Puritanical citizenship changes promote less inclusive Australia



Last year I became an Italian citizen through marriage to an Italian Australian. The process legally was very easy: register our marriage with the Italian consulate, pay a relatively small fee, obtain an Australian federal police check and wait.

Australian citizenship certificateThe waiting took much longer than it should have, but that was due to issues with the Italian bureaucracy, not Italian law. I then attended a ceremony where I swore an oath (in Italian) 'to be faithful to the Italian Constitution and the laws of the Republic of Italy'. That was it — no residence requirement, no citizenship or language tests — benvenuto all'Italia.

Compare this with the proposed Australian process. There several elements — the residence requirement, language test, assessment of integration, citizenship test, character test, the ceremony and 'pledge of allegiance to Australia'.

The current residence requirement is four years lawful residence in Australia of which the last 12 months must be as a permanent resident. The proposed changes mean you need to be a permanent resident for four years before you can apply. This means that the time people spend here on a temporary visa, such as a temporary spouse visa, student or 457 work visa, does not count for the residence requirement.

This is a major change because it is common now for many people to spend varying times in Australia before they become a permanent resident. It would be possible for example to be in Australia for say four years before you become a permanent resident. The time you wait for immigration to decide the permanent visa, which can be many months, or years in some cases, also does not count. 

The original 1948 Citizenship Act had a five year residence period, but back then, there were very few people living here for long periods as temporary residents. You came to Australia to live, not for a temporary period to work. Prior to 1948 there were no Australian citizens, we were then 'British subjects'.

The new language test will be a requirement for all who apply. The test level will be a high one, such as IELTS 6, which is equivalent to university entrance requirement. The Department of Immigration and Border Protection stated that people from English speaking countries such as the UK, Ireland, Canada, the USA and new Zealand will be able to get exemptions from language testing.

The justification for this major change is that 'English language proficiency is essential for economic participation and promotes integration into the Australian community'.


"The effect of this unnecessary requirement will be to exclude people from fully participating as citizens, not because of their character, nor their acceptance of values of freedom and tolerance, but because they are unable to reach an arbitrary level of English assessment."


While ideally all Australian should have some reasonable ability to communicate in English, it is unreasonable to expect it at such a high level. Consider parents sponsored to Australia who live here and provide care for their grandchildren while their own children work. I have met a number of Cambodians who would never be able to meet an IELTS 6 level, but are providing important child care and support for their family here, and often are working as well in family businesses. I have heard of small businesses in western Sydney owned by Chinese Australians, who have learnt Assyrian, because most of their customers speak Assyrian, not English. They are not having trouble in 'economic participation' in western Sydney.

The simplistic assessment of a language test does not really tell us if the person will fit in and get a job. Many who came in the 1950s and 1960s looked for work first. Few of the people I know who came from Italy, Greece, the Baltic States and other places in those years would have met the language test level required. The effect of this unnecessary requirement will be to exclude people from fully participating as citizens, not because of their character, nor their acceptance of values of freedom and tolerance, but because they are unable to reach an arbitrary level of English assessment.

Then we have the new citizenship test and emphasis on 'Australian values'. All migration application forms have a section entitled 'Australian values statement' that applicants must agree to. This was introduced under Howard. Most are common across all developed western style democracies, rather than specifically Australian. They include: respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual, freedom of religion, commitment to the rule of law, parliamentary democracy, equality of men and women and a spirit of egalitarianism that embraces mutual respect, tolerance, fair play and compassion for those in need and pursuit of the public good; and equality of opportunity for individuals, regardless of their race, religion or ethnic background. These are essential principles found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as many other internationally accepted norms. They are laudable and should be promoted.

What about some other international values such as Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: 'Everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution'? One hopes that other examples of what respective governments have done are not considered Australian values: retrospective laws which seriously disadvantage people without prior notice; major law changes announced to be in force, but not yet passed by the parliament; mandatory detention of asylum seekers arriving by boat; sub-contracting our international obligation to poor Pacific neighbours and then disclaiming any responsibility for them; falsely accusing workers from Save the Children of improper action; falsely claiming asylum seekers threw children overboard; demonising and vilifying asylum seekers by calling them 'illegal' when the term does not exist in migration law.


