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Article Australia: Bill to Amend Citizenship Requirements Introduced

(June 21, 2017) On June 15, 2017, the Australian Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Peter Dutton, introduced a bill in the House of Representatives that will implement the government’s proposals to amend certain legal requirements for obtaining Australian citizenship.  (Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Requirements for Australian Citizenship and Other Measures) Bill 2017, PARLIAMENT OF AUSTRALIA (last visited June 16, 2017); Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Requirements for Australian Citizenship and Other Measures) Bill 2017 (Cth), Federal Register of Legislation website.)  The government had previously announced the proposed changes at a press conference in April 2017.  (Press Conference with the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, The Hon. Peter Dutton MP, Parliament House, Canberra (Apr. 20, 2017), Prime Minister of Australia website; Press Release, Hon. Peter Dutton MP, Joint Media Release with the Hon. Malcolm Turnbull MP, Prime Minister – Strengthening the Integrity of Australian Citizenship (Apr. 20, 2017).)

The key changes for citizenship eligibility, as contained in the bill, include:

  • Increasing the general residence requirement as a permanent resident from one year at present to at least four years;
  • Introducing a stand-alone English test involving competent reading, writing, listening and speaking;
  • Strengthening the citizenship test itself with new questions that assess an applicant’s understanding of – and commitment to – our shared values and responsibilities.
  • Applicants will be required to demonstrate their integration into the Australian community.  (Press Release, Hon. Peter Dutton MP, Changes to Citizenship Laws Introduced in Parliament (June 15, 2017).)

Current Law

The requirements for becoming an Australian citizen are contained in the Australian Citizenship Act 2007 (Cth) (Federal Register of Legislation website).  Citizenship is acquired automatically by persons born in Australia to at least one parent who is an Australian citizen or permanent resident.  The other way to obtain citizenship is by application to the responsible Minister (i.e., the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection) in one of four possible situations: citizenship by descent; citizenship as a result of adoption; citizenship by conferral; and resumption of citizenship.  (Id. s 2A.)  In order for a person who is aged 18 or over to obtain citizenship by conferral, he or she generally needs to fulfill the following requirements:

  • be a permanent resident and satisfy either the general residence requirement (being present in the country for at least the past four years, including being a permanent resident for the 12-month period before making the application (id. s 22)), the special residence requirement (engaging in, e.g., activities beneficial to Australia (id. ss 22A-22C)), or the defense service requirement (id. s 23);
  • understand the nature of the application;
  • possess a “basic knowledge of the English language”;
  • have an “adequate knowledge of Australia and of the responsibilities and privileges of Australian citizenship”;
  • be likely to reside, or continue to reside, in Australia, or maintain a “close and continuing” relationship with the country; and
  • be of good character.  (Id. s 21(2).)

In order for an applicant to show that he or she understands the nature of the application, possesses a basic knowledge of English, and has an adequate knowledge of Australia and the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship, he or she must take a citizenship test.  (Id. ss 21(2A) & 23A.)  In addition, before the Minister can approve a citizenship application, persons aged 16 or over must make a “pledge of commitment” in accordance with the arrangements prescribed by regulations.  (Id. ss 26 & 27; Australian Citizenship Regulation 2016 (Cth), Federal Register of Legislation website; Australian Citizenship Pledge, DEPARTMENT OF IMMIGRATION AND BORDER PROTECTION (last visited June 20, 2017).)

In situations other than where a person acquired citizenship automatically, the Minister is able to revoke a person’s citizenship in circumstances involving certain offenses or fraud.  (Australian Citizenship Act 2007 (Cth) s 34.)

Proposed Changes in the Bill

The bill would change several of the requirements for obtaining citizenship, by:

  • clarifying that “Australian values” (which include the shared values of respect, equality and freedom) is a subject area that must be tested in the citizenship test and only successful completion of the citizenship test enables the Minister to be satisfied that a person has an adequate knowledge of Australia, Australian values, and of the responsibilities and privileges of Australian citizenship  … ” (Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment (…) Bill 2017, Explanatory Memorandum (explanation of item 42), Federal Register of Legislation website.)  In addition, applicants for citizenship would be required to sign an “Australian Values Statement” as part of their application. ( Id. (explanation of items 118 & 119).)
  • removing the English language testing requirement from the citizenship test and instead giving the Minister the power to determine “the circumstances in which a person has competent English and the information or documentation relating to a person having competent English.” (Id. (explanation of item 45); see also id. (explanation of item 53).)
  • requiring all applicants for citizenship by conferral, not just those aged 18 years or older, to be of good character at the time of the Minister’s decision on the application. (Id. (explanation of item 52).)
  • increasing the general residence requirement to the full four years preceding an application for citizenship by conferral. (Id. (explanation of item 54).)
  • renaming the “pledge of commitment” as “pledge of allegiance” and extending the requirement for such a pledge to all persons aged 16 or over who apply for citizenship, including applicants for citizenship by descent or adoption.  (Id. (explanation of items 3, 24, 25 & 33).)

Opposition to the Bill in the Parliament

On June 20, 2017, the Labor Party spokesman on citizenship issues said that the caucus had unanimously agreed to vote against the bill in its current form.  The Party particularly objected to the requirement for a longer period of residence and to the new English-language proficiency standard in the bill.  In regard to the latter change, the spokesman said that it was a “bizarre act of snobbery” and many Australians would struggle to meet the requirement.  (Stephen Dziedzic, Citizenship Laws: Government in Fight to Pass Tough New Rules After Labor Resolves to Block Changes, ABC NEWS (June 20, 2017); Claire Bickers, Citizenship Test: Labor to Fight Malcolm Turnbull’s Citizenship Test Changes, NEWS.COM.AU (June 20, 2017).)  He also said that the proposed changes in the bill had nothing to do with national security as claimed by the government.  (Labor to Oppose Citizenship Changes, SKY NEWS (June 20, 2017).)

The Green Party has also stated that it will vote “no” on the bill.  Therefore, the government will need the support of ten senators from other parties, or independents, in order to pass the amendments.  (Dziedzic, supra.)

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