Citizenship changes based on politics of fear

Published on Thu 10 August 2017 11:17am

You cannot make something true simply by saying it, irrespective of the language in which it is said. This bill is not about strengthening Australian citizenship; it is about this government, in a time of weakness, using our citizenship to make a show of being tough.

Mr Wilson (11:17am) — This is an important debate. I am glad to have the opportunity to speak as a representative of a place that is resolutely multicultural, a meeting place and a place of arrival—a place that has welcomed new Australians from all corners of the world for more than a century, and a significant meeting place for thousands of years before that. I am glad for this opportunity because Fremantle is a community that has struggled with questions of identity and inclusion in the past and has sometimes got those things wrong in the past—most grievously in relation to Indigenous Australians, but also in relation to new migrants. That struggle and that effort goes on, as it should. The need for greater inclusion and especially for reconciliation with Indigenous Australians continues, and it would be better for this parliament and this government to focus on those challenges rather than to seek to change our approach to citizenship in a way that is exclusionary.

In his second reading speech on the Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Requirements for Australian Citizenship and Other Measures) Bill 2017, the minister said:

Australians come from every culture, every race, every faith and every nation. Together we have built a modern and prosperous Australia. The success of our nation is based on our shared values, rights and responsibilities.

We might each express the elements of our multicultural success slightly differently, but I don’t think any of us would fundamentally disagree with that statement. The minister also said that we should never take that success for granted, and I agree, yet that is exactly what this bill does, by introducing changes that add nothing and that create nothing but instead are exclusionary, unwelcoming, discriminatory and distrustful. They are changes that will licence intolerance, especially in relation to people whose first language is not English.

Changes to Australian citizenship should not be pursued or brought forward in this way, through an approach to lawmaking that is partisan, bad in process and bad in spirit. Australian citizenship should not be knocked around by changes that are substantially purposeless, changes that will do harm and will likely have an effect that is the opposite of the bill’s stated intention, and changes that are contrary to our values. You cannot make something true simply by saying it, irrespective of the language in which it is said. This bill is not about strengthening Australian citizenship; it is about this government, in a time of weakness, using our citizenship to make a show of being tough.

Citizenship is not a matter of administrative efficiency or service delivery or the allocation of resources. Citizenship is about identity and culture. Citizenship is a matter of profound significance to the individual. It’s not too difficult to understand that. I would hope that all of us in this place, in addition to understanding it intellectually, might make an effort to understand it emotionally too. I know of people for whom achieving Australian citizenship has been a life saver, for whom crossing that threshold meant passing into a state of long-awaited and almost unimaginable security, peace of mind, acceptance and belonging. Of course, that brings with it thankfulness and even, I think, a secular experience of grace, a sense of the world as a place in which peace and freedom and equality and wellbeing can be a normal, stable, state of affairs. Not surprisingly, from this experience there often springs a desire to be involved, to contribute, to bond and to give back.

In my former role as Deputy Mayor of Fremantle, I had the privilege of presiding over citizenship ceremonies from time to time, and I regularly attend those ceremonies now. I think it is characteristic of Australia that our civic rituals are quite plain and relaxed with little in terms of pomp and usually a line somewhere along the way of good humour and even self-deprecation. At the city of Cockburn, the Reverend Sealin Garlett always gives a wise, down-to-earth and moving welcome to country. Naturally, he has a perspective that gathers all of those who have come to this continent from across the water into a sequence of relatively recent arrivals. He always speaks to the new citizens in the language of our country, the language of the Noongar people of the Wajuk nation, and he translates into English too, which is helpful for us those of us who don’t speak one of the many Australian languages.

Like all aspects of our national identity, our citizenship evolves. While citizenship carries with it a set of mutual rights and obligations, and while it rightly presumes a commitment to common values, it is also an ever-changing sum of all those who share in it, and every person who takes citizenship is equal in holding that status. I think it is worth observing that the nature of having and the process of acquiring citizenship are rich with ironies. For Indigenous people, the idea that a fourth- or fifth- or sixth- or seventh-generation Australian might regard their citizenship as going miles deep into the bedrock of this nation probably seems to lack a certain amount of temporal perspective. While there might be a tendency to regard a person born into Australian citizenship as possessing a more fundamental Australian character than a person who migrates to this country, in reality it is the new arrival who has made an active decision to be a member of this community. It is the new citizen who has made an explicit commitment to citizenship. No-one who has it from birth takes a test or is required to make an oath of allegiance.

On the surface, this bill is about extending the time frame in which citizenship can be sought and achieved. It is about making the language requirements more difficult. It is about changing the way we test and assess the values and allegiance of prospective citizens. On that question of delay, no particular reason has been given as to why this change is for the better. There is no evidence or advice from security agencies that argues for this change. It is already the case that citizenship processes have been slowed down administratively under this government. I am sure that every person in this place has been approached in the last year by people who cannot understand the delay that exists between completing the requirements and having citizenship granted.

As a result of the government’s posturing on migration and citizenship policy, people around this country have been put into a state of anxiety. People are worried that they won’t be able to become citizens. They’re worried that the government will further change migration law, which is a fair concern based on recent experience, and that their place here, their safety here, in this, their new home, will be imperilled. Again, I would encourage people to imagine what that anxiety must be like.

The proposed change to English language requirements is being justified on the basis of some pretty common-sense observations by the Productivity Commission to the extent that English language skills help people participate more fully in Australian life, which is also good for the economy. There’s no evidence that university-level English is needed for that to occur. If the government were genuine about helping new migrants and new citizens to improve their English, it would do better to provide more-flexible and higher quality resources for this to occur. To the extent that a tougher English test will function as a general obstacle and an obstacle that discriminates against people from non-English-speaking countries, against women, against single parents and against people who choose to live in rural or regional Australia, it is ridiculous and it is wrong.

