Senate sidesteps bishops' citizenship concerns

The Senate yesterday passed controversial amendments to citizenship laws despite a warning from the Australian bishops that the new "confrontational approach" could backfire and discourage people who face difficulty in learning English from applying for citizenship.

The Bishops Commission for Pastoral Life had urged the federal government to modify its proposed changes to citizenship requirements so that language and knowledge requirements are met gradually, rather than being judged by a test.

Despite the concerns, the Senate yesterday approved the new citizenship laws which aims to tighten security over who becomes a citizen. The new laws also raise the age at which people become exempt from having to pass a basic English test, from 50 to 60 years.

"We agree wholeheartedly with the Government that it is very important for those seeking citizenship to be helped to appreciate the significance of the step that they are taking," Bishop Joseph Grech (pictured), the Bishops' Delegate for Immigration issues said in a statement.

"It is also important that prospective citizens have a sound grasp of the language and some of the basic heritage and values of their new nation."

However, the bishops said they were concerned that forcing citizenship applicants to undergo a formal test of language and values would hinder rather than enhance the process.

"A formal test would be particularly difficult for some older people and for many whose first language is not English," Bishop Grech said. "An unfortunate consequence of this confrontational approach is that some people could be discouraged from even attempting to seek citizenship."

Bishop Grech said that a test would not necessarily show that a prospective citizen had taken Australian values into their life, merely that they had learnt the required responses.

An alternative approach would be to make greater efforts to impart an appreciation and knowledge of the English language and Australian values from the beginning of the migration process, he said.

"This could even be through the undertaking of a formal course, but without a confronting and possibly alienating test," Bishop Grech said.

The House of Representatives had approved the changes last November.

Nevertheless, the government softened the laws slightly from the original proposal, so that there will be ministerial discretion over whether to grant citizenship to a person holding a criminal record, The Age reports.

Without the change, the legislation would have meant a person convicted of a crime in another country would be likely to have their application for Australian citizenship denied.

Labor had pointed out this would have meant former South African president Nelson Mandela could have been refused Australian citizenship if he had applied.

Catholic Bishops propose less confronting Citizenship requirements (AZCBC, Media Release, 26/2/07)
Parliament approves new citizenship laws (The Age, 27/2/07)
Citizenship changes (Sky News, 26/2/07)

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Australian Citizenship | Australian Citizenship Bill 2006
Australian Catholic Bishops Conference

Citizenship test harsh, exploitative (CathNews, 14/12/06)
Bendigo Bishop backs English test for migrants (CathNews, 21/9/06)


27 Feb 2007