Citizenship law changes explainer: what are they and why does the Coalition want them?

The government plans to amend the Australian Citizenship Act to tighten residency and English proficiency requirements

Serious concerns have been raised about the Turnbull government’s new citizenship legislation, which was introduced to parliament on Thursday.

So what’s in the legislation?

The bill proposes to amend the Australian Citizenship Act (2007) to, among other things:

  • Extend permanent residency from one year to “at least four years” before someone can apply for citizenship
  • Require most applicants to provide evidence of “competent” English-language proficiency before they can become a citizen
  • Make applicants sign an Australian values statement with the good character requirement extended from applicants aged over 18 years to over-16s too
  • Give the immigration minister the power to overrule decisions on citizenship applications by the administrative appeals tribunal if the minister doesn’t think the decisions are in the national interest
  • Give the minister the power to decide whether or not the applicant has integrated into the Australian community
  • Amend the act to recognise that new citizens must pledge their allegiance to Australia and its people, and to share Australian values
  • Rename the “pledge of commitment” the “pledge of allegiance”

What will the English test consist of?

At the moment, people must have basic knowledge of the English language to become a citizen, and this criterion is satisfied when they pass the citizenship test.

Under the new legislation, applicants aged 16 years and over will now need to demonstrate “competent” English language. But the government hasn’t defined what competent means.

The legislation gives the immigration minister, Peter Dutton, the discretion to determine what type of evidence will be needed to demonstrate competent English.

Why is the ‘good character’ test being extended to 16-year-olds?

This item has been designed with the tabloid concern about youth crime in mind, especially the teenagers of the so-called “Apex” gang in Melbourne, despite those fears being rubbished by police.

The government says the amendment aims to ensure that Australian citizenship is only given to those applicants, both adults and children, who are of good character and have not committed certain criminal offences.

“The amendment will not have a significant impact on children overall, but will capture those young people who are of character concern and that the Australian community reasonably expect should not be extended the privilege of Australian citizenship at that time,” the legislation says.

Why try to overrule the AAT?

Peter Dutton says this measure is necessary because the AAT has made some questionable rulings in the past. This would uphold his role, as immigration minister, in representing the Australian community and protecting its interests. He says he would use the power sparingly and any decision to overrule the AAT would be transparent because he would have to provide a statement to parliament within 15 sittings days of the decision being made.

What is meant by integrating into the Australian community?

Under the new general eligibility criteria for citizenship, the immigration minister must be satisfied that a person has integrated into the Australian community. But the proposed legislation does not define what “integrate” means.

It only says the minister may determine that regard may be given to, for example, a person’s employment status; study being undertaken by the person; the person’s involvement with community groups; the school participation of the person’s children; or, adversely, the person’s criminality or conduct that is inconsistent with the Australian values to which they committed throughout their application process.

And what do the critics say?

The Law Council of Australia has slammed the government’s proposal and the Greens senator Nick McKim says the legislation will “radically redefine citizenship” and destabilise thousands of families.

Fiona McLeod, the Law Council of Australia president, has also weighed in, particularly against the government’s attempt to expand the immigration minister’s power to overrule independent citizenship decisions made by the AAT.

She said the legislative reaction of the government to a handful of cases was an overreach.

“It is concerning that a small sample of cases, where the full facts are not entirely known, is being used to legitimise the expansion of ministerial power,” McLeod said. “The administrative appeals tribunal made some 76,000 decisions in the past two years, and around 33,000 relating to immigration.

“The minister already has the power to appeal AAT citizenship decisions that he disagrees with. The minister also has wide powers to cancel an individual’s visa on character grounds before a citizenship application is made.

“This new legislation effectively allows the minister to override citizenship decisions or to render his own decisions unreviewable.”


Gareth Hutchens

The GuardianTramp

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