NICK RHEINBERGER:

Wollongong-based Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells is defending proposed tougher English language for new Australian citizens. The Liberal Senator and Minister for International Development is fiercely denying that the changes are political or designed to help stem the drift of right-wingers from the Coalition. She says the changes are a result of a consultation process that lasted more than a year and a part of a mood to heighten the value we set on Australian citizenship and social stability. Our journalist William Verity caught up with the Senator in our studio yesterday.

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:

There are two points that I want to make. One is that we have to look at English today in a different context. When my father came to Australia, and indeed came to work at the Steel Works, at that time in a manufacturing based economy, English was not important. People learnt English on the job, and indeed here in the Illawarra, my father worked with people of Macedonian heritage, of different heritages, and basically they worked at the Steel Works - they understood, they learnt that basic English and they got on. Today we are a service-based economy. We have shifted away from manufacturing, so therefore English is vitally important. That's my first point, and therefore I think you need to look at the two circumstances. There are two different contexts, two different circumstances, and the point that I'm making is that today English is vitally important, whereas in the past it wasn't as important as it today. The second thing is that back in May 2015, then-Prime Minister Abbott asked Philip Ruddock and I to undertake a national conversation on citizenship, and that was basically to look at rights and responsibilities of citizenship, but also to ask the basic questions of how we can better promote citizenship. So Philip and I put out a discussion paper, which basically set out our values, core values, and asked a series of questions. We also went out and consulted. We wrote to key people in this space, asked them for their opinion, and so we conducted, effectively, this national conversation around Australia, including meetings at town halls and various things. The end result, about a year later, was a document that Philip and I produced, which was 'Australian Citizenship: Your Right, Your Responsibility'. There were three key highlights of our consultation around Australia and in the written submissions that we got. One - the vital importance of English in today's Australia, and how important it was for people to understand a competent level of English, not just as the language of communication, but as the language of integration, particularly in such a multicultural society. The second point that was very clear to us was that people did not value their Australian citizenship as much as they could, and therefore we made some suggestions as to how we could promote Australian citizenship more. And the third thing that was very clear was strong support for the Australian Government to legislate changes to reposition - to revalue - Australia citizenship. So my comments in relation to citizenship are not just conditioned or influenced by what I may personally think, but also in particular about the work that Philip and I did as part of our national consultation.

WILLIAM VERITY:

Okay, because I think that your critics would say that this is a classic political move. It's a way - it's a sop to the hard right; it's a sop to One Nation; and it's a way of basically stopping the seepage of votes from the Coalition to people like Cory Bernardi's Australian Conservatives.

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:

William, it's a process that's…

WILLIAM VERITY:

…In a way without actually doing much.

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:

Well, it's a process that started in May 2015, and it's a process that's had its iteration over - well over two years. And of course Philip, Peter Dutton... This report was commissioned by the Prime Minister, so even though Tony Abbott was no longer in power, we gave it to Malcolm Turnbull and of course to Peter Dutton. So they're the two people to whom we reported. So what we are seeing is that effectively the changes to citizenship that we are now seeing are referable to this process, and referable to the work that Philip and I did, and referable to our national consultation. So it's actually a process that started well over two years ago, well before a lot of the political issues that we are now seeing today.

WILLIAM VERITY:

Alright, so the English language changes obviously are big because they will prevent certain… large numbers of people coming in, you would think…

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:

Well this is the furphy, William, and because when you look at the levels of English, at the moment it's at basic. And that is for a modest user. And so that's really for a person to be able to handle basic communication. We are going one level up. In nine levels, we are going from five to six. And that's competent. In other words to have - and I am happy to read it: "The test taker has an effective command of the language despite some inaccuracies, inappropriate usage and misunderstandings. They can use and understand fairly complex language, particularly in familiar situations".

WILLIAM VERITY:

So, because what I have read, which you're obviously disputing - is - what I've read is basically up to university level…

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:

Well that's - and Peter Dutton has made that very, very clear - that this is the furphy and this is a deliberate attempt by our political opponents to mislead the situation. Our advice - Philip and I recommended that English be from 'basic' to 'competent'. And that is what Peter Dutton is undertaking. And any indication to the contrary is basically misleading what the Government is doing or what Peter Dutton is proposing.

WILLIAM VERITY:

Alright, now the other one which just seems - does seem it is open to the charge of this sort of, the political charge that we talked about - is that people don't take their citizenship seriously enough. Really, is there anything that Government can do to fix that?

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:

Well, basically the language test and the test that people do for citizenship is the only way that we as Governments and as respective Governments of either persuasion are able to understand if a person does have that appropriate English understanding or the appropriate understanding of Australian values and what it does mean to be Australian. So it is appropriate that at that particular point, that's their test for becoming an Australian. And so I think, going back to the point that I made earlier, William, it's really about the different context. It's - we are one of the most successful multicultural countries in the world. Twenty per cent of people don't speak - speak a language other than English at home. The reality is that many of us do speak two, three, four different languages, but English is vitally important - not just economically, not just socially, but as the language that binds Australians together and that's really where we're coming from.

WILLIAM VERITY:

If we can take that as rare - let's put that to one side a bit - I mean the more controversial thing, isn't it, is Australian values, and certainly Malcolm Turnbull, I think, stumbled on this when he was trying… What really - what are Australian values? John Howard talked about Bradman's batting average, or the value of mateship. Do Australian values really exist at all outside the minds of politicians?

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:

Well, it was very interesting, we of course in our discussion paper went out to set out what we believed were those core values which include: constitutional government; respect for freedom and dignity of the individual; freedom of speech and religion; commitment to the rule of law and allegiance to Australia; parliamentary democracy; that sense of egalitarianism that embraces mutual respect; fair play; compassion; equal rights before the law…

WILLIAM VERITY:

How can you test for those? You do a multiple choice people are obviously going to say yes to those just to get through aren't they?

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:

Well, when you do ask a series of questions and you ask for responses, people... The addition - we believe - the addition of new test questions about Australian values including privileges and responsibilities of Australian citizenship enables us to test in that one tool, that important tool, to determine whether or not a person will meet the legislative requirements to get citizenship under the Citizenship Act. And yes, there will be new questions and they'll be a broad range of questions which go to understanding of democratic beliefs, understanding of rights, understanding of responsibilities, understanding of what democracy is, understanding of what a freedom of speech actually means or freedom of religion or freedom of equality, what does integration mean. That sort of parameter and questions about that, I think, certainly by judging by the breadth of the answers that we received and the commentary that we received when we were preparing this report - that's what the Australian public overwhelmingly wanted us to reinforce the legislative framework to cover these issues.

WILLIAM VERITY:

Okay. Just briefly, because we are just running out of time, so understand all of that, what are the chances of these actually becoming legislative?

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:

Well, of course we have - it's going to go through the legislative process and Peter Dutton, in due course, will present legislation to the Parliament and then of course it's a matter for the Parliament to debate these issues, of course, then go through the processes of the Senate and…

WILLIAM VERITY:

Do you have any inkling, any idea of whether it's going to be a fight or not?

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:

As a Senator - look, as a Senator, we respect the views of the Senate that the Australian public elected. We do understand that citizenship is important to the Australian public and I'm sure that through the representatives that they have elected, due consideration will be given to our legislation…

WILLIAM VERITY:

Sounds like it might be a bit touch-and-go from your answer…! If you would just say yep it's going to go through…

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:

Well, let me say to you, William, it's a very brave Senator that predicts what may happen in our Senate today, so I think it's very important that we respect the views of all the Senators and we work with them to achieve the end objective.

NICK RHEINBERGER:

Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells speaking with William Verity in our studios yesterday.

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