I move that this Bill be now read a second time.
The Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Requirements for Australian Citizenship and Other Measures) Bill 2017 implements the commitment the Government made on 20 April 2017 to strengthen the requirements for Australian citizenship. It also incorporates a number of integrity measures introduced into the last Parliament.
Australian citizenship is an extraordinary privilege. Pathways to citizenship give new migrants the opportunity to be full and active participants in Australian society.
Citizenship was first defined in Australian law in the Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948, and came into force on Australia Day 1949. Since then, more than 5 million people have chosen to become Australian citizens.
Australians come from every culture, every race, every faith and every nation and together we have built a modern and prosperous Australia. The success of our nation is based on our shared values, rights and responsibilities.
Mr Deputy Speaker the measures contained in this Bill will help us build on this success. It will ensure that we continue to welcome new Australians committed to making a positive contribution through the many opportunities our country affords.
As a Government, we are committed to maintaining strong public confidence and support for our migration and citizenship programmes – through an assurance of integrity to the Australian public.
We are proud of our heritage and our generosity as a nation. We look forward to continuing to welcome new migrants – irrespective of race, of religion, of nationality or ethnic origin – who embrace our Australian laws and our values, and who seek to contribute to, rather than undermine, our society.
Mr Deputy Speaker the measures in this Bill commencing from 20 April 2017 are the Government's response to the 2015 National Consultation on Citizenship – Your Right, Your Responsibility, which indicated strong community support for strengthening the test of Australian citizenship.
The Australian community expects that aspiring citizens demonstrate their allegiance to our country, their commitment to live in accordance with Australian laws and values, and be willing to integrate into and become contributing members of the Australian community.
In accordance with the announced measures, there will be an increase in the general residence requirement. An applicant for Australian citizenship will need to demonstrate a minimum of four years of permanent residence immediately prior to their application for citizenship, with a maximum of 12 months outside of Australia over the period of that time. This represents a change from the current requirement of the minimum of 12 months as a permanent resident. Strengthening the residency requirement is intended to support integration and facilitate a more thorough evaluation of a person's commitment to Australia, our values and adherence to our laws. It also brings Australia more in line with the general requirements of other nations.
The National Consultation found and I quote: "A residence requirement in citizenship law is an objective measure of a person's association with Australia. It also serves as a probationary period, so that a person's word and deeds across this time can be considered should the person apply for Australian citizenship. Increasing the value and integrity of citizenship by changing the residence requirement from four years lawful stay to four years permanent residence is appropriate…"
The Government is also introducing Mr Deputy Speaker a requirement to have competent English language through listening, speaking, reading and writing skills.
English language is essential for economic participation and social cohesion. The Productivity Commission in 2016 highlighted the importance of English language proficiency for integration and settlement outcomes. There is also strong public support to ensure aspiring citizens are fully able to participate in Australian life, by speaking English, our national language.
Aspiring citizens are currently required to possess a level of 'basic' English. This is indirectly assessed when an applicant sits the citizenship test. Aspiring citizens will now be required to undertake a separate upfront English language test with an accredited provider and achieve a level of 'competent'. There will be exemptions, such as for applicants over 60 years of age, or under 16 years of age at the time they applied for citizenship or those with an enduring or permanent mental or physical incapacity.
Mr Deputy Speaker there will be other exemptions from testing, as is currently the case for skilled migration assessments, such as for citizens of the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland, Canada, the United States of America or New Zealand who hold a valid passport, or for applicants who have undertaken specified English language studies at a recognised Australian education institution.
Applicants will be required to sign an Australian Values Statement in order to make a valid application for citizenship. It will require applicants to make an undertaking to integrate into and contribute to the Australian community.
Mr Deputy Speaker the Australian Values Statement includes an understanding of:
- 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
- English language, as the national language, is an important unifying element of Australian society.
Applicants will be required to demonstrate their integration into the Australian community in accordance with Australian values. For example, this may include:
- abiding by Australian laws;
- attaining competent English;
- ensuring eligible children attend school;
- seeking employment rather than relying on welfare where there is capacity to do so; or
- being involved with community groups.
The Bill provides that the Minister may determine changes to the text and requirements in relation to the Australian Values Statement by Legislative Instrument. Values based questions will also be added to the citizenship test.
The Department of Immigration and Border Protection will assess this information based on documents provided as part of an aspiring citizen's application and may also assess this at interview.
In addition to existing police checks which are undertaken as part of an application for citizenship, an applicant will also be assessed for specified conduct that is inconsistent with Australian values, such as domestic or family violence, criminality including female genital mutilation and involvement in gangs and organised crime.
The Pledge will be extended to all streams of citizenship by application, including citizenship by descent, adoption and resumption. Applicants over 16 years of age will need to make the Pledge before they can become a citizen. Applicants for citizenship by conferral on the grounds of being born in Papua, born to a former citizen or under statelessness provisions, will no longer be exempt from making the Pledge. Exemptions will include permanent or enduring physical or mental incapacity.
Mr Deputy Speaker the Pledge will also refer to allegiance to Australia. The Government has separately passed legislation to provide for the loss of citizenship of dual-nationals who betray their allegiance through involvement in terrorist related activity.
