Parliamentary speeches

Immigration (Education) Amendment (Expanding Access to English Tuition) Bill 2020

December 08, 2020

I rise to make a contribution to the debate on the Immigration (Education) Amendment (Expanding Access to English Tuition) Bill 2020 and to indicate the Labor Party's support for this bill. This bill would amend the Immigration Education Act 1971 in four ways: to remove the current 510-hour limit on an eligible person's entitlement to English tuition; to amend the upper limit for eligibility to access English tuition from functional English to vocational English; to remove the time limits on the registration, commencement and completion of English tuition for certain visa holders; and, finally, to provide English tuition to certain visa holders or visa applicants who are outside of Australia.

These are changes that Labor supports because they will allow more migrants to access free English tuition for longer and until they reach a higher level of English proficiency. Federal Labor has been advocating for changes along these lines for quite some time now, so it is pleasing to see a response from the government in that regard. But the provisions in this bill need to be seen in the context of a government that failed to properly administer this vital program, failed to properly integrate the program with settlement outcomes and, as evidenced by the explanatory memorandum to the bill that is presently before the House, has failed to appropriately allocate resources to meet the grand aspirations it has set out in the bill. While we on this side of the House and many stakeholders welcome these changes, we know that the Morrison government has not had a change of heart towards migration and settlement, and this step forward is matched by several steps back, including the cruel partner visa English language test and the capping of the humanitarian intake, stripping nearly a billion dollars from the budget, damaging the critical mass of service provision and hurting Australia's capacity to restart our migration system. For these reasons, I foreshadow that I'll be moving a second reading amendment to the bill before the House.

I also want to touch on the process which has brought the bill to the House. I will be very brief, noting the time of year and the amount of legislation that the House has to deal with. On this side of the House, we agreed to a very rushed Senate inquiry because, while this bill is agreed, it is significant. It relates to a billion dollars worth of appropriation and it relates to the chance that many, many Australians will have to build their English proficiency and, with that, their capacity to make a full economic, social and, hopefully, political contribution to this nation. The Senate inquiry that was undertaken didn't allow many issues that relate to these objectives to be properly canvassed, and these are of concern. I note in particular—beyond the process point of stakeholders not having the opportunity to present their case to the senators in the other place—three issues which needed, in my view, to be explored in detail and which we will continue to see explored in detail. In particular, there is the increased threshold for eligibility for vocational English and whether or not this will have a meaningful impact in increasing participation and retention in language learning. Another issue is the merits of the partnership of the department with the Behavioural Economics Team in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet to increase participation and retention in language learning. Again, a bold assertion has been made that appears to be unsupported by evidence. This is something which needs to be explored. Also, there are a number of issues with the existing deed of standing offer, which is in place until 2022-23.

A number of service providers have expressed a range of concerns. I might just mention a couple of these very briefly. I am thinking of Navitas, who expressed concerns that clients may require at least 2,000 hours of English language learning to reach social proficiency—that is, functional English—and went to the structural issues and incentives, in making full use of incentives. These are issues which are important but which have not been canvassed in the bill nor adequately explained more broadly by the government. AMES Australia have similarly acknowledged—and they put it this bluntly—that 'the current attrition from the AMEP may not be solved by providing additional hours of tuition'. This bill exists in a context, not in a vacuum. There are deeper structural issues that need to be addressed.

The wider issues go to the core of Labor's concern, and I know my colleagues will expand on this. What stakeholders would like to see and what Labor would like to see is greater transparency and more detail when it comes to evaluation and testing. This is a point well made by FECCA in their submission—that there needs to be greater transparency and more detail when it comes to the evaluation and testing of people's English needs, particularly in relation to this cruel proposal relating to partner visas. In referring to this context, one point that I want to put very clearly before the parliament is that the government revealed its true intentions when a department official recently admitted in the estimates hearings:

If an applicant couldn't demonstrate that they had made reasonable efforts to learn English, then, yes, that could be a reason why we would deny a visa. The bar for demonstrating that is completing the AMEP course …

This goes to show that the issues here cannot be considered in isolation. They relate to a number of other policy decisions, many of which have a huge impact on people's lives and on how we as a country see ourselves. I move:

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House:

(1) notes the failure of the Government to properly administer the Adult Migrant English Program and that the program's strategic, structural and operational challenges are yet to be addressed;

(2) further notes reduced funding for the Adult Migrant English Program in the forward estimates, despite the Government's claims that enrolments will return to pre-COVID levels by 2021‑22; and

(3) calls on the Government to abandon its planned English language requirements for Partner visa applicants".