Puritanical citizenship changes promote less inclusive Australia

Puritanical citizenship changes promote less inclusive Australia

The effect of this unnecessary requirement will be to exclude people from fully participating as citizens, not because of their character, nor their acceptance of values of freedom and tolerance, but because they are unable to reach an arbitrary level of English assessment

Last year I became an Italian citizen through marriage to an Italian Australian. The process legally was very easy: register our marriage with the Italian consulate, pay a relatively small fee, obtain an Australian federal police check and wait.

The waiting took much longer than it should have, but that was due to issues with the Italian bureaucracy, not Italian law. I then attended a ceremony where I swore an oath (in Italian) 'to be faithful to the Italian Constitution and the laws of the Republic of Italy'. That was it — no residence requirement, no citizenship or language tests — benvenuto all'Italia.

Compare this with the proposed Australian process. There several elements — the residence requirement, language test, assessment of integration, citizenship test, character test, the ceremony and 'pledge of allegiance to Australia'.

The current residence requirement is four years lawful residence in Australia of which the last 12 months must be as a permanent resident. The proposed changes mean you need to be a permanent resident for four years before you can apply. This means that the time people spend here on a temporary visa, such as a temporary spouse visa, student or 457 work visa, does not count for the residence requirement.

This is a major change because it is common now for many people to spend varying times in Australia before they become a permanent resident. It would be possible for example to be in Australia for say four years before you become a permanent resident. The time you wait for immigration to decide the permanent visa, which can be many months, or years in some cases, also does not count. 

The original 1948 Citizenship Act had a five year residence period, but back then, there were very few people living here for long periods as temporary residents. You came to Australia to live, not for a temporary period to work. Prior to 1948 there were no Australian citizens, we were then 'British subjects'.

The new language test will be a requirement for all who apply. The test level will be a high one, such as IELTS 6, which is equivalent to university entrance requirement. The Department of Immigration and Border Protection stated that people from English speaking countries such as the UK, Ireland, Canada, the USA and new Zealand will be able to get exemptions from language testing.

The justification for this major change is that 'English language proficiency is essential for economic participation and promotes integration into the Australian community'.

While ideally all Australian should have some reasonable ability to communicate in English, it is unreasonable to expect it at such a high level. Consider parents sponsored to Australia who live here and provide care for their grandchildren while their own children work. I have met a number of Cambodians who would never be able to meet an IELTS 6 level, but are providing important child care and support for their family here, and often are working as well in family businesses. I have heard of small businesses in western Sydney owned by Chinese Australians, who have learnt Assyrian, because most of their customers speak Assyrian, not English. They are not having trouble in 'economic participation' in western Sydney.

The simplistic assessment of a language test does not really tell us if the person will fit in and get a job. Many who came in the 1950s and 1960s looked for work first. Few of the people I know who came from Italy, Greece, the Baltic States and other places in those years would have met the language test level required. The effect of this unnecessary requirement will be to exclude people from fully participating as citizens, not because of their character, nor their acceptance of values of freedom and tolerance, but because they are unable to reach an arbitrary level of English assessment.

Then we have the new citizenship test and emphasis on 'Australian values'. All migration application forms have a section entitled 'Australian values statement' that applicants must agree to. This was introduced under Howard. Most are common across all developed western style democracies, rather than specifically Australian. They include: respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual, freedom of religion, commitment to the rule of law, parliamentary democracy, equality of men and women and a spirit of egalitarianism that embraces mutual respect, tolerance, fair play and compassion for those in need and pursuit of the public good; and equality of opportunity for individuals, regardless of their race, religion or ethnic background. These are essential principles found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as many other internationally accepted norms. They are laudable and should be promoted.

What about some other international values such as Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: 'Everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution'? One hopes that other examples of what respective governments have done are not considered Australian values: retrospective laws which seriously disadvantage people without prior notice; major law changes announced to be in force, but not yet passed by the parliament; mandatory detention of asylum seekers arriving by boat; sub-contracting our international obligation to poor Pacific neighbours and then disclaiming any responsibility for them; falsely accusing workers from Save the Children of improper action; falsely claiming asylum seekers threw children overboard; demonising and vilifying asylum seekers by calling them 'illegal' when the term does not exist in migration law.

The other new requirement will be an 'assessment regarding integration'. This is yet to be further defined. In an interview on 7.30 Report, the Prime Minister said to Leigh Sales: 'They have children, the children are at school, they might be part of the P&C, they might have joined a surf club, they might have joined a service club.' I would fail all of these examples, as would the Cambodian grandparents caring for the children.

There is no stated reason for these dramatic changes which for the first time introduces a language test into Australian citizenship. This harkens back to the days of the 'dictation test' of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901. Like the infamous dictation test, this high threshold of English will be exclusive and mean that people will be excluded from full participation in Australia because their English is not good enough.

The changes will make the acquisition of Australian citizenship more exclusive and reflect a more controlling and puritanical attitude within Immigration. Our immigration story is becoming more inward looking, rather than nation building and welcoming difference. One of the successes for our democracy has been to encourage inclusivity. However, a result of the new changes will be the presence of increasing numbers of people on temporary or permanent visas, without being able to fully participate in our democracy. Maybe learning the second verse of the national anthem should be encouraged and the words implemented: 'For those who've come across the seas we've boundless plains to share.'

Updated:  10 August 2015/Responsible Officer:  College General Manager, ANU College of Law/Page Contact:  Law Marketing Team