Julie Owens MP – spoke on the Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment Bill and mentions a Palestinian constituent

Photo of Julie Owens MP
August 9, 2017

Why do we have situations like the Palestinian-born doctor in my electorate who is stateless? He has resided in Sydney for nine years, he’s forged a social research and academic network, he’s completed his PhD, he’s attracted over $1 million in research grants, he’s authored 14 publications, won numerous awards, supervises post-grads and is sponsored for permanent residency by the university. Why can’t we have him? What is wrong? Why does he have to wait another three years?

Full speech

Ms OWENS (Parramatta) (19:01): Listening to the speakers on the other side of this House, you might be forgiven for thinking the Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Requirements for Australian Citizenship and Other Measures) Bill 2017 is somehow about trying to uphold Australian values. But I tell you, when I look at my community, this bill doesn’t meet my definition of Australian values. Look at this country of ours: we are one of the great multicultural nations of the world. When we federated in 1901, one in four of us were born overseas and 40 per cent of us had one parent born overseas. Now, in 2017, the proportion of people born overseas is slightly higher, at 28 per cent, but we have been a multicultural nation that has welcomed migrants since modern settlement. Everybody that has arrived in Australia since that time is a migrant or a child of a migrant.

We have been a country that has welcomed people. We’ve built our community. We’ve taken people in. We’ve brought people in from all around the world to help us build this great country, and we expected them to have full entitlements to enjoy the benefits of citizenship. When we did a deal with the Turkish government back in the late sixties and we brought a whole stack of Turkish migrants to Australia, the Turkish government said, ‘No, we only want you to take them temporarily.’ We said, ‘No, that’s not what we do in Australia.’ We opened the doors to Turkish migration on a permanent basis in the late sixties. I have an extraordinary community in my electorate of Parramatta, in Western Sydney, that grew from the opening of those doors. That is who we are. We are not a country that asks people to come here temporarily, that brings low-paid workers in and doesn’t give them the benefits of citizenship—yet. We are not that country yet. But if this bill passes, we will very quickly become that parliament.

For me, the words of the national anthem are worth repeating today:

For those who’ve come across the seas

We’ve boundless plains to share;

With courage let us all combine

To Advance Australia Fair.

Not with fear let us all combine, but with courage. You need to understand that people who choose to leave their country of birth and travel across the seas to build a life in another country are exhibiting extraordinary courage. They are making a choice that many of us wouldn’t make, many of us wouldn’t be game to make. They are actually transporting their lives to a new country and taking the risk that they can make that life work. And with this bill, this government is pulling the rug out from under so many people that came here in good faith, that made decisions about their lives, transplanted their families here in good faith and with an understanding of what the requirements were to become Australian citizens. However, with an announcement on 20 April, all of those plans came unstuck.

A little later, I will read out some of the circumstances that people find themselves in because of the government’s plans to retrospectively apply this change, but I want to remind the House again that we are, in the OECD, a very rare country. We are No. 3 in terms of the number of people born overseas, beaten only by Luxembourg and Switzerland. And one might suspect that tax arrangements are one of the reasons why so many people who weren’t born in those countries are technically residents there.

Mr Neumann: That is a reasonable assumption.

Ms OWENS: It is a reasonable assumption. But take the tax issues out and you will find that Australia is the most successful multicultural nations in the world. That’s who we are. It is our values that have brought us to this place and it is our values that are under threat by this bill—not protected by this bill but threatened by it.

I live in one of the great diverse communities of Australia—Parramatta in Western Sydney. Forty per cent of people living there were born overseas, and about 60 per cent have at least one parent who was born overseas. Geographically, there are some sections of the community that have a greater proportion than that and some that have less. It is an incredibly diverse community. When I look at my community—which includes refugees, skilled migrants, family reunions and people who came as students—I see an incredibly successful and vibrant multicultural community, the community that we need in the modern world.

We generate a lot of wealth from what is in the ground. But, with the speed of change and the way that we all need to adapt to change, what you want in your population at the moment is incredible flexibility and diversity. You want the language skills and the ways of looking at the world that come from cultural traditions that are thousands of years old—and that is what we have. We are the population that you need to flourish in the modern world. We are it. That is why so many head offices are moving into Western Sydney and increasingly picking up 60 to 70 per cent of their staff from the local community. We speak every language, we are familiar with every culture, we know the opportunities around the world, and we have people who see the world from a range of perspectives.

For example, we have people within our community who have never lived in a secure environment. They have an incredible flexibility to move when things change because they come from cultures that never enjoyed the security that we have here. We need that. When we go forth as a nation and try to find our place in the modern rapidly-changing world, we need the population that I have. It is not the time to turn our backs on that and turn the clocks back to a situation where large groups of people are excluded because they don’t meet some arbitrary new decision about what Australian values are. To say that you need university-level English to get into Australia is quite extraordinary.

These plans that this government has offend current citizens. They offend the people who came here and made good lives here who would not be able to get into Australia as citizens now under these new laws—the Greeks and the Italians. People who have been here for decades and still couldn’t pass a university-level English test—and never will—could not have got into this country as citizens if these laws were in place when they arrived.

