FRAN KELLY: Well, Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells was Assistant Minister for Multiculturalism when she was asked to head a National Consultation on Citizenship with Philip Ruddock back in 2015. The findings of that review have fed into the Government’s new reforms to the citizenship laws we have been hearing about this week. Reforms that include: introducing a higher level of English language testing; making prospective citizens wait four years instead of one before applying; and ensuring that applicants sign onto a common set of Australian values that demonstrate their willingness to engage and integrate into Australian society. Senator Fierravanti-Wells is currently the Minister for International Development and the Pacific. Senator, welcome back to Breakfast.

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Good morning, Fran.

FRAN KELLY: Minister, take us back 18 months. This review of citizenship laws – what was the motivation for it then?

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Well, at that time, the then Prime Minister Abbott appointed Philip Ruddock and I to undertake this task – in fact, this was my task as I had just been recently appointed Parliamentary Secretary to the Attorney General. We were asked to conduct a national conversation about citizenship – whether the rights and responsibilities of citizenship were actually understood, and how better to promote these rights and responsibilities, especially amongst young people. So, a consultation paper was released called Australian Citizenship: Your Right, Your Responsibility, and in that paper, a number of things were set out. One was our core values: the sort of values that the Prime Minister enunciated yesterday evening. And also, what we did, we asked a series of questions that were conversation starters about: the meaning, the value of citizenship; eligibility; the test; the pledge; the obligations of citizenship, particularly in an age of home-grown terrorism; revocation of citizenship for dual citizens involved in terrorism; and the suspension of privileges for Australians engaged in terrorism. And we invited all Australians to have their say online, by letter, by email; we proactively went out there, wrote letters to organisations who had a particular interest in this area; we conducted consultations. So, we basically gauged the temperature of the Australian public on this very important issue. And there were, if I can say, three key areas of our findings: the importance of English as a national language; the fact that Australians hold their citizenship very, very dear – this deep sense of citizenship, not just in itself but as a stake in our future – two thirds felt that citizenship was not sufficiently valued; and thirdly, an overwhelming majority of people felt that we should be delivering civics programmes that go to the heart of promoting citizenship, and endorsed a review of the framework of citizenship. We made 15 recommendations, two broad themes: promoting community understanding and respect for Australian citizenship, and strengthening the pathways to citizenship.

FRAN KELLY: Okay, so that’s the feedback you got – this notion of , basically to value citizenship more highly, and to deliver better civics programmes to really strengthen the understanding of citizenship or what it means to be a citizen, and the English language.

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Well, there was a whole range of other things, and we are very, very pleased to see that our changes and our suggested changes have now informed the document that was released yesterday.

FRAN KELLY: Let me talk about that, because the thing that has caught a lot of the conversation is the notion of the values. Your review was conducted in the context of concerns about young Muslims becoming radicalised, and the Prime Minister announced your review, he talked about updating the Citizenship Act so dual citizens who were engaged in terrorism could lose their citizenship. It was in that context. Are you concerned at all that the new test we have been hearing about, questions about genital mutilation, questions about underage marriage, that the new test would further alienate those who are already at risk of radicalisation by asking specific questions, by putting them into the citizenship test?

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Well, can I just say that the citizenship test, as we said in the Report, is the tool to determine whether or not a person meets the legislative requirements set out in the Citizenship Act. We believe that the test for Australian citizenship will be strengthened by the additional new questions, which do go to the very heart of those privileges and responsibilities of Australian citizenship. Now, to put questions in there about allegiance is understandable, given that today there are people with multiple citizenships. It is understandable that we do want to know if people do share our democratic beliefs and our respect for rights and liberties. Two points, Fran, if I can make: one is the English language requirements, the new stand-alone test, and the move from basic to competent is important. And if I can say, one of the key things that just about everybody that we spoke to said was the need for English language and raising the requirements for English language. This means, now, that we are going to be in a position to assess people’s views on a whole range of things, which do go to this issue of values: democratic beliefs, freedoms, equality, integration, and I think that that is really important.

FRAN KELLY: It is how you ask the question, I suppose, and what particulars you put in there, because we already have a pledge to uphold our laws, and our laws of course cover those things. I know one of the listeners this morning has said citizenship requires undertaking to conform – the Australian law test question should be in terms of  ‘does Australian law allow’ rather than Dorothy dixers ‘do you support’.

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: I think that when you do look at the document that Peter Dutton and the Prime Minister released yesterday, the questions will seek to confirm an applicant’s values by assessing their views on a whole range of things. And they are set out in the document, like on democratic beliefs, parliamentary democracy, the rule of law, living peacefully, rejecting violence, and respect for individuals irrespective of background. These are common things, Fran, that by inserting substantial questions about this in the test will assess people’s values.    

FRAN KELLY: Well it may, or, as the Minister himself acknowledged, people may just tick what they know to be the right answer and we get no closer to it. But that’s not to say it shouldn’t be in there. Can I just ask you about this notion of delay from one year permanent residency to four years before applying for citizenship. We heard earlier from one migrant who talked about the value of citizenship to her, and how it helped her to belong, and she surrendered her other citizenship – she is proud to be Australian. Why would we want people to wait longer to feel fully Australian? Isn’t it sooner the better to enhance integration?

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Well, I think this was another issue that was raised in the consultations. There was a view that people should spend a longer period of time immediately prior to their application for citizenship. I think increasing the minimum period of permanent residence required to qualify for citizenship, I think, will better support an aspiring citizen’s integration into Australian society. The requirement to demonstrate integration, I think, is a positive move.

FRAN KELLY: On that level, too, I noticed the Prime Minister has been saying that one of the tests might be on sending kids to school. I have never heard that this is an issue with our migrant community, that they are not sending kids to school. Is it an issue?

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Well, I think there are issues in certain communities. The point that I would also like to make, Fran, is that this is about all Australians, and one of the things that strongly came out in the consultations was that citizenship is not something that you just acquire through a process. We have Australians born in this country, so when we talk about rights and responsibilities and the privilege of Australian citizenship, it is a privilege that we all have. And so, therefore, when you do raise the profile of citizenship, you do raise the community understanding of citizenship – it is something that we do for all Australians.

FRAN KELLY: And Minister, just finally, do we raise questions about the state of our multicultural society? Because this country, our society, is built on it. It is a policy that has led to a broadly integrated and tolerant society. Do these changes suggest the Government thinks the line is too lax between allowing people to maintain and celebrate their own cultures and at the same time integrating into Australian society?

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Fran, there have been changes to our citizenship legislation since they were first introduced in the 1940s. Australia has one of the highest rates of citizenship acquisition – just over 80 per cent of our eligible migrants become citizens.   

FRAN KELLY: It is a good thing, right?

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: It is a good thing. In the past, changes have not stopped these large numbers applying, and this comes from an OECD Indicators of Immigration Integration report of 2015. So in the past, we put changes in, I do not believe that these changes will stop numbers of people applying for Australian citizenship, and continue to contribute to the rich fabric of Australian society.

FRAN KELLY: Minister, thank you very much for joining us.

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Thanks, Fran.

Media enquiries

  • Minister's Office: (02) 6277 7110
  • DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555