Australian security agencies may not have approved tighter citizenship laws

Immigration department officials unable to confirm whether Asio or AFP raised the need for Peter Dutton’s proposed changes

Immigration officials have been unable to say whether they gained security agency backing for tighter citizenship laws before Peter Dutton announced the controversial overhaul.

The officials told a Senate inquiry in Brisbane they could not confirm whether the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (Asio) or the Australian federal police raised a need for the proposed changes, or were consulted specifically about them before they were unveiled in April.

The Labor senator Murray Watt seized on the testimony on Thursday as “evidence that shows very clearly there is no national security case for a tightening of the citizenship laws”.

Dutton, the immigration minister, has framed the changes – which raise the hurdles on citizenship including through longer wait times and tougher English-language requirements – in part as a national security measure.

Watt told the Guardian: “Peter Dutton’s own department was unable to produce any evidence that any national security agency had asked for these changes.”

The department also confirmed it knew before the announcement that people who completed the government-funded Adult Migrant English Program (Amep) would still fall short of the university-level English required under the new legislation.

“I think it’s bizarre that we have a government-funded program to help train people in English that will not even be able to provide the level required from the government’s own citizenship test,” Watt said.

David Wilden, a first assistant secretary at the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, told the inquiry he could not “give a definitive answer” to whether Asio gave any advice that tougher citizenship rules were needed to protect national security.

“I’d have to check, I don’t think we went to a specific piece of advice on this bill,” he said, adding the department had ongoing dialogues with the intelligence agency.

Linda Geddes, an acting secretary of the department, said it was the same case with the AFP.

When Watts asked whether the department had consulted either agency specifically on the bill, Wilden said he was unsure and would try to find an answer before the deadline for committee submissions on Friday.

Wilden said the “national security elements” of the proposal were driven by a recommendation of a joint commonwealth review of the Lindt cafe siege that “we need to look at our visa and citizenship rules”.

The final day of hearings by the Senate legal and constitutional affairs legislation committee came after the inquiry having received more than 10,000 submissions against Dutton’s proposal.

Only two were in favour: from Dutton’s own department, and the Australian Monarchist League. The committee is due to report next Tuesday.

The immigration officials at the inquiry said the department had considered the fact that most people completing Amep would be at level 4 or 4.5 under the international English-language testing system (Ielts), short of the level 6 required for citizenship.

Wilden said these people would need to show “self-agency” and further their own English study to meet the new mark.

The Labor frontbencher Tony Burke told the Guardian he was “now confident the bill won’t be passed in its current form but I’m not yet confident” it would be rejected in the Senate, as Labor hoped.

Burke said he saw personal accounts of people affected by the proposed changes at a community forum in Brisbane’s Sunnybank on Wednesday night, including Iraq and Afghani refugees who were shocked by the English levels required.

When Watt read out a section of the Ielts test relating to Herodotus’ 480BC account of calisthenics at the battle of Thermopylae, “the whole room fell about laughing at just how ridiculous the level of language required was”, Burke said.

“People laughed, and then they reflected on it, and then the frustration started to take over the room when people realised exactly what that would mean in their own instances,” he said. “There was a despondency of people saying, if that’s the new rule, I’ll never become a citizen.”


Joshua Robertson

The GuardianTramp

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