SPEECH: Parliament House; House of Representatives Debate - The Government's unfair changes to Australian Citizenship Legislation



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Mr Speaker, thank you for being in the chair during this debate, and—I am not sure if I'll get him for the whole of the speech—I thank the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection for being at the table at this point as well. The concept of Australian citizenship is effectively how we define what it is to be Australian. There's lots of legislation that will go back and forth in this parliament where people will have strong and passionate views, and a lot of those issues will be relevant to what sort of country we are. But it's rare that we have a debate that is about quite directly defining what it is to be Australian. The changes that the government is proposing do very much change the definition of what it is to be Australian and change the definition of what sort of country we will be.

I was the shadow minister in this portfolio when the Howard government were in place and they made changes to citizenship. When they did, we were able to support the changes that they made. The changes that are in front of us now are of an altogether different order. The changes that are in front of us now represent a fundamental change in the sort of community Australia will be. People tried to make these points to the government when the government first released its discussion paper, and people made submissions to the government, but the government decided to keep those submissions secret. The government decided that what the Australian people had said in response to its ideas should not be allowed to be known, and so the government then introduced legislation.

Labor, during this whole process, played a responsible role. We said: 'The concept of more people speaking English—if that's something that the government's got a way of doing—may well be a good thing. Let's have a look at the legislation when it comes. We reserved our judgement. During that time of reserving our judgement, the minister kept taunting, thinking, 'Maybe there's going to be some sort of division within the Labor Party on this issue.' Once we saw the legislation, once this government put these changes in writing, Labor were able—within a few days, at our next caucus meeting—to resolve unanimously that we will oppose these changes. There are a whole series of changes in the Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Requirements for Australian Citizenship and Other Measures) Bill 2017. Some of them may well turn out to be more routine; some of them may well turn out to be reasonable, and the whole thing will be referred to a Senate inquiry. But there are two changes here that, in the way they are being implemented, are fundamentally unfair and change the character of the country.

I have to say: they are not the issues that the government ran on when they first made the announcement. When they first made the announcement, the argument from the government was to say that the big shift they were making was that they were going to start introducing all these values questions. Then they put questions out there and provided them to the papers. Of course, all of those questions were already available under the current legislation, and the government of the day can change those questions whenever it wants without coming back to the parliament. So that's not going to be the issue that's before the parliament. But the parliament will have to decide whether or not a large number of potential citizens will be here for more than a decade before they are ever asked to pledge allegiance to Australia.

They will be here for more than a decade before Australia ever says to them, 'You are welcome here.'

And that's the first of the changes I want to talk about: the delay. Labor is opposing this bill because of two key elements: the delay and the English language test. On the delay: the government puts it forward by saying, 'Look, we're just changing it from one year to four years.' Most people, when they hear that think, 'Well, waiting four years doesn't sound completely unreasonable.' What the government doesn't say is that there is already a four-year wait. There is already a requirement to wait four years before you apply for citizenship. That's because it takes into account the real-life experience that happens for a very large number of people who end up becoming citizens of this country—they arrive on their first visa as a temporary visa. There is a very large number of people who want to apply for permanent residency, but are only eligible at first for a temporary visa and gradually find a pathway to permanence.

Now, the argument from the government about why they wait for four years is, they say, 'Well, that's a reasonable length of time for the country to get to know the person and for the person to get to know the country.' But that is already delivered; that's already there. And because so many people arrive on a temporary visa first, what this change means is that if you end up, as many people do, on one or two temporary work visas or one or two temporary student visas, or a mixture of both, you will have been here, easily, for eight years before you get your first year of permanent residence. But instead of being able to apply for citizenship at that point, the response from the government is that you have to wait until you have been here for more than a decade in the real-life experience.

Now, what does that mean from the perspective of the country? It means there is a conscious decision from this government to delay people pledging allegiance to Australia when it has already been decided they will permanently be here. There is a deliberate decision by this government to tell somebody who we have said will be here permanently, that they are not yet fully welcome for a longer period of time. I don't, for the life of me, see how that is in the interests of the individual or in the interests of the country, to increase the number of people living here who do not pledge allegiance to Australia.

