EMMA GRIFFITHS: You are with Emma Griffiths. The Federal Government has listed the values in a discussion paper released today. These are the values they say should be a requirement for Australian citizenship. Among them: living peacefully, freedom of religion, equality of men and women. What would you list as Australian values? One of the authors of a report into this was Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, who is also Federal Minister for International Development and the Pacific. Senator, what are the most important Australian values, do you think?
CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Well, the paper that was released by Peter Dutton today, Strengthening the Test for Australian Citizenship, does set out democratic beliefs, values, the things that applicants will now be assessed on. I think those freedoms, equality, integration, they are pretty basic sort of values. This was the sort of similar framework that Philip Ruddock and I adopted when we were asked and tasked by then-Prime Minister Abbott back in May 2015 to have a national conversation about citizenship. We basically went out and put out a consultation paper, which set out a set of core values which included the freedoms, the rule of law, parliamentary democracy, equal rights, equality for all, those basic set of values that we all know what they are and they reflect and respect tolerance and fair play. And then we asked a series of questions as basically conversation staters about the meaning and value of citizenship, whether the rights and responsibilities of citizenship are understood and how better can they be promoted, especially amongst the young. So we embarked on this process and we had people, Australians from all over the place, from different backgrounds, write to us, send us emails. Philip and I were actually quite proactive we sent out letters to organisations that had a particular interest in the area, or experience or expertise. Basically, we went around Australia and prepared a report. It was interesting, Emma, the report had basically three things which really struck me. One, of course, was the importance of English as a national language – this was common to just about every consultation that we had. The other really interesting thing that emerged for us was this deep sense that Australians hold their citizenship very, very dear – not just for itself, but as a stake in our future as a prosperous and diverse nation. Almost two-thirds of the people that contributed said that they felt that citizenship was not sufficiently valued. The third thing that was really clear was that there was overwhelming support for government and the community to increase civics understanding, and review the existing citizenship framework. And so therefore we produced a report with 15 recommendations, broadly on two themes: promoting community understanding and respect for Australian citizenship, and strengthening the pathway to citizenship. We are very pleased that most of those recommendations have been taken up.
EMMA GRIFFITHS: And Senator, how do you actually test the commitment of would be citizens to these values?
CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Well basically, you can only really ask people, so the paper that has been put out by Peter Dutton today says a number of very important things. One of which of course is the new questions that will be asked in the citizenship test. As we said in our report, the test is the tool to determine whether or not a person meets the legislative requirements set out in the citizenship act. And so by asking people what their views are on a whole range of different things, such as democratic beliefs, of freedoms of equality, of integration, and any other issue, you gauge their reaction, you gauge their understanding. Also by having a standalone English language test and we move the requirement from basic to competent, it means that to respond people do need to demonstrate a competent English language. Because ultimately English is not just our national language; English proficiency is vitally important for economic participation and integration into the Australian community.
EMMA GRIFFITHS: Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, with the competence in English requirement, will that come with funding for extra lessons or anything like that? Or is it up to the would-be citizen to pay for their own lessons and organise that?
CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Well there are already provisions for English language and there are existing settlement service providers. There is an existing framework for English language and again that is a matter, then, for Peter Dutton and other Ministers to look at this. But in the end, look, let me put it this way, when my parents came out to Australia, when my father came to this country in 1953, we were basically a manufacturing-based economy. And so, therefore, my father worked at the steel works at Port Kembla, but everybody learnt English on the job. We have now shifted from a manufacturing-based economy to a services-based economy where information technology is vitally important. And that is where English does come in, so therefore English language does not just make good social sense, integration sense, but it makes good economic sense. Obviously, for people who do want to become Australian citizens, it means that they will have to demonstrate competence in the English language, not just listening, speaking, reading and writing before they are able to sit a citizenship test. Can I just say that there will be exemptions though, and exemptions will apply for applicants over a certain age, under a certain age and those, of course, who have enduring or permanent mental or physical incapacities.
EMMA GRIFFITHS: Okay, so that address some concerns perhaps from the Refugee Council of Australia, that older refuges who then apply to become citizens may not end up with a competence in English language testing. Is that going to be a problem?
CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Well, the issue having been Minister responsible for settlement services, there is existing framework for settlement services. People who do come to Australia, particularly under our humanitarian program and we have about 13,500, going up 16,500 and ultimately going up to about 18,000 in 2018/19 in addition of course to the 12,000 extra that we took from the Syrian Iraqi conflict. There is an established settlement framework which includes a whole range of different settlement services that assist people who do come in under our humanitarian program, and they do get assistance in relation to that.
EMMA GRIFFITHS: And Senator, what problems have you seen in the community, if any, that you hope these conditions will address?
CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Look, what was very, very clear to me as I did and not just in this process – I mean, I am somebody who has lived my life across the diversity that is contemporary Australia. I mean, Australia is today a country where half of us were either born overseas of have a least one parent born overseas. One thing that is really important to remember and it is this: Australia has one of the highest rates of citizenship acquisition in the world. Just over 80 per cent of eligible migrants become citizens, and that is according to a report that was published in 2015 by the OECD Indicators of Immigration Integration. So not withstanding that we have had changes in citizenship legislation and this is something that happens from time to time. In the past, changes have not stopped large numbers continuing to apply and I do not believe that these changes will stop people from applying. Citizenship is something that Australians value very, very highly. They see it as a privilege and this was overwhelmingly – 98 per cent of the people who put forward their views agreed and supported action by government and the community to ensure that Australians understand and respect the privileges and obligations of Australian citizenship. So, it is something that we all value and we want to value very, very highly. So understandably, placing additional responsibilities that are in relation to citizenship, I think, will be well received, but it also ensures that Australia’s success as a multicultural country has been built on migration, but it also has been built on a sound immigration process. And that is what citizenship is fundamentally part of.
EMMA GRIFFITHS: Senator, thank you very much for your time.
CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Thanks very much.
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