It seems that Coalition governments have developed a habit of squeezing the citizenship “orange” for political advantage when there are some community concerns about migrants.
Last week’s announcement by the Turnbull Coalition government, at a time of poor government performance in opinion polls, of a “toughening” of the Australian citizenship test for migrants has a familiar ring to it.
The existing citizenship test was introduced in 2007 under the Howard government when the Coalition’s fortunes were badly on the wane. A national television advertising campaign at public expense explaining the test was screened, by amazing coincidence, in the months immediately leading up to the 2007 election.
There was no evidence at the time to suggest that there was anything wrong with the existing citizenship rules that would be fixed by the introduction of a formal citizenship test. It was a purely political decision.
I am not aware of any research conducted, or evidence produced, since that time that the existence of a formal test made any substantive difference to the civic behaviour of migrants. It did, however, make the citizenship acquisition process unnecessarily complicated and, by the government’s own admission, “there is strong evidence that our humanitarian entrants have difficulty in achieving citizenship due to recurrent failure of the Test”.
Squeezing the citizenship “orange” did not produce much positive political juice. The coalition government lost the 2007 election.
The next attempt to squeeze the “orange” was the Abbott Coalition government’s decision in 2015 to use revocation of Australian citizenship as a weapon against dual nationals believed to be in some way associated with terrorist activities. It meant giving the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection sweeping powers to take away the citizenship of Australian dual nationals with a suspected connection with terrorism.
That didn’t yield much positive juice either given the Coalition’s current political standing. Unsurprisingly, it has not proved to be a very effective weapon against terrorism. Only one person has lost his Australian citizenship under the legislation and he was probably never going to want to come back to Australia to face justice anyway.
The third, and current, attempt to squeeze the citizenship “orange” sends the message to the Australian community that we will have a much better society if only we make migrants jump much higher hurdles at the point of trying to become an Australian citizen. Prime Minister Turnbull’s announcement tells us that in the new citizenship application process we will make them pass a much more complex battery of English language tests, successfully answer more questions on our values, and prove that they have integrated in a variety of ways. We will also penalise applicants who cheat during the citizenship test (although the nature of the expected epidemic of cheating is not defined).
The announcement also somewhat misleadingly tells us that to qualify for citizenship applicants will have to live in Australia as permanent residents for at least four years instead of one year at present. While this wording is strictly correct, migrants are already currently required to have four years lawful residence in Australia to qualify for citizenship, including one year as a permanent resident. The change is simply that all of those four years will now have to be as a permanent resident.
We are told that any criminal conduct by migrants will be considered as part of the citizenship application process, but such provisions already exist.
In terms of real impacts, the announced changes to the citizenship test fly in the face of everything we have learnt about Australian citizenship. The success of Australia as a migrant society owes much to its inclusive, rather than exclusive, citizenship policy which does not put unnecessary barriers in the way of those migrants who want to pledge their allegiance to Australia and become Australian citizens. That’s why we have an 80% citizenship take-up rate amongst eligible migrants.
Let’s remember that we are talking about people who already have a legal right to live in Australia for the rest of their lives. An “over the top” testing regime may simply have the impact of shutting a growing pool of people out of Australian citizenship and alienating them from society. We can look forward the bizarre situation of Australian-born children of migrants becoming Australian citizens by birth, but some of their parents never being able to have the same status because they couldn’t pass the citizenship test.
What’s the point of congratulating ourselves on resettling refugees from around the world and then creating a testing regime that precludes many of them from becoming citizens?
If the government genuinely wanted to improve adherence to Australian civic values, it would be tackling this through expanded civics education rather than the narrow funnel of migrants applying for Australian citizenship. There are opportunities to do this in schools (including through the national Parliament and Civics Education Rebate Program), citizenship education programs for adults, citizenship education for migrants and the Adult Migrant English Program. Despite the report of the government’s own consultative process (conducted by two prominent coalition federal parliamentarians) pointing in this direction, there is nothing in the Prime Minister’s announcement about this.
One asks how many times a Coalition government can squeeze the citizenship “orange”. If any of the current proposals get through, what would they do in the next squeeze? Property qualifications for citizenship? A huge financial bond to be forfeited if the new citizen affronted Australian values? There wouldn’t be much “orange” left.
Of course it is open to governments to tighten or loosen aspects of citizenship eligibility requirements based on research, objective evidence and independent advice. However, most of the announced changes don’t pass this test and are not credible or in the national interest.
Peter Hughes, Visitor, School of Demography, Visiting Fellow, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University. He was formerly Deputy Secretary, Department of Immigration and Citizenship.
 Sen the Hon Fierravanti-Wells and the Hon. Philip Rudock MP, Australian Citizenship Your Right Your Responsibility Final Report of the National Consultation on Citizenship