I can't see how that's clever. I can't see how that's good for the national security arguments that the government tries to appropriate in this debate. How does it make sense to have a situation where somebody will have to wait for that length of time, living here in Australia the whole way through—us knowing them and us having decided they are here permanently—but then adding a further delay? And of course we have all heard the cases of people who were ready to apply and have now been told, 'No, you might have thought you were eligible, but the government has decided to implement this law before it has passed the parliament and delay your citizenship anyway.' --

I understand that we do that with tax law all the time because with tax law, if you are going to change it and you do not make the change immediately, the danger is that people will reorganise their tax affairs to be able to avoid the taxation. But what was the risk here when the government decided that this would be retrospective? The risk was that people who were eligible for Australian citizenship might apply. People who were eligible and legally able to become Australian citizens might apply, and that was the risk that has caused this government to implement, without any legislative authority, the law that is now before us—the bill that is now before us. But the delay only gets us part of the way, because that is a temporary change in terms of the impact that it has on people's lives. It is something that is not in Australia's interest and not in their interests, but eventually they get to become citizens.

The change to the English language test is fundamental. When I have spoken at community forums I have had people interject, saying that it sounds like a dictation test—and we all know what they are referring to when they make that reference. The change to the English language test is huge. The minister, in his speech and in his interviews, has said, 'Well, we're requiring a competent level of English.' I think most people, if they hear that, think, 'Well, yeah, that sounds reasonable; yeah, your English should be competent.' And most people would believe their own levels of English are competent. But of course under this bill, 'competent English' has a very specific and precise legal meaning.

It refers to level 6 of the IELTS test—the level of English required for an overseas student to get into university. Some universities have even lower levels. That's the level of English that is being required. It is an extraordinary act of snobbery for this government to claim Australia only wants you if you are at university level. That does not just send a message to potential immigrants, that does not just send a message to potential citizens but it sends a message to a whole lot of people who were born here, who have lived in Australia their whole lives, who will never reach university-level English, that this government reckons they are second-class. University-level English: why would a normal Australian come up with that? Well, they would not, but an elitist snobbish government has brought that to the parliament.

Those opposite already effectively have an English language test because the test which the Howard government put in place, which the government of the day can update the questions on whenever they want, is a test in English. So if you cannot complete a test in English, you do not get to become a citizen. But the level of English required at the moment is conversational English, and most people, myself included, view that as reasonable. To have to have conversational-level English is good for the country and good for the citizen. It means that individual will be able to much more easily engage when they are shopping, engage when they are dealing with government services and engage when they need to report something. Conversational-level English is a completely reasonable requirement. But you do not need to change the law for that because that has been there since the days of the Howard government.

The IELTS test is not a conversational-level English test. It is a test that looks at speaking, listening, comprehension, writing—you need to be able to write an essay. How many times does the Prime Minister try to associate himself with the Snowy Mountains Scheme without ever once acknowledging that, at the same time, he has got a law in this parliament that would mean a large number of the people who built that scheme would never have been accepted as Australian citizens? How many members of this parliament have parents who would not reach university-level English and yet are currently contemplating voting for legislation that would mean their own parents would not have been able to become Australian citizens?

Once you set the English language test at a level that some people will never meet, you guarantee something we have not previously seen in Australia for generations because, at the moment, everybody who is a permanent resident is in some way on a pathway to citizenship. But once you set it at a level that some people, with the best efforts and the best of intentions, will never be able to reach, you establish a new underclass of people in this country, who will go through their entire working life in Australia without ever being told they belong, without ever being able to pledge allegiance to this country, when the country has said 'You should be here as a permanent resident, but we are going to let you go through your entire working life without you ever saying you pledge to this country and without us ever saying you belong.'

Lots of countries in the world do have a permanent underclass of noncitizens. We do not and we should not. And the only thing that is standing between that change and how Australia works now is this bill. Some people say, 'Well, university-level English, is it that hard?' I have read this about five times. I am better at it now than I was at first—I bumbled this on TV a few times. Let me read to you an example of the IELTS test. It is based in Cambridge University. You can go online and find different sample tests. They are all to this level of complexity.

“Calisthenics enters the historical record at around 480 B.C., with Herodotus’ account of the Battle of Thermopylae. Herodotus reported that, prior to the battle, the god-king Xerxes sent a scout party to spy on his Spartan enemies. The scouts informed Xerxes that the Spartans, under the leadership of King Leonidas, were practicing some kind of bizarre, synchronised movements akin to a tribal dance … 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.”

