Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has introduced legislation that, if passed, will bring major changes to Australias citizenship laws.
The reforms include:
All applicants must pass an English test, involving reading, writing, listening and speaking
Applicants must have lived in Australia as a permanent resident for at least four years (instead of one year, as at present)
Strengthening the citizenship test with new questions to assess an applicant’s understanding of, and commitment to, Australia's shared values and responsibilities
Applicants must show the steps they have taken to integrate into and contribute to the Australian community, such as evidence of employment, membership of community organisations, and school enrolment
The number of times an applicant can fail the test will be limited to three (instead of no limit, at present)
Applicants who cheat during the test will automatically fail
Mr Dutton said the longer period before applying for citizenship was important because it gave applicants more time to demonstrate they had integrated into Australian society.
Any conduct “inconsistent with Australian values”, such as criminal activity, violence against women and children, and involvement in gangs or organised crime, would be considered as part of this process. In fact, these activities are already forbidden under Australian law.
Malcolm Turnbull, in support of the moves, said they were important to Australia's security, and were part of the government's commitment to tackling terrorism.
The changes also seek to give the Immigration Minister the power to overrule citizenship decisions of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT), the body which can review decisions made by Australian Government ministers, departments and agencies.
Many lawyers, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, argue that this puts too much power in the hands of the Minister, and undermines the rule of law. Mr Dutton claims his department is in a better position to make citizenship decisions, because it has access to all the relevant facts. He also says the new powers are a “modernisation” of the system “to better reflect public expectations”. This suggests he believes most Australians would prefer the AAT to have less power.
Labor spokesman Tony Burke, who was Immigration Minister in 2013 under the then Labor Government, disputes that the proposed changes have anything to do with national security, as applicants are already living here permanently.
Mr Burke also considers it is unreasonable to extend the time people have to wait for citizenship, claiming it will create an “underclass” of people, who will live their entire working life in Australia, but never be asked to plead allegiance to the country.
Criticism of the English language test has come from many quarters, including the Opposition. The general feeling is that it is unfair to expect newcomers, who may be refugees, to meet high standards in a language they have not previously had to learn. A migrant who seeks a peaceful life, and wishes to contribute to Australian society, might fail the test with poor English. However, a violent criminal with a University-level education, but no known criminal record, can pass.
In a Caucus meeting on 20 June, Labor voted unanimously to oppose the Bill, and has called for a Senate enquiry. Without Labor support, the government will need 10 crossbench votes to pass it through the Senate. A similar Bill was proposed two years ago by then Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, but failed to pass the Senate and was allowed to lapse.
The Bill has been moved for a second reading. Parliament has risen for a break, and will sit again in August.