SPEECH: Citizenship legislation Senate report - House of Reps

The report by the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee has now come down on the government's changes to the Citizenship Act, and it is absolutely clear now why the government should withdraw the changes that they have in front. When they first put these proposals forward, they asked for public submissions.

They got thousands of public submissions and then they decided to keep them secret. We wondered why that would be. Public submissions ordinarily are public things, but they decided to keep them secret. So the Senate inquiry went through a new exercise in receiving public submissions. They received more than 14,000 submissions. Guess how many were in support of the government's proposal.

 

Two. One of those two was from the department—it's a bit tough for them to put in a submission that's not in favour of the legislation—and the other was from the Monarchist League. They were the only two. There is a reason why the government are in a situation now where their citizenship changes should simply be withdrawn. We have in front of us legislation which should be withdrawn because it deals with a problem that does not exist.

The arguments that they have put forward for it don't stack up, and the arguments against it are overwhelming. There are two principles that the minister puts when he talks about citizenship. When you hear each of them, in the first instance they sound reasonable. One is that you should have to wait four years before you become a citizen. The other is that you should have competent English. They both sound like reasonable arguments. Here is the problem: you already have to be here for four years.

What happens at the moment is: for one of those years, you need to be as a permanent resident, but you have to have been here for four years. Many people come to Australia initially on a temporary visa, and they are often here on consecutive temporary visas before they end up getting permanent residence. The real-life impact is not going from one year to four years, because everyone has to wait four years already. The real-life impact of this will be people waiting in Australia for more than a decade before they are asked to make a pledge to this country. How on earth is that good for the country— to have people living here for more than a decade and not being asked to make a pledge of commitment to Australia?

It's certainly not good for them, and I don't see how it's good for the rest of the country. But the problems with the delay almost pale into insignificance compared to the problems with the English language test. When the minister says, 'You should have to have competent English,' most people would hear that and think, 'That's reasonable. You should have to have competent English.' The problem is that the word 'competent ' as it has been defined in this bill has a very precise legal meaning. It refers to level 6 on the IELTS test, a test created by the University of Cambridge, a test that costs hundreds of dollars to sit, and thousands of dollars to get the training for, to get your English up to that level.

The government provides English-language training. It doesn't get people anywhere near level 6. You can do your 500 hours—and not every visa holder is entitled to that, but some are. Many people will get to level 2. Some people will get to level 4. No-one, through that course, is trained to get to level 6. There is no shortage of people who have been living in Australia their entire lives who would not pass this test at level 6. The minister then says that there are two streams, an academic stream and a general stream, and they're going to use the general stream, not the academic stream. I went to the web page of IELTS, where you can get examples of the test, to test the level. I will read from the comprehension test.

And it's not just a comprehension test—there's a reading test, a listening test, a writing test; you have to be able to write an essay. All these forms of tests are part of getting to a level in IELTS.

This is from the comprehension test:

Calisthenics enters the historical record at around 480 B.C., with Herodotus' account of the Battle of Thermopolylae. 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.

For one, that's not the academic test; that's the easier one. But, where they're both marked, you end up having to get to the same level of proficiency with the English language. But what on earth does that have to do with being a good Australian? What on earth does that have to do with being a decent Australian citizen? We agree that you have to have what people would generally regard as competent English, because there is already a test, and the test is in English. Guess what—if the test is in English, I reckon it's pretty hard to pass if you have no English.

If you asked me to pass a test that was written in a different language, I would struggle, I admit. I would not be able to do it. In the same way, if you don't have conversational-level English, you already can't pass. But, as a demand, university-level English (1) is ridiculous and (2) is an act of extraordinary snobbery that sends a message to every Australian who doesn't have that level of English that this government, if it had the choice, would prefer they weren't here. But here's the catch: not everybody will have to reach university-level English. There are lots of countries in the world that have English as one of their official languages, like India and Singapore.

But there are only five where, if you're a passport holder from one of those countries, this will result in you not having to have university-level English. They are the UK, New Zealand, Ireland, Canada and the United States. It just so happens the five white English-speaking countries are the only countries where, if you're a passport holder from one of those countries, this will result in you not needing university-level English. The minister will say, 'But there are visas that pick out individual countries.' There are lots of visas that are organised on a bilateral basis. For example, there is the backpacker visa.

There are a series of visas that we negotiate, but, as a country, we have never dealt with citizenship in a way that says, 'If you come from any nonwhite English-speaking country, you'll have to have university-level English. But, if you come from a white English-speaking country, it's all okay.' I don't know how many people other than the minister knew about this, but none of them have spoken out. From time to time, some of the members opposite have spoken out about issues like 18C, but when you think of something as prejudiced as the measures within these proposals, why have we heard nothing from the member for Reid, the member for Banks, the member for Bennelong, the member for Chisholm or the member for Deakin?

Why are they so comfortable with the thought of having people in their electorates who know that if these members had their way they'd rather these people had never become citizens. All the bravery that used to be there on those backbenches has disappeared on this. It has disappeared completely. The minister will argue that it's all because of national security. I asked about this when I had my briefing from the department. Normally, I keep briefings from departments confidential, but the minister decided to tell the media about my briefing, so I think I'm pretty much off the hook.

I asked the department, 'Did this come as a recommendation from the ASIO?' No. 'Did this come as a recommendation from the AFP?' No. 'Did this come as a recommendation from any national security agency?' No; it came from none of them. Where did this come from? It was a recommendation from a report written by two people, both of whom happen to be members of the Liberal Party: Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells and Phillip Ruddock. This entire proposal is based on consultation with them only.

When they go out to the rest of the community, they discover it's 14,000 to two. What's in front of us here is a proposal that changes who we are as a country. There are lots of countries in the world that have people who are there as permanent residents who become a permanent underclass of noncitizens. Australia has not been that sort of country ever since we got rid of the White Australia policy. We should not go back to being a country with a permanent underclass of noncitizens, a permanent underclass of people who live here their whole lives but are told they will never belong.

The welcome note that is read out at every citizenship ceremony when people become Australian citizens used to finish with the words 'welcome home'. The moment this government got into office they took those words back. Let me tell you and let me make it clear: citizenship is meant to be the way we build ourselves as a society, not the way we divide.

Tony Burke