Why now? Revamping Australian citizenship

Why is Peter Dutton (and Pauline Hanson) talking about a tougher citizenship test?

Before getting to this question, let me state my position on citizenship: the existing requirements for citizenship – four-year residency, a permanent visa, and the existing citizenship test is already performed in English – are more than sufficient. I believe birthright citizenship, or jus soli for the lawyers out there, is a human right, as the United States, Canada and most of Latin America hold. The 21st century will bring home some of the very difficult political questions about who belongs where as migration continues to increase. The current ad-hoc citizenship processes across the world will struggle to cope. The losers will be migrants, as the countries they live and work in seek to assert vague notions of sovereignty for political gain.

Peter Dutton did not wake up on January 2 and decide, on a whim, to start agitating for harsher citizenship measures. This was a calculated decision, just another marker in a longer process which started in earnest when Malcolm Turnbull kicked him out of the National Security Committee of Cabinet, and before that, when Scott Morrison as Immigration Minister created the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. Here is a marker for 2017: the prevalence of security and citizenship as national topics of conversation is inversely related to Malcolm Turnbull’s political ability.

Immigration hawks view the world in discrete units, such as the number and type of visas granted and border crossings. They don’t have much use for social cohesion and diversity, concepts somewhat ill-suited as evidence for measurement and decision-making. The world is black and white, devoid of grey and extremely risk averse. In the aftermath of 9/11, Dick Cheney illustrated what became known as the One Percent Doctrine: “If there’s a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It’s not about our analysis … It’s about our response”.

‘It’s about our response’. When considering Peter Dutton’s words and actions in 2017, I would encourage you to keep these words in mind. The approach outlined by Cheney above is an approximation of the worldview linking immigration and security, where zero tolerance drives policy fundamentals and crowds out most other considerations.

One unit considered by policy makers but often overlooked in public commentary is time. Time is precious and extending it is a neat way of increasing power without appearing to make wholesale change. Anyone on a visa, permanent of temporary, falls under the Migration Act and the various powers contained without it. Drawing out the time visa holders spend as migrants instead of citizens, enhances the power of the Immigration Minister, provides governments with more flexibility and, importantly, increases the number of people overseen by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. More widgets, higher growth, bigger numbers: this is the language of power in Canberra if you want a place at the big kids table.

To my mind, these are the reasons behind the push for greater citizenship hurdles for migrants to overcome. This is why Peter Dutton is talking about citizenship. He wants a longer time period allowing more opportunity for security agencies to assess people and creates more possibilities for other issues and agencies to be brought into the mix (i.e. welfare and the Department of Social Services). This may include additional English testing and some form of a migrant demonstrating “Australian values”. When looking for a needle in a haystack – a terrorist on a student visa for example – more time increases your odds. But the flip side is everyone else is also affected. Students who are not terrorists, i.e. all of them in any statistical sense, would be treated to the same rules being used to find the ever elusive needle.

There are a host of other potential problems with using time to place more barriers in front of citizenship. For example, the ABS tells us humanitarian migrants earn more income the longer they stay in Australia:

Income earned by Humanitarian migrants after a period of residency


It is not difficult to imagine how gaining citizenship assists people move into higher skilled jobs and earn more income. Citizenship is used by many public service agencies as an entry requirement and large multinational companies often preference citizens as they are not subject to visa restrictions. What if increasing the length of time it took to become a citizen – from say four years to six – also reduced occupational mobility in the labour market? What if this held back people who would otherwise have a smoother settlement journey? While marginal, these are large probabilities beneath the surface and never examined as a counter to the security narrative.

You can trace Peter Dutton’s comments early in 2017 to movements last year as well as looking ahead. Leaked documents show the Cabinet considered revised immigration regulations in March 2016 (which I wrote about with Peter Mares and Anna Boucher here). This came only four months after Parliament passed an overhaul of citizenship rules, including new powers of revocation for dual-citizens. From what I understand, these new powers have not been used or tested in the court system, with a number of legal experts at the time considering them unconstitutional. Looking ahead, the Joint Standing Committee on Migration is conducting an inquiry into Migration Settlement Outcomes. This is code for examining welfare, English proficiency and citizenship rights of new migrants (see the Terms of Reference here). You can expect this inquiry to be used as “evidence” for a new round of sweeping changes to migration and citizenship law. Incidentally this is occurring at exactly the same time as every single government service provider for humanitarian support programs find themselves in the middle of a procurement process. If you were a cynic, it wouldn’t be a good look in stifling a dissenting view from those supporting humanitarian migrants on the ground. I would urge people to engage with the Parliamentary inquiry as there is a paucity of evidence to generate more barriers for people who want to become Australians.

This is the result of citizenship as a security policy tool. Gone are ideals about give and take, about rights and responsibilities. Today citizenship is viewed as solely as a privilege, something the state can choose to bestow upon you. Thankfully most people do not subscribe to this view, signalling a political opportunity to oppose or at least modify the pending legislation. Yet every discussion about citizenship through a security frame and in such a haphazard manner, stokes the coals of Hanson. Every media cycle promotes her views and gives her a platform. These national conversations might suit Peter Dutton’s short-term interests yet they undoubtedly hurt Malcolm Turnbull and any considered strategy to confine the far-right in Australia to the fringes.

2 thoughts on “Why now? Revamping Australian citizenship

  1. “..creates more possibilities for other issues and agencies to be brought into the mix i.e. welfare..” I think you hit the nail on the head right there. Under the political point scoring guise of security it comes down to money. Peter Mares called the SCV for kiwis a “bob each way approach to migration”. Isn’t this extra time just a way for the government to reap the benefits of migration without having to give as much back?

    1. Thanks for your comment Steve. There is definitely a money calculus somewhere, perhaps a new class of provisional visas will extend the exclusion period from welfare? If this is a primary motivation for the changes, we should all be aware as it will generate more of the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. New migrants are already are large net positives to the underlying Budget position so it’s difficult to claim they aren’t pulling their weight. Cheers, Henry

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s