Supporting integration and inclusion
The Bill also inserts a new criterion before a person is eligible for citizenship by conferral, namely that the Minister be satisfied that the person has ‘integrated into the Australian community’. What this means is not specified in the legislation. The Minister is empowered to, but not required to, make a legislative instrument specifying such matters, to which the Minister “may or must have regard”.
The Explanatory Memorandum indicates that the Minister might set out guidelines that would take into account a person’s employment status, study, involvement with community groups, and their children’s participation in school, as well as “criminality or conduct that is inconsistent with the Australian values to which they committed throughout their application process”. This is consistent with the examples set out in the Discussion Paper.
RCOA and its members are profoundly interested in helping people from refugee backgrounds settle into Australia, and to feel a sense of belonging here. Our members, and others in the sector, are actively supporting people into education and employment, and involved in the daily work of helping people to learn about and navigate through Australian laws and norms.
Even more so, refugees themselves are often desperate to achieve these things: work, study, a renewed sense of community and educating their children. Time and again, RCOA has heard refugees say that they are desperate to contribute and give back to the Australian community.
While we strongly endorse measures to support people in achieving these goals, in our view de facto exclusion from citizenship is not a path to integration. Indeed, it is fundamentally counterproductive to integration, because it makes people vulnerable and their situation precarious. For refugees, who already have had to cope with so much vulnerability and uncertainty, the denial of citizenship will only undermine their efforts to rebuild their lives and to connect with the wider community.
Our successful multicultural society has been built in large part on citizenship as a tool to include and integrate people within our community, and on encouraging people to join our community fully as members. Making more people citizens, and ensuring that they feel invested and belong to the Australian community, improves social cohesion. It is this inclusive aspect of citizenship policy that has marked out not only Australia but other successful multicultural societies such as Canada and the US, and which has minimised the tensions apparent in other countries with large migrant populations.
In our view, these changes also tend to conflate being a citizen with being a ‘model citizen’. If these are the proposed indicators of ‘integration’, there are many Australian-born citizens who are likely to fail these tests. For example, if volunteering is a marker of integration, Australian Bureau of Statistics figures suggest that more than 60% of Australians would fail on this score, with only 36% of Australian adults involved in formal volunteering as at 2010.
Formal volunteering also fails to capture informal volunteering within communities. RCOA has heard often of community members taking phone calls for help at 2am, helping other community members to navigate Australia’s complex health system, negotiating rental agreements and disputes, and providing care and support for people.
There are also cultural differences in the understanding of volunteering. As a group of Karen women advised:
A lot of communities don’t understand what ‘volunteers’ mean. They think if you go volunteer you will get a job. In our country we don’t have volunteer, except forced by military. Because we are from a different country and a different situation, if we are helping each other, we just do it — no one calls each other ‘volunteer’.
Conduct ‘inconsistent’ with Australian values
We also oppose proposals that the applicant will also be assessed for any conduct “that is inconsistent with Australian values, such as domestic or family violence, criminality including procuring or facilitating female genital mutilation and involvement in gangs and organised crime”. These are already crimes that can be considered under the existing legislation, and more generally in terms of the very broad ‘character’ test. They are dealt with best under the criminal law, where a person will be accorded due process and where the gravity of such offences can be properly assessed.
In particular, referring to domestic violence within the citizenship test is likely to be deeply counterproductive. RCOA has already heard in its community consultations of the counterproductive effects of imposing a Code of Conduct on people seeking asylum. Social workers have reported to us that this has made women more reluctant to report concerns, because of the fear that their partners will be detained and their children left destitute. Fear of exclusion from a community, especially when such a community is a critical source of support for new arrivals, is also a powerful influence.
Increasing sanctions for domestic violence, therefore, is likely to make people less likely to report their concerns and to seek help for them.
Breadth of delegated power
As well, we express strong concerns that such significant matters are to be delegated to the Minister’s power to make legislative instruments. As the Senate Committee on the Scrutiny of Bills stated:
The question of whether a person has integrated into the Australian community is a matter about which there may be reasonable disagreement. The concept of integration in this context is imprecise and matters relevant to understanding integration (even if these are agreed) will inevitably raise questions of degree. The combined effect of these provisions is to delegate to the Minister a large discretionary power to determine whether or not the proposed new criterion has been met by an applicant.
As we discuss below, such proposed amendments convert the process of obtaining citizenship from one that is governed by the rule of law to one governed by the caprice of a Minister.