AUSTRALIAN CITIZENSHIP AMENDMENT (CITIZENSHIP TESTING) BILL 2007
Mr CADMAN (Mitchell) (12.48 p.m.)—From my perspective, the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Testing) Bill 2007 has been long awaited.
From the time that I first came in contact with a wide range of ethnic groups and communities around Australia in the mid-eighties, I have been anxious that we really explain to new citizens taking the oath of allegiance that they understand something of the commitment they are making. I think the only way in which we can influence those who want to subvert or change Australia to their own form of dictatorship or dominance and who want to be separate from the bulk of Australians is to have them understand that most Australians really do know what this country stands for and do want to support it and see it prosper. They want to see their families, and the generations who follow, prosper in an open, free and democratic society. The only way in which that can be achieved is through the Citizenship Act and have the Citizenship Act as a basis of understanding: if somebody who has taken the oath seeks to corrupt or ignore, they become answerable to the processes of law.
In my mind a lot hinges on the acceptance and the granting of citizenship. It is a privilege and it is a responsibility rolled into one. Citizenship has a special character. There are the legal aspects of it and then there are the cultural aspects of it. It is the most precious thing Australians can give to others. In granting citizenship, we are saying that we are inviting the new citizen to share in all of the achievements of this nation and contribute not only to the present but also to the future. We are saying, ‘We want to honour you by giving you an equality of citizenship with those of us who were born here and had no choice in our citizenship and those who have come here since and have chosen to take it up.’
How is that done? Some of my forebears were among the first arrivals. They did not have too much choice about coming here. The pioneering spirit of those days often goes unrecognised: the hardships experienced by women and families in remote areas as they carved out a nation from the land, first of all establishing their own survival and then, following that survival, there are the achievements of growth, development and export. Then there is the proud establishment of a nation, often through war, through the striving of brave and courageous Australians as they gave their lives to defend the things that we believe in. Those have been very precious moments in our history and they are very fine achievements. The sharing of that heritage is something that is epitomised and concentrated on in the decision of citizenship. That is the process that has been considered from 1949, with consequential changes until these changes arrived.
I would have to say that I was disappointed with some of the changes that the previous Labor government brought to citizenship. I saw that as weakening the process of commitment to the nation. I thought that was a great shame. It was in part misguided because the Labor Party listened to the argument that people were being required to give up their culture by accepting Australian citizenship. Nothing could be further from the truth. Culture is something personal. Accepting the Australian identity goes beyond culture and is something that encompasses everything; it is the overarching process of living together as an Australian family. Those changes reduced the length of time spent in Australia and changed the oath. It made the acceptance of citizenship something whereby I saw people grabbing it so that they could have a safe haven for their families, often taking free education and our welfare system for granted while they explored economic opportunities elsewhere in the world, mainly in Asia. That lack of commitment was something that I felt was a detrimental step. Since the change of government in 1996, there have been changes that I have basically been very happy with. I am not at all sure at this point whether the dual citizenship decision will serve Australia well in the long run. I have some doubts about whether that was a step in the right direction, although I know it is a popular and international thing to do.
The privileges of citizenship are outlined on the website of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. Under the heading of ‘Privileges and Responsibilities of Australian Citizenship’ it says:
Privileges of Australian Citizens
It entitles you to privileges of Australian citizenship giving you the right to:
• live in Australia
• apply for an Australian passport and to leave and re-enter Australia without applying for a resident return visa
• seek assistance from Australian diplomatic representatives while overseas
• vote to help elect Australia’s governments
• stand for Parliament
• work in the public service
• serve in the armed forces
• register as Australian citizens by descent any of your children born overseas after you become an Australian citizen.
Responsibilities of Australian Citizens
• obey Australian laws
• enrol on Federal and state/territory electoral registers
• vote in elections
• defend Australia should the need arise
• serve on a jury if called to do so.
The step from residency to citizenship gives privileges and responsibilities. As a parliament we are deciding on what additional measures should be in the process other than, after a couple of years, turning up at a ceremony at the local council chambers.
I have been to many citizenship ceremonies and one of the most regrettable factors in citizenship ceremonies that I have observed—not in all of them but in a considerable number—is the wish of those gaining citizenship to grab the certificate and leave the hall as quickly as possible. I know that in some instances family commitments must impose that on people, and often young children are involved, but to see through the whole ceremony and pay tribute to your fellow Australians taking the oath at that time is something I would have thought was fundamental in gaining of citizenship: sharing the celebration. Many of the occasions are done wonderfully by local government. Mostly they are very good. There is some form of entertainment, there is always a supper, or there is a chance to meet local representatives and mix with community representatives who attend and want to welcome people into the Australian family. The wish to get out of there as quickly as possible—get the passport, get the recognition, get the certificate and leave—is something that I think has been detrimental to some of our ceremonies. In this instance it is a building block. It is not complete because there are many elements to the process.
Editorials in newspapers like the Herald Sun are interesting. Regarding agreement to the 20-question citizenship test, the editorial, dated 19 May, says:
If you answered a) you would be correct because there is no reason migrants who want to be citizens should not have a basic knowledge of Australian history and values.
The proposed questions, revealed in the Herald Sun, serve an important purpose. They concentrate the minds of potential citizens on the need to know who we are and why being an Australian is a privilege.
