DAVID COLEMAN: Well, Australia Day is a wonderful day. It's a day where all Australians come together to celebrate our nation. To become an Australian on Australia Day is incredibly special. Our Government believes that all new citizens should have the opportunity to become an Australian on Australia Day. Now, at the moment, that's not the case because more than 100 Councils around Australia who have people ready to become citizens don't hold citizenship ceremonies on Australia Day. So the people who live in those places don't get the chance to become an Australian on Australia Day. It's always a wonderful and special moment to become an Australian citizen, but it's an extra special moment to become an Australian citizen on Australia Day and we want to make sure that all people who are ready to become an Australian citizen get the opportunity to do that on Australia Day.
Now, at the moment, some Councils say no to Australia Day; we believe that all Councils should say yes to Australia Day. And so, the changes that we're proposing to make to the Citizenship Code will mean that Councils will no longer be able to say no to Australia Day, and they will mean that all people around Australia who are ready to become a citizen have the opportunity to become a citizen on Australia Day and join us in this wonderful, wonderful nation that we're so proud to be a part of. Now, we know that the Greens don't like Australia Day. We know they're against Australia Day, but just earlier this morning Bill Shorten has refused to support the Government on this important policy. And this is a really simple policy; this is to say if you're ready to become an Australian citizen then you should have the chance to do that on Australia Day no matter where you are. Why should local Councils be able to deny new citizens the opportunity to become an Australian on Australia Day? Because Australia Day is a special day, it's a wonderful day, it's a day that we celebrate and the Government wants all new citizens to have the opportunity to become a citizen on Australia Day.
Bill Shorten, in refusing to back the Government this morning on this issue, has let down the Australian people. He should unambiguously back this policy, which is a very positive thing for new Australian citizens. We welcome people from all around the world in Australia. It's one of our great strengths -people from all four corners of the globe - and when you meet those people at citizenship ceremonies they are so happy and so excited to be joining us as Australians; they should have the chance to become an Australian on Australia Day, and that's what this Government is about.
QUESTION: Minister, Councils that removed their citizenship ceremonies from 26 January have already been stripped of their citizenship duties, so why do you need this blanket policy for all Councils?
DAVID COLEMAN: At the moment, there is no requirement for Councils to hold citizenship ceremonies on Australia Day. There's no positive requirement for them to do that. And what we're saying is: we are going to create that requirement. We are going to say to local Councils: Australia Day doesn't mean 24 January; it doesn't mean the 27 January; it doesn't mean some other day; it means Australia Day. Because Australia Day is special, we are proud of Australia Day. We celebrate Australia Day, and we want all Councils to get behind Australia Day and give their new citizens the opportunity to become Australians on Australia Day.
QUESTION: The PM is quoted today inn some media saying some Councils are being sneaky, moving citizenship ceremonies, for example, citing extreme weather, staffing shortages and so on; which Councils have been doing this and how can you be so sure that they have these ulterior motives?
DAVID COLEMAN: Well look, if a Council is saying it's too hot to hold a citizenship ceremony on Australia Day but it's not too hot to hold one some other time in January, then that's very hard to believe, and that's why we want to remove the opportunity for people to make excuses about holding citizenship ceremonies on Australia Day, we want to create that obligation because we think it's only fair that new citizens to Australia get that opportunity. There are more than 100 Councils around Australia that have new citizens ready to become Australians around the time of Australia Day, who don't hold citizenship ceremonies. And they may cite a whole range of different reasons for that, but what we're saying is: regardless of the reason that the Council puts forward, we don't believe that's appropriate. We believe Australia Day means Australia Day means Australia Day and that all Councils should hold citizenship ceremonies on that day.
QUESTION: Which Councils specifically have been using that excuse?
DAVID COLEMAN: Well obviously there's been a number of Councils that have had their citizenship ceremony rights stripped in the past for raising political sentiments. Obviously, Byron Bay was one and, to their credit, they then reinstated their Australia Day citizenship ceremony. But the question isn't: what is the reason that different Councils have given for not holding a ceremony on Australia Day; the question is: should they be able to give a reason at all? Should they be able to choose that the people in their area should not be allowed to become a citizen on Australia Day? We say: no, they should not be able to do that because Australia Day is special and it's incredibly important that new citizens get the opportunity to become an Australian on Australia Day.
QUESTION: Minister, why were these introduced in time for 2020 and not in time for this year's ceremonies?
