Peter Dutton's citizenship overhaul derailed by Nick Xenophon Team

Coalition forced to dump package or make changes after NXT says crackdown an attempt ‘to fix problems that don’t exist’

The Nick Xenophon Team has derailed immigration minister Peter Dutton’s attempt to enact tough new citizenship laws, saying it cannot support his controversial package in its current form.

It means the Turnbull government will have to dump its controversial package or make substantial changes, throwing its citizenship crackdown into disarray.

The NXT’s decision follows weeks of public hearings about the government’s legislation, during which senators were warned repeatedly the legislation could deter people from applying for Australian citizenship.

The NXT senator Stirling Griff said that after weeks of hearings it was clear the government’s reforms were an attempt “to fix problems that don’t exist”.

“A number of the witnesses during the inquiry pretty much suggested the legislation was all about One Nation, about the Liberals cosying up to One Nation,” Griff told Guardian Australia on Tuesday. “There are components, yes, that I think with some revision we’d be prepared to support ... but [the bill] definitely needs to be split.”

The Turnbull government had to secure the NXT’s three Senate votes to get its package through the Senate, because Labor and the Greens had vowed to oppose the bill, so it needed the support of 10 out of 12 crossbenchers.

The shadow immigration minister, Tony Burke, welcomed the decision by NXT to reject the government’s bill.

“Labor welcomes the news today that the Nick Xenophon Team will also oppose the government’s harmful and snobbish proposed changes to Australian citizenship legislation,” Burke said on Tuesday.

“This legislation was never about national security, it was never about integration and the government should announce it will not be proceeding with it.”

The Turnbull government’s proposed citizenship changes would increase the waiting times for permanent residents before they could apply for citizenship (from one year to four years) and force new applicants to complete a tougher English-language test (and achieve a pass mark of 75%) equivalent to level 6 of the international English language testing system (IELTS).

It would also give Dutton the power to overrule decisions on citizenship applications by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) if he didn’t think the decisions were in the national interest, and give him power to decide whether or not the applicant had integrated into the Australian community.

Griff had warned in June that he was “deeply worried” about the power the bill would give Dutton to overrule citizenship decisions by the AAT without judicial review.

“That’s very much a first,” he said at the time. “We don’t feel comfortable at all with that … that’s something we certainly won’t be supporting in any form.”

Griff said he was still concerned about that element of the legislation, because it would give far too much power to the executive.

Asked which elements of the legislation the Nick Xenophon Team would support if they were revised, Griff listed the Australian values test, the English language test and the pathways for people to achieve citizenship.

“Those components I think can be easily sorted,” he said. “But, as a complete package, in a package that gives the immigration minister and executive unfettered control [over AAT decisions], that’s where the whole thing’s frightening.”

Fiona McLeod, the president of the Law Council of Australia, also welcomed NXT’s rejection of the bill.

“I’m pleased that the evidence we gave to the parliamentary committee expressing our concerns has been picked up,” she said. “We had grave concerns about the extension of the minister’s personal powers to override the AAT. That override seemed to be without justification and erodes the principle of the separation of powers.

“We had a further concern about the retrospective application of the amendments, which are contrary to sound principles about how you design good laws.

“I think this points to the strength of the parliamentary committee process that there’s an opportunity for closer scrutiny of pieces of legislation, and it points to the need for government sometimes to consult broadly with interested bodies who can make suggestions about how to improve pieces of legislation.”

NXT’s announcement came hours before a parliamentary committee, chaired by the Liberal Queensland senator Ian Macdonald, released a report recommending the government weaken elements of the legislation, including watering down its proposed English-language requirements for people seeking citizenship.

Macdonald has urged the government to “clarify” the standard for its proposed English language test, saying the standard “should not be so high as to disqualify from citizenship many Australians who, in the past, and with a more basic competency in the English language, have proven to be valuable members of the Australian community”.

He also urged the government to include some “transitional provisions” to ensure people who already in the process of getting citizenship were not caught out by the changes and to also reconsider the imposition of a two-year ban on applications for citizenship following three failed attempts of the citizenship test.

Burke said citizenship “shouldn’t be about politics”.

“Citizenship is about who we are as a nation and these proposed changes are a direct attack on Australia as a modern multicultural country,” he said.


Gareth Hutchens

The GuardianTramp

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