A key issue with the new language and ‘values’ citizenship tests, which probably won’t be able to be legislated for, is how rigidly and ruthlessly the tests are applied. We have already seen the monumental injustices that happened when government zealotry on migration infected the culture of the Department responsible for administering the government’s migration laws and policies.
If the new citizenship test is applied in the same way, there will be serious social division caused. Of course, we already have a basic English requirement for citizenship, which contains reasonable exceptions based on factors like age. I haven’t seen evidence that this doesn’t work adequately at the moment, so if the new language test is little different and it’s administered with the same reasonable approach, there may be little practical impact, other than the negative shift in social attitudes towards migrants that can occur when government play on myths and fears about them.
However, there is one other consequence of the worst case scenario which is worth mentioning. You have to be an Australian citizen to be able to get on the electoral roll and vote*. Structuring or administering tests in a way which makes it harder for certain groups of permanent residents to become citizens could be used as way to keep people seen as politically unfavourable to the government (or a future government) from getting on the roll.
I must say I never would have given much thought to this aspect, except perhaps in an academic sense, until the current government started taking very deliberate steps down the US path of blatantly rorting the electoral laws for their own benefit. Earlier this year, changes to the electoral law were pushed through the Senate which have the effect of:
• Closing the rolls the day the election is called, which will means tens of thousands of, mostly younger and more transient people, being unable to update their details and thus being disenfranchised;
• Preventing all prisoners from voting;
• Making it harder for Indigenous people to get on the roll, and easier to take them off (of course, indigenous people are also over-represented in jails)
• Allow much larger anonymous donations to political parties to be made
A short, well researched and easy to read book on the impact of these actions, called “Limiting Democracy” by Brian Coster and Colin Hughes, Australia’s first Electoral Commissioner, has just been released. Click here to read a longish review of the book.
These aren’t the only things that have ever been done to the electoral laws by a political party for their own advanatage. Queensland of course had its infamous gerrymander and malapportionment – initiated by the Labor Party and refined by the Country/National Party. A recent law brought in by the Beattie government requiring local government Councillors to resign before they can contest state elections was clearly designed to inconvenience the non-Labor parties. However, our nation has been blessedly free of such rorting of democracy at federal level since the introduction of the Australian Electoral Commission, combined of course with the protection that no party had control of the Senate.
Greater resources and technology makes it much easier these days for the big political parties to track people and to ascertain when they don’t live at their enrolled address. It is now possible for ‘roll cleansing’ efforts to have some impact on electoral outcomes. Making it that bit harder for certain groups of people or individuals to get on the roll in the first place by becoming a citizen can be another extension of this. It also stops a person being able to run for election to public office too. I dislike sounding like a conspiracy theorist, but when there is such a clear record of public administration, public funds and laws being blatantly distorted for partisan electoral benefit, then it is appropriate to point them out.
*There is an exception to the requirement that only Australian citizens have voting rights. Under Section 93 of the Electoral Act, British Subjects with permanent residence in Australia who were on the roll prior to 1984 are also eligible to vote – indeed legally it is compulsory for them to enrol and vote, even if they let their enrolment lapse. I don’t know how many people this now applies to, but in the context of the debate about citizenship rights and responsibilities, it is worth debating whether this exemption should stil apply.