The amendment is approved by a Herald Sun poll of readers—a sample of almost 2,000 people: 72 per cent to 28 per cent. I think that is the general attitude of Australians. Some in the chamber, even within my own party, feel that this is too onerous a task to impose on others, but, when you analyse the citizenship acts of nations from which people have come to Australia, one has to realise that this is just a very modest requirement compared to most. Most of them have at least a four-year wait; most have a more substantial test; most have a more substantial oath than Australia requires. Compared with the citizenship or residency requirements of Greece, Italy, the United States or practically any country in our region, where the commitment of a citizen is substantial, the Australian citizenship requirements need to be substantial as well.
If one looks at the proposals outlined by the parliamentary secretary in September 2006 one sees that there are a number of citizenship tests around the world. The United Kingdom’s test, entitled ‘Life in the UK’, tests a person’s knowledge of the UK and the English language. Applicants are tested on chapters 2, 3 and 4 of the Life in the UK book. Topics covered in the test include migration, the role of women, children, family and young people, population, religion and tolerance, regions of Britain, customs and traditions, systems of government and those sort of things. This test was first introduced into to the UK on 1 November 2005. It is conducted via computer and consists of 24 multiple-choice questions. Applicants are provided with 45 minutes to complete the test. Questions are randomly allocated to applicants from a bank of 200 questions which are refreshed regularly. The pass mark is around 75 per cent but may vary depending on the type of questions asked in each test. There are alternatives to sitting the test and speaking the language. People aged 75 years and over or people with health problems such as long-term illness, disability and mental impairments may be exempt from the test. That is a very simple provision.
In Canada a written test was introduced in 1994, and it replaced oral citizenship interviews. The paper based test consists of 20 multiple-choice questions with applicants recording their answers on a computer based scantron answer sheet. The test takes about 30 minutes to complete. To be eligible for citizenship a person is required to have an adequate knowledge of Canada, of the responsibilities and privileges of citizenship and of one of the official languages—English or French. So there is a double whammy for Canadians about what they should or should not know. There are some exceptions, of course, based on age or infirmity. Examples from the Canadian test include: Who are the aboriginal peoples of Canada? Where did the first European settlers in Canada come from? What does ‘confederation’ mean? They are simple questions that are critical for a basic knowledge of the land that you are making your home.
The Netherlands also has a test. The test was introduced on 1 April 2003. It is a knowledge test, and the components are conducted via computer and contain 40 multiple-choice questions. Applicants are provided with 45 minutes to complete the test. The questions are changed every six months and the pass mark is 70 per cent. There are four modules: listening, speaking, reading and writing. To be eligible for citizenship a person must be sufficiently integrated into Dutch society and the test must be passed before an application for citizenship is lodged. This is just a sample. The United States has had a test since 1980, and it is currently under review. In the US the pass mark is 60 per cent but there is also a requirement for a longer period of residency and a greater strength is placed on permanency under their citizenship laws.
I have picked out just a few of the tests that are required of people taking citizenship from around the world. Australia has decided that we will have a citizenship tests, and I think that is an excellent idea. The test is outlined in the legislation under subsection 21(2). Paragraph (f) has been expanded to include the requirement that an applicant has ‘an adequate knowledge of Australia’ in addition to the requirement that an applicant has an adequate knowledge of ‘the responsibilities and privileges of Australian citizenship’. Subsection 21(2A) states that a person is:
... taken to be satisfied if and only if the Minister is satisfied that the person has, before making the application:
sat a test approved in a determination under section 23A; and
successfully completed that test ...
There is no way for these criteria to be satisfied other that by successfully completing a test. A person applying under subsection 21(2) will not be eligible to become an Australian citizen unless he or she has successfully completed a test prior to applying for citizenship. It also requires the minister to personally approve a test by a determination in writing under a new subsection. That is the basis of it.
There has been all sorts of speculation about what type of test is going to be adopted. I think there is a general understanding in the House that it will be basic and fairly simple and one that those who are students at school certificate level, or something less than that, would understand. It will not be onerous but it will inculcate over a period of time into people gaining citizenship a real knowledge of what it is to be an Aussie.
I am delighted that these changes are being introduced into our Citizenship Act. I had the great pleasure of being with the minister when he met the committee of the migrant resource centre in Parramatta, when there was a free-flowing discussion about citizenship and the proposed changes. I would have to say there was general satisfaction from people from a wide variety of nationalities, many of whom are already Australian citizens, that there would be no offence given to anybody and there would only be genuine acceptance if the minister went ahead, as he outlined the laws on that day. There was a huge understanding from those responsible citizens who work so hard to assist their fellow former migrants or newly arrived migrants that a commitment to Australia is essential and an understanding of English is essential. They understood that, wherever possible, bringing together an understanding of English and a test where people answer basic questions about the character, history, traditions and values of Australia is an absolute, basic requirement for obtaining citizenship.
I am very pleased that the government has moved to provide this test. It will make sure that those who do not seek to accept Australia will have a greater responsibility to understand Australia placed on them and will be required to make a commitment to abide by that basic nationality test. It is a good thing that we are doing today. I commend the opposition for their approval. I have not seen an amendment that is so supportive of a government initiative before, and I am very pleased that they have decided to move an amendment in the terms that they have. (Time expired)
Author: Alan Cadman MP
Source: House Hansard
Release Date: 21 Jun 2007