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Pro Bono Alert

Government’s proposed changes to Australian Citizenship Act 2007 defeated

| Published by Olivia McMillan, Emma Dunlevie, Sophie Bolzonello

On 18 October 2017, the Federal Government’s proposed changes to the Australian Citizenship Act 2007 were defeated in the Senate when the deadline to vote on the associated Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Requirements for Australian Citizenship and Other Measures) Bill 2017 expired and Labor, the Greens and the Nick Xenophon Team refused to support the changes.

The changes were first announced on 1 April 2017 by the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, The Hon. Peter Dutton, and applications lodged since that date have been on hold pending the passing of the Bill. Those applications will now be processed as usual.

The Government’s proposed changes included:

  1. A standalone English language test requiring a ‘competent’ level of English, in addition to the citizenship test (with exceptions for those over 60 and under 16);
  2. A requirement to demonstrate integration into the Australian community, such as through a letter from an employer or sporting club, or evidence of studies in Australia;
  3. A change to the permanent residency requirement requiring an applicant to have been present in Australia as a permanent resident for 4 years prior to applying for citizenship (as opposed to the current requirement which is 4 years present in Australia but including only 1 year as a permanent resident); 
  4. A change to the current citizenship test itself to introduce new questions which assess a person’s understanding of and commitment to Australian values and responsibilities; and
  5.  A requirement to expressly pledge allegiance to Australia.

Minister Dutton indicated he may seek to reintroduce some of his proposed changes, however there are indications that any future proposals will not apply retrospectively and the requirement of “competent” English language will not be maintained.

In mid-July 2017, Minister Dutton announced that over 47,000 applications had been lodged since the changes were announced. The freeze on the processing of applications is likely to have created a backlog which will delay processing. At the time of writing, the Department’s guide to processing times indicates that 70% of applications for citizenship by conferral are decided within 10 months, and 90% in 14 months.

The defeat of this Bill will be particularly welcome news for people from refugee backgrounds and has been applauded by refugee, migrant and civil society groups who argued that the Bill was discriminatory, and likely to particularly impact on migrant women.