Politics

Citizenship changes: Labor ridicules English test as Xenophon demands concessions

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Labor has warned Australia risks returning to the White Australia policy with citizenship changes which appear doomed unless the government makes concessions to the Nick Xenophon Team.

Nick Xenophon has recommitted to voting down the Turnbull government’s overhaul of Australian citizenship laws, unless fundamental aspects of the bill are changed. 

Senator Xenophon on Tuesday confirmed his bloc of three senators would vote against the changes, joining Labor and the Greens to effectively kill off the bill.

In response, Immigration minister Peter Dutton’s office released a statement saying the government was still “discussing the bill with the crossbenchers”.

But Senator Xenophon has all but ruled a change in position, despite meeting with Mr Dutton on Tuesday night.

“There needs to be a substantial rewriting of it,” Senator Xenophon told reporters on Wednesday.

“We’ll continue to talk to the government.”

The Xenophon team’s opposition centres on the proposal for a tough new English language test that would require migrants to reach a 'Band 6' under international testing standards.

The plan was met with strong opposition from ethnic groups, who said it would disadvantage less-educated migrants, including refugees. 

The plan was met with strong opposition from ethnic groups, who said it would disadvantage less-educated migrants, including refugees.

Burke takes issue with Herodotus

Labor frontbencher Tony Burke, in a discussion around the bill on Wednesday, ridiculed the high level of English required to pass the test.

In parliament he read out a complicated passage from an English comprehension test part of the IELTS test migrants have to pass, about Herodotus’ account of the battle of Thermopolis.

“That’s not the academic test, that’s the easier one,” he said.

“What on earth does that have to do with being a good Australian? What on earth does that have to do with being a decent Australian citizen?”

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Permanent residents describe their citizenship process experiences
Permanent residents describe their citizenship process experiences

Mr Burke said Labor agreed that migrants must have what’s generally regarded as competent English.

“Guess what, if the test is in English I reckon it’s pretty hard to pass if you have no English.”

“University level English as a demand, one is ridiculous, two is an act of extraordinary snobbery.”

He said the changes did not come from a recommendation from security agencies but a report from two Liberals, and warned it would create a permanent underclass of non-citizens.

“Australia has not been that sort of country ever since we got rid of the White Australia policy.”

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Senators Xenophon and Hinch speak about citizenship reforms and English test
Senators Xenophon and Hinch speak about citizenship reforms and English test

Easier English test may not be enough

A Senate inquiry into the changes, chaired by Coalition senator Ian MacDonald, released a report this week recommending the English test be set at an easier level, rather than one “many current citizens could not reach”.

“You can't really enjoy the full benefits, the full fruits, of Australian citizenship unless you can read the papers, watch SBS News, fill in forms, understand what's happening,” Senator MacDonald told SBS World News.

“You do need a reasonable standard of English but certainly not a very, very high standard.”

Asked whether a government compromise on the English test could secure NXT support, Senator Xenophon said it was “one of a number of issues” with the bill.

The citizenship reforms would also lengthen the wait time for permanent residents from one year to four.

There would be a new test on “Australian values”, which would include questions on domestic violence.

“There are so many elements of that package that just don’t make sense,” Senator Xenophon said, without specifying which he disagreed with. 

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NXT Senator Stirling Griff on which components the party opposes
NXT Senator Stirling Griff on which components the party opposes

Senator Derryn Hinch said he believed the Mr Dutton would amend the bill and try again to secure its passage.

"It's looking a bit sick, but it's not terminal," he told reporters outside Parliament House.

NXT senator Stirling Griff slammed the bill in a late-night speech to the Senate on Monday.

“It instils fear and it foments hate,” Senator Griff said.

“It targets families and children as if in an attempt to wear them down to ultimate defeat.”

Additional reporting Rashida Yosufzai

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