Australian Citizenship Amendment (Defence Families) Bill 2012
Mr McCORMACK (Riverina) (12:02): Our nation is forever indebted to Australian Defence Force families who make enormous sacrifices. Partners of serving personnel and children wave their loved ones off at airports and docks not knowing if they will ever see them again. We know a soldier killed on duty pays the supreme sacrifice for their country; so too does their family.
All too often last year we acknowledged in this parliament and in moving ramp ceremonies the awful ultimate consequences of what can happen in combat situations as we paid our last respects to brave diggers fallen in Afghanistan.
My home town of Wagga Wagga in the Riverina is a triservice town, having bases for the Air Force and Navy at Forest Hill as well as the Army. The Kapooka Army Base is fittingly known as the home of the soldier, as every recruit does their initial training there. I see the number of new service men and women who arrive in Wagga Wagga with their families having moved from another part of the country, or indeed from overseas, to faithfully train and serve in the Australian Defence Force. They contribute mightily to the local economy and to the city's stature and social fabric.
This Australian Citizenship Amendment (Defence Families) Bill 2012 concerns the Australian citizenship residence requirement of families of overseas lateral recruits to the Australian Defence Force. A lateral recruit is a member who has served in another nation's military and has subsequently moved to Australia to serve in our Defence Force. These members come from a number of countries, including New Zealand, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. The majority have come from the United Kingdom Royal Navy, marines, army or air force. They bring with them a raft of experience and skills, and they help fill capability and critical gaps which currently exist in the workforce of the Australian armed forces.
Australia takes members only where it suits the 'parent' country. An example of this is the Royal Australian Navy is presently taking advantage of the United Kingdom's Strategic Defence and Security Review, which amongst other things is reducing the number of personnel across the United Kingdom's four military services. This has allowed the Royal Australian Navy to increase its recruitment of Royal Navy personnel in order to fill capability gaps within their ranks. A lateral transfer also saves the Australia Defence Force a considerable amount of money and time in training our own personnel. The net benefit Australia receives from recruiting a lateral transfer member far exceeds any potential costs associated with bringing forward the citizenship status of the spouse and dependants of a lateral transfer member.
Due to the gaps which currently exist within the Australian Defence Force, it is looking to recruit up to about 300 lateral transfer personnel each year to fill these gaps. The number of lateral transfers recruited each year is entirely the prerogative of the Australian Defence Force. Of the overseas members who join the Australian Defence force, 90 per cent have families who move with them to Australia. Given the current recruitment environment in Australia and countries such as the United Kingdom, it is an appropriate time to ensure these families of lateral transfers are afforded the same citizenship status as the serving member.
Under the law all lateral transfer members are required to qualify for permanent residency visas before they can take up a position with the Australian Defence Force and before they relocate to Australia. This is a necessary measure as it is a requirement for all members of the Australian Defence Force to be Australian citizens. A prerequisite to citizenship is permanent residency. Currently, spouses or partners and dependants of lateral transfers are granted permanent residency but not citizenship. Under the Australian Citizenship Act 2007—section 21(2)(c) and section 23—a permanent resident may be granted citizenship after completing 90 days permanent service in the Australian Defence Force or 180 days service in the reserves. The provision of early citizenship does not allow for the inclusion of a spouse or partner, nor does it include dependants aged 16 years or over. This situation can, and does, lead to discord within families of Defence Force members who have transferred from overseas. For these families the lack of citizenship offers them lack of certainty of their right to remain in Australia should something happen to their spouse or parent who is deployed on military operations.
The government has made assurances that support would be provided to families should a deployed lateral transfer member be killed in the line of action, but this provides no comfort to the families of these members. Aside from losing a loved one and not being sure if you can remain in Australia, even if they could stay there is the very real possibility of hardship for these families as they lose an income and are not guaranteed financial assistance through government agencies such as Centrelink. The same issues are also faced by those who may separate and divorce from their spouse who is serving in the defence force. Additionally, children of a serving lateral transfer member cannot gain access to a university HELP based placement unless they are New Zealand citizens, and the cost of university without a Commonwealth placement can be financially crippling.
This bill will fast-track Australian citizenship for family members of Australian Defence Force personnel, and ensure partners and dependants will be eligible for citizenship at the same time as the serving member. The bill also extends the provisions for citizenship beyond only spouses and dependent children to allow, for example, elderly dependent parents, or disabled dependants who do not qualify as children. Members who join the Reserves will also have the relevant defence service criteria cut from 180 days to 90 days. It will also allow a spouse and dependants to remain eligible for citizenship in the event the member dies before attaining citizenship.
The coalition introduced a near-identical bill to this on 21 May 2012. It was put up by the shadow minister for defence science, technology and personnel—the member for Fadden—who had gone out, spoken to defence personnel and their families and, more importantly, listened to what they told him and formulated a view that we as a parliament and as a coalition needed to do something. His well-researched and clearly articulated bill was a result of his discussions and the result of what he heard. Labor introduced its bill the very next day. The introduction of this bill by Labor is purely political. Labor has done nothing while in office, yet suddenly after the coalition introduced a near-identical bill Labor thought it was time to do something. No-one will buy that spin—certainly not veterans, still wondering why their pensions and superannuation entitlements are not fairly indexed, and certainly not defence people still smarting from the $5.5 billion slashed from Defence in the 8 May budget. The cutbacks brought about by the budget will hurt the Riverina considerably, with construction of Kapooka's working accommodation delayed by three years and the officer and pilot training systems delayed by 12 months at RAAF Base Forest Hill. This at a time of great unease; this at a time of unrest and instability in the world. Now, as much as ever, we need a proper focus on defence, not a slash-and-burn approach by a government which says it wants to save the planet but is doing little to protect our nation.
Labor's additional amendments to this particular legislation are simply a political attempt to differentiate its bill from the coalition's. But it gets worse—far worse: Labor is on the record as being against the proposed measures. The Minister for Immigration and Citizenship wrote to the Minister for Defence Science and Personnel on 4 February 2011. Of the proposed changes contained in Labor's bill he said:
… I do not consider it necessary to amend the citizenship legislation.
While the coalition supports these changes over and above its own bill, Labor could easily have introduced them as amendments to the coalition's bill, rather than trying on this political stunt and introducing its own bill.
The coalition supports this bill, although it questions the intent and real motives of the Labor government. It is evident that the rushed introduction of Labor's bill is as a direct response to the coalition introducing an almost identical bill just the day before—an attempt to have its bill voted on first, prior to the coalition's bill. Only last year Labor believed it was unnecessary to make such legislative changes.
This legislation will provide families with peace of mind through legislative means. Importantly, it is a policy which is wholly welcomed and supported by Defence Families of Australia, those people who, as I said at the outset, give so much to our nation's security and to our nation's wellbeing. Defence Families of Australia have been marvellous advocates on behalf of defence families and defence personnel across a wide range of issues ranging from defence housing, spousal support and, of course, the need to fix the inequity in families of ADF lateral transfer members.
Finally, Defence Families of Australia oght to be acknowledged and thanked, now and always, for their ongoing advocacy on behalf of ADF personnel right across Australia.