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I rise to support this Bill and add my contribution to the Parliamentary Secretary’s remarks on the three themes of these reforms: strengthening program integrity, underlining the importance of connection to Australia, and improving decision-making.
It is an honour to address the chamber in the 65th anniversary of Australian Citizenship.
The inauguration of the Australian Citizenship Act in 1949 was a key marker of our development as a fully-fledged, independent country accepting migrants on its own terms.
Through our strong Australian Citizenship programme, Australia has seen such notable national treasures as renowned ballet dancer Li Cunxin, Aussie rock legend Jimmy Barnes and South African born author J. M. Coetzee have come to our shores and contributed immeasurably to our national life.
Citizenship is the tool by which we invite the best and brightest from all over the world to join our national story and contribute to our shared community life. For that reason, it should be treasured, celebrated, and upheld.
In the succeeding sixty-five years, our nation has been strengthened by the diverse contribution of those from all walks of life. However, in our diversity a common thread of commitment to Australian values such as mateship, egalitarianism and a fair go for all unites us in our citizenship.
We must uphold the strength and integrity of Australian Citizenship so that we can preserve it as the significant treasure in our national life that it has been over the past six and a half decades.
It is a treasure from which my electorate of Barton has benefited immensely, with 48.3% of people resident in the electorate born outside of Australia.
Many of these residents have embraced the Australian life fully in adopting Australian citizenship.
Those who have attained Australian citizenship after being born overseas in my electorate are always expressing to me the high value they place on the decision to bring them into the fold of this community. None take their citizenship likely. All see the assumption of citizenship as an expression of devotion to that country, as a willingness to build the nation and to become a full and proud member of a community.
It is because of this high value that we place on citizenship and the immense treasure it has represented in our modern life that we must, in our discussions around Australian citizenship, never forget three clear principles:
The first is that citizenship is not merely a marker of our diversity and difference; it is a sign of a common inheritance and commitment to shared values.
The second is that Australian citizenship is a privilege, not an entitlement.
It should not be seen as an automatic outcome of the migration process, but a special and specific recognition that an individual shares in our common life as Australians.
The third is that when it is granted by other than descent, Australian citizenship is not granted unconditionally, but is granted because of adherence to certain conditions and character requirements.
If it arises that these conditions were never met, it is open to the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection to revoke citizenship.
These three principles guide the amendments to the Act which were ably presented to the Chamber by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Communications.
The value and effectiveness of the Australian Citizenship Programme are no accident; they are the direct outcome of an appropriately strict and strong set of requirements and processes. These requirements have evolved naturally over many decades and have been maintained by successive Departments and Ministers of Immigration.
These requirements have built an immigration programme with a balance between compassion for the needy and an unapologetic aim to serve the national interest and seek out the best from all over the world – in visitors, investors, and skilled workers. Ultimately, these requirements have built a strong immigration system which is the envy of the world.
It is a constant task for the Government of the day, as the custodian of the path to Australian citizenship, to make incremental adjustments to our Citizenship programme to maintain and increase its value.
This is especially the case in light of concerning cases or loopholes which may have come to light.
I would like to make comment briefly on the three themes to which the Parliamentary Secretary alluded, all of which combine to “uphold the value of Australian citizenship”.
The first theme was that of strengthening program integrity. Upholding the integrity of the Australian Citizenship programme is its truest safeguard of its value.
The integrity of the programme means that honesty, straightforwardness and documentation are kept to a gold standard so that the Australian community can be absolutely confident of the veracity and trustworthiness of those we welcome into our fold. The Australian community must be rock solid certain that newcomers arrive and proceed in good faith.
The integrity of the programme ensures that regulations are never relaxed by default and that good character requirements are enforced in line with common sense and basic decency.
In cases in which the applicant has lied, committed a serious criminal offence, and in the Minister’s eyes is contrary to the public interest, the Minister is able to revoke citizenship.
By the initiative of this Bill, this power will be extended to cases in which the Minister is not satisfied of the identity or honest representation of the applicant’s claims and believes it to be in the public interest to revoke citizenship.
The strictness of these amendments and the added discretionary power available to the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection are a reflection of the fact that this Government aims to be in line with the high community standards and expectations that the Australian public places upon citizenship.
The Coalition understands that as a nation built by migrants, Australian citizenship is representative of the hard work, good character and passion for this country that successive generations have brought to Australia. Far more than a label or a piece of paper, citizenship is viewed with a strong sense of respect and value.
The Australian public is unapologetic in the sense of strictness that it wants to see applied to the reception of new citizens and wants to be assured that its Government is bringing in the brightest and the best to our shores in line with an appropriate sense of high standards.
These amendments ensure the integrity of our Australian citizenship programme by amending offence provisions to reflect modern sentencing practices so that the policy intent of our regulations are not undermined by the fact that sentencing often makes use of alternative means of penalties such as home detention.
Furthermore, these changes to the act will add integrity to identity and fraud regulations, meaning that the Minister can delay the pledge of allegiance and cancel approval in cases in which he is no longer satisfied that identity and national security requirements have been met.