DAVID COLEMAN: Well we obviously want to allow some time for consultation. We will be writing to all Councils this week and we will formalise the code in the first half of this year. So citizenship ceremonies are governed by the Citizenship Code, which is something that I have responsibility for, and we will be publishing a revised version of the Code in the first half of this year after we've completed this consultation process. But the Government's position is very clear: why should Councils be able to stop someone who's about to become an Australian citizen from the great honour of becoming a citizen on Australia Day? They shouldn't be able to stop that. We don't want them to be able to stop that, and under the Code, we propose that they will not be able to stop that.
QUESTION: What would the punishment be?
DAVID COLEMAN: If Councils do no abide by the new rules and refuse to hold a citizenship ceremony on Australia Day, they will lose their right to hold citizenship ceremonies at all. Because we think this is really important, we don’t think local Councils should be able to pick and choose whether or not they like Australia Day. Australia Day is our national Day, it is not for a local Council to decide that they don’t like Australia Day and they’re going to hold their citizenship ceremony on some other day. Australia Day is our national day, celebrated right across the nation, and local councils are not a body to be deciding that a citizenship ceremony should be held on Australia Day. So if Councils don’t hold a citizenship ceremony on Australia Day, they will lose their right to hold citizenship ceremonies in the future.
QUESTION: The local government association has accused you of failing to consult Councils, what is your response to that?
DAVID COLEMAN: We will be consulting with the Councils. I will be writing to them this week and they will have an opportunity to express their views. But it is important to know that Australia Day is not legislated for in every individual Council area in Australia Day, Australia Day is a national Day, it is not different in one Council or the other. Australia Day is Australia Day. So why should a local Council in some particular part of Australia be able to decide that they don’t support our national day. They shouldn’t be able to decide that. That’s what we believe and that’s what we propose to make the change to the Code to bring about.
QUESTION: But if a local government does decide to go against this and not have a citizenship ceremony, ultimately that will fall on people who are eager to become citizens. Is that worth it? Will this lead to people who are eager to become citizens missing out?
DAVID COLEMAN: No, if a local Council refuses to hold a citizenship ceremony on Australia Day and is therefore stripped of its right to hold a citizenship ceremony, the Department of Home Affairs will conduct a citizenship ceremony in that location on Australia Day. The Department already conducts quite a lot of citizenship ceremonies during the year, and if necessary it can conduct further ceremonies on Australia Day. Now that is not our preferred outcome, we would hope and expect that all Councils would support this policy and we’ll ensure that they do fully back Australia Day, but that is the way it will work. For Bill Shorten to refuse to support such a simple and positive idea as this, I think, is quite outrageous. Why would Bill Shorten not immediately agree to the idea that Australia Day citizenship ceremonies should occur right across the nation. What is he saying? He is saying they should be in some places but not in others. Why should some local Councils get to decide that they don’t like Australia Day. It’s not the local Council day, it’s Australia Day for the whole nation and local Councils should not get to decide that they don’t like it and in the process deprive new citizens the opportunity of becoming an Australian on that day.
QUESTION: On another issue Minister, did the Government drag its feet in assessing the refugee application of Saudi woman Ms Rahaf Mohammed Al-Qunun? Has Canada shown it’s a more welcoming place than Australia now that they have taken her in?
DAVID COLEMAN: No, we welcome absolutely the outcome for Ms Al-Qunun in obtaining a humanitarian visa in Canada. That’s a very positive outcome and we welcome that. The Australian Home Affairs officials were working through her application and making good process on that application, but ultimately she’s been granted a visa in Canada and that’s a very positive thing and we welcome that development.
QUESTION: Was Australia willing to accept her here, is that what you are saying?
DAVID COLEMAN: Well Australia was going through the process of assessing her application, of course, as you appreciate it’s really important that our officials follow all the appropriate rules and regulations in Australian law when someone is seeking a visa to Australia. That process was ongoing and was progressing well. Canada has offered her a humanitarian visa, we’re pleased with the outcome, we obviously had concerns for her welfare and wish her every success in her new life in Canada.
QUESTION: The UNHCR said it withdrew its referral for her to be resettled in Australia because Canberra was taking too long to decide on her asylum. Why was this the case?
DAVID COLEMAN: Well we were looking at this issue for two days, our officials were going through the process of assessing her application. Obviously applications have to be assessed according to Australian law. This year we will process about 18,750 humanitarian visas, actually up 35 per cent under the Coalition Government compared to what was in place when we came to Government, and obviously our officials need to process applications in a manner that’s consistent with Australian law and with Australian procedures. That process was ongoing, progressing well, but Canada has obviously offered her the visa and that’s a positive outcome because she now has that passage to Canada and we warmly welcome that.