What Does it Actually Mean to ‘Put Australians First’?

Features. Posted 7 months ago

Yen-Rong Wong


Image: Malcolm Turnbull. Image Source.

Last week, Malcolm Turnbull announced that his government would be scrapping the 457 visa system, and enacting serious changes to the laws that allow those to gain citizenship. He claimed that citizenship is a privilege – and it’s hard to miss the implication here that becoming an Australian citizen is better than becoming a citizen of one of the many other countries in the world. It is also difficult to ignore the nationalist rhetoric behind these changes, and it is jarring that Turnbull insists that these will make our country better, while also extolling the virtues of multiculturalism.

So let’s dig a little deeper and see what we can find. 457 visas have been around for the past two decades. They will now be scrapped and replaced with a two year visa, and a four year visa for those who have a specialist skillset. The shorter term visa does not allow for a pathway into permanent residency (not citizenship, mind you), while the longer visa does. Those who are currently on 457 visas will see no change to their current visa, but once that expires, they will have to reapply – and some of these people may be ineligible for such an application. This, then, means that there may be a significant number of people who have planned on migrating to Australia on the back of such visas who will not be able to do so.

And just who are these people that the visa changes may affect? A preliminary glance has shown that small businesses and startups may bear most of the brunt – no matter what industry they are in. Universities, which routinely recruit PhD students and those pursuing post doctorate studies to teach our next generation, alongside conducting often cutting edge research, have also expressed concerns regarding the new laws. If Turnbull is genuinely focused on innovation and job growth, making Australia increasingly insular is not the correct path to take.

As part of the announcement, Turnbull’s Facebook page said, “we’re putting jobs first and we’re putting Australians first”, though it remains to be seen which Australians he is talking about, as the next day brought sweeping changes to the process by which people can seek Australian citizenship. Such changes include a more stringent English language test, a strengthened citizenship test, and evidence of integration and contributions to the Australian community.

These changes will, of course, affect those from English speaking countries like the United Kingdom and the United States. However, enforcing a stricter English language test can be, in many ways, seen as overtly disadvantaging those who have English as their second, third, or even fourth language. We haven’t yet seen the benchmark set for the new English test, but the current test is already quite tough, not to mention expensive. This emphasis on being able to speak English conjures up portions of the “English as the national language” debate that is rehashed every so often in the United States. Officially, Australia has no national language – so why is the government so obsessed with people being able to speak it to a specific (and seemingly lofty) level? (I’d also argue that there are many white Australians who might not be able to pass the current tests, let alone the new ones).

And then we come to Australian values. The new citizenship test will supposedly “assess an applicant’s understanding of – and commitment to – shared values and responsibilities.” But what truly distinguishes Australian values from the values of common decency? This is probably the million dollar question – and has been, for the last decade or so, because no one can seem to answer this question properly. Peter Dutton, the immigration minister, has provided the examples of “criminal activity, including violence against women and children, involvement in gangs or organised crime, [to be] thoroughly inconsistent with Australian values”. If we are sticking with these examples, surely there are a multitude of white Australian men who do not qualify for citizenship.

This disconnect between rhetoric and real life application has played out all too recently. Yassmin Abdel-Magied, a friend, all round great woman, and an Australian, has been attacked for the third time in the past eight months for daring to speak her mind – this time, encouraging Australians to also remember the many, many victims of current warfare in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and especially those who are living in detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru. There has been all manner of vitriol directed her way, including a suggestion that she considers “self deportation”, whatever that is supposed to mean. Mateship, something that many would consider a key Australian value, was nowhere to be seen, especially amongst the droves of white, male parliamentarians who were all too keen to attack her.

And this is still ongoing, three days later. Yassmin’s comments do not jeopardise Australia’s national security. She was exercising her right to free speech, as those same parliamentarians were so keen to defend not so long ago when changes to 18C were being discussed in the Senate. All of this has led me to question my own place in Australian society – am I, too, part of the dangerous Other, even though I am Australian through and through? Am I part of a tiered system where white Australians are valued over other Australians?

I, for one, do not think that these changes will make Australia safer. I think they are just another reason to attempt to make Australian society less inclusive – and that is something we should all be concerned about.

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