ROSS GREENWOOD: Well, a really good person to have a chat about this is Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, who was formally the Assistant Minister for Multicultural Affairs, and also along with the former Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock, conducted a national consultation on citizenship. She is now the Minister for International Development and the Pacific, and she joins me now. Many thanks for your time, Connie, how are you?
CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Good, Ross, how are you?
ROSS GREENWOOD: Very, very well. Can you just take me through some of this? I mean, how much of this really dates back to your national consultation on citizenship, and does it really align with the values that you discovered when you had that consultation?
CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Well, Ross, it does take us back to May 2015. Then-Prime Minister Abbott appointed Philip and I to undertake this task. I was appointed that day as Parliamentary Secretary to the Attorney, and he asked us to conduct a national conversation about citizenship – whether the rights and responsibilities of citizenship were understood, and how we could better promote these, this understanding, especially amongst young Australians.
ROSS GREENWOOD: Okay, can I ask you a really simple question, Connie, and that is: do you believe that there are people who have entered this country and become citizens of our nation, who do not embrace the national values as espoused by the Prime Minister and by the Former Prime Minister John Howard?
CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Well, let me put it to you this way, having spent 35 years in this space. Clearly, there are people who, in the past, have come in who have perhaps not espoused the sort of values that we all – you know, the sort of values John Howard talked about, the sort of values that the Prime Minister talked about. And so, therefore, I think it is important that at this point in time, in 2017, we do have this conversation and that was the reason why Tony Abbott asked us to go out and have this national consultation.
ROSS GREENWOOD: Okay, so were there people, in that case, we – in hindsight – can now look back and say should not have been granted citizenship to our country, should not have been given the opportunity to become residents and become people who share in our welfare, share in our education, share in our health system, because they did not espouse our values and, in fact, were divisive to our values?
CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Well, Ross, from time to time, we do amend our citizenship laws. As we go through the process and we feel that there is a necessity to tighten up certain components and we do that, and indeed that has been a feature of the citizenship legislation since it was introduced in 1949. Having said all of that, we do have one of the highest rates of citizenship acquisition in the world. And just over 80 per cent of eligible migrants do become citizens. Now, not withstanding that we have had past changes and we continue to change our citizenship legislation, we do have large numbers of people that do apply.
ROSS GREENWOOD: And let’s be honest, why wouldn’t they! It is a great country, and we do want migrants here and it is a great place to get our population to grow if we have got people with the right values who are prepared to work, pay their taxes and actually be peaceful in the way in which they demonstrate their lives.
CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Can I say, Ross, there are a number of key findings that Philip and I got as we embarked on this very proactive process. I mean, we had thousands of people who responded online, we put out this consultation paper, we invited people to have their say, we actually wrote to people who had a particular interest in this area – expertise and experience. And there were three key things, if I can put it down to that. One was the importance of English as our national language. Vitally important, just about everybody we spoke to had that comment to make to us. The second thing was that Australians hold dear, very dear, their citizenship – not just in what it gives them, but that deep sense that this is a stake in our future as a prosperous and diverse nation. In fact, two-thirds of the people who put forward their views on this felt that citizenship was not sufficiently valued. The third point, an overwhelming number support government and community to ensure that Australians understand and respect the privileges and obligations of their citizenship, and that we deliver civics programmes, not just to those people who want to aspire to be citizens, but for everybody. And so, therefore, it was timely, and it continues to be timely, for there to be a review of the framework to ensure that, basically, there is a strong understanding. Promoting the community understanding and respect for Australian citizenships and strengthening pathways to citizenship, which were basically the two broad themes of the 15 recommendations that Philip and I brought down when we delivered this report to the Prime Minister and to the Immigration Minister.
ROSS GREENWOOD: Okay, so do we really need to spell out questions as blunt and a basic as, ‘is it permissible to force a child to marry?’ For goodness’ sakes! I mean, surely anybody who wishes to do that should be thrown out of the country first time. Second, ‘while it is illegal to use violence in public, under what circumstances can you strike your spouse in the privacy of our home?’ Do we really need these questions? Are these things that even should be up for debate in a questionnaire? Anybody who might espouse those views or have those views as part of their culture should not even be brought in in the first place!
CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Well, I think we certainly are going to be introducing new questions. Can I just say, the citizenship test is a very important tool, as we said in our report – it is the tool to determine whether or not a person meets the legislative requirements as set out in the citizenship act. Now the thing about new questions going to both allegiance and values, it enables us to assess peoples views, but it also enables us through the revisions of the English language, the standalone test, and the move from a basic to a competent understanding of English. It means that we are very well able to assess not just an understanding of values, but also English language proficiency, which is essential – not just for integration into Australian society, but for economic participation. Now, Ross, my parents came out to this country in the 1950s. When Dad came here and went to work at the Steel Works at Port Kembla, they learnt English on the job. We were a low skill, manufacturing base. Today we are a high tech services-based economy, and so therefore English and English language proficiency is vitally important.
ROSS GREENWOOD: I am going to ask you one question before I go, because I know that you have certainly, as compared with the past, fallen out with the Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott. He is outspoken at the moment. I know also, that in the last little while, Warren Entsch has indicated that Tony Abbott should leave the Parliament, rather than speaking out in the way in which he is. What is your view on the Former Prime Minister, and some of the views he is holding about the Government right now?
CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Well, Ross, the former Prime Minister, as a former Prime Minister, obviously is entitled, as a backbencher now, to put forward his views. I think any former Prime Minister will always be judged on what they achieved in Government and what they did in Government, rather than what they perhaps say later they would have done. So I respect Tony’s view to speak, but I think ultimately history will judge Tony on what he did and the decisions that he took in Government, rather than potentially a reinterpretation of what he did not do.
ROSS GREENWOOD: So what you are saying is you do not believe that, in hindsight, Tony Abbott will be judged to have been a good Primer Minister who made good decisions will in office?
CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: No, I am just simply saying that he will be judged by what he did in office, rather than what he may be now saying that he would or would not have done.
ROSS GREENWOOD: So you think he is changing the facts and rewriting history?
CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Well, I am just simply saying history will judge him by what he did in Government, and, look, ultimately he had the opportunity to take certain decisions and to make certain decisions. I respect the decisions that he did and he and those supporting him did. But it is time to move on and it is important that we all work as a team to ensure that Bill Shorten does not become the Prime Minister. I take Tony on face value when he says that he does not want Bill Shorten to be the Prime Minister, so it is vitally important that we all move on and that we work as a team to ensure that that does not happen.
ROSS GREENWOOD: Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, the Minister for International Development and the Pacific, and a key player in the way in which these new citizenship tests have been worked out, and we appreciate your time on the program this evening.
CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Thanks a lot. Thanks, Ross.
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