Refugee Council of Australia
Parliament House, Canberra

Submission on the Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment (Strengthening Commitments) Bill 2018

Unfair, unnecessary and divisive

Contrary to Australian and international values

This Bill talks of Australian values, but does not respect them. The Bill would effectively make Australian citizenship the gift of the Minister, converting the rule of law to the caprice of the Minister. It allows the Minister to unilaterally determine whether a person is ‘integrated’, possesses ‘Australian values’, and has sufficient English to become a member of the Australian community. It allows the Minister to set aside independent decisions, exclude his own decisions from independent review, and to revoke citizenship without proof and on the broadest of grounds. Its retrospective application would allow the executive, not the Parliament, to decide the legal rights of people lawfully resident in this country.

The Bill also does not respect Australia’s international legal obligations, and the values inherent in them. The Bill allows the Minister to deprive children of citizenship, even where those children have nowhere else to go and even if they are entirely innocent themselves of any fraud or misrepresentation. The Bill enables the Minister to deprive people of citizenship, even if it makes them stateless. The Bill also clearly does not respect the obligation under Article 34 of the Refugee Convention to facilitate naturalisation of refugees.

Asking more from the most vulnerable

As we have outlined above, this Bill would exclude, both in fact and in law, citizenship for the most vulnerable. The Bill requires much more of new migrants than it does for those born in Australia, demanding that they be not just citizens, but model citizens. In doing so, they disproportionately impact those who already face barriers to inclusion in Australia, further isolating and excluding them from the Australian community.

Yet so far there has been no evidence or justification for these proposed changes. There is no evidence to suggest that requiring university-level English testing will improve the quality of our citizens, for example. It is also unclear how a formal citizenship test makes any kind of “substantive difference to the civic behaviour of migrants“. There is no evidence that preventing children of refugees from becoming citizens will discourage (lawful) claims of protection, or that the Minister requires sweeping new powers which will undermine our constitutional arrangements, including the rule of law.

Reinforcing exclusion, undermining cohesion

Far from improving our social cohesion, this Bill would actively undermine it by fostering a sense of exclusion. As former Deputy Secretary of the Department of Immigration Peter Hughes put it, “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.”
This Bill would reinforce the exclusion fostered by existing policies and political discourse, for example:

  • The denial of permanent residency and access to key settlement services to refugees who arrived in Australia without a valid visa, which undermines their ability to settle successfully in Australia and contributes to poor mental health outcomes
  • Limited access to family reunion opportunities to people from refugee backgrounds (including restrictions on access to family reunion for refugees who arrived without valid visas), which is likely to make it more difficult for people to recover from pre-arrival trauma, move on with their lives and fully engage with the settlement process (such as through learning English and securing sustainable employment)
  • The serious negative impacts of prolonged indefinite immigration detention on health and wellbeing, which in turn undermine positive settlement outcomes for people who were formerly detained (particularly children), and
  • Negative political rhetoric (such as labelling people seeking asylum who arrive by boat as “illegal arrivals” and describing refugees as a “burden”), which can weaken community support for the Refugee and Humanitarian Program, fuel negative attitudes towards people from refugee backgrounds, and contribute to feelings of isolation and exclusion among refugee and humanitarian entrants settling in Australia.

Respecting multiculturalism and Australian values

RCOA has repeatedly expressed its increasing concern at the tenor of the public and political debate on refugees and, more recently, particular communities of new migrants. We have done so this year in respect of changes to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, on an inquiry into migrant settlement outcomes, and on strengthening multiculturalism.

The current Bill can only be properly understood as part of this wider political context. Quite apart from the flaws in the proposed Bill, its existence itself clearly sends a message both to migrant communities and to the wider Australian community. It is a message that comes at a critical time in our ongoing national debate about what it means to be Australian.

For the past four decades, Australia has transformed itself successfully and peacefully from an almost exclusively white society to one of the world’s most diverse nations. It has done so in part through strong political leadership and a commitment to an inclusive multicultural agenda. Indeed, as our current Prime Minister said earlier this year at the release of the Multicultural Statement:

The glue that holds us together is mutual respect. A deep recognition that each of us is entitled to the same respect, the same dignity, the same opportunities. The mutuality of that respect is of critical importance.
Our achievement in creating this harmonious nation is not an accident. It has been carefully crafted and we must not take it for granted. You have to continue nurturing it.

We strongly affirm this view. If people are made to feel unwelcome, if racism is not only tolerated but implicitly encouraged, and if the focus of government policies shifts to exclusion from inclusion, we are setting people up to fail. At the same time, we risk undermining the cohesive and largely harmonious nation we have fought so hard to build.

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