The view from Billinudgel

The thin edge of the citizenship wedge
What does the government think it will achieve with its proposed reforms?

You might not know it, but Australia is in deadly peril.

National security is endangered on all fronts, the most obvious indicator being the imminent arrival of fleets of boats on our sacred shores, ready to wreak havoc and despair among the populace. Terrorism is just the start of it; who can tell the horrors to which the Lucky Country will be subjected.

And it is all the fault of Bill Shorten – or, more precisely, his treacherous party’s refusal to vote for amendments to the Australian Citizenship Act, which, through the inculcation of English standards, a lengthy waiting period and the minister’s ability to overthrow the rule of law, would have instilled patriotic fervour and kept us all safe.

Some bleeding-heart latte-sippers fail to see the iron logic in the iron fist, but be reassured: our minister for immigration and border protection, Generalissimo (in waiting) Peter Dutton, figured it out in ear-splitting decibels during the last week of the parliamentary session.

Labor remains unconvinced. Well, we all know about Labor. But it might be worth noting that the old system seems to have worked pretty well (Malcolm Turnbull is constantly extolling the most successful multicultural society on earth) and asking just what, apart from a particularly shrill dog whistle, is to be achieved by the so-called reform.

For starters, there is the need to be a permanent resident for four years instead of one. Presumably ASIO, the Australian police, and even Dutton’s gorgeously uniformed minions at Border Protection will have to do their checks before residence is permitted. Once that has been done, the horse has bolted: waiting an extra three years for the values test is not going to alter their security clearances.

And in the meantime, the insistence that all involved learn high-level English is more of a handicap than an advantage for older migrants. Teach the kids, by all means, as we already do. But demanding that frequently unschooled new arrivals with all the other problems they face on the ground must also become proficient in a new language to prove their Ockerdom is both cruel and unrealistic.

But there is a precedent. In 1934, Egon Kisch, a Czech-German communist and anti-Nazi campaigner, was invited to speak in Melbourne. Joe Lyons’ conservative government attempted to stop him, and when the courts ruled against it the government resorted to a law (primarily designed to enforce the White Australia policy) that could require arrivals to undertake a dictation test in a European language.

Dutton’s predecessors nominated Scottish Gaelic, and Kisch predictably failed. In the end, the courts intervened again, and Kisch ran a highly successful speaking tour before agreeing to leave to avoid further legal wrangles. The dictation test was eventually abolished in 1958.

Some 60 years later, Dutton is seeking to implement another pointless authoritarian measure to enhance his (and his far-right faction’s) need for a political wedge. Gaining Australian citizenship may well be a privilege, as Turnbull repeatedly tells us. But that does not – or at least should not – mean that it must be made unnecessarily stringent and complex, a minefield strewn with landmines for the unwary applicant.

This applies especially when the minister involved is a serial detonator of improvised explosive devices, more than one of which has blown up in his face. In time, he will either blow up the whole government or turn it into his own image. In which latter case we will really need to bring back Egon Kisch. 

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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