POLITICS

Labor To Oppose Citizenship Changes, English Test 'Snobbery'

'This legislation will always be wrong,' Labor's Tony Burke said.

20/06/2017 1:30 PM AEST | Updated 20/06/2017 1:45 PM AEST
Fairfax Media
Tony Burke says Labor unanimously agreed to oppose the citizenship changes.

CANBERRA -- Labor will oppose the Government's planned changes to citizenship, including controversial changes to English language requirements, setting the scene for a big stoush over migration and national security.

The Government had introduced plans to significantly raise the bar on English requirements for aspiring Australian citizens, reportedly up to "university level", and a four-year wait before permanent residents can apply for citizenship. The reformed citizenship system would also quiz applicants on 'Australian values', asking questions about gender equality and domestic violence.

On Tuesday, Labor's citizenship spokesman Tony Burke said the party had made a "unanimous" decision to oppose the measures in parliament.

"The Government in its bill has engaged in a massive over-reach in terms of describing what it is doing and they have taken some steps, which, put simply, Australia should never take and are inconsistent with who we are as a country," he said.

With Labor and the Greens to oppose the changes, the Government will need the support of most of the Senate crossbench to pass the legislation through the parliament.

Burke disputed that the changes were needed for national security, and criticised the "snobbery" of requiring migrants to pass a much higher level of English proficiency.

"If there is a national security problem for these people, then why on earth does the Government have them already living here permanently?" he asked.

"A very large number of people who are born here will never reach the level of English in this test. What sort of snobbery needs a Government to say, say, 'unless you reach university level of English, we'd rather you weren't here'. That's not just an argument to potential citizen, that's an argument to a whole range of Australians who don't get their personal literacy and English all the way up to university entrance level."

"This legislation, the main thrust of it, will always be wrong, the rationale of it will always be wrong and Labor will be opposing it."

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull took aim at Labor's decision.

"If you are going to get on and succeed and do your best in Australia, you need to have English. You're doing people a favour by making it a requirement," he said on Tuesday.

"Labor is not valuing Australian citizenship. They are disrespecting Australian citizenship by failing to recognise that integration, citizenship and the harmony and the mutual respect that comes from shared political values that unite us, that requires a respect for citizenship. It requires us to honour that institution and that's what our changes do."

Immigration minister Peter Dutton also criticised Labor for its stance on the legislation, calling the party "out of step" with mainstream Australia.

"This is a sensible change. There is a national security element, there's no question about that, but it runs much deeper than that," he said.

"If people have a greater capacity to speak the English language in our country, they have a greater ability to achieve. Whether that's at school, in the workplace or certainly in society."

"We're not proposing here some radical plan. We're saying it's better for communities, better for individuals, and it's better for our country if people who have an ability to speak English are able to learn that skill, improve that skill and to be greater participants in society."

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