As the embers cooled in the debris of US President Donald Trump’s 59 Tomahawk missiles fired at Syria, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull ordered an immigration crackdown that includes a new US-style patriot test for those seeking Australian citizenship and the scrapping of 457 foreign worker visas.
Citizenship test changes
The government is constricting the pathway to Australia to allow only the most diligent flag-wavers past our barbed wire borders. Turnbull’s impulse to tighten citizenship requirements is significant given that the architect of the current test was John Howard, who championed the original “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come” mantra.
The changes, which Turnbull says are meant to ensure “allegiance and commitment to Australian values”, reek of racism and Islamophobia. Applicants will be made to take a new English test, make a commitment to embrace “Australian values” and show proof of their integration into the Australian “way of life”.
Applicants will be required to have lived in Australia as permanent residents for at least four years, up from one year. The changes also include a new “three strikes” policy to restrict the number of times an applicant can take the test without passing.
It was hard not to hear the faint tune of the Star Spangled Banner as Turnbull attempted to justify harsher border policies with an analogy about how we are all one big happy family with “shared values”.
“Membership of the Australian family is a privilege and should be afforded to those who support our values, respect our laws and want to work hard by integrating and contributing to an even better Australia.”
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said the new changes should not be cause for embarrassment. “We want people who abide by our laws and our values, and we should expect nothing less,” he said.
The changes raise questions about the permanence of “permanent residency”. They place restrictions on anyone with a criminal record, which may pave the way for extra punitive measures against immigrants convicted of misdemeanours.
Attack on 457 Visas
The citizenship test changes came just two days after the scrapping of 457 visas for foreign workers and its replacement with two other visas.
The move kept Turnbull in lockstep with Trump, who announced overnight his own reform of a visa program to encourage US employers to hire more Americans.
"With this action, we are sending a powerful signal to the world: We're going to defend our workers, protect our jobs and finally put America first," Trump said.
Turnbull may as well have been wearing a blonde toupee when he said the next morning: "The reality is that we have to make sure that Australian jobs are for Australians first and foremost. This is about putting Australians first, Australian jobs first, Australian values first."
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has been short on opposition, meeting Turnbull’s announcements with the insistence that when it comes to racism and patriotism, Labor does it better.
Shorten nodded along, saying “People who come here should adhere to Australian laws and values”, but he criticised the government for not being forceful enough to implement the changes, saying they “will make no real difference” and should be harsher.
“For Labor this is not a new issue,” he said. “We said before the last election there were rorts in the visa system.”
These jabs are part of the bipartisan race to the bottom in cruel border policy.
Both parties jostle for the spotlight when it comes to who is better at locking up asylum seekers indefinitely in dangerous detention centres, a policy introduced by the Paul Keating Labor government in 1992.
The political point scoring comes as deportations ramp up in Australia’s onshore detention centres. The recent case of Saeed, an Iraqi man denied refugee status on a technicality, who is set to be deported imminently along with several other Iraqis from Villawood Detention Centre has generated a public campaign and more awareness.
Labor and the Coalition both play nationalist to justify their punishing and inhumane border policies. They want us to buy into the fiction that by putting compassion last, they are putting “Australia first”.
War drum pounding
As the world looks on in horror at Trump’s beating of the war drum and tapping of the race-hate button, Australia’s leaders are feeling the rhythm. The new thorns on our barbed wire borders signal that the West is bracing for war and the flood of refugees that war will create.
Indeed, one of the most fundamental and enduring “Australian values” is the bipartisan bloodstained alliance with the US.
Australia also shares a horrific history of invasion, land theft, genocide and enslavement of First Nations peoples. The red, white and blue flags cloak histories of racism and war. But new citizens won’t be asked about that.
In Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote: “Only constant repetition will finally succeed in imprinting an idea on the memory of the crowd.”
As we continue into an era of alternative facts, rising death tolls in refugee gulags, and the deafening thumping of the West’s war drum, we are sure to hear a lot more “Australia/America first” rhetoric.
As the Jewish community in the US has been saying: “We’ve seen this before”.