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Explainer: the proposed changes to Australian citizenship

A cohesive multicultural society such as Australia requires a core level of integration among its members. AAP/Lukas Coch

Explainer: the proposed changes to Australian citizenship

A cohesive multicultural society such as Australia requires a core level of integration among its members. AAP/Lukas Coch

The federal government today announced three broad changes to the criteria for Australian citizenship. These are:

  • a new residence requirement;

  • a new process for determining an applicant’s integration into the community; and

  • changes to the citizenship test.

Citizenship is an important mechanism to foster integration and make people feel fully connected and committed to Australia. There is a risk, however, that if citizenship is too hard to attain, a two-tier system of permanent residency will develop in Australia: those who are full citizens, and those who failed to become citizens – though they are permanent residents.

Change in residence requirement

The proposed residence requirement is stricter than what exists now.

Currently, applicants for citizenship need to be resident in Australia for four years, but they only need to be a permanent resident for one year. Under the proposed change, applicants need to have been permanent residents for four years.

This change will affect those who entered Australia on temporary work or humanitarian visas. These people will no longer be able to count their time as temporary residents toward the residence requirement for citizenship.

The proposed change has the potential to inflict particular harm on refugees. Many are now only granted temporary protection visas. For them, citizenship is an important sign of their permanent acceptance and commitment to Australia.

Testing integration

A second change is new English-language testing. Potential citizens will have to show in their written application that they have integrated through participation in work, community activities and schooling for children.

These changes are potentially positive. A cohesive multicultural society like Australia requires a core level of integration among its members. It is reasonable to expect people choosing to make a life here to participate in the community.

Most applicants for citizenship, including refugees, will welcome the opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to Australia. There is a danger, however, of creating an unnecessary administrative burden both for applicants and for the Department of Immigration by adding a significant section to the written application.

In Australia, the ability to communicate in English is clearly important to achieving integration. Under the current application process, the citizenship test is a grossly inadequate proxy for measuring English-language ability. A multiple-choice test with complicated concepts about Australia’s institutions of government does not test “basic” English-language skills.

The citizenship test

There are three proposed changes to the citizenship test.

  • The new test will contain more meaningful questions that assess an applicant’s understanding of, and commitment to, shared values and responsibilities.

  • A person will be able to sit the test a maximum of three times.

  • Cheating on the test will lead to automatic failure: the implication seems to be it will not be possible to ever sit the test again.

The US, the UK and Canada all have citizenship tests. All test different things – history, values, institutions and symbols. New Zealand does not have a citizenship test.

Since its introduction in 2007, the Australian citizenship test has been a controversial part of application process. It has served several not-very-well-defined functions.

It is hard to conceive how a multiple-choice test can possibly test a person’s “understanding of and commitment to” shared values. The test of a person’s values is in their actions, not their knowledge of values. The new requirement that an applicant must demonstrate their integration into the community is a far better test of values.

Those who fail the test do so because their English-language skills are not adequate to understand the question – and not, for example, because they were unaware that domestic violence is forbidden.

The role of English-language ability in failure rates is evident in Department of Immigration statistics on the citizenship test. In 2014-15, the failure rate among Chinese applicants was more than seven times higher than it was among Indian applicants. Among Vietnamese applicants it was 17 times higher. This is almost certainly related to the higher level of English competency among Indian applicants.

Given the test’s inadequacy, and its strong bias toward those with a higher level of English, the proposal that an applicant can no longer apply for citizenship after a third failure is most concerning.

We will have to wait for the full details, but it is hard to imagine that the government really intends to exclude from citizenship forever a permanent resident of long standing and good repute, and whose life is intrinsically connected to Australia, simply because they failed a flawed test of their values due to their poor English-language skills at the time they were tested.

The three strikes provision will have a disproportionate effect on refugees applying for citizenship. The 2014-15 statistics reveal that, in the skilled stream, on average people needed to sit 1.1 tests to pass. In the family stream it was 1.4 tests. And, in the humanitarian stream, it was 2.4 tests. This means there is a significant number of humanitarian migrants requiring more than three attempts to pass the test.

One possible implication of the limitation on attempts at the test is that humanitarian migrants will delay applying for citizenship. This has negative consequences for their wellbeing and their integration into the community.

Refugees are known to be particularly loyal to Australia. Once they have been accepted they rarely return to their country of origin.

As a result of adding a standalone English-language test, and a requirement that applicants demonstrate how they have integrated into the community, there is a strong case for eliminating the citizenship test altogether.

What is the role of citizenship?

Australia already assesses who to allow in – and to whom to grant residency – before any issue of citizenship arises.

Permanent residents in Australia enjoy almost the full range of civil and political rights as citizens. They have access to the welfare system (after initial waiting periods), Medicare, and education. Citizens alone are able to vote, and they have a greater security of residence.

Citizenship is the last step on the path to full membership. By the time someone is applying for citizenship, they have already been in Australia for a minimum of four years, and have made a life here.

We should be encouraging permanent residents to take up citizenship and to commit fully to Australia. Citizenship, in this sense, is a positive mechanism for inclusion. The government’s focus on citizenship as a mechanism for exclusion in its rhetoric and some of the proposed changes is, therefore, counterproductive.

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