Another exemplary feature of this Bill is its strengthening requirements around citizenship in cases of overseas adoption.
The Prime Minister’s personal commitment to a simplification of citizenship granted to the adoptive children of Australian citizens ought to be commended.
This initiative will only be strengthened by the relevant amendments in this Bill.
The amendments in question will ensure that only genuine adoptions that began before the adoptee in question turned 18 will result in automatic Australian citizenship so that the system is not taken advantage of.
Another common sense amendment to the Act is the inclusion of applicants under 18 years of age in the consideration of good character requirements. The Australian community has faced issues with automated citizenship for 16 and 17 year olds with serious character concerns.
There is no reason why we as the host country should not be able to exclude seriously criminal individuals from our national community because they are 16 or 17 years old and at an age where they can assume full criminal responsibility for their character and conduct.
All in all, strengthening program integrity will ensure that the conferral of Australian citizenship is never devalued or brought into disrepute due to compromise of our standards of decency and good character.
The second theme is underlining the importance of a connection to Australia.
The clarification of the general residence requirement and the exact delineation of when it commences will be useful to clients and officers of the Department of Immigration alike in simplifying and clarifying this requirement.
It is impossible to overemphasise the importance of the residence requirement and the very limited circumstances in which it must be waived.
It is almost never possible to truly consider a country home if you have not been settled there in a genuine sense for fewer than four years.
As the Parliamentary Secretary made very clear, you must spend a sufficient amount of time in this country to really understand what being Australian means.
After all, you cannot learn what it is to be Australian through theoretical study or a sense of external admiration, but through true participation and residence within the Australian community.
Citizenship is not an aspiration at being part of the Australian community; it is a recognition that the applicant is already part of that shared life.
Furthermore, the Parliamentary Secretary made the important point that citizenship is always about a connection to Australia; it is not merely about a connection to an Australian. Partner visas must be considered within this context and this non-negotiable requirement.
This connection must always be seen in the context of the clear requirement of lawful residence. If the applicant has been resident in Australia until their 10th birthday but in an unlawful fashion, the assumption of Australian citizenship will no longer be automatic.
Furthermore, if the minor in question is in Australia due to his or her parents’ consular privileges and immunities, they will not be considered to be ordinarily resident in Australia but rather here for a temporary period under special circumstances.
On the other hand, this Bill will grant the Minister further discretion in a case where a citizen by descent has been later found to be invalidly registered. The Bill will improve such a person’s legal position by granting the Minister discretion to preserve the citizenship of such individuals where their particular circumstances compel his discretion.
Such a change makes it clear that this Bill is not about blindly excluding individuals from citizenship but making it easier for an individual’s character and set of circumstances to inform whether or not they become or remain citizens.
The clearing up and tightening of these requirements and situations which commonly arise will strengthen our programme to ensure that the policy intent which underpins the notion of citizenship is ratified in our legislative framework.
The third theme is improved decision-making.
One important area of reform within this Bill is the strengthening and protection of Ministerial discretion. In a system where decisions are largely made according to a strict set of regulations, it is invaluable to have a decision-maker at the apex of our immigration structure with the ability to make binding decisions in light of the public interest which are not subject to merits review.
The Minister’s personal decisions which are made in the public interest are a fitting exercise of executive power which has a clear role to play in our system. It is considered by the Government that the Minister, in his power to make final discretionary decisions, should be able to set aside administrative appeals tribunal decisions.
This is especially important to incorporate into the Act in light of recent matters of concern in which individuals who have committed child sexual offences, people smuggling and domestic violence offences have been described as being of ‘good character’.
The truth is that if individuals have committed serious criminal offences or seriously defrauded us as the Australian Government or the Australian community, there is always an honest, hardworking and contributing individual willing to take a criminal’s place within our community.
As Australia, and as the Lucky Country, there is never any need for us to relax our strict requirements for good character.
Improving the discretion of the Minister in these cases will strengthen our insistence upon these unabashedly high standards for applicants with a criminal history.
The changes which will be made in light of this area of concern, in combination with the fact that the resources of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal have been increasingly tied up by unfounded review applications, will clarify the roles of the Tribunal and the Minister so that we can better uphold the value of Australian citizenship.
Only Judicial Review will be available for final and personal decisions made by the Minister, which is entirely fitting and appropriate.
Furthermore, the Minister will be able to authorise legislative instruments himself so as to circumvent the need to make changes to citizenship regulations every six months.
This will save significant legislative time and trim red tape so that the Minister can get on with making simple technical changes in areas such as currencies and exchange rates as efficiently as possible.
Ultimately, the amendments to this Act as guided by these three themes, and the principles of citizenship as a common inheritance, citizenship as a privilege not a right, and the fact that citizenship which is granted is able to be taken away, will serve to uphold the value of our invaluable Australian citizenship programme.
If we uphold the value of Australian citizenship, we can continue to build this nation to be exactly what we want it to be, cementing the confidence of the Australian community who want to see the brightest and the best from many diverse origins come to our shores to strengthen our prosperous, open nation even further in the decades to come.
I commend the Bill to the House.