Immigration minister Peter Dutton’s citizenship bill amendments lapsed on October 18. It is not the first time Dutton has failed to pass new laws relating to immigration, visas and citizenship and is another illustration of the growing discontent with some of the government’s far-reaching, Trump-like, proposals about immigration law.
It was opposed in the Senate by Labor, the Greens and the Nick Xenophon Team. They also combined to deny Dutton an extension to October 20. In the end, with the numbers against it, the Bill never even made it to the floor.
The proposed amendments would have required people to live for four years on a permanent residency visa and pass a harder, university-level English test to qualify as a citizen.
Dutton has often attacked immigrants over their English skills, such as in the lead up to the previous federal election where, amid the usual accusation of lazy migrants taking jobs, he said “they won't be numerate or literate in their own language, let alone English”.
It would be questionable how many Australian citizens could pass the English test, or speak a few words in the language of the Aboriginal nation they live in, for that matter.
If the bill had passed it would have expanded and entrenched an already growing “underclass citizen class” in Australia where a layer of people have fewer rights, less access to social services and cannot vote in elections.
The immigration minister already has the power to revoke permanent residency, leaving many people living with the fear of deportation. Dutton already has growing powers and can make numerous decisions such as on visa applications with no right of appeal. Combined with anti-union laws, this creates a whole layer of workers who may be fearful of taking industrial action or participating in any form of protest.
Creating multiple layers of people with different rights is a tactic often used to divide workers and drive down conditions. Workers on 457 visas are a classic example of this, leading to unions holding rallies with nationalist overtones and racist attacks on migrant workers.
Migrant communities have protested against these attacks, including at a forum in Lakemba in July last year when more than 100 people spoke out against the proposed changes. An estimated 10,000 people attended forums across the country. Many people feared they would not be able to pass the English test, including some who have completed university degrees and found jobs in their field.
The Lakemba forum was hosted by Labor’s former immigration minister Tony Burke. In 2013, while he was immigration minister, Burke was one of the architects of offshore resettlement that has led directly to the current inhumane crisis on Manus Island and Nauru.
Burke has spoken out strongly against the proposed changes to the citizenship laws. He also hosted a vibrant Walk for Respect rally in Lakemba last year against proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act and has spoken alongside other prominent Labor MPs at Welcome to Australia events.
While continuing its support for offshore detention, Labor has opposed various Bills put forward by the government on immigration and visas. Along with the Greens and the Nick Xenophon Team, in November last year it opposed the government’s plan to implement a lifetime ban on asylum seekers being allowed to come to Australia, including on tourist or business visas, if they came via boat.
The Bill came under significant public pressure from the refugee campaign with phone calls, emails, tweets and protests in opposition overwhelming politician’s offices.
It is an interesting contradiction in Labor Party policy to, on one side, be hand-in-hand with the Coalition on refugee policy, yet oppose some of its immigration policies. It shows a desire by Labor to hang onto large blocks of migrant voters, particularly in electorates such as Tony Burke’s, and the power migrant communities can wield when they organise in numbers.
Even if Labor opposed the citizenship changes for the most cynical of reasons — votes — it is a positive for the refugee campaign and shows Dutton’s agenda is not unstoppable.
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