I was in Hobart on Monday at the annual conference of FECCA – the Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia. I gave a speech on the topic of citizenship and migration. The government is currently making much of their new citizenship test, a $125 million initiative supposedly aimed at improving integration of migrants and promoting ‘Australian values’. To me, the time when we can have most impact in encouraging and enabling integration is when people first arrive in Australia, not after they have been here for four years or more, which is when people now become eligible for citizenship (at least one year of that four year period has to have been as a permanent resident). Yet many people who first arrive here on long-term temporary residency visas are given virtually no formal settlement assistance at all.
The notion that forcing people to take a multiple choice test on a computer to obtain citizenship will somehow improve their ability and willingness to integrate with Australia is one which I have seen no evidence for. Making it harder for permanent residents to become citizens is not likely to improve their willingness to apply. There are one million non-citizen permanent residents in Australia. Many of these have lived here for decades. The majority of them come from either the UK or New Zealand, which suggest that it is this group that we are having the most trouble getting to fully integrate. People who come from non-English speaking backgrounds are amongst those who become citizens the quickest; those who are refugees quickest of all.
Twenty-five percent of Australians are overseas born. Modern Australia would not exist without the skills and efforts migrants, and our economy and services would collapse overnight if the hundreds of thousands of people who come here each year as skilled workers, students, holiday workers, refugees and spouses all stopped coming.
Despite this, the government is wasting $125 million trying to convince people that there is a problem with migrants. Now, according to a speech Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews gave to the Sydney Institute, the government is planning to introduce stricter rules in “assessing the capacity of visa applicants to settle in Australia.”
Factors taken into account in making an assessment include an applicant’s adaptability and resourcefulness, their knowledge of Australia and their expectations about living in Australia, their attitude towards learning English and their English language skills. Those visa applicants who are currently interviewed, such as applicants for humanitarian visas also will be assessed during the interview against the integration criterion.
Migrants’ attitudes will be assessed by specially trained officers of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.
The Minister gave the opening address to the FECCA conference, but he waited until the next day when he was speaking to the Sydney Institute to make this announcement. He used lots of reasonable sounding language to surround it, but the core of it is once again to create suspicion about migrants, based on a ‘problem’ that is not defined and which no evidence is produced to demonstrate it exists.