Since taking on the portfolio responsibilities for multicultural affairs in December last year I have had the pleasure of meeting with hundreds of Chinese Australian community leaders.
I have been impressed with the work that you and your communities have been doing – particularly during this year's bushfire season and more recently during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addressing you today, I wanted to publicly acknowledge those achievements, but also address some of the challenges I know the Chinese Australian community is facing, and outline some of what the Government is doing to support you and your communities.
As we all know, the COVID-19 pandemic is having a significant impact on all aspects of our lives.
Tragically, hundreds of people have lost their lives, and we continue to see new cases every day – particularly in my home state of Victoria.
The pandemic has shut down large parts of our economy, businesses have closed and unemployment is rising. Compared to other countries, our economy is robust and holding up well, but Treasury is still forecasting the COVID effective unemployment rate to rise to more than 13 percent in the September quarter. This will be devastating for so many.
Many of the community festivals and public activities which have traditionally brought us together have also been put on hold and our social cohesion is being tested as a result.
In many respects, the Chinese Australian community has felt the effects of COVID-19 more than others.
Way back in February, it was Chinese Australians, returning from China, who were the first to go into mandatory isolation when the first border restrictions were put in place in Australia. As the Prime Minister himself has publicly acknowledged, their actions put Australia in a strong position in those early days of dealing with the pandemic.
As the Prime Minister said at the time: “…it was Chinese Australians in particular that provided one of the greatest defences we had in those early weeks. They were the ones who first went into self-isolation, they were the ones who were returning from family visits in China and they were coming home, and it was through their care, it was through their commitment, their patience that actually Australia was protected in their first wave."
In the early stages of the pandemic, Chinese businesses in Australia were among the first to be heavily affected. In my own electorate in Melbourne, local shopping centres – like The Glen – saw significant reductions in business even before social distancing restrictions came into force.
Those parts of Melbourne are now in complete lockdown and those local businesses are being hit again.
Unfortunately, some Chinese Australians have also been the victims of some disgraceful acts of racism during the pandemic.
Let me be very clear that our Government – and 99.99 per cent of all Australians – has no tolerance for racism. We have called out these attacks and have run an advertising campaign encouraging others to report these incidents.
We must always guard against racist behaviour whenever it occurs. Racist attacks have no place in Australia. It is not the Australian way. If you see something – call it out – report it and seek help.
A few months ago, the Government committed funding and released a series of advertisements in 15 languages across various newspapers, radios, posters and paid online advertising – many of you will have seen these. The purpose of these ads were to call out racism, to reinforce the Government's support to the Chinese and indeed the Asian Australian community and to by extension acknowledge the contributions of our Chinese and Asian Australian communities.
It is times like these that we need to all come together and support each other. From the bushfires and now to the pandemic, what unites us as Australians isn't our ethnicity, it's not where we've come from but it's the strong values that unite bring us together and unite us as Australians.
It is our common bond, our sense of 'mateship' and helping each other out during times of need which solidifies and strengthens our social cohesion.
The Chinese Australian community has contributed immensely to this sense of mateship and have been on the front line when it comes to supporting those in need during the pandemic.
I was with the Oceania Federation of Chinese Organisations in June when they handed over more than $37,000 in donations to the Royal Melbourne Hospital COVID-19 appeal.
The Chung Wah Association and Western Australia Chinese Chamber of Commerce recently donated 50,000 masks for the Australian Red Cross to distribute in my home state of Victoria.
The Queensland Chinese United Council worked with restaurants to subsidise discounted takeaway meals for frontline medical staff.
Even before the pandemic, we have seen the Australian Chinese community come together to help out their fellow Aussies during the recent bushfire crisis.
The Australian Chinese Charity Foundation donated more than $170,000 to the Salvation Army Bushfire Disaster Appeal.
Sydney's Chinese community raised $390,000 towards bushfire relief, donating funds to the NSW Rural Service, Port Macquarie's Koala Hospital and BlazeAid.
On behalf of the Government, I want to extend my sincere thanks to all those community organisations that have been involved in this important community work. It represents the best of Australia and clearly demonstrates how successful our multicultural society can be when we work together and look out for one another.
It also highlights the significant contribution that Chinese migrants and their descendants have made to Australia for generations.
Immigration to Australia from China has occurred for more than two hundred years and Australians of Chinese background have added immensely to our nation.
Today, there are more than 1.2 million Australians of Chinese heritage.
Last year approximately 15,000 people of Chinese background became Australian citizens. They were part of a record 204,000 people conferred with citizenship last financial year – a 60 percent increase on the previous year and the highest number on record.
It is pleasing to see so many people – including those of Chinese background – making the pledge to uphold Australia's rights, liberties, laws and democratic values. It represents a willingness to integrate into our successful multicultural nation.
And it is these core fundamental values that help shape our country and are the reason why so many people want to come to Australia, contribute to our society, and become Australian citizens.
I recently announced that – from 15 November 2020 – the Government will be updating the Australian Citizenship Test so that it has a clear focus on Australian values.
The updated Citizenship Test will have new and more meaningful questions that require potential citizens to understand and commit to our values like freedom of speech, mutual respect, equality of opportunity, the importance of democracy and the rule of law.
