The Bill implements the federal government’s announcement on 20 April 2017 regarding a series of changes to citizenship policy with the intention to ‘strengthen citizenship’.
In 2015, the government announced Concetta Fierravanti-Wells and Phillip Ruddock would undertake community consultations on citizenship policy. The government has relied heavily on this consultation process to inform the Bill. Following this process, the Government announced on 20 April 2017 an intention to change a number of citizenship policies, including a longer permanent residence requirement and a heightened English language requirement.
From the post-war ‘populate or perish’ period until the mid-2000s, Australian governments often revised citizenship policy in an attempt to expand the eligibility of migrants for citizenship. For example, over time, the period of permanent residence required before applying for citizenship fell from five years to two, and the English language requirement was reduced from adequate to basic.
The introduction of the citizenship test and lengthening of the residence period in 2007 marked a change in approach. The changes proposed by this Bill represent the continuation of a more restrictive approach to Australian citizenship policy, with the introduction of additional eligibility requirements and new ministerial powers. The Prime Minister said he believes the changes will be ‘empowering for applicants’ and that ‘Australian citizenship is the foundation of our democracy’.
The Bill introduces a formal English language test, with the requirement aspiring citizens must show competent English. In addition, four years of permanent residency will be required for aspiring citizens as well as an ability to demonstrate their integration into Australian society. However, what constitutes a successful demonstration of integration is unknown as the proposed delegated legislation regulating this new provision does not exist at this time. These changes, and a number of other significant policy changes, are profiled in this Bills Digest.
The effects of the Bill are difficult to forecast. The combined measures will likely reduce the number of future citizens compared to a continuation of the status quo. A number of organisations have argued instead of promoting social cohesion, the measures will undermine how aspiring citizens integrate into Australian society.
In addition, there is a clear shift away from setting out detailed eligibility criteria in the Act, with greater discretion given to the minister to determine the details of eligibility through legislative instrument. This is combined with an increase in the number of ‘public interest’ discretions for the minister, with the Bill creating new ministerial powers to exclude personal decisions from merits review and override decisions of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. The minister is also given expanded powers to cancel citizenship approvals and to revoke citizenship. The expansion of discretion and greater use of delegated legislation promotes a degree of uncertainty and potential arbitrariness regarding the application and revocation of citizenship.
The changes to citizenship eligibility will apply to all applications lodged from 20 April 2017. A number of organisations noted this in their submissions, raising concerns about uncertainty for current applicants and suggesting it may undermine parliamentary processes.