"One of the successes for our democracy has been to encourage inclusivity. However, a result of the new changes will be the presence of increasing numbers of people on temporary or permanent visas, without being able to fully participate in our democracy."


The other new requirement will be an 'assessment regarding integration'. This is yet to be further defined. In an interview on 7.30 Report, the Prime Minister said to Leigh Sales: 'They have children, the children are at school, they might be part of the P&C, they might have joined a surf club, they might have joined a service club.' I would fail all of these examples, as would the Cambodian grandparents caring for the children.

There is no stated reason for these dramatic changes which for the first time introduces a language test into Australian citizenship. This harkens back to the days of the 'dictation test' of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901. Like the infamous dictation test, this high threshold of English will be exclusive and mean that people will be excluded from full participation in Australia because their English is not good enough.

The changes will make the acquisition of Australian citizenship more exclusive and reflect a more controlling and puritanical attitude within Immigration. Our immigration story is becoming more inward looking, rather than nation building and welcoming difference. One of the successes for our democracy has been to encourage inclusivity. However, a result of the new changes will be the presence of increasing numbers of people on temporary or permanent visas, without being able to fully participate in our democracy. Maybe learning the second verse of the national anthem should be encouraged and the words implemented: 'For those who've come across the seas we've boundless plains to share.'


Kerry MurphyKerry Murphy is a partner with the specialist immigration law firm D'Ambra Murphy Lawyers and member of the board of the IARC .

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Existing comments

So English speaking nations don't have to do the English test,which by the way is right if it's true

John | 19 June 2017  

Kerry is right to reference the many, many, Greek, Italian, and other non-British migrants who came to this country in the post-war period who, with little of no English language skills, nevertheless entered enthusiastically into its society and economy and, who, in due course became good and loyal citizens. By contrast, Dutton's, and by extension Turnbull's, approach, will be to turn these people into 'guest workers' who will be required to pay their taxes and contribute to the economy but who will be denied their rightful place in society and the body politic. What a recipe for disaster further down the track!

Ginger Meggs | 19 June 2017  

Italian citizenship doesn't require a language test. Why English test here.....

Ivan Cheung | 19 June 2017  

“The new language test will be a requirement for all who apply. The test level will be a high one….” If you’re not applying to stay in Australia for compassionate reasons (which I would suggest includes bringing in grandparents as babysitters and shop assistants in family businesses), surely it must be on the basis that you will be useful to the country. Who decides if the structure of the economy has moved on from the Snowy so that now we need people who can speak better than they can dig? Do we have some principles for deciding which parts of a country’s migration program are philanthropic and which are businesslike?

Roy Chen Yee | 19 June 2017  

I am a first generation migrant and I suspect my views are consistent with many people I have met. Citizenship is an expression of loyalty to the state. Every new citizenship expresses an oath of loyalty to another state. If we look at the oaths, for example, to the United States or other (countries), they leave virtually no room for another oath. Therefore, the citizenship issue is not very simple. If you're loyal to something, you're loyal, if you love something, you can only love one. I my view, Citizenship is a gift from the citizens of a country to the new persons who would like to live here. It is not a right or entitlement of the individual- that is an outcome of a legal process. We chose to build our country by embracing immigration. – Nation building. However, we promulgate the differences of Multiculturalism as a value in its own right. It has become an industry. Where are the values that bind us as a nation. With regards to dual citizenship, as a phenomenon it is applied on rare occasions and by very few states. This does not mean it is necessary. Again, this challenges the concept of loyalty to the nation.

Peter | 20 June 2017  

It is not a right to become an Australian citizen. You start the article with a comparison to Italian law, yet throughout the article you talk about values and economic contribution, not assessed by the Italian system. The assumption is also that being a permanent resident is a bad thing. Finally, language matters, as language embodies the culture and identity of the person and their community. This is the reason why it is important to indigenous Australians to preserve their language, and for social and political structures to support rather than hinder that. So when we talk about the values of a secular democratic nation state, it is found within the thought forms and media forms of within western languages, even if not identical with them. As far as I'm concerned, an English test, nor assenting on a piece of paper to Australian values, does not mean one actually affirms and embodies those values. There is no guarantee, but an english test is at least a doorway to western culture. I am for more values testing, not less - for precisely the importance of western secular democratic values and rights.

