Opposing Turnbull's Citizenship Changes

Full transcript below:

Mr PERRETT (Moreton—Opposition Whip) (12:17): I rise to speak on the Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Requirements for Australian Citizenship and Other Measures) Bill 2017. I would like to start by acknowledging the fine words of the member for Calwell, Maria Vamvakinou, who has a much greater understanding of citizenship than I will ever have. I thank her for her great words.

There are many ways to become an Australian. Some of us were born here, and we can thank our parents and grandparents for that. Some Indigenous Australians have around 3,250 generations before them, as proud members of the oldest civilisation on earth. Some of us were born elsewhere to parents who were Australian. Some came to Australia later as children or adults choosing to make Australia home. Being born here doesn't necessarily make you a better Australian than someone who has chosen to make their home here. In fact, the opposite is often true. Those Australians who have made a conscious decision to make Australia their home and pledge allegiance to this nation often value their citizenship more than someone who has received it at birth.

Citizenship is important. It has important implications for those who hold it and also, sadly, for those who do not. The preamble to the Australian Citizenship Act 2007 says:

… Australian citizenship represents full and formal membership of the community of the Commonwealth of Australia, and Australian citizenship is a common bond, involving reciprocal rights and obligations, uniting all Australians, while respecting their diversity.

As an Australian citizen, you do not require a visa to live in Australia. You have the right and, in fact, the obligation to vote in elections—not in postal surveys, but in elections. You can access government support programs that aren't available to non-citizens. As Australian citizens, we take for granted these rights and responsibilities. But for those who do not have citizenship, they can be priceless and cruelly out of reach.

Like you, Mr Deputy Speaker, I attend many citizenship ceremonies. In Moreton, they are held regularly. I am always overwhelmed by the excitement and pride displayed by our brand new citizens, these proud new Aussies. In fact, I would say it is the best part of this job to be involved in these citizenship ceremonies. These ceremonies are a chance to celebrate the importance of Australian citizenship, to welcome new Aussies and, for the rest of us and those attending, to reflect on what it actually means to be Australian.

I have had many, many occasions to reflect on what being Australian means to me. These things I hold dear: respect for the rule of law; respect for parliamentary democracy, and a parliament that does its job; and Australian values such as mateship, a fair go for all and offering a helping hand. Having a unique Australian identity which transcends skin colour and religion makes us the most successful multicultural nation in the world. But this piece of legislation, brought in by the Turnbull government, makes sweeping changes to the eligibility requirements for people seeking Australian citizenship. More than that, this bill proposes changes to the definition of what it is to be Australian and what sort of country we will become.

The changes of most concern to me are the new English language test—and I say that as someone who taught English for 11 years and has an honours degree in literature—and the increase in the period of time that permanent residents must live in Australia before they can become citizens. The announcement by Prime Minister Turnbull of these proposed changes has caused immense stress to many residents of Moreton. Moreton is a vibrant, culturally diverse community—and 46 per cent of those who live in Moreton were not born in Australia. Compare that to the whole percentage of those born overseas, which is 28 per cent. Moreton has a large Chinese community, Taiwanese, Indians, former Yugoslavs, Pacific islanders, Somalians, Eritreans, Ethiopians, Sudanese, Rwandans, Filipinos, South Africans, Indigenous Australians, New Zealanders, Fijians, Koreans and Vietnamese, to name a few. The whole Moreton community is much richer, much more vibrant and much more creative and economically strong due to the contribution of these ethnic communities.

My fellow Moretonites are worried that they or their relatives will not be welcome to become Australian citizens—that they will become people who live among us but won't be of us. The two changes that particularly disturb me are the addition of the university-level English language test and the additional time before an application for citizenship can be made. Before becoming eligible to be an Australian citizen you currently need to pass a citizenship test. And guess what? No surprise, but the test is written in English. So to pass the test you first need to be able to understand the English language well enough to read the test. This pernicious bill proposes to add a separate English language test which will assess the standard of English of persons applying for citizenship. Obviously you won't have to take this test if you are from New Zealand, Canada, the United States, England or Ireland.

To pass this new test, it will be necessary to have a standard of English equivalent to that expected of university entrants. It is not a conversational English test; it is a comprehensive test that requires skills in speaking, listening, comprehension and writing. The applicant will need to be able to write an essay to complete this test successfully. The standard required is referred to as IELTS level 6. That is the standard required by some universities for entrance to their courses. That would be a much higher standard than any country in Europe, including Britain. This will make it much harder for people from non-English-speaking countries to become Australian citizens. It will be almost impossible for most adult migrants from non-English-speaking countries to become proficient in English to that standard after completing the 510 hours of English language tuition provided by the government—effectively 13 weeks of full-time study.

There would be many Australians who have lived their whole life in Australia who would not have that standard of English competency. Teachers of language say an adult would need 2,700 hours of tuition—18 months of full-time study—to reach that standard. There is a real risk that requiring a standard unachievable for many migrants—because they will be working rather than sitting in a classroom learning the language—will create a permanent underclass of residents who will never be able to gain citizenship. They will live here, some will work here, but they won't be us. This could be a recipe for disaster. It may well unpick the fabric of our beautiful multicultural society.

