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Comment: Why we should encourage more people to become Australian citizens, not less-NewsCO

January 29, 2017

It seems every couple of years the idea of making the Australian citizenship test more stringent gets mooted, apparently as a means of filtering out terrorists and undesirables, or making newbies adopt “Australian values”.

As a migrant, I’ve always found strange the concept of toughening Australia’s citizenship test as if our country risks losing something by accepting more citizens.

I can well understand that line of thinking if Australian citizenship carries with it access to social security benefits, working rights, health care, rights to own property and the like, as is the case with citizenship in some other countries.

“What they get in return is not a medicare card or social security cheque, but a valuable sense of belonging and being able to treat this country as their new home instead of just a hostel.”

But Australian citizenship comes with none of those things (not even a library card). That’s because Australia’s permanent residents already enjoy all of these rights and privileges prior to citizenship. So in reality, the main additional benefit gained from being an Australian citizen is having the right to vote and to stand for public office. Along with that, other delightful experiences such as being on the local MP’s mailing list, getting fined when forgetting to vote, and being summoned for jury duty. 

It’s silly to suggest any revamped citizenship test can deter would-be terrorists from infiltrating Australian society. It’s naive to think that the small minority committed to destroying the Australian way of life would be stupid enough to disclose their evil intentions when answering any test, no matter what questions are asked.

In any case, isn’t it all too late by then as the would-be terrorist would have already been in the country for four-plus years if they were on the path to citizenship? One would think any counter-terrorism efforts are better directed at the front-end monitoring and regulating those who enter the country on various visas in the first place.    

Some news outlets have highlighted the fact that thousands of migrants fail the test each year before resitting the test again until they pass. Be that as it may, the fact that these people persist in resitting the test shows they at least consider citizenship well worth the time and effort. I’m sure a much larger number of people fail the driver’s test each year.

Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of witnessing thousands of newly minted citizens at our local council’s citizenship ceremonies. Without exception, they are always joyous and moving experiences for the new citizens, their friends and families.

At any given occasion, we would welcome new citizens from over 30 different countries around the globe. Some of them attend dressed very formally in suits and ties while others are more casual, in T-shirts and thongs. Some take the religious oath and others the secular one. They all seem to love taking selfies with the Mayor dressed in his 18th century Santa Claus gown after the ceremony (in contrast to locals who generally treat such pomp and ceremony with some disdain and irreverence). Some new citizens have super short surnames like “Ng”, which stumps the MC reading out the names on stage, as much as the longer sounding surnames with six-plus syllables.   

From that diverse pool, what all new citizens have in common is that they have consciously chosen to become full members of Australian society. They have done so not to gain any practical benefits they do not already enjoy, but because they have decided, in a very public way, to throw in their lot with Australia. What they get in return is not a medicare card or social security cheque, but a valuable sense of belonging and being able to treat this country as their new home instead of just a hostel. 

So all things considered, it makes little sense to try to impede people from becoming Australian citizens by making the test harder. As I often hear our local MP Victor Dominello quote from a Korean proverb during citizenship ceremonies: “A great river does not refuse small streams”. And Australia is that great river. 

If we want to build a more cohesive society, then we ought to encourage more people to become citizens, not less. Our country has everything to gain from having more people make that commitment. The greater risk lies in having a large body of migrants sitting on the proverbial fence who are apathetic to, or are discouraged from, becoming full members of the Australian society.

Justin Li is a former deputy mayor in the City of Ryde and has been an independent local government councillor since 2008.  He is also editor of Humans of Eastwood, sharing stories of people from multicultural Eastwood in Sydney’s North West.

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