18 Aug. 2006

Australian Citizenship

I've lived in Australia for four-and-a-half years, but I'm not an Australian citizen, or even a 'permanent resident', the necessary pre-requisite to becoming a citizen. You have to be a permanent resident residing in Australia for a minimum of two years in the previous five, of which one year has to be concurrent with your application, to get Australian citizenship. If you can't stay in the country concurrently for 12 months, you'll never become an Australian citizen.

For most purposes, permanent residency suffices. It gives you most of the employment and legal rights citizens enjoy, and the same welfare benefits. University scholarship are generally available to permanent residents as to citizens. Permanent residents can become policemen (at least in NSW).

There are some rights you are not accorded, however. These include political rights, such as the right to vote (which in Australia is also a legal obligation), or to run for office. You also cannot work in the Australian federal public service, what's known in British English as the "civil service". You can kind of understand why this would apply to DFAT (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade) with its overseas postings (permanent residents lose their PR if they go overseas for more than five years continuously – it would be pretty perverse for people to lose that right because they were representing the Australian government), but why on earth can't non-Australians work in the Australian Tax Office, for example? Are they inherently untrustworthy?

The answer, of course, is that Australia is a club, and non-members don't get the benefits. This is essentially racism. Not of the narrow type that discriminates on the basis of skin-colour, although there is an element of that here. Rather that which defines people according to a racial essence and discriminates accordingly. IF I sound bitter you'd be right – although, I must admit that I enjoy less tangible advantages from Australian racism, being whtie and English-speaking.

At the Eureka Stockade, long prior to the existence of Australian citizenship, those mostly-immigrant rebels adopted a thoroughly petty bourgeois, but nevertheless basic and reasonable slogan: No Taxation Without Representation. You can't take our money if you don't give us a say how it's spent. As non-Australian residents (I mean 'resident' for tax purposes – I reckon there's at least 2 million of us, over 10% of the population), we are in this country, paying taxes to support politicians and bureaucrats, whose jobs we are not allowed to access. Australian citizens overseas (of whom there are around a million), however, without paying taxes are legally obliged to give their opinion about how the money I pay to the government is to be spent.

Of course, I'd rather raise a more democratic slogan: No Government But By The Governed. It's not the taxes that essentially give me the right to demand a say in how Australia is run, but the fact that I am bound by Australian law. It is therefore in my interests, not in those of Australians who do not live here, how this government operates. I do not propose this as an idea for reform; I propose it as an unconditional demand by one governed to those who govern me, bureaucrats and politicians alike.

Appendix: Just happened to read an article about the Tampa refugees: about 10% of them, 28 people, are still in Australia. A cruel irony is that while these were ones clearly identified as refugees who the Australian government could not send back, they are kept in a limbo of temporary visas, unlike many of those shipped off to other countries with more humane migration regimes. Only 2 of the 28, five years after arriving in Australia, have Australian citizenship, and three more permanent residency – in all these cases, this is becuase they qualified for schemes like those to attract skilled labour to rural areas, not through their need as refugees. The other 23 therefore have no permanent status in this country and cannot bring over their spouses and children.