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In a year which has begun after the foiling of a Christmas terrorist plot in Melbourne and with the horrifying news of an Islamic State-backed massacre in a nightclub in Istanbul, it is both right and responsible for Australia to question and discuss the objectives of its citizenship test.
As Immigration Minister Peter Dutton pointed out as 2017 got underway, we have entered a “new age” of terrorist attacks, and should be vigilant about weeding out the minority of people that might act to “harm us or seek to rip us off.”
Dutton is proposing that the Australian government should take a low-cost, sensible and precautionary step to help ensure that the people who are allowed to take up citizenship in our so-far safe, free and egalitarian nation genuinely share the values of the vast majority.
The minister has made the point that in many cases, particularly when people are coming from the Middle East, country of origin records are unreliable and we must rely on the word of the individual. That means we must be more careful about our questioning, and we certainly should demand a higher level of evidence to support people’s assertions about their behavior. That evidence should be sought, as much as possible, prior to arrival. There is no acceptable excuse for it not to be gathered in the period after applicants begin living in Australia.
As Dutton rightly queries, is asking whether or not a person knows Don Bradman's batting average a true test of whether he or she is likely to share the societal principles that make Australia so successful?
“My view is that we need to look in some more detail at some of the tangible examples of people's behaviour,” he told 2GB radio on January 3. “And I think people can demonstrate the sorts of things that we're talking about which make up their Australian values.”
Dutton is suggesting the more pertinent questions are along the lines of: will people allow their kids to be educated; are they undertaking English language lessons; are they working, if able-bodied?
His position is entirely reasonable and hardly likely to the raise eyebrows of Joe Public, and certainly not of the immigrants and their families who are prospering in a new life here.
The Australian government has a clear responsibility to do whatever is in its power to ensure that those who are granted citizenship are not past, present or likely future lawbreakers. And it has a moral obligation to those who already live here that new arrivals will not be a drain on the public purse.
Changing our citizenship test as Dutton suggests would threaten only those who it seeks to identify: people who want to come here with a view to damaging or exploiting Australia’s way of life.
It is not a measure that might, as suggested by Migration Council Australia chief executive Carla Wilshire to the Sydney Morning Herald, “demonise migrants.”
It is, just like the Abbott government’s prosecution of the highly successful Operation Sovereign Borders, simply a modern echo of former Prime Minister John Howard’s 2001 assertion that Australia has “a proud record of welcoming people from 140 different nations. But we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come."
And in the new age, that’s the right approach and one which deserves strong bi-partisan support.