Australian Citizenship Amendment (Defence Families) Bill 2012
It is always a pleasure to speak on important bills that seek to improve the lives of our Australian Defence Force members. I say this particularly as the member for Canberra. The Australian Citizenship Amendment (Defence Families) Bill 2012 is important because, when it comes to recruitment from overseas, the ADF gets recruits that are technical specialists and have, as the member for Fadden has pointed out, previous experience in other defence forces, so their presence in our Defence Force greatly assists Australia to maintain its operational status and to train other ADF personnel. This bill may only impact on a small number of ADF members, but it is nonetheless an important amendment that will make life here in Australia much easier for current and future overseas lateral recruits.
When I think about the importance of this bill, I think about the time I spent in Afghanistan early last year with the member for Fadden. I have mentioned this story before when speaking on this issue. When we were flying between Kabul and Tarin Kowt, I met someone who had been with the German defence force and had since joined the ADF. We had a really long chat, and he said to me that in Germany, unfortunately, the defence forces were not well respected. He was a very proud member of the defence force and a very proud soldier, and the disrespect that he experienced in Germany put him off his countrymen and his country. So he is now a proud member of the ADF. He said that he had experienced quite significant discrimination in Germany as a result of his membership of the defence force there. It was really interesting to hear about his experiences in Germany and the fact that he had joined the Australian Defence Force. He is a great asset. In speaking on this bill, I think about what it will mean to him, to his family and to other ADF families.
I came to Canberra at the tender age of 18 to study at the ANU. I lived at Burgmann College, where a lot of ADF cadets who were studying at ADFA also stayed. We used to call them 'cordies' for some reason. I have no idea where that term originated, but I understand it was because they used to wear corduroy pants. Many of my girlfriends in their early 20s fell in love with cordies, married at that young age and headed off on grand adventures throughout Australia and the world supporting their husbands.
I know the trials and tribulations that my girlfriends and their friends have been through, particularly when their husbands have been deployed on operations overseas. One girlfriend, whose husband did quite a bit of work with the MFO, was based in Damascus. These are dangerous missions, during which these women are at home on their own for between three and six months, depending on the service that their husband is in. During this time they manage their dayto-day lives, look after the kids—quite often, at the moment particularly among my girlfriends, adolescent kids—and meet the challenges that that entails. These are extraordinary women. I take my hat off to the Navy, Army and Air Force wives, as I call them, who do extraordinary work in keeping their households together, supporting their children and, through that, supporting their husbands in their lives and career decisions. I take my hat off to ADF families and think that any support that we can provide to make their lives as easy as possible and to bring them together as much as possible is to be commended.
This bill seeks to enable the family members of current and future overseas lateral recruits to satisfy the residence requirements of Australian citizenship at the same time as their ADF enlisted family member. It is basically about ensuring all family members are treated equally. Currently the legislation states that an ADF member and any of their children who are under 16 are able to apply for Australian citizenship after they have completed 90 days of service in the permanent services or six months of service in the reserves. Meanwhile, spouses and other family members, such as children over 16 and elderly parents, do not receive the same concession. They must wait for at least four years to be eligible for citizenship. This means that, currently, members of the same family are treated differently from each other. For example, a serviceman father and his 14-year-old child could become citizens while the mother and their 17-year-old child had to wait up to four years. It is only fair that the government extends the same residence requirements to the spouses and family members of ADF personnel. It is fair and it is the right thing to do, because, when a family group migrate to Australia, they are all making a continuing commitment and contribution to Australia and they are all facing similar settlement challenges.
This bill will fast-track Australian citizenship for the family members of ADF personnel. As I have said before, it will allow all family members of current and future overseas lateral recruits to the ADF to satisfy the residence requirements for Australian citizenship at the same time—and this is really important— as the enlisted ADF member. Not only will this acknowledge the commitment they are making by migrating to Australia together as a group; it will also assist the families of recruits in accessing employment opportunities and education assistance to help them build a closer, continuing relationship with Australia. It will help them establish closer ties with their local community and make them feel as if Australia is their home.
As the member for Canberra, as I have mentioned before, I have many Defence Force families living in my electorate. These families face unique challenges, particularly when their husband or partner is deployed. It is important that we provide them with as much support and stability as possible so that they can get some sort of continuity and calm in what can be a very disrupted life. It is really important that we try and make that a little bit easier. Issues for Defence Force families stretch from a lack of local services to mental health issues and from education to housing. We as a government should commit ourselves to do whatever we can to improve the health and wellbeing of our Defence Force members and their families. That is why I am so proud to support this bill tonight. The member for Fadden obviously believes in the policy; it is the process he has got concerns with. He talked about the private member's bill that he introduced in May. Our bill will go even further than that and make more substantial amendments to the legislation.
The member for Fadden's bill had some faults in some areas. It only sought to cover children between the age of 18 and 25 if they were students, which did not take into account the fact that there may be disabled children in the family. It did not cover a dependent parent, even though the parent may have migrated with the family. It did not clarify whether the family members needed to permanently migrate with the ADF member and did not allow for the family members to remain eligible for citizenship in the event that the ADF member dies before they become eligible for that citizenship.
Our amendments will provide more equitable treatment and greater certainty for ADF lateral recruits and their families. Of course, the concessional residence requirements we are debating do not preclude those people from meeting the other requirements for Australian citizenship, which relate to identity and character; an understanding of the nature of their application and the responsibilities and privileges associated with citizenship; sitting and passing the test; and, finally, making the very important pledge of commitment.
The bill includes two previously proposed technical amendments to more clearly specify the periods of relevant defence service and the ADF members who are eligible to apply for this residence requirement. It is proposed to amend the act to specify that relevant defence service includes required attendance of at least 90 paid service days in the Navy, Army or Air Force reserves instead of the current six-month service requirement. The proposed amendment will also clarify that defence service refers only to appointed and enlisted personnel in the ADF.
This bill is important because it will provide more equitable treatment and greater certainty to ADF overseas lateral recruits and their families, such as that German soldier I mentioned earlier. Our amendments will also assist Australia to attract personnel to highly specialised roles within the ADF. We need to think about how best to attract specialist defence personnel to our forces. I know that there are many, many wonderfully specialised experts in the ADF but, as with everything, there are skills shortages and skills gaps. I believe this bill will help to fill some of those gaps and keep families together.
Family is incredibly important. I have been to Afghanistan and I have many girlfriends whose husbands are in the ADF, so I know it is very important that we provide them with as much help as possible, particularly when their partners are posted overseas. Knowing that their loved ones are part of a community that cares and supports them would be of great comfort to our recruits.