Consistent with measures introduced in the last Parliament by the former Minister, the Bill contains additional measures to improve the integrity of the citizenship programme. Currently, only aspiring citizens aged 18 years and over are required to meet the 'good character' requirement – which involves criminal history checks. There is a small minority of people under 18 who clearly do not meet community expectations of good character and have been involved in serious or violent crime, such as gang violence. The Bill amends these provisions to require all applicants, including those under 18, to be of good character.
The Bill also amends the offence provisions to reflect modern sentencing practices, including where a person is subject to a court order for home detention or where they have not been sentenced to prison but are nonetheless under obligations to a court.
The Bill provides that approval must be cancelled if the Minister is no longer satisfied of the applicant's identity or if they have become a risk to national security. The Minister may also cancel approval if satisfied that the person no longer meets other eligibility requirements. The Bill extends the maximum period of time where the Minister can delay an applicant making the Pledge of Allegiance from 12 months to two years, to better align with timeframes of some complex investigations.
The Bill provides for the revocation of citizenship where a person became a citizen as a result of fraud or misrepresentation. The Minister must be satisfied that it would be contrary to the public interest for the person to remain a citizen. While law enforcement agencies, for a range of reasons, may not be in a position to prosecute all forms of fraud and misrepresentation in the citizenship process, the Government is committed to providing the highest levels of integrity where possible. Each person being considered for revocation of their Australian citizenship would be given natural justice before the Minister makes a decision. A decision to revoke citizenship on these grounds would of course be open to judicial review.
Mr Deputy Speaker currently, the Act provides that a person is deemed never to have been an Australian citizen where they attained citizenship by descent, but were later found not to have had an Australian parent at the time of birth. There have been difficult cases in recent times in relation to this. There have been people who were registered as Australian citizens by descent, thought they were Australian all their lives, but have been found later in life not to have been eligible in the first place and consequently deemed to have never been a citizen.
The proposed amendments repeal the operation of law provision and insert a discretionary power. This will allow the circumstances of a particular case to be taken into account when deciding if citizenship by descent should be revoked.
Currently under the Act, children acquire citizenship automatically if they are born in Australia to an Australian citizen or permanent resident parent, or if they are ordinarily resident in Australia until their 10th birthday. The Bill specifies the automatic acquisition of citizenship on a person's 10th birthday applies to those persons who have maintained lawful residence in Australia throughout the 10 years, including maintaining a right to return if they travel outside Australia during those years. These amendments will not affect access to citizenship by children born in Australia to New Zealand citizens or children who are stateless. The changes also remove the automatic acquisition of citizenship on the 10th birthday of a child in Australia born to a parent with diplomatic or consular privileges and immunities.
The provision giving citizenship to children found abandoned in Australia is also amended to be consistent with the original policy intent, which is to reflect international obligations under the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.
The Bill also amends the definition of 'spouse' and 'de facto partner' to be consistent with the Migration Act and to reflect the policy position that the relationship between the applicant and their Australian citizen spouse or partner must be genuine and continuing.
The majority of applicants for citizenship have come to Australia originally on a visa in accordance with the Migration Act. Personal information is collected through the visa process and is relevant when the person applies for citizenship. Likewise Mr Deputy Speaker, personal information collected about a person under the Citizenship Act can be relevant if the Department is considering whether to cancel a person's visa after a citizenship application has been refused. The Bill provides that personal information collected under one Act and associated regulations may be used and disclosed for the purposes of the other.
We've seen in recent times a number of Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) migration decisions that are outside community standards. This has also occurred in relation to citizenship decisions. Specifically, the AAT has found that people were of good character despite having been convicted of child sexual offences, manslaughter, people smuggling or domestic violence.
The Bill seeks to better align the powers in the Citizenship Act with the Migration Act to remedy decisions that may be outside of community standards. The provisions will allow the Minister to personally set aside certain decisions of the AAT if it is in the public interest to do so. Consistent with the Migration Act, personal decisions of the Minister will not be subject to merits review. However, such decisions would still be subject to judicial review in the Federal or High Court. The new provision does not propose to exclude or limit judicial review.
The Bill makes a range of other and consequential amendments to support the integrity of the citizenship programme and the measures in this Bill enhance the institution of citizenship.
As many have rightly acknowledged, we are one of the most successful migrant nations in the world today. We have prospered and forged a secure and harmonious society. This has been built by people of every possible background, united by common values that include a commitment to the rule of law; freedom – including of religion and speech; support for Parliamentary democracy; equality of men and women; equality of opportunity for individuals; community involvement; and the pursuit of opportunity through education, employment and entrepreneurship.
We should never take our success for granted.
This Bill reinforces the integrity of our citizenship programme. This will help maintain strong public support for migration and the value of Australian citizenship in what is an increasingly challenging national security environment and complex global security situation.
The measures in this Bill will ensure we continue to welcome people committed to the success of our great nation – enriching our society and building our economic prosperity and Mr Deputy Speaker, I commend the Bill to the House.