Law Council voices alarm at 'unprecedented' citizenship changes

Australia's peak legal body has criticised the government's proposed citizenship crackdown, arguing some elements of the package are unnecessary, threaten the nation's social cohesion and hand the immigration minister a concerning amount of power.

The Law Council of Australia has taken aim at a suite of measures the government first announced in April that have been opposed by Labor and referred to a Senate inquiry. Under the changes, aspiring citizens would have to achieve a "competent" level of English and face a four-year wait as permanent residents before they can seek citizenship.

Applicants would also have to demonstrate integration into society and face an "Australian values" test.

In its submission to the inquiry, the Law Council has argued the toughened English language test for applicants is not justified, the power for the immigration minister to disregard Administrative Appeals Tribunal decisions erodes the rule of law, and a test on Australian values is "unprecedented" overreach.

"The stated purpose of the strengthened English language test is to enhance economic and social participation, but the move is not substantiated by economic or social data," Law Council president Fiona McLeod said, arguing it would especially discriminate against refugees.

She told Fairfax Media the requirement would impose an unfairly harsh standard on new citizens and said it was concerning that the exact standard required could be decided by the government without parliamentary approval.

"We are deeply concerned with the increased use of personal powers of the immigration minister compared to other areas of government given the significance such decisions have on people and the limited review options available in such cases," Ms McLeod said.

"The power of the minister to set aside decisions by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal is a significant erosion of the rights of review and protections of the rule of law because the minister is intending to take to himself the power to override or ignore the decision of the review tribunal."

In rejecting the legislation, Labor has argued it would be a "fundamental change in who we are as a country" and denied any link between citizenship policy and national security. Their main concerns centre around the longer wait for citizenship and the toughened English test, which they say would impose university-level standards.

Immigration Minister Dutton has dismissed those concerns, saying the opposition was confusing two versions of the IELTS test, the "general" stream and the "academic" one. He has said the government's version focused on "basic survival skills in broad social and workplace contexts".

However, globally renowned specialist Catherine Elder rebuffed this argument, describing the two standards as "more or less the same".

To get its legislation through the Senate, the government will need to find sufficient support from the crossbench. The inquiry is holding public hearings over the next three days.

In its submission to the inquiry, the Law Council said Australia's citizenship program should promote social cohesion and argued the government's proposals would "create divisions between new and existing citizens by having different requirements".

Ms McLeod said the government should not dictate values to citizens or compel applicants to make a commitment to integrate.

"Recognising that Australians have a broad and deep sense of their own personal values and to require new citizens to state that they adhere to certain values and integrate into the community is unprecedented. Values are contestable," she said.

"How they are interpreted are is completely a matter of individual thought and belief."

The Law Council has also recommended that the bill not operate retrospectively.

The story Law Council voices alarm at 'unprecedented' citizenship changes first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.