THE HON TONY BURKE MP
SHADOW MINISTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT AND WATER
SHADOW MINISTER FOR CITIZENSHIP AND MULTICULTURAL AUSTRALIA
SHADOW MINISTER FOR THE ARTS
MEMBER FOR WATSON
KEYNOTE SPEECH: FECCA (FEDERATION OF ETHNIC COMMUNITIES COUNCILS OF AUSTRALIA) CONFERENCE 2017
DARWIN CONVENTION CENTRE, DARWIN NT
MONDAY, 9 OCTOBER 2017
Thanks very much Joe. Thank you Dorothy for the extremely warm welcome to country and welcome to Larrakia land. I suspect I’m the worst dressed of the panellists today, yet in my defence I suspect I am the only one who woke up in a tent this morning.
I acknowledge my Parliamentary colleague Zed Seselja, my friend and colleague and the local member for Solomon Luke Gosling, Jane Kenan, Tim Soutphommasane, Kon Vatskalis; we used to work together as ministers some time ago it’s good to see him now in a different role, Kate Carnell, Mary Patetsos who I actually appointed to the housing supply committee some time ago and I’m seeing here today.
Today is actually the 13th anniversary of my election to Parliament. I didn’t actually realise until I woke up and Chris Bowen sent me a text this morning so we will work off the basis that that is true. And in that time I’ve attended many of your events both as FECCA, the State organisations and many of constituent bodies you all represent.
There is a pattern to these speeches. We tend to exchange pleasantries, we talk about the importance of multicultural Australia, we say some nice things and then we sit down. We tend to not engage very much in politics and there’s a good reason why we usually don’t.
It’s not in the interests of multicultural Australia that modern multicultural Australia become a political football. But it would be naive of me to stand here without acknowledging that fight has already started. And it would be naive of me in that situation to say ‘well I’ll just exchange the pleasantries and sit down’.
Because the current proposals to change Australian citizenship are the most direct attack on modern multicultural Australia since the abolition of the white Australia policy.
It is not good enough for people to stand up and say they support modern multicultural Australia. For people to say they understand that there are in fact two sort of Australian stories that we all fit into. Either a story that goes back on this land to the first sunrise or a story that involves immigration. It is not good enough for people to make those sorts of statements and then support the attack on multicultural Australia that these citizenship proposals are.
Be in no doubt, citizenship law is different to any other law that we deal with in the nation because in our citizenship laws we define what it is to be Australian. That’s the purpose of citizenship law. The delay is difficult and offensive and I’m opposed to the delay, but the university level English test is designed to prevent people from making a commitment to Australia. That’s what it is designed for.
Now we need to have a think about what this proposal is doing. Consider this, there is a group of people living here who Australia has already said you will live here as permanent residents. That decision has been made and that group of people say ‘we would like to make a pledge of permanent commitment to Australia’ and the Australian government says ‘no’.
That is exactly where we are right now. Saying no to people who want to make a pledge of allegiance to Australia on the basis that they might have conversational level English, they might have good enough English to pass the test which already exists and which is in English but they don’t have level 6 IELTS. They don’t have the level of English required for university entry. That is designed to permanently prevent people from becoming Australian citizens.
If anyone wants to question that it is just an across the board principle and that being and across the board principle therefore why am I talking about the white Australia policy? Well it’s not an across the board rule. The legislation before the Parliament right now provides an exemption from having to have a university level English if you come from the United States, Canada, New Zealand, the UK or Ireland. If you come from Asia you have to have university level English, if you come from England you do not. If you come from Africa you have to have university level English, if you come from North America you will not. That does not represent modern Australia.
Modern Australia and multicultural Australia are the same thing.
We need as a nation to be big enough to acknowledge that there is a difference between having a test which encourages people to improve their English to a standard that everyone can reach and a test that is designed to exclude.
When these proposals were announced the department was instructed by Minister Dutton to do something very unusual. We have always had a principle in taxation law that when a tax proposal is announced it is implemented immediately on the presumption that the law will go through Parliament. If the law doesn’t go through then the money has to be refunded. It’s done that way for a sensible reason which is to prevent people the moment a new tax law is announced from suddenly reorganising their finances in a new way for tax avoidance. It’s a sensible approach we have adopted.
But we have never done that before with respect to laws like citizenship. And what it has meant is a whole lot of people who had the lawful entitlement under Australian statute right now to apply for citizenship are not having their claims processed. In a few weeks’ time the Senate will deal with this bill. I never call any outcome of a vote until it’s happened, I’ve been around long enough to see that these things are always unpredictable. But let me say this: if the Senate does reject the Government’s legislation then the Department must start processing every application and processing it immediately under the Australian law.
Of all the laws to say we will ignore what is on the statute, to think we are doing that with the law of citizenship. There are some countries in the world where you expect that, but not a country like Australia. The countries of the world where you expect that sort of behaviour are not known as democracies. In Australia we have every right to expect that citizenship applications will be assessed according to the law of the day and for it to have not passed the Parliament but be implemented anyway is something that has to end the day the Senate rejects this bill.
May I say that we attend conferences like this and we begin in the respectful way we should begin, with a welcome to country. It astonishes me how anyone can be unaffected by that. This is the first Australians, people whose heritage goes back to the first sunrise on this land, people who were given no choice, no laws to bar people from arriving, saying welcome anyway. Giving the generosity of that welcome. To hear that and then respond with a slamming of the door to refuse to welcome anyone else, to refuse to welcome other people based on whether or not they have university level English is an astonishing approach.
I was Minister for Citizenship for only three months and there are lots of tough things in that portfolio and aspects of the job that are emotionally heart wrenching but there is one part of that job that is truly wonderful. That is you get to write the citizenship message that is read out at every citizenship ceremony. There were two words that my message ended with and those words were taken out of the message the moment the Government changed. I hope one day to be able to put those words back in. Those two words I think encapsulate what this organisation (FECCA) is about, what modern Australia is about and what I want in our citizenship laws to reflect - those two words are simply this: welcome home.