Subjects: Proposed citizenship changes; English language testing
ALLISON LANGDON: Right now in Australia, a quarter of new migrants can't speak English well or at all. That is significantly higher than a decade ago.
And when it comes to our population, 28 per cent of us were born overseas. Our new federal Citizenship Minister Alan Tudge, believes this is causing ethnic clustering and he is pushing to introduce strict English and Australian values tests on new arrivals.
He joins us from Melbourne this morning; very good morning to you, Minister.
ALAN TUDGE: Good morning, Ali.
ALLISON LANGDON: Isn't multiculturalism what makes Australia so great? Why mess with it?
ALAN TUDGE: Absolutely, and we have been the most successful country in the world in regards to multiculturalism and it is because it is rooted in integration, where our communities have come to these shores and they have merged with the existing community.
The challenge that we have got today, is that there are some early warning signs that we are not integrating quite as well and you mentioned a couple.
English language is not being spoken quite as broadly and that is often in areas of very high concentration of people from the same ethnic group and people born overseas.
We want to make sure that we maintain our successful multicultural community going forward.
ALLISON LANGDON: So what are your fears here? Is it that we are going perhaps down the same path as Europe where they do have high ethnic tensions in some of their major cities?
ALAN TUDGE: That is partially right. We have a unique model of multiculturalism in Australia rooted in integration, not assimilation and not separatism as sometimes occurs in Europe.
We want to maintain our unique model and that importantly means that migrants need to be able to speak some basic English, they need to integrate into the community and adopt Australian values and that is what we would like to see in play before you become a citizen.
ALLISON LANGDON: So is the answer here, less immigration - which is what was proposed by your former leader, Tony Abbott. He would like to see the number halved to 100,000, or is the solution helping them to integrate better once they are here?
ALAN TUDGE: Listen, my focus is on the latter. I think we can become a bigger Australia if the infrastructure keeps up and most cities are, although Melbourne, particularly where I am from, has not been keeping up on that front.
My focus is on integration. If we integrate well, then we can of course accommodate more people and we have been remarkably successful at this to date, where we have welcomed people from across the globe and they have largely got along very well.
But as I said, we need to work on this, because we cannot take the future for granted just because we have been successful in the past.
ALLISON LANGDON: Okay, I mean you talk there about wanting to help them integrate better, yet your Government has cut funding to the very programs that do that - language training programs.
ALAN TUDGE: That is not true. In fact, we have increased the funding by about 25 per cent since we came to office.
It sits at around $300 million per year at the moment, and that means that a migrant with poor English can get up to 1,000 hours of English language training.
That is the equivalent of doing 10 hours a week, every week, for a couple of years.
We want to help migrants learn better English so that they've got the best opportunities of being able to communicate with others and take advantage of all the great things that Australia has to offer.
ALLISON LANGDON: You are saying there are programs in place, if you come here as a new immigrant tomorrow, that there are programs in place where you can learn English to help you integrate?
ALAN TUDGE: Absolutely there are. And, as I said, up to 1,000 hours, you can do two hours a day, every day, for two years and we think that is a reasonable amount of support for a person to get up to speed.
If they need more on top of that, of course, they can purchase their own English language classes on top of that. But it is in their interest, Ali, to learn English as much as it is in society's interest.
Because when they have got better English, they have got a better chance of getting a job, they have got a better chance of broadly communicating with the broader population and taking advantage of everything that Australia has to offer, which is a great amount.
ALLISON LANGDON: But are you suggesting if these new immigrants do not speak great English that they are not good Australian citizens?
ALAN TUDGE: Not suggesting that at all. What we are proposing is to say that there should be an English language test before you become a citizen. Now, when this comes through…
You are limiting who is actually going to be coming into the country?
ALAN TUDGE: No, not doing that. Many people come into the country on say a 457 visa or a student visa and then they transfer into permanent residency and citizenship.
What this proposal is, is before you become a citizen, and that is typically four years after you've been in the country - you should be able to speak a basic level of English.
You should be able to demonstrate that you have adhered to Australian values and you should be able to demonstrate that you have made an effort to integrate into the community. We get those three things right, then we guarantee our successful multicultural model.
ALLISON LANGDON: Okay, now you are also talking about reintroducing strict citizenship laws that would add a three year waiting period before migrants can access welfare.
This is something that both Labor and the Greens have opposed in the past: saying that it is way too harsh. I mean, how are you expecting to get this through the Senate?
ALAN TUDGE: There already is a waiting period of about two years generally, so we are only slightly extending it for certain classes.
We will obviously have negotiations with the crossbench in relation to this, but there is a broad point here that migrants who come to this country, they tend to want to come because they want to work and they want to contribute.
That has been the model that has been successful for decades and decades now and we want to ensure that that continues.
ALLISON LANGDON: Okay, but I mean, do you think you are going to get the numbers? I mean the Greens and Labor are not going to be behind this. If you are pushing this forward, do you think you can actually get it through?
ALAN TUDGE: We hope so and we will have good negotiations with the crossbench in relation to it. I must say…
ALLISON LANGDON: Have you had those talks so far?
ALAN TUDGE: I have had very good discussions with the crossbench so far in relation to these matters. We are not rushing it. We are taking them through the details. We are talking to the Australian community in relation to these issues.
I have got to say, Ali, I am very disappointed with the Labor Party. I cannot see why they do not think English language is important to be the glue to our community, it always has been.
And if you lose the English language as being the glue to our community, then our community will start to fracture a little bit. We think it is vital. I do not understand the Labor opposition who do not think that English language is important in Australia anymore.
ALLISON LANGDON: Well, Minister, thank you so much for joining us this morning. We appreciate your time.
ALAN TUDGE: Thanks so much, Ali.