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Australia’s Citizenship Bill Fails

This is a government that takes pride in its hard headedness and faux populism. Knowing it would have to brave a sceptical, even baffled Senate, Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, resembling a bit dictator struggling for traction, decided to ignore the signals.

What was required, claimed Dutton, were tougher citizenship laws to govern Australia, an ironic state of affairs given the number of Australian parliamentarians facing the High court over their eligibility to sit in the chambers of Canberra.

The proposed legislation, titled the Australian Citizenship Legislative Amendment (Strengthening the Requirements for Australian Citizenship and Other Measures) Bill, would given a good serving against large swathes of the immigrant community.

It would have required the applicant for Australian citizenship to pass a stand-alone English test involving reading, writing, listening and speaking and show a minimum permanent residency requirement of four years.

Not feeling those measures to be suitably onerous, Dutton insisted on slipping a few other measures into the package: a limit, for instance, to the number of times the language test could be taken (three); and steps demonstrated by the applicant to show forms of integration into the Australian community. (The fumes of charred meat on an Australian sausage sizzle come to mind).

The reasons for these changes, outlined in the government’s shoddy paper Strengthening the Test for Australian Citizenship (April 2017), reads like a stream of propaganda consciousness. Platitudes spring up from the pages like fretful children: the idea of Australia being the country of “a ‘fair go’ for all”; “the most successful multicultural society in the world”; “shared values”.

Then comes the cutting and suspicious undertone, the irresistible resort to a security rationale that casts any doubt aside. This is a government that can’t trust prospective citizens. Nor will it. The weeds shall be found, the pretenders rooted out. “The Australian Government places the highest priority on the safety and security of all Australians.” Global terrorist concerns had “caused concern in the Australian community.”

This point has always had one glaring weakness: terrorist attacks across European capitals tend to take place from European-born citizens rather than applicants. The point is conveniently missed for matters of rhetorical effect, dividing Australian residents into the anointed and the discarded.

Opponents to the changes, among them the Nick Xenophon Team, Labor, and the Greens, did give Dutton some breathing space: a Wednesday night deadline to reach some accord and soften the hammering blow. Desperate to keep matters harsh, Dutton’s fig leaf was a poorly eviscerated one: delay the citizenship changes to commence on July 2018, as opposed to making it retrospective, and reduce the level of English expected from “competent” to “modest”.

The response from NXT senator Stirling Griff made it clear that these were far from sufficient. “Just amending the English language test and retrospectivity is not sufficient. We will still be rejecting the bill.” The bill was effectively struck off the notice paper by the time Wednesday’s proceedings had concluded. No vote had taken place.

The champagne corks were duly popped. Tasmanian Greens Senator Nick McKim called it “a huge victory for multicultural Australia”, whatever that problematic concept entails. Labor’s Shadow Attorney General Mark Dreyfus filled the chorus with his own propaganda laced glee. “The death of Dutton’s citizenship bill is a victory for Australia and all new arrivals who wish to become part of our great country.”

Media stories were duly run to fluff the victory. Pakistan-born software developer Bushra Zainuddin featured in the ABC wishing “to be part of an Australian family.” (Her husband and child are both Australian citizens). Her timing in terms of applying for citizenship was immaculately bad: April 20, when the Turnbull government announced its efforts to revise the citizenship rules. “I’d just delivered a baby. He’s Australian. We thought we’d become a whole family of Australians.”

The killing off this bill doesn’t entail its vanishing. The corpse has yet to be cremated and buried. Dutton is the sort of individual who believes in authoritarian resurrections. Only he can defend Australia against its aliens, local and foreign. Most Australians, claimed the irritated minister, “would be shaking their heads” at the stance taken in the Senate.

Nor can Labor necessarily be taken at face value for such remarks as that made by its citizenship spokesman, Tony Burke, who did describe the failure of the bill as “a great victory for every person who wants to pledge allegiance to this country and make a commitment to Australia.”

Burke had suggested that the bill was so extreme as to require a significant historical comparison. Not since the White Australia policy, the first legislative act of Australia’s infant parliament in 1901, had politicians seen this. They are bound to see more.



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  1. Florence nee Fedup

    I suspect bill was rejected on more grounds that English.

  2. Warwick O'Neill

    This whole ‘making citizenship harder’ thing is very hard to comprehend. If people lob on our sunny shores and become permanent residents, surely it’s in the best interests of all Australians to encourage them to citizenship at the earliest possible opportunity. Become one of us and enjoy the responsibilities and privileges that come with being one of us. If there is a time for vetting potential citizens, it’s gotta be before they take up permanent residency I would’ve thought. When my old man rolled up from South Africa in the mid 60’s, one of the first things he did was take up citizenship. Since that time he’s been a fair dinkum, true blue, dinki di (did I forget any?) Aussie whose attachment to this country has only grown throughout that time, during which he added five new Aussies into the mix, yours truly being the fifth. I often wonder if he would’ve been so keen if he’d been made to feel he wasn’t really wanted by being forced to jump through multiple hoops just to earn that piece of paper.

  3. Glenn Barry

    Dutton gets belted by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and in the High Court frequently, now it’s good to see him rebuffed by the Senate also.

    One day in the long distant future he may awake and realise what a loathsome human being he has been his whole life – I sincerely hope that is a most painful crushing experience for him and leaves him in a catatonic state

  4. Terry2

    The governments explanation on the Bill includes what this is really all about : more power to Dutton :

    In addition, there is a clear shift away from setting out detailed eligibility criteria in the Act, with greater discretion given to the Minister to determine the details of eligibility through legislative instrument. This is combined with an increase in the number of ‘public interest’ discretions for the Minister, with the Bill creating new Ministerial powers to exclude personal decisions from merits review and override decisions of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. The Minister is also given expanded powers to cancel citizenship approvals and to revoke citizenship. The expansion of discretion and greater use of delegated legislation promotes a degree of uncertainty and potential arbitrariness regarding the application and revocation of citizenship.

    This Bill should never again see the light of day !

  5. Kyran

    Indeed, Terry2. Dutton has already said he’ll have it ready to go again by July, 2018. He’ll drop the English from Level 6 to 5. He’ll drop the ‘retrospectivity’. He’ll undoubtedly tinker around with a few other bits and pieces.
    What he will not drop are the increased powers he seeks.

    “Fiona McLeod, the president of the Law Council of Australia, said despite Dutton’s concessions on Thursday, she still had serious concerns about his citizenship proposals.
    “The principal concern is the minister seeks to keep to himself the power to override the decisions of the independent umpire, in this case that’s the administrative appeals tribunal,” she said.
    “If you give a minister the power to simply override those decisions, you are eroding the separation of powers and you’re extending executive power which intrudes on the rule of law in this country.”
    She was also concerned about the power the bill will give Dutton if an applicant has integrated into the Australian community.
    “There are issues around integration which are not to be expressed in the legislation but are to be decided in an instrument so, in other words, they are up to the minister to decide what they should be from time to time,” she said.”

    That’s what we need. Dutton with more power.
    Hopefully, the ‘Welcome to Australia’ walk on Saturday will serve as a reminder that this country hasn’t always been this way.

    Thankyou Dr Kampmark and commenters. Take care

  6. Ricardo29

    Another example of Dutton’s overreach and apparent desire to forge a mini dictatorship. His ambitions must be controlled until an election rids us of his government, and hopefully him.

  7. helvityni

    Why is Dutton so concerned about the newcomers to Oz having to have University level English skills. Why is he not worried about what sort of English our dinky die Aussies use…does he care about Pauline and Jackie not speaking/writing in Queens English…?

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