for them to attend university. That’s what that article was about. Conveniently, the Prime Minister might not have read that part of that article today.

SPEERS: Now the legislation the Government is hoping to pass now is for citizens, those who want to become citizens. It would require them to have competent English. Is competent English too much to ask?

BURKE: I’ve got to say most Australians, if you ask them, do you have competent English? They’d answer ‘yes’. What the word competent actually means though, it has a real meaning in terms of the English language scales. For a whole series of universities, that is the English level required for university entrance. We are talking about a level that a very large number of Australians would not be able to reach. Even though most other Australians would say, ‘oh yeah, of course your English is competent’. But that word has a real meaning.

SPEERS: It does, it does. And according to the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) they do the rankings, band 6 is what we're talking about here in the legislation. Band 6 is acceptable for quote ‘less linguistically demanding training courses’. If you are talking about university courses, you need a 7.5 and above.

BURKE: I’ve got a series of Australian universities, some universities are harder to get into. So Sydney University, for example, the minimum level is 6.5. But in each of the four different tests, you can’t fall below a six.

SPEERS: So there are universities who require band six are there?

BURKE: That’s right. Charles Sturt University, minimum of six. No individual score below 5.5. Same for University of Southern Queensland, Charles Darwin University, Flinders University, La Trobe University, James Cook University, Deakin University has the same for courses, courses at Newcastle University, University of Adelaide is the same.

SPEERS: So they are English requirements for those universities. That is what the Government wants to make for citizens.

BURKE: Which many Australians would not meet.

SPEERS: Okay let’s explore that would they or wouldn't they? There are two testing streams for this band 6 for the IELTS. One is the academic stream and the other is the general stream, as I understand it. Now the Government, what it’s talking about is having competent English under the general stream, which is defined as ‘basic survival skills in broad social and workplace context’.

BURKE: Okay, so can I deal with a couple of issues on this. First, this is the first time today Peter Dutton has referred to the two different streams. It was not referred to when he introduced the legislation to the Parliament. It’s not referred to in any of the explanatory memorandum. It wasn’t referred to when the Department gave me my briefing. There is a good reason why the distinction has never been made. Because yes, there are two different pathways, but when you test them, the standard they are tested to is the same. I have copies of sample IELTS tests.

SPEERS: Under the general stream?

BURKE: I’ve got the the academic one and the general one so you can get a flavour of each.

SPEERS: The general one...

BURKE: I would also like to explain the academic one is harder but the test mark you need is a lower score. So therefore the standard expected either way, is the same.

SPEERS: Can we stick to the general stream? That is what he is now talking about. It would be the general stream defined as focusing on ‘Basic survival skills in broad social and workplace contexts’.

BURKE: Calisthenics enters the historical record at around 480 BC with Herodotus’ account of the battle It turns out their tribal dance was not a superstitious ritual but a form of calisthenics by which they were building awe inspiring physical strength and endurance.

SPEERS: *laughs* So you are required to be able to read that? Is that what you’re saying?

BURKE: That’s...I’ve just pulled out part of the comprehension test. There’s then a series of questions at the back and if you're being tested in the general stream, you need to get 30 out of 40 right. 30 out of 40... Of the questions right.

SPEERS: Sorry, 30 out of 40 of the comprehension questions?

BURKE: Yes so I’ve read you...

SPEERS: Is that the hardest one?

BURKE: There are bits that are easier. ‘In the 1960s and 1970s, calisthenics was the goal of functional strength combined with physical beauty was replaced by an emphasis on huge muscles at any cost.’ So there’s some of it that is easier. But how it is then tested is that if you are in the general reading stream on the comprehension questions you need 30 out of 40. For the academic comprehension task, you only have to get 23. 23 out of 40 right so the pass mark... because the one I just read out is the easier version. The pass mark on the comprehension test that follows that is you have to do better to be able to reach a level six. Than you would in the academic stream. It goes to the kind of language used not to the level of English required. I expect Peter Dutton was not able to explain that in his conference today because I expect he does not know. I think it is the first time he has spoken about the different streams. I never heard him say a word about it. At the end of the day there is no doubt that we are talking about something that certainly many Australians would not pass and also, very many people who will make good citizens of this country, with the best effort in the world, will never reach. At the moment, if you don’t have conversational English, you’re not going to be able to pass the citizenship test.

