Labor has drawn a dramatic line in the sand on Australian citizenship, vowing toblock the Turnbull government’s proposed crackdown and resolutely denyingany link between citizenship policy and national security.
In a move the government swiftly linked to old battles over boats and border protection, Labor MPs unanimously agreed to oppose the controversial citizenship bill, which frontbencher Tony Burke warned would be “a fundamental change in who we are as a country”.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, pictured at a Refugee Week function in Parliament House on Tuesday. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
The opposition’s main concerns, previously flagged by some left-wing MPs, included a tough English language test for aspiring citizens and a four-year wait for permanent residents before they could claim citizenship.
A fired-up Mr Burke said the university-level English requirement was “ludicrous, absurd and dumb”, and would create “a new, permanent underclass of permanent residents” who would never be able to become Australian citizens.
He said it was “a bizarre act of snobbery” on all Australians and “a fundamental shift in how Australian citizenship is defined”, adding that a “very large number” of Australian-born citizens would never pass such a test.
“That is a big change in howthis country operates, and it’s a change that Labor cannot support,” he said.
The fate of the citizenship package now rests with the independent Senate crossbench, where it is likely to find enough votes,given One Nation’s sympathies and the “broad support” previously indicated by Nick Xenophon.
But the politics were quickly exploited by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, who doubled down by insisting national security was at stake andaccusing Labor leader Bill Shorten of being “mugged by the left of his party”.
He said Labor’s argument about university-level English requirements was “nonsense” and a red-herring floated by some left-wing MPs as “cover to get them to today’s position”.
And he linked the decision to the 15-year battle over asylum seeker policy, declaring Labor was “completely divided … as they were on the border protection bill” to establish Operation Sovereign Borders.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull also hit back, accusing the oppositionof “disrespecting” and devaluing Australian citizenship and claiming the compulsory English test was “doing people a favour”.
Mr Shorten initially offered lukewarm support for the citizenship changes when they were announced in April, suggesting the English test and waiting period sounded “reasonable”.
But several Labor MPs publicly voiced concerns about key elements of the proposal, and many on the party’s right were also understood to be disturbed by the government’s plans.
On Tuesday, Mr Shorten told his caucus colleagues the changes would “alienate people who are already permanently living here” and sent the message “that there are two sorts of Australiansand it’s only the ones who reach university-level English who the government reallywants”.
Mr Burke strongly rejected Mr Dutton’s linking of the issue to national security, pointing out the changes only affected people already living permanently in Australia and were rooted not in security agency recommendations, but a review undertaken in 2015 by Liberal senator Concetta Fierrevanti-Wells.
He also hinted that, if elected, Labor would seek to roll back the changes if they were passed into law.
“This is absolutely where Labor’s at,” he said. “I’m not going to presume defeat but … our position is very strong.”
The position was welcomed by migrant groups, which have lobbied hard against the citizenship revamp, and will nowturn their attention to crucial Senate crossbenchers.
Labor will refer the bill to a Senate inquiry and left the door open to accepting administrative changes the party deems reasonable, if the government was to propose themin a separate bill.