What on earth does that have to do with being a good Australian? What on earth does that have to do with whether or not you should be able to pledge allegiance to this country?

Who can honestly argue that a test like that should be a requirement for whether or not you pledge allegiance to Australia? That is an act of snobbery—nothing more, nothing less. And when I first raised university-level English, the minister came back and said, 'Oh: no, no, no! Tony Burke is wrong, because there's a university stream of the IELTS and there's a general stream of the IELTS and we'd use the general stream.' The one I just read from is from the general stream. That's the easier one; that's the easier passage. But the difference between the university stream and the general stream isn't the complexity of the testing when you get to the final mark, it's the language that's used. So the university stream would be more likely to use language that you'd find at university and the general stream uses language like that which I have just read to the House. That's the difference between the two. But the level of proficiency represented by the IELTS 6 is exactly the same. The level of proficiency is still the university level of proficiency.

If that were the standard alone, it would be pretty bad, but there is something else that has been snuck in, which you can find in the explanatory memorandum and which I have to say is straight-out offensive. Not every potential citizen is going to have to pass that test. Not everybody is going to have to reach university-level English. If you are applying for citizenship and you are a passport holder of certain countries, the minister has flagged that you will be okay. There are many countries in the world, something like 50, that have English as one of their official languages. But guess which the five countries are that they have flagged in the explanatory memorandum, that if you are a passport holder of one of those countries you won't have to pass the English test? New Zealand, the United States, Canada, Ireland and the UK. It just so happens that of all the countries in the world that have English as one of their official languages, Singapore doesn't make the cut and India doesn't make the cut. But the five countries deemed as a majority population that is white are the five countries listed in the explanatory memorandum from where you won't have to pass the English language test.

I do not know how on earth members of parliament on that side who are here representing seats representing multicultural communities—where they are here as the representatives of people in their local area—could vote for that. How on earth could the minister? I have arguments with the minister at different times, but I've got to say that I didn't think he was capable of this one! What possesses someone to say, 'You need university-level English unless you come from one of the five white countries where English is an official language'? That is what is in front of us. That is what is in front of the parliament.

I met a couple at one of the community meetings in Perth and he said to me, 'I was a highly sought-after skilled migrant.' He is not a citizen yet. He said to me: 'Canada wanted me and Australia wanted me. I chose here, and I love it here. But what I now realise that I did not realise when I was coming here is that because of the English language test I will get to be a citizen and my wife won't.' He said, 'If I'd known there was going to be different treatment of us as a couple—it breaks my heart to say it—but I would have chosen Canada.'

What the government is doing here will divide which family members get to become Australians and which don't. It will divide people based not on their proficiency of English in the first instance but on what country they came from.

I'm not going to pretend for a minute, and I do not believe for a minute, that every member opposite believes in this sort of stuff, but I do suspect they are currently intending to vote for it. This is much more offensive than what we were dealing with 18C and racial hate speech, and that was pretty offensive. That was arguing whether or not people in the street, in the public square, would be allowed to say something racist. This is about whether we entrench those views in the law of Australia. This is of another order altogether.

Now, I should acknowledge the arguments that the government have put. They put two arguments. They've said this is about national security and this is about integration. I want to deal with each of those two in turn. In the first instance: national security legislation, when it comes to this parliament, is dealt with very seriously. It is referred to the intelligence committee, and we do everything we can to provide bipartisan support. So when I had my briefing from the department—normally I wouldn't refer to briefings from the department because I view that confidentiality very seriously, but the minister then went and started talking about my briefing from the department and so I really think it's my obligation to open that up—I asked, 'Was this a recommendation from ASIO?' No. 'Was this is a recommendation from the Australian Federal Police?' No. 'Was this a recommendation from any of our defence or security agencies?' No. I said, 'Well, where did it come from?' It's a recommendation from a report by two members of the Liberal Party: Senator Connie Fierravanti-Wells and Philip Ruddock. National security advice does not come from them. But, moreover, how can it be a national security issue if everybody applying for citizenship is already here and already a permanent resident? If they are a security problem, what are they doing here? This is not about national security, and national security issues—which are important, which are serious, and there are real threats—should not be thrown around with a debate that is irrelevant to it.

