Mr GEE (Calare) (11:43): I rise to support the Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Requirements for Australian Citizenship and Other Measures) Bill 2017. As we have heard in this debate, the bill implements the commitment made by the Liberal and National government to strengthen the test for Australian citizenship by putting Australian values first.
Mr McCormack: Hear, hear!
Mr GEE: I note the support of the member for Riverina. I know that this legislation would be warmly supported by not only his electorate and his constituents but also the constituents of the neighbouring Calare, who have shown widespread support for the content of this bill. I have had a number of discussions with constituents who have spoken to me and expressed their support for the government and what they are trying to do with this legislation. I will focus on a few of the facets of this bill this morning. One of the key elements is that it puts into effect requirements that applicants will pledge their allegiance to Australia, undertake to uphold Australian values and demonstrate their contribution to the Australian community. What could be wrong with that?
I see the member for Riverina nodding in agreement.
Australian citizenship is highly sought after, and people from all around the world seek to become Australian citizens, to build and share in our prosperous and modern society. And we are a warm and inclusive society. Since 1949, more than five million people have chosen to become Australian citizens. We have welcomed people from all over the world, and the Calare electorate is no exception. I know—I regularly attend our citizenship ceremonies, from those in our largest cities like Bathurst and Orange to those in our smaller communities like Molong, and, without exception, those citizenship ceremonies are warm, and those new Australians are left in no doubt that not only are they welcomed but also their contribution to our country communities is very warmly welcomed and highly regarded.
The success of our nation is based on our shared values, rights and responsibilities, and the measures contained in this bill will help us build on this success. It puts into effect requirements that applicants will pledge their allegiance to Australia, undertake to uphold Australian values and demonstrate their commitment to Australia and its communities. It will ensure that we as a nation continue to welcome new Australians who are committed to making a positive contribution to their communities. It incorporates a number of key integrity measures to ensure that people who are granted citizenship in this country meet the key standards that the Australian public expect of our citizens.
The new measures have come about because of the government's 2015 National Consultation on Citizenship, and its Australian citizenship: your right, your responsibility report. This report indicated that there was very strong support in the community for strengthening the citizenship test.
The key changes to strengthening the requirements for citizenship include: increasing the general residence requirement, from one year as a permanent resident to at least four; introducing a stand-alone English test involving competent reading, writing, listening and speaking; and strengthening the citizenship test itself with new questions that will assess an applicant's understanding of and commitment to our shared values and responsibilities. There is a need for prospective citizens to sign an Australian values statement which makes explicitly clear those things that all Australians hold dear, and they include: respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual; freedom of religion; commitment to the rule of law; parliamentary democracy; equality of men and women; equality of opportunity for individuals, regardless of their race, religion or ethnic background; and the English language, as the national language, as an important unifying element of Australian society. That list aligns with the values of constituents in Calare and, indeed, in Australia generally, and I do not see how anyone could take issue with those values being highlighted to prospective citizens.
As I've said, the bill also requires aspiring citizens to demonstrate English language competence, through listening, speaking, reading and writing. This enables prospective citizens to become more integrated into our communities, and it obviously has advantages in helping to gain and maintain employment—and not only in that but also in assisting in building those important social links with other Australians. A 2016 report by the Productivity Commission backs this up, with its finding that English language proficiency is important for positive settlement and integration outcomes.
The bill also sets out an increase in the general residence requirements prior to Australian citizenship. As I have noted already, prospective citizens will be required to demonstrate a minimum of four years of permanent residence in Australia immediately prior to their application for citizenship, with a maximum of 12 months outside of Australia during this period. This will enable greater scrutiny of potential citizens and their potential integration into our communities, as well as an increased ability to assess their adherence to our values and laws. This integration includes a range of activities that align with the values that have been outlined earlier. They include sending children to school, seeking employment, earning income and paying tax, and contributing to the Australian community.
The increase in the years required for permanent residency will also bring Australia more in line with the general residency requirements of similar countries. The current requirements mean that only aspiring citizens over 18 years of age are required to meet the good character requirements, which involve a criminal history check, and this bill will amend those provisions and will require all applicants, including those under 18, to be of good character. As the minister pointed out when he introduced this bill to the House, only a small number of people would fail to meet that requirement, but the reality is, if you are seeking Australian citizenship, which is a huge privilege, and you have been involved in violence or crime, even if you're under 18, most Australians would say you should not be eligible for citizenship. So, if you've been involved in violence or gang violence, this provision is designed to make sure that people like that aren't able to become Australian citizens. It's extending the bar on approval for criminal offences to all citizenship application streams, and it amends the offence provisions to reflect modern sentencing practices. Australians can rest assured that these amendments reinforce the integrity of our citizenship program, at a time when national security is at the forefront of people's minds.
The bill expands the cancellation powers and provides that approval must be cancelled if the minister is no longer satisfied of an applicant's identity. It provides for the revocation of citizenship where a person became a citizen as the result of fraud or misrepresentation. Most Australians, including those in country New South Wales, would say, 'Well, what is wrong with that?'
Many would also query why the opposition would not be supporting this bill. There are many examples of those on the opposite side of the aisle being hypocritical on this issue. The member for Watson is on the record as saying we need stricter English language requirements and we should be asking potential citizens to commit to Australian values and abiding by Australian laws. The Leader of the Opposition himself has said:
I think it is reasonable to look for English language proficiency, and I think that it's reasonable to have some period of time… before you become an Australian citizen.
So hypocrisy is rife on the opposition benches, as it often is.
Mr McCormack: Writ large.
Mr GEE: Sadly, it is writ large, as the member for Riverina points out, on the opposition benches, and it's this churlish and negative approach to the legislative agenda which has become a hallmark of the parliament and the way the opposition is approaching the passing of legislation in this House. They are hypocrites on this issue, and sadly they're also weak on national security, which is, I think a disturbing development which will concern many Australians.
But the reality is this bill does have widespread community support. It's certainly supported in the Calare electorate, and I would like to commend the hardworking minister on bringing this bill forward into this place. I commend him and I commend this bill to the House.