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Laws Would Make Aspiring Australians Pledge to Share Values

FILE - The sun illuminates the Sydney Opera House as a ferry sails past during a storm at Sydney Harbor in Australia.

Aspiring Australian citizens will have to make a pledge to share Australian values under proposed new laws introduced to Parliament on Thursday.

The law would give Immigration and Border Protection Minister Peter Dutton power to write and revise an Australian Values Statement and it would reduce avenues to appeal his decisions on citizenship cases. The bill does not spell out what Australian values are and critics argue that getting Australians to agree on what values they share is difficult.

Dutton said citizenship laws had to be reinforced to maintain public support for immigration and the value of citizenship during an increasingly challenging security environment.

“The Australian community expects that aspiring citizens demonstrate their allegiance to our country and commitment to live in accordance with Australian laws and values and be willing to integrate into and become contributing members of the Australian community,” Dutton told Parliament.

Dutton said the values statement would cover respect for religious freedom and gender equality as well as commitment to the rule of law and Australia's parliamentary democracy.

There would also be values-based questions included in a citizenship test.

The bill would also raise the bar on English-language skills for prospective citizens and extends the time that an applicant must be an Australian permanent resident from one to four years.

Kim Rubenstein, a professor in the College of Law and a Public Policy Fellow at the Australian National University, said aspects of the bill were draconian and exclusive, shifting the balance of citizenship in Australia and giving the government unprecedented power.

“One of the most fundamental Australian values is a commitment to the rule of law and Western democratic liberal principles, but this act really shows a lack of appreciation of these core Australian values,” said Rubenstein, author of “Australian Citizenship Law in Context.”

“By introducing this bill, they're failing their own citizenship test, if Australian values are so fundamental,” she added.

Activist group GetUp! said the law would create an underclass of migrants prevented from attaining citizenship and from equality with the rest of society.

Law Council of Australia President Fiona McLeod, a leading advocate for the legal profession, said the law overreached by giving Dutton power to overturn citizenship rulings made by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, a court that hears public complaints about government decisions.

The conservative coalition government does not hold a majority of seats in the Senate and will need the support of the opposition Labor Party or a diverse collection of minor parties and independent senators to pass the bill into law. Opposition leader Bill Shorten has said Labor would consider the changes.

It is not clear whether Dutton would pen the values statement before or after the bill became law.

Australia introduced a formal citizenship test in 2007. Before then, a government official would informally question an applicant about his or her knowledge of a citizen's responsibilities and privileges in an oral test.

Rubenstein was part of a review team in 2008 that recommended shifting the 2007 citizenship test focus from general knowledge about Australia to the responsibilities and rights of citizens.

She said the proposed new approach reminded her of the system in the early 20th century when applicants who wanted to migrate to Australia could be asked to take a dictation test in any European language that an official chose. The test was designed to exclude Asian and black immigrants.

“It does smack of that earlier xenophobic approach to who is in and who is out and I think it creates tension with the very vibrant, affirming and cohesive multicultural society that we have. This is a real step away from that,” Rubenstein said.