SPEERS: What should it be? You obviously think this band six at the general stream is too high.

BURKE: It’s ridiculous.

SPEERS: And I agree what you have read out there, one of the questions at least many would struggle with.

BURKE: That is what you read before you get the questions, based on them. Like a comprehension thing I read the primary part of it.

SPEERS: So what should it be? Because Bill Shorten himself has said only a couple of months ago was said it was, quote ‘reasonable to look at English proficiency standards’ what was he talking about?

BURKE: That’s right. Because we want people to be able to get the best support they can on English skills and that’s why the test is already in English. That’s also why it is important to have the English language training program that the Government pays for, not for every immigrant but for many immigrants to be able to attend. But can I tell you, if you complete that course, it is not meant to get you up to level six. It’s meant to get you up to around a level four. So even the Government training program, with the best will in the world, won’t get you to this standard.

SPEERS: So you’re saying that what Bill Shorten was referring to is more training?

BURKE: Well first of all let's not get over the gotcha moment of that question. The Government had announced, they had given us nothing in writing. No legislation was introduced and so Bill gave an answer about the general principle of yes it’s good for people to be able to speak English. We want to be able to help them. Let's wait until we see the detail. We waited until we saw the detail and what they’ve come up with is ridiculous.

SPEERS: So where should it be?

BURKE: Conversational English.

SPEERS: Keep it where it is?

BURKE: Conversational English is what people need.

SPEERS: Alright so no change?

BURKE: We certainly do need to look at continuing to provide more support for the AMEP program. For that training program. We do need to be able to look at that.

SPEERS: No higher requirement in terms of the English language test?

BURKE: No and there is an extra layer to how it unfolds. The important thing with where it is set at the moment, is if you make an effort you can get there. But if you set English language at a level that some people with the best effort, will never be able to reach. Here is what you guarantee. You get a whole group of people who are already permanent residents, who the Government has already decided they will live here their whole life, who never pledge allegiance to this country. Who are always told they are outsiders. That is a fundamental change in how we operate as a country.

SPEERS: Do you accept that these days, if you are required to be here four years before you can apply for citizenship, your English will improve hopefully during those four years and you should be aiming for higher than basic English?

BURKE: You are already required to be here for four years.

SPEERS: Permanent residency for four years?

BURKE: Right. That is what I am saying. If the issue is the length of time, some people come as a permanent resident, some people come on a temporary visa first, if the issue is on improving your language by being here for a period of time. Why would you make the distinction between those two? What matters is  you’ve had the four years here. The Government has made a decision that you should be here permanently. That is what permanent residence is. The Government doesn’t have to give that to people, they have given that to people and saying a decision has been made, you should be here permanently. Why would you then delay, or for some people permanently prohibit or put beyond their reach, the concept of pledging allegiance to Australia?

SPEERS: I have to say the Government’s view of this is that the requirement for higher English skills is going to only help those people, in terms of their ability to integrate into society and get jobs and so on.

BURKE: If they could reach it. If you set it at a level which is what the current test is, which is why when the Howard government introduced the test, because prior to that, and I was the relevant shadow at the time, prior to that it was possible to just go to the counter with a family member and have no English at all and take on citizenship. And when you have responsibilities like voting and things like that it was a different issue. That’s why we supported that back then because it was at a level people could reach and you were making sure that if you are already here permanently, you were given a pathway to become fully part of Australian society.

SPEERS: And the four year requirement, the permanent residency requirement you’ve got an issue here, as well. It is true though that in Canada it is a four year requirement, five years in the US, Germany it’s eight years of habitual legal residence, Denmark it’s nine years continuous residency. So is four years of permanent residency really that out of line?

BURKE: Two things on this. First of all, as multicultural countries go I reckon we are doing better than any of them. I really do. And I am not sure we should keep taking our lessons from them. Secondly, of all the issues that come before Parliament, citizenship is the one that really the international comparisons do not matter. We decide what sort of country we want to be. And for some of the countries that you’ve referred to, they do have this permanent underclass of people who will never be citizens who will live there forever. I don’t want that to happen to Australia.

Tony Burke