Andrew | 20 June 2017  

I find it unbelievable in the 21st Century that some of us are trying to return this country to the infamous old days of the Dictation Test when racially "undesirable" potential immigrants were given a dictation test in a language - such as Lithuanian - they (and virtually all Australians) would never have heard before, much less spoken and competently spelled. Failed test; refused entry! Problem solved, race still pure. And as for "The Bradman Question" - my earliest ancestor here arrived in 1824, and all my "stock" is English and Irish. But I am not the least interested in cricket or Bradman, and absolutely contemptuous of any national requirement for anyone at all to know anything about his batting average compared to anyone else. Same with being a member of a surf club. Can I therefore expect a pre-dawn knock at the door sometime in the future from the Dutton Australian Purity Police with a one-way ticket out of God’s own land? Could he and his political ilk really – seriously – think there are so many votes to be won out of this? Because the most naked and trashy politics imaginable is of course what it’s really about.

PaulM | 20 June 2017  

For the language test why don't we revert to a dictation test in a European language. This served us well in the time of the White Australia policy.

Lou | 20 June 2017  

A good clear article of the unfairness and increasing narrowness of this country. Thanks Kerry.

Anne Benjamin | 20 June 2017  

Kerry is disingenuous about his Italian citizenship. He had a right to the Italian citizenship under Acquisition of Italian citizenship “jure matrimonii” (by marriage) according to Italian Law 1992/91, Art. 5. For others who want Italian citizenship this applies. A foreign resident who isn’t married to an Italian can apply for citizenship after four years’ residence if he is a European Union (EU) national, otherwise after ten years; stateless people resident in Italy and foreigners serving the Italian state can apply after five years.

John | 20 June 2017  

I wouldn't be surprised if a fair slab of Anglo- Saxon origin kids born in this country couldn't pass an English language test!

joh frawley | 20 June 2017  

Looking around the streets behind me in my inner suburb I reflect sadly that very few of my neighbours would qualify, even though they have been here far longer than I have and have in many cases made significant contributions to the community. As for me I have been here less than 50 years and it's amazing I got in in the first place.When I was interviewed at Australia House my interviewer spoke with such a strong Australian accent (something i had never heard before) that I could not understand most of his questions. When and where will this race to the bottom stop? Incidentally I hope the Church is protesting loudly, given that a high proportion of our priests would struggle to qualify.

margaret | 20 June 2017  

Most nations regard citizenship as something important. It is often not granted lightly. Some countries: India and Singapore for instance, do not permit dual citizenship. Not having the local language of a country, e.g. French or German, makes it difficult to fully function in the wider community, although it would be possible to survive in the Arabic or Turkish speaking communities there. There is real debate as to how 'French' or 'German' certain immigrant communities are. That is not all merely 'racist', although there are elements in both countries who are, as there are racist elements here, although I think it would be facile to regard all in favour of stricter citizenship rules as simply 'racist'. The push for these rules accurately reflects politicians taking what the majority of Australians believe seriously. That is the way our democracy works. If you want to change things you have to convince the majority of the populace. That might be hard.

Edward Fido | 21 June 2017  

Thank goodness Dutton wasn't around when the Irish (most of the economic refugees) were flooding into this country during the 19th century with their anti-imperial, anti-Protestant views, taking jobs from Australian workers, bludging on the welfare system, challenging Australan values, and threatening our way of life.

Ginger Meggs | 21 June 2017  

So people from English speaking nations don't have to do the test ? Then what about skilled migrants from non English speaking nation but entering the country with IELTS band 8 scores.... are we saying after living 4 years in Australia their English may deteriorate ?

Jeff Dominic | 21 June 2017  

I wonder how many of our current or recent MPs would pass the language, character or integration test - where would we deport them to if they failed? Does rigidity and narrow-mindedness qualify as a sought-after value when integrating into Australian society? If not, shouldn't we be questioning what to do about Peter Dutton?

Anne Marie George | 21 June 2017  

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