The other measure proposed by this Turnbull government bill is to increase the waiting time before being eligible to apply for citizenship. I point out that, even though we're debating this legislation now—we haven't had a vote—this measure has already been implemented before this debate is finalised. How do I know this? Because the department is not currently processing applications. This is an arrogant minister—Minister Dutton—who has made a decision before the parliament has actually voted on the legislation that would implement this policy.

There is already a 4-year waiting time before someone can apply for citizenship. I stress that again: there is a four-year waiting time. What the Turnbull government wants is for migrants to have to wait for four years after they have been granted permanent residency before they can apply for citizenship. This will greatly extend the time they need to live in Australia without being able to pledge allegiance to the nation they call home. Some people initially come here as temporary workers or even students and they may have more than one four-year visa back-to-back and then some long-term temporary visas before they eventually become a permanent. These people could be living in Australia for 10, 12 or 13 years before they are invited to take an oath of allegiance to Australia. The government has already said they can live here as a permanent resident, so why would the government stand in the way of asking them to pledge their allegiance to Australia? It makes absolutely no sense. I think the member for Calwell might have touched on the motivation behind this and I support the member for Calwell. There is an element of racism motivating this legislation.

Is it about national security? Let's have a look. The Turnbull government has definitely tried to wrap these changes up in the cloak of national security. There have been many tranches of legislation that have made changes to national security. This is not one of them. Labor has supported all of those changes and in fact made the amendments much better because of our input. Let me be clear: national security agencies have not recommended these citizenship changes. The recommendations actually came from two NSW members of the Liberal Party: one current serving Senator and a former lower house MP. It has nothing to do with our national security agency. The 4-year waiting time only affects people who have already been granted permanent residency. There are people who have already been cleared to live here permanently. If these people are a national security threat, why are they walking amongst us? It does not make sense.

Last week I held a forum in my electorate so that my community could have their say about these proposed changes by the Turnbull government. The forum confirmed that the Moreton community is very concerned and fearful. I heard from many Moretonites that they're concerned about the new language test in particular. They're concerned that the level of English required will be too difficult for them or their family members ever to achieve Australian citizenship. I also heard—I had not considered this—that women will be particularly disadvantaged by the English language test. Many people come from countries where women are not as well educated as men, and these women would be particularly disadvantaged by having to pass a language test of a standard required for university entrants. While many migrant men will quickly enter the workforce in Australia and have daily contact with other English-speaking workers, often their wives or partners may not have these opportunities. It is much more difficult to become proficient in a language if you are not constantly exposed to conversation or dialogue. I was told that older family members would also be unlikely to pass a university-standard English language test. I was also told that other family members with learning difficulties—for example, dyslexia—will be disadvantaged by this much more difficult, university-level English test.

Not only are these changes to citizenship eligibility fundamentally unfair and unwarranted; they will change the character of this great modern country. I'm not suggesting it's going to be a drastic change like we have seen in The Handmaid's Tale, V for Vendetta in the UK or George Orwell's 1984, but it will fundamentally change who we are as a nation. Who are we? We have a strong and long Indigenous history. Then British institutions were introduced and upon that we have built a great multicultural society. This legislation will fundamentally change that.

This nation was built on migration. Before the White Australia policy was introduced, 29 per cent of our population was born overseas. This percentage fell after the implementation of the White Australia policy—it was the first bit of legislation passed by this parliament, in fact—and it went down to 10 per cent in 1945 or so. Then, following the war, we had the populate or perish policy and we had strong immigration growth. Seven million people arrived after the war. Currently 28 per cent of our population was born overseas. We are a multicultural country that is successful—the most successful on earth, I would suggest.

Language barriers have never stopped migrants being successful in Australia. There are many stories of people running successful businesses, raising children and grandchildren but not being able to speak more than a few basic words of English. At the forum, I had on a panel Lewis Lee, who is a Chinese-Malaysian who came to Australia to study Greek, and also Galila Abdel Salam, who formed the Islamic Women's Association of Queensland 25 years ago. I could give you story after story but, I'm going to tell you about one guy: Peter Carozza the father of a good friend of mine, John Carozza. They came to Australia in 1952 as a boxer,. He came from a little village called San Marco Evangelista, 15 minutes outside Naples. When he arrived, they sent him out to western New South Wales out near Dubbo, where he said the dogs on the property were treated better than him. But he worked hard for two years and then moved to Sydney and then to Brisbane. He went to Brisbane and met his future wife, Beryl, at the Cloudland ballroom.

In 1960, because he was homesick for Italy, he returned home and then decided to come back to Australia. He lived in Coopers Plains, built a house there, then moved to Moorooka and then Sunnybank, where Beryl Carozza lives now. Peter has since died, and I was a pallbearer at his funeral.

Peter raised three children—John, Paul, and Maria—and all three of them are school teachers. Maria is the deputy principal at Runcorn Heights State School. Paul Carozza, many would know, is a great Wallaby, and John Carozza is a very good friend of mine. We've been in a band together. He's a great musician, a great artist, a great filmmaker and a great teacher. I remember this speech from a guy who could speak English. I have heard great speeches in my time, from Kevin Rudd, from Julia Gillard, from Ken Henry at the Press Club and from Obama, but Peter Carozza's speech is one I remember word perfect. At John's 21st, in very poor Italian English he said, 'John, there are times when I wanted to physically hurt you, but you are my son, and I love you.' If we are going to exclude people like Peter Carozza from this place, that is a bad, bad thing for this government to do, and I ask the Prime Minister to reconsider this legislation.

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