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Labor minister calls out citizenship changes as 'offensive and snobbery'

Ahead of the Senate discussion on Tuesday for proposed changes to Australian Citizenship, Shadow Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Australia Tony Burke MP says Labor will continue to stand in opposition

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Opposition citizenship spokesman Tony Burke tells reporters at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia Tuesday, June 20, 2017, that his Labor Party opposes government legislation that would raise the standards for attaining Australian citizenship. Burke condemned the government's plan to lift the English language benchmark from "basic" to "competent" as a "bizarre act of snobbery" that "guarantees we will have a new permanent underclass." Photo: AAP via AP Photo/Rod McGuirk

16 October 2017

On Tuesday the debate surrounding the federal government's proposed controversial changes to Australia's Citizenship Act 2007 will commence in the Senate.

If the planned legislation goes ahead, obtaining Australian citizenship will involve undertaking an English language test with applicants required to achieve a level-6 score on the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), equivalent to tertiary level.

The Labor party, the Greens and Nick Xenophon's team have made no secret of the fact that they will not be voting in favour of the Bill, which means the chance of the Turnbull government achieving its goal is fairly slim.

The language being adopted by Department of immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) officials regarding citizenship applications since 20 April - the day the government announced its intention of changing the law - however, would have you think they have it in the bag: "The new citizenship requirements will apply to your application because it was received on or after 20 April 2017".

To shed some light on the matter and find out what will happen with the tens of thousands of applicants currently in limbo, Neos Kosmos contacted the department, but they declined to provide sufficient information, so we reached out to Shadow Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Australia, Tony Burke MP.

Shadow Minister, in a speech you gave last Monday at the FECCA conference talking about the new citizenship laws you went to the extent of characterising them as, and I quote, "the most direct attack on modern multicultural Australia since the abolition of the White Australia Policy". Why is that?
These changes are deliberately designed to prevent many people from a non-English speaking backgrounds from ever becoming Australian. The English language test has been set at a level that many people born in Australia will never reach and they have provided an exception if you come from one of five English-speaking countries where the majority of the populations are white.

You also mentioned that if the Bill is rejected by the Senate the department should "return to normal" and process the current backlog under the current law. Do you have any indication that the government will pursue these changes further, introducing another Bill, if this one is rejected?
We've heard nothing from the government, the only thing we've heard from the government is that they intend to implement the entire package and they have already shown that they are willing to implement it even before the law has passed through parliament that's why I thought that it is important to put down the marker if it rejected in the Senate the government has to go back to processing applications under current law not under proposed law. At the moment their policy is to implement the current package, that's all we know.

If the government puts a new package of changes through parliament which lower the level of the English test requirements, will your party support it?
If they bring back separate legislation without those two elements, the four-year residency requirement and the level-6 English language test, we will then have a look at that with fresh eyes. We are not committing to every sentence of it but there are some things in this legistration that are quite reasonable administrative changes, but as long as they are part of this package we reject the whole package. If they bring back separate legislation at a later point that it does not involve the delay, it doesn't involve the English language test, we will then look at it. We are not committing that we will support every letter of it, but we will have a look at it.

You've been campaigning on this issue for a while. What do members of the community say to you about these changes proposed by the government?
People are shocked because they've all been to community functions where all members of both sides of politics stood up and they said how much they love different communities, what a great contribution to Australia communities like the Greek community have made. No-one expected that a government in Australia would then put forward a law that would have meant that millions of people who made a great contribution to Australia would have never be able to become Australian citizens in the first place. Malcolm Turnbull talks a lot about the Greeks and Italians who've worked in the Snowy Mountain Scheme and yet a good number of those who worked there would never have had a university level English and under these proposals would never get to become Australian citizens if they had arrived now. So the general reaction is shock because people see the opposite of what the government told them when they turned up to their community functions.

Assuming that the government manages to pass the legislation through the Senate, something that many consider as highly unlikely, if Labor wins office after the next election, will you repel this set of changes and reintroduce the current system?
I think it is pretty clear by how hard we have gone on this issue what sort of election promises we would make. But right at this point I am not going to contemplate defeat. At this point right now I am just determined to stop it. If I am unsuccessful on that I will have a lot more to say and it is pretty clear from my public comments. I think it is pretty clear we will end up making a commitment like that, I am just not going to make that commitment now because by doing that I am accepting defeat and I do not want to do that.

No-one has a problem with the current English test, the current test is in English, if you don't have conversational level of English you will not be able to pass it. But to demand an IELTS test score at a level required for university entry is offensive; it changes what sort of country Australia is and there is a bit there of snobbery as well in saying that if you do not have university entry level English you are somehow not as good a contributor to Australia.

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