We are asking those who apply for citizenship to understand our values more deeply before they make the ultimate commitment to our nation, and I encourage you to spread the word of the importance of citizenship throughout the community.
While our appreciation and respect for the Chinese Australian community will continue, there has been a lot of discussion recently about Australia's relationship with China – and particularly with the Chinese Communist Party government.
Australia's relationship with China is an extremely important one for both countries. In 2019-20 our two-way merchandise trade reached record levels. In the first 6 months of 2020 it was up 4 per cent on the same period in 2019.
Our people-to-people links are even stronger and Australia remains a popular destination for Chinese students, visitors and business travellers.
Last program year more than 680,000 temporary visas were granted to Chinese nationals.
While we value the relationship with China, the Australian Government will always act in the best interests of Australia – just as China acts in its interests.
There is nothing remarkable about this. It is what Australians would expect and it is what we have done.
When the Chinese Government makes claims that Australia is a racist country, or is unsafe for visitors and students, we will call that out. It's simply not true.
When there is an opportunity to attract more students, skilled migrants, global talent and international companies to Australia, we will take that opportunity.
That's why last month we announced changes to visas to allow Hong Kong passport holders to remain in Australia and to attract talent and companies that will boost productivity and create further job opportunities for Australians.
Again this is nothing extraordinary. We have a long history of targeting and attracting skilled migration – around 70 percent of our annual permanent migration program are skilled migrants.
We will also always make decisions based on Australia's core values and will be consistent in defending those values globally.
The Australian Government remains concerned about China's imposition of a broad national security law on Hong Kong.
It erodes the democratic principles that have underpinned Hong Kong's society and the One Country, Two Systems framework.
As a result, we took steps to suspend our Extradition Agreement and provided advice to Australians travelling to Hong Kong.
It is right that a country warn its citizens about the potential risks of surveillance, arbitrary enforcement of laws and detention when travelling abroad.
Our calls for an investigation into the origins of COVID-19 have also been consistent with our national interests and our values.
The sole motivation for our call for such an inquiry was so we can understand how this pandemic began, what went wrong, and how we can ensure it does not happen again. It is a practical task and it should not be seen in any political lens.
So of course, there will be differences between Australia and China – but I reiterate that these do not take away from our respect for and appreciation of our wonderful Chinese Australian community or indeed our friendship with the people of China.
The differences between our governments do not take away from the contribution that generations of Chinese migrants have made to Australia.
I have made this clear in my meetings with numerous community leaders in recent months and I have made clear the Government's commitment to engaging and communicating with the Chinese Australian community.
We have stepped up engagement across the country – particularly during COVID-19.
The Department of Home Affairs has had over 7,200 engagements with key multicultural groups (including 1,100 in Victoria) between March and August 2020. This is a 550% increase the same period in 2019.
We've spent more than $1.9 million translating materials into 63 languages including in simplified and traditional Chinese.
There are have been more than 1.3 million unique page views of the centralised COVID-19 Information in your language website – including almost 75,000 views of simplified and traditional Chinese translations.
The Government has worked with SBS to produce in-language videos, available on the SBS website and social media channels.
The COVIDSafe app is also now available for download in simplified and traditional Chinese – as well as other languages. I would encourage everyone to download the app – if you haven't already done so – in order to better track any outbreaks.
We have also boosted our network of Regional Directors and Community Liaison Officers to give communities a direct link to Government and to me personally as the Minister.
These discussions have been very useful for me as Minister, and I hope they continue and increase.
Finally, I wanted to mention that I recently made a major announcement on some reforms the Government is making to English language classes to ensure that English language capability is more widespread in our community.
The Government's Adult Migrant Education Program (AMEP) currently provides migrants 510 hours of free language tuition (with a very small number eligible for up to 1,090 hours), but, on average, people only complete 300 hours of classes and only 21 percent leave with a functional level of English.
This is not good enough.
The current program is mostly classroom-based and doesn't provide the flexibility needed for people working or with caring responsibilities. Moreover, once you have been here for five years, a person becomes ineligible to take further classes. In many cases, 510 hours is also insufficient, particularly for those whose native language is not a European language, which is many of the major groups of our new migrants today.
Hence, I announced that we would be lifting the cap on class hours and removing the time limits which means that any permanent resident or citizen who doesn't yet have functional English – that is, the basic language skills to enable participation in society – will be able to attend classes free of charge until they acquire this English language capability.
I am encouraging anyone in your local communities who fits this description to take up this opportunity: people can use this time to become better equipped in learning English.
Further, once we pass legislation, people will also be able to continue to undertake classes until they reach vocational level English.
We will work closely with the English language providers and the industry, including Ed-Tech, to ensure these reforms generate the improvements we need and expect.
When Scott Morrison was sworn in as Prime Minister, he outlined three commitments that would be his government's focus: keeping our economy strong; keeping Australians safe; and – importantly - keeping Australians together.
Australia is a very different place to what it was two years ago but these commitments remain the same.
And you – our Chinese Australian community – will continue to play an important role in ensuring we remain a successful and socially cohesive multicultural nation.
We will work with you to keep our economy strong, keep Australians safe, and keep Australians together.