One of the people I admire most in the world is a woman called Elsa. I met Elsa when I was working at the Australia Council. She used to do our filing. She seemed to me to be an incredibly downtrodden person. She plodded through the day. Her English was fractured at best. Most people didn’t talk to her because you couldn’t have much of a conversation with Elsa. But one day she stood up at a Christmas party and recited a section of The Iliad. I talked to Elsa. Elsa had come to Australia at 18 years of age. She had two children and at 18 was pregnant with her third child. She didn’t speak English. She had come from a Greek village. Her husband came with her. He stayed for six weeks and went back to Greece and left her here. She had three children by that stage. She had no English and no experience of a modern city. She was completely out of her depth. She worked three or four jobs as a cleaner—she worked any job she could get—put her three children through law and medicine. And that is what she was doing when she was working at the Australia Council. This woman, who would never make it through this test, raised three children. And then, when her kids left university, she went back to school, got a high-school diploma and started teaching English as a second language; and that is when her life began. For me that woman is a successful Australian because she knew what she needed to do and she put all her effort into doing it. She was an extraordinary Australian and wouldn’t get in.

These tests offend our citizens. They offend people who have made extraordinary contributions to this country but would not get in. This government is saying to them: ‘Mistake. Shouldn’t have let you in. You wouldn’t get in now.’ That’s what this bill says. It prevents future great citizens from fully participating in our society and it puts up barriers to international travel and study. For people who are doing great things in this country who need citizenship in order to contribute fully and build their lives as Australians, it prevents them for long periods of time from studying and doing the international travel that they need to do. It puts up barriers and it disrespects decisions that people have already made in good faith.

I have a friend who has a local business. I actually didn’t know she wasn’t a citizen, because I’ve been going to her for years. She runs her business. She pays her taxes. I know she employs people by the Fair Work Act, because she phones them all the time to double-check. I thought she was an extraordinary Australian. Two days after the government announced this decision, she told me that her husband had just become a citizen and that she was intending to apply but now couldn’t. She had to wait another three years because she’d only been a permanent resident for one, which meant that for the next three years they were going to be citizens of different countries. That for her was incredibly frightening because she came from a part of the world which was not secure.

Both of them have built really good lives. They work hard. They pay their taxes. They’re a family. You couldn’t want more from people. But for them there was this fear that for the next three years they actually weren’t citizens of the same country, because when he became a citizen of Australia he had to renounce the citizenship that she holds. So there’s an example of a family with a huge problem—and I’m not quite sure that she will pass the English language test either. She has more than enough language to run her business. I’ve never had an issue with it. But I’m not sure she will pass it. Level 6 English? Incredibly difficult.

More importantly, perhaps, than any of that is that, when we look at this bill and you look for the evidence on which the government bases their decision to introduce these new barriers requiring people to have permanent residency for four years instead of one, there isn’t any. It was basically done because a senator suggested it. If the security agencies were putting forward this idea for national security, we would be very interested in having a briefing on that, but we know that’s not the case. There isn’t any evidence base for this. There isn’t a group of evidence that says that requiring people to be here for four years of permanent residence on top of the period they have been here before will make us safer as a nation. The evidence is not there, and it simply does not recognise who we are.

It’s also incredibly lazy. It’s lazy policy. If the government believes there is an issue that there are a small number of people—and, again, there’s no evidence—who may somehow become citizens in their fifth, sixth and seventh years in Australia and then turn bad whereas if you make them wait another three years that won’t happen, surely the government could come up with a plan that looks after the security of the nation and honours the commitment that good people want to make to Australia. Surely the government can come up with something that does both, not one or the other.

What we’ve got here is a government saying: ‘Oh, we’re concerned about the security issue. There’s no evidence, but, you know, we’ll make it tougher to become Australian citizens because a senator said so.’ In order to do that they are removing the capacity of good people who in their hearts and minds have committed to Australia from doing so legally. They are actually asking people to wait incredible amounts of time, to put their lives effectively on hold, because they can’t seem to do both at once. Surely it’s possible to have a system that vets people fully before they get to that stage. Hang on; we already have one. By the time a person gets to permanent residence, they are already vetted over and over again. We already have a system that does that.

So what’s this about? Why do we have situations like the Palestinian-born doctor in my electorate who is stateless?

He has resided in Sydney for nine years, he’s forged a social research and academic network, he’s completed his PhD, he’s attracted over $1 million in research grants, he’s authored 14 publications, won numerous awards, supervises post-grads and is sponsored for permanent residency by the university. Why can’t we have him? What is wrong? Why does he have to wait another three years? There is Jilal, who has been in Australia since 2008 as a PhD student on a full scholarship. He then had three years working as a university teacher and has published multiple scientific papers in the field of nanotechnology and engineering. He and his wife have paid tax for four years and their two kids were born in Australia. They got their permanent residency on 9 March and applied for citizenship on 15 March. There was an error in their application, so it was rejected. They applied again on 24 April. ‘Oops! You’re out! You have to wait another three years.’

Henry, from Granville, was eligible for citizenship. He had all the paperwork but hadn’t lodged it before the government made the announcement. His wife had just had a baby so he didn’t get around to lodging it, and, by the way, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection’s website was down on the two days before the deadline of 20 April. Miraculous, that. So they tried to apply, but couldn’t do it. The 20 April date passed and suddenly their application wasn’t acceptable.

Sam is of Lebanese descent and his wife has a Syrian passport which expires in 2017. No passport. Why can’t these people get their citizenship? Why can’t these people commit to the country legally when they have already committed with their hearts and minds and all of their efforts?

Link to parliamentary Hansard