Reviving Australian Citizenship: What the government needs to do

Jan 24, 2024
Man in black suit holding Australian Citizenship Certificate.

Australian Citizenship should be revived as a positive unifying element in a cohesive multicultural society. The Australia Day citizenship ceremony controversy is just a sideshow. The real issue is the completely unacceptable waiting times for processing Australian citizenship applications. The Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison government trashed the good work of previous Coalition and Labor governments by pursuing regressive citizenship policies. There is a big restoration job to be done.

As Australia Day approaches, the media and political focus is on whether local government councils should hold Australian Citizenship ceremonies on that day. This is just a sideshow. The real scandal is the outrageously long time it takes to process applications for Australian citizenship.

Australian citizenship application processing times

A person who meets all the legal requirements to become an Australian citizen, including having served the 4-year residential qualifying period, can expect to wait up to 21 months before they get a decision on their application and have that magic conferral ceremony. That comprises up to 15 months for a decision on their application and up to 6 months to then get citizenship conferred at a ceremony.

Just imagine for a moment the outcry if it took you that long to get your Australian Passport for that next overseas trip. Fortunately, that’s not what happens with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, but it is exactly what happens to Australian Citizenship applicants at the Department of Home Affairs before they are even ready to apply for their Australian Passport.

There is no justification for application processing to be this poor. A little over a decade ago, people qualifying for Australian citizenship could expect to have a decision on their application within 2 months and to have their Australian Citizenship ceremony a couple of months after that. It just required good administration and a commitment to service standards to deliver that result. An efficient citizenship processing system enables migrants who want to commit to Australia to get on with their lives and careers, especially those who want careers that have Australian Citizenship as a prerequisite.

The irony of long processing times is revealed in current talk about letting foreign nationals join the Australian armed services – without being Australian citizens or even permanent residents. It is as if the intention is to circumvent our own citizenship law! A better approach would be to reintroduce sensible and speedy Australian Citizenship processes so that people who actually live here (i.e. migrants) are eligible more quickly to join our armed forces if they so choose.

The Labor government has reduced the Australian Citizenship processing backlogs it inherited from the Morrison Coalition government and shaved a bit off processing times. It has also fixed the problem of New Zealanders living long-term in Australia without access to Australian Citizenship. However, we need to do much better and get the decision-making system really moving. Actual citizenship ceremony waiting times are the responsibility of local government, but the federal government can positively influence these.

The incredible delays in processing Australian Citizenship applications are yet another abysmal legacy of the Peter Dutton’s time as Minister for Immigration and the flawed Department of Home Affairs construct.

Damaging a successful Australian Citizenship model

The status of Australian Citizenship has quietly played a deeper role in the development of modern Australia than most people realise. It is part of a trifecta of policies since the Second World War that have arguably made the greatest contribution to the secure and inclusive Australia of today – a planned immigration program, abolition of the “White Australia” policy and an inclusive approach to Australian Citizenship. These policies have done a great deal more for the long-term security of Australia than following our American ally into a series of losing wars.

The inclusive citizenship model, also pursued by Canada and the United States, has given migrants a stake in their new home country and encouraged a positive commitment to it.

Postwar, both Coalition and Labor governments pursued this model which involved relatively short qualifying period for citizenship, especially compared to European counterparts.

In the years when governments of both major parties chose to take a long-term view on the importance of an inclusive Australian Citizenship model, many positive steps were taken. These included progressively shorter residential qualification periods for migrants to become citizens and abandonment of the archaic Oath of Allegiance to a distant monarch in favour of a simpler “Pledge of Loyalty to Australia and its People” (this Pledge wording was partly copied by the UK and nearly adopted almost word-for-word in Canada, but for a change of government). There was encouragement of education on the importance of Australian citizenship in schools. Citizenship ceremonies were made more meaningful, including by creating opportunities for those Australian citizens present to make an appropriately modified Pledge. There were a couple of national media campaigns to put Australian Citizenship in the spotlight and encourage take-up.

From 2007, the Coalition chose to reverse their own previous enlightened policies and make Australian Citizenship a political tool. This started with the introduction of a dubious formal computer-based citizenship test for migrants. It was always a pre-election political stunt; there has never been any evidence that new citizens who pass the formal computer-based test are in any way better citizens than those millions before them did not have to pass a formal test. The test was not accompanied by any upsurge in civics education. Recent media reports show that the formal Australian citizenship test is still a problem. Many Australian-born citizens would not pass it.

Peter Dutton as Minister for Immigration took Australian Citizenship policy further backwards. His actions included actively engineered delays on citizenship application processing and the introduction of legislation (rejected by the Australian Parliament) that would have put huge and ridiculous hurdles in the way of migrants wanting to commit to Australia by becoming citizens.

The next folly was legislation that would allow deprivation of Australian Citizenship of dual nationals on national security grounds, by operation of law, in the hope that the affected citizens might be able to be kept out of Australia or returned to their country of original citizenship. This reflected a very short-term view of security and dismissive approach to the importance of Australian Citizenship. A number of failed cases reported in the public arena demonstrated that this was always going to be a very weak weapon for security purposes.

Unsurprisingly, the High Court has finally struck down key elements of this legislation. The Labor government has chosen to cobble together more legislation which preserves the concept, but puts punitive decisions in the hands of the courts.

Irrespective of whether it has any security merit left, a lasting legacy of this approach is that it establishes the principle that the millions of dual citizens in Australia (mostly of UK and New Zealand origin) have a lesser form of Australian Citizenship than those who only have Australian Citizenship.

Ironically, the United States, which has shown a lot more respect for its own citizenship than Australia, never went down the pathway of citizenship deprivation on security grounds, although the UK and Canada did.

In the meantime, there will be continued fretting about Australia Day citizenship ceremonies. Australia Day has some provenance in the history of Australian Citizenship, but it has never been essential that Australian Citizenship ceremonies be held on that date. There seems to be mass amnesia on the fact that a Coalition government established something called “Australian Citizenship Day.” It is on 17 September every year.

What needs to be done

The government needs to:

  • Articulate a strategic approach to Australian Citizenship policy and its importance to an inclusive Australian society.
  • Take measures to promote the acquisition of Australian Citizenship and its significance to all members of the Australian    community.
  • Make the citizenship process a positive experience for migrants rather than an ordeal.
  • Set shorter published performance standards for Australian Citizenship application decision-making and holding of ceremonies and achieve them.
  • Resist populist approaches to Australian citizenship policy that aim to increase the hurdles for migrants acquiring citizenship or that diminish its value by making it easier to take away.

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