'We need to listen to the alarm bells': Kristina Keneally lashes immigration wait times

Labor's spokesperson for immigration Kristina Keneally. Source: AAP

Labor's spokesperson for immigration, Kristina Keneally, will use a keynote speech to warn that multiculturalism is under threat.

Blown out wait times to become an Australian citizen have led to the largest-ever drop in people pledging their commitment to the country, Labor's spokesperson for immigration will tell a national multiculturalism conference.

Senator Kristina Keneally lashed the average wait times of 410 days and the high numbers of asylum seekers entering Australia by plane as evidence that the Department of Home Affairs is "in disarray when it comes to matters of migration and asylum seekers".

"We need to listen to the alarm bells ringing – or the canary in the coalmine – to ensure that integrity, transparency and fairness are maintained in the Department of Home Affairs," Senator Keneally says.

These issues are taking place, she says, as the number of people becoming applying to become an Australian citizen dropped by more than 100,000 in 2018-2019.

Senator Keneally's keynote speech, seen in advance by SBS News, will be delivered at the Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia national conference in Hobart on Thursday night.

"The ongoing blowouts in citizenship application processing under the third term Morrison Government are cruel, callous and are preventing people from pledging commitment to Australia," the speech read.

According to figures released earlier this week by the Department of Home Affairs in response to a request by Labor MP Julian Hill, there are more than 221,415 people currently waiting to have their citizenship applications processed.

These include close to 30,000 Indians, 27,000 British citizens and 17,500 Chinese nationals.

"They make up just some of the 221,000 people who have “had a go”… so why aren’t they being given a go?" Senator Kenneally says.

"And as all of this has happened within the Department – even more concerningly – the number of people making new citizenship applications decreased by more than 100,000 in 2018-19.

"This is the largest ever decline in citizenship applications as would-be Australians despair at having to wait more almost a year-and-a-half to become citizens."

In response to the claims made in the speech, Immigration Minister David Coleman told SBS News he would "not be taking advice from Labor and Senator Keneally on managing our immigration and citizenship programs".

Immigration Minister David Coleman.
Immigration Minister David Coleman.

"Labor oversaw the most significant public policy failure in Australia’s post-war history when they allowed 50,000 people to arrive by boat - 8000 children were forcibly placed in detention, 17 detention centres were opened and 1200 people lost their lives," he said in a statement.

There has been a significant increase in the number of citizenship application approvals in 2018-19, with 127,674 granted citizenship up from 80,649 the previous year, according to Department of Home Affairs data. 

Senator Kenneally will also allege that 90 per cent of asylum seekers that have arrived in Australia by plane over the past five years are "not legitimate refugees" and are "being trafficked to Australia for the explicit purpose of being exploited".

"How can we talk about having a fair go in this country when the fruit we put in our children’s lunchboxes has been picked by a 19-year-old trafficked by people smugglers who is being paid $4 an hour and treated like a slave?" she will ask. 

"The truth is the Government has no idea how many aeroplane arrivals may have been critically injured or even died because of exploitation that is taking place."

Since 2015, more than 95,000 asylum seekers have arrived in Australia by plane. The number of asylum claims from air arrivals dropped to 24,520 people in 2018-19, down from 27,884 people in the previous year. However, this figure was up from 18,267 people in 2016-17.

Mr Coleman hit back at Senator Keneally's claims of exploitation, accusing Labor of "decimating" the Fair Work Ombudsman's resources.

"We have legislated to increase penalties for worker exploitation by up to ten-fold, increased the powers of the Fair Work Ombudsman to enforce the law, and increased their resources by over $50 million and 60 new staff," he said.

In her speech, Senator Keneally described her own experience of arriving in Australia as a migrant in 1994 on a skilled visa.

"I applied for permanent residency through the old point system and back then it was pretty straightforward," she said.

"I filled out a few forms, documented my entire life, wrote a cheque for $450, and sent it off to the Embassy in Washington, DC."

She warned that multiculturalism - which she described as "one of Australia’s greatest strengths" - was now under threat, citing reports tracking incidents of race-based discrimination.

Former prime minister Tony Abbott.
Former prime minister Tony Abbott has changed his tune on the Paris climate agreement.

The Senator also took aim at former Prime Minister Tony Abbott for appearing at a Hungarian population summit, where he warned Europe against "military-age male" migrants "swarming" their shores

"From these covert undercurrents – we are facing overt displays of nationalistic sentiment," she said.

Earlier on Thursday, Labor's spokesperson for multiculturalism Andrew Giles called for the national census should be updated to include more questions on race and ethnicity to better inform multicultural policy. 

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