The government has also argued it's about integration. Well, let's look at this in two ways. First of all, integration is important. I think 'assimilation' is a dreadful word; 'integration' is a good one. Assimilation is about people losing their identity. Integration is about people keeping their identity, who they are, and it's weaving together the fabric of a community and a nation. That's integration. Integration is a good thing. This is the opposite of integration. Integration is not when you establish a permanent underclass of noncitizens. Integration is when you bring people together, not divide them. And there is a provision with integration, not often spoken about, where the government wants to claim, 'Oh well, but setting a high standard gets people to work harder to become citizens, to keep trying to get to that threshold.' If that was the case, why is it that, buried in this legislation, if you fail the test three times you're not even allowed to apply for another two years? How is that about integration?

What's in front of the parliament in this bill is a huge and fundamental change. It is not lost on members of the community how significant it is. On many issues, from time to time, we launch online petitions to see if there's much take-up, to see what sort of interest there is from the community. I started the online petition once Labor had fallen into position on this. It hasn't been that long, it's been a bit over a month, but in that time we've had 27,000 people sign the petition to make clear that they do not want the change—there are more folders, but you won't be able to see me; I will disappear, buried beneath the folders.

There is a huge community outcry, including from people who when they first heard the government talk about this thought it might probably be OK, but what people have started to realise is the government is changing expectations in ways that mean they wouldn't have got to be Australians, that mean their neighbours who are good citizens wouldn't be Australians, that mean their parents wouldn't have been welcomed here. That is a huge change. And also they realise now that it cannot possibly be good for integration or good for national security to have a permanent group of people for their whole working lives being told actively by the government that they don't belong.

One of the things you get to do when you are minister for citizenship is put forward a message that is read at every citizenship ceremony. The character of those messages always reflects the minister of the day. I have never seen a dreadful one. The one from the current minister has some good moments in it. There was a line that I had in my very brief time as minister for citizenship that was taken away immediately at the change of government, and I think it's significant to point to it now because, if that line had been kept in, I don't know how anyone could have contemplated the legislation that is before us now. It was shorter than most citizenship messages. It just said: 'In a few moments time Australia becomes a better nation. Your decision to make the citizenship pledge sees you take on the privileges and responsibilities of Australian citizenship. From that moment your journey and heritage will become part of our shared Australian story. Australia welcomes you as a full member of one of the most diverse nations on earth, where our citizenship is a bond which unites us all. Australia welcomes you and the talents, diversity and vitality that you bring to Australia. Today your new nation says to you, "Welcome home."' The words 'welcome home' disappeared the moment there was a change of government, and we have legislation before us now that says to a whole lot of people, 'You're not welcome and it's not home.'

If you do that on the basis of a security assessment, we are there with you, but, if you do it on the basis of a snobbish attitude to university levels of English, we will fight you. You do it on the basis of having exemptions for people from particular nations that you have decided are OK? We will fight you. You do it in a way where people—good people who had already decided to be here permanently—were excited, looking forward to putting their citizenship application in and then discovered in the blink of an eye that they had been told, 'No, you're not welcome for another three years'? We will fight you. You bring in legislation that has nothing to do with national security and claims that it does? We will fight you every step of the way. You bring in legislation claiming that something is about integration when it delivers the exact opposite of integration by establishing a permanent underclass of noncitizens? We will fight the government every step of the way on this.

We have seen moments of bravery from members of the backbench opposite. We have seen moments of bravery on an issue that the House has been discussing and has been in the media this week. We saw moments of bravery last year with respect to 18C and racial hate speech. I hope we can get some bravery from those opposite who are willing to say they are proud of modern multicultural Australia and they will not let this minister wreck it. I want to see some bravery from those opposite who will say that conversational-level English matters and that university-level English is ridiculous, who will say that we should be a nation where, if someone has been decided that they will be a good Australian and we've decided by making them permanent residents that they will be a good Australian, we will say to them, 'Welcome home.'

It's not often that the parliament actually defines what it is to be an Australian, but we're about to do that, and for many members of parliament it might not be the most high-profile vote they have, but it will be one of the most significant. I urge members of parliament to oppose the bill.



Tony Burke