Originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald on May 9, 2008

A character test is traditionally applied to decide whether a person should be granted some kind of privilege – for example, a visa, citizenship, or an important job. When trying to judge character, the evidence examined usually includes a person’s past statements, activities and conduct, including any police record, criminal charges or jail terms. The decision-maker considers on the basis of this evidence the likelihood that a person will act in the same way again. The lack of accountability in discretionary ministerial decision-making and the inability to question intelligence mean that a person whose character is impugned will probably never even know why. The consequences of such decisions for the individuals concerned are so serious that it is inappropriate for such decisions to be so subjective and devoid of accountability. To codify “character” into such a powerful place in Australian law requires a denial of its complicated and intangible nature in favour of a more legally tenable understanding of character as objective, knowable and immutable. Applying such a reductionist approach in situations as consequential as citizenship, employment and terror charges is bound to produce contested and unforeseen outcomes.

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