From the contributions of my colleagues—I am thinking specifically of the contribution by Labor’s deputy leader, the member for Sydney—and from my engagement with civil society groups that support new migrants, I know that the proposal to seriously toughen the English language test will have the effect of keeping people from acquiring Australian citizenship. I am aware of migrants from war-torn countries who now live in the south-west of WA. They have become close and active members of their local communities, but their opportunity to receive English language education is limited. The only Australian Migrant English Program class in Mount Barker, for example, is available for 3½ hours per week. It covers all levels from pre-cert I up to cert III. That is less than one hour per level.

The fact is that both the curriculum and the current resourcing of the AMEP are not sufficient to enable people to acquire English skills at the IELTS 6 level, and there is no logic in requiring that standard of proficiency. Under this bill, we can be confident that the kind of change this bill proposes will licence the kind of prejudice that sees people shout ‘Speak English!’ at new migrants, or at people with an accent or at anyone who sounds a little different. It is that kind of conduct, it is that kind of aggression, that is fundamentally un-Australian.

It is hard to know where to start in relation to the changes that are supposed to make people conform more strenuously to Australian values, or else through some test or life assessment trip up those who might have slipped through with incompatible values. I think it is worth observing that you can’t make anyone hold a particular value simply by making them say it. If a test requires people to do one thing or another in pursuit of something they want to achieve, chances are they will find a way to give the right answers. But the manner in which any society decides to test or assess—or even assert—national values says a lot about that society’s confidence and trust in those values.

I strongly believe that Australian values, which are enduring but not immutable, actually include being welcoming, trusting, open to change and outward-looking. I am personally confident that the Australian way of life speaks for itself, that it is compelling on its own terms and that it doesn’t need to be taught or memorised.

This question of pursuing a higher degree of allegiance, for what it’s worth, has made me reflect on my experience in other places. I went to junior high school in Long Island, New York, in the mid 1980s, and every morning the school day began with students standing to pledge allegiance to the American flag. I was only in school for less than a year, but I can still recite the pledge, which I am just quoting, not pledging, when I say:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

As an Australian, I did not stand or take that pledge, but after a few weeks my home room teacher asked me if I would consider doing so. She said that it was making the kids uncomfortable, even though I explained I did not think it was really appropriate as a visiting Australian. I was a 12-year-old, and I agreed to stand out of respect and in order to fit in. But it did make me wonder how much the other students really understood the purpose and meaning of the pledge and why it was that even mild and easily-explained nonconformity created so much discomfort. I have affection for the United States; it is, still, a substantially open and pluralist society. It is increasingly multicultural and it contains multitudes. It is not for me to question how America chooses to practice civic rituals and observances. But I think it is fair to say that notwithstanding that daily pledge, there isn’t, demonstrably, more liberty or more justice in the US than in Australia or in other similar social democracies.

Here in Australia, to become a citizen you make a pledge or take an oath. I think that the text of that commitment is a simple and true expression of Australian values and of the rights and responsibilities that come with citizenship. I am quite certain, however, that making such a pledge more frequent, or extensive or vehement will have no particular effect on people’s values or their allegiance. At citizenship ceremonies, I have had the honour of reading that text and asking people repeat it after me. I have watched on the faces of men, women and children the joy, and sometimes the enormous relief, as they become Australian citizens. I am quite certain the form of their pledges and the standard of their language skills make them eminently suitable new Australians. Needless to say, I oppose this bill and I will support Labor’s amendments.

To finish, I want to return to what I said at the beginning about the ways in which the Fremantle community has previously dealt with the issues of identity and inclusion. During the course of the Second World War, it was decided that people from certain countries should be classed as enemy aliens. In Fremantle, that included residents with Italian heritage even if they had been born in Australia or long naturalised. By August 1940, more than 1,000 Italians in Western Australia, many of them from Fremantle, had been interned. By 1944, there would be nearly 1,500. They were held at Rottnest Island and in Fremantle jail, before many were moved to a bush camp at Harvey. Those men were removed from their families for years. In many cases, their shops and businesses were ruined. Even those who were allowed to stay in the community were prevented from leasing or buying land; obtaining bank loans; travelling; or owning torches, radios, cameras, trucks and tractors. The effect of this policy—where we turned on ourselves, gave into fear and prejudice and irrationally treated people as enemy aliens—is still felt in the Freo community today. Let’s not drift down that path again. Let’s be very careful not to take the success of our tolerant, multicultural nation for granted.

In the end, there is simply no case for the changes the government has proposed in this bill. Claims that the bill is about improving national security are without basis. Such claims should not be made. I have heard members opposite start their contribution to this debate by saying the government’s primary role is to keep Australians safe. This bill has nothing to do with that—nothing. I repeat: there is no security analysis or advice on which these proposed changes are based, they do not respond to a present danger and they will not make Australians safer. Anyone who spouts that rubbish is kidding themselves; they are perpetrating a fraud on their communities and on Australia more broadly. The politics of fear is really the politics of desperation, of cowardice.

Australian citizenship belongs to us all. It is precious as a matter of individual and collective identity. Its meaning is self-evident. The values inherent in Australian citizenship are transmitted in part through our confidence that fairness, tolerance, freedom and equality do not need to be rote learned or drilled in because they speak loudly for themselves.

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