On 20 April 2017, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Peter Dutton announced a package to reform citizenship. These changes would include:
- Changes to English language level from basic to competent (IELTS Level 6)
- Resitting of the citizenship test (an applicant can only take the test three times in a two-year period)
- New permanent resident requirements
- New ministerial powers, and
- Changes to children’s citizenship path.
In September the Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs submitted their report on the Coalition Government’s Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Requirements for Australian Citizenship and Other Measure) Bill 2017. It included four recommendations, an in-depth analysis of each of the new provisions of the Bill and dissenting report from the Australian Labor Party, the Australian Greens and the Nick Xenophon Team.
Changes to the language requirements
One of the proposed changes within the Bill was for applicants to pass a stand-alone English test, which involved reading writing, listening and speaking to the level of ‘competent’ as per International English Language Testing System (IELTS) Level 6. Within the Committee there was a mix of opinions behind the reasoning for changing this requirement on permanent residents wanting to become citizens. The Committee found there is a widespread recognition for English language competency for integration, but required clarification in the terms of the meaning of ‘competency’.
Labor, Australian Greens and the Nick Xenaphon Senators did not agree with this proposed change, but did agree there was a need for ‘conversational English’. All saw that there was little explanation for the reasons behind the change. The Australian Greens pointed out that this change would incur a significant economic burden for those migrants seeking citizenship, as free English classes do not reach the equivalent of Level 4 IELTS. Similarly, Labor highlighted that it is inappropriate to expect migrants to have a university level (or Level 6 IELTS) of English, one that many current citizens could not reach.
If the proposed legislation was successful through the Senate, applicants would only be allowed to sit the citizenship test three times. Many submissions discussed that this measure was unduly harsh and would cause much stress on applicants.
Changes to permanent residency requirements
On top of these changes, in order to submit a citizenship application, applicants would be required to have been on a permanent resident visa for four years, in comparison to the one year as it currently stands. In the report, the Committee made comparisons with other countries that had longer pathways to citizenship, and saw that the change in the length of time of a permanent resident visa was reasonable. Within the submissions, there were a number of stories retold of people facing hardships during their process to gaining Australian citizenship.
Labor termed this as ‘visa stress’, which affected the emotional and financial well-being of many applicants. They stated that the government provided no meaningful support to explain why their measures would be effective to the integration of the applicant into Australian society. The Greens supported this statement, arguing that that the proposed change would hinder the ability of migrants to integrate. This was supported by the fact that permanent residents are unable to access Commonwealth supported places for tertiary education. The submissions, and as Nick Xenaphon highlighted, asked for the changes in timeframe on permanent resident visas to have transitional provisions, so those who were on the pathway to permanent residency (and who had not applied by 20 April 2017) would not have to move their citizenship goalposts and restructure their future plans in Australia.
Increase of ministerial powers
Many of the concerns with the changes within this proposed Bill were the increase and introduction of new ministerial powers. A notable submission from the Scrutiny of Bills Committee noted that the power to delegate legislation would provide the sitting Minister with wide powers of unspecified purposes.
The Committee’s report did not share many of these concerns. It appreciated that as this is a time of heightened security, situations could arise that would not have previously been dealt with in Parliament. The report made clear that these new powers were deemed necessary to ensure integrity and confidence in the citizenship program.
Labor, The Greens and Nick Xenophon expressed much concern for these changes to the powers of a ministerial department. They all commented that if these changes were to pass through the Senate there would be some erosion and less transparency within government. Nick Xenophon noted that that the Australian Values statement and the Criteria for integration should be properly debated and determined by parliament.
The report from the Standing Committee highlights many areas of tension and debate about the role and purpose of Australian citizenship. Although the Committee recommended that the Bill be passed, the three dissenting reports thought the Bill was unacceptable in its current form, or recommended that the not be passed at all. This Bill is highly problematic for refugee communities, who will be further disadvantaged by these changes.