Malcolm Turnbull calls on Labor to back tougher citizenship test

Change not about administration but ‘about allegiance and commitment to Australian values’, PM says

Malcolm Turnbull has called on Labor to back the government’s new citizenship test, framing the change as a test of allegiance and whether people are prepared to stand up for “Australian values”.

With senior Labor figures expressing early scepticism about the proposal, the prime minister moved early on Thursday to up the political ante, declaring that the new test was not about administration but “about allegiance and commitment to Australian values”.

The government is proposing to raise the bar for Australian citizenship by requiring migrants to pass a tougher English-language test and to live in Australia for four years as a permanent resident.

The revised test will also include what the government is categorising as “new and more meaningful questions that assess an applicant’s understanding of and commitment to our shared values and responsibilities”.

Some of the questions under consideration relate to attitudes to domestic violence, female genital mutilation and child marriage.

The overhaul of the citizenship process – which has been in gestation within the government for months – follows the Coalition’s move earlier in the week to overhaul skilled migration by replacing 457 visas with two new categories which cut off pathways to permanent residency.

Early on Thursday, Labor’s Senate leader, Penny Wong, told the ABC the proposed changes to citizenship looked cosmetic and politically motivated.

“The test is currently in English, it’s a test that was largely designed by John Howard so I have to say this looks to me like the change you make when you want people to notice,” Wong told the ABC.

“One suspects that Malcolm Turnbull is having a much greater focus on Tony Abbott and perhaps One Nation than on making any real and substantive change here.”

Wong pointed out that the current pledge required would-be citizens to vov allegiance to Australia and its democratic beliefs, and she quipped if there was a tougher English grammar test in contemplation, then “there might be a few members of parliament that might struggle”.

She said the current pledge affirmed loyalty to Australia and its people “whose democratic beliefs I share, whose rights and liberties I respect and whose laws I will uphold and obey”.

“That’s our current citizenship pledge,” she said. “Now, I think those sentiments are pretty good.”

Turnbull told reporters in Canberra on Thursday the change was about reinforcing the importance of Australian values, because common values united people across cultures – but then he indicated the values would be subject to a public discussion paper.

Asked to provide a summary of values he believed all Australians should sign up to, given that people were likely to have different views on that question, Turnbull nominated “mutual respect, democracy, freedom, rule of law … a fair go”.

Asked why the government was intending to make would-be citizens answer values questions about conduct that was clearly prohibited under Australian law, such as female genital mutilation or forcing children to marry, the prime minister rounded on the reporter posing the question.

“Are you proud of our Australian values? Are you a proud Australian? You should stand up for it,” he declared. “You should stand up for those values and that’s what we’re doing.

“You see, if we believe that respect for women and respect for women and children and saying no to violence against women and children, if we believe that is an Australian value and it is and every one of you does believe that, then why should that not be made a key part, a fundamental part, a very prominent part, of our process to be an Australian citizen?”

The immigration minister, Peter Dutton, said he believed if a person had perpetrated domestic violence, “my view is that that person shouldn’t become an Australian citizen”.

Asked why people would willingly admit to contemplating or undertaking criminal conduct in a citizenship test, Turnbull and Dutton acknowledged that people could lie.

Dutton said that wasn’t an argument for doing nothing. “Domestic violence is a significant issue in this country. And we shouldn’t tolerate one instance of it.”

“And the fact that somebody might fudge an answer on a test or an application is no argument against us asking people – if you want to become an Australian citizen, abide by our laws and our norms.”

He said there was existing power under the Citizenship Act to take action against people lying in their applications. “If somebody lies in an application, if they are fraudulent in their application for Australian citizenship, there is an existing power under the act in certain circumstances to revoke that citizenship.”


Katharine Murphy and Gareth Hutchens

The GuardianTramp

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