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A ‘tougher’ citizenship test should not be used to further divide and exclude

Alex Reilly and Mary Anne Kenny write in The Conversation (10.1.17) about how the most important benefit of citizenship for migrants is the sense of inclusion and acceptance into their adopted community, a sense that could be undermined by ham-fisted attempts to ‘toughen’ the citizenship test.

‘Immigration Minister Peter Dutton recently raised the prospect of changing the law around acquiring Australian citizenship.

‘He acknowledged the vast majority of migrants are well-integrated, and should be fast-tracked for citizenship. However, Dutton would like to see criteria tightened to deny citizenship to those who have not integrated into Australia. While details are unclear, he referred to people involved in serious crime, those who are welfare-dependent, or who have links with extremism.

‘Dutton was also concerned about people who don’t undertake English lessons or prevent their children from being educated.

‘… Discussions that focus on exclusion have the potential to alienate sectors of the community. They are a hindrance to people obtaining a sense of connection in Australia.

‘As Dutton observed, there are good reasons to encourage permanent residents to take up citizenship: for one, it enhances their integration in the community.

‘To the extent that poor English and poor understanding of Australian values is a barrier to this integration, the government needs to increase its efforts to educate prospective citizens – not look for ways to exclude them.’

The department of perverse effects

Peter Mares writes in Inside Story (16.6.17) that the Turnbull government’s toughening of citizenship rules would worsen the problems it seeks to tackle.

‘Immigration minister Peter Dutton’s bill making it harder for migrants to become citizens made its controversial debut in parliament on Thursday this week. It quadruples the amount of time a migrant must live in Australia as a permanent resident before applying for citizenship. It significantly raises the bar for English-language proficiency. It introduces a new test of adherence to Australian values. And it requires migrants to demonstrate that they have made efforts to integrate into Australian society. Combined with other amendments to immigration law, these new rules would put citizenship out of reach for many migrants.

‘In his second reading speech to parliament, the minister described Australian citizenship as “an extraordinary privilege.” This kind of language is used so often that it usually passes unquestioned, yet it only takes a moment’s reflection to see that it doesn’t match what citizenship actually involves. To use an analogy, it equates citizenship with membership of a club. I can only join the Melbourne Club if I meet certain (written and unwritten) criteria and the existing members accept my application. If I break club rules then I can be kicked out, losing the privilege of sitting in a comfy armchair drinking cognac by the fireplace. But most Australians, including me, never applied to become citizens. We were never okayed by the existing members of Club Australia. We are citizens by birth and can’t be expelled or voted off the island.

‘… So citizenship isn’t really a “privilege” to be bestowed or withdrawn. It is a signifier of belonging that brings with it important rights and responsibilities. It isn’t the granting of membership but the recognition that membership has already been acquired, either through birth or through extended participation in the life of the nation.’

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