‘We will determine who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.’
I remember hearing this soundbite from John Howard’s speech in 2001. I was thirteen at the time, but was already acutely aware of the subtext of the statement. This was after the painful passage of the Hanson years, and the Tampa and the ugly scapegoating of asylum seekers. Even at that age, I had a vague understanding that the right for me and my family to belong in Australia was in question at the political level.
The racism against, and segregation of non-white migrant communities – the ways they are policed by and held accountable to white values – has significantly worsened since 2001, despite the recent census findings indicating that 49.3% of people have at least one parent who was born overseas. Successive governments have put in place policies that maintain the white supremacy that is at the foundation of Australia – by white supremacy, I mean that the distribution of power in our community is very much determined along racial lines, and racial hierarchy is propagated through every institution. The fact that only 3.5% of parliamentarians come from a non-European background is not a coincidence. Similar statistics are found in the university sector, the public service, and leadership positions in ASX 200 companies, which speaks volumes about who is excluded from power in this country.
Under Peter Dutton’s recently proposed citizenship changes, permanent residents would be forced to wait for four years before they apply for citizenship, as well as sit an English-language test, and demonstrate their familiarity with Australia’s ‘national values’. While the current citizenship test is administered in English, one needs only basic conversational English to pass the multi-choice test. The exam Dutton is advocating would require university-level English to pass – a higher language requirement than other English-speaking countries currently have.
For me, the most insidious part of the proposed reform is the English-language test. In The Conversation, Misty Adoniou argues that the change is designed to weed out people for whom English isn’t a first language; that the government offers insufficient support and time to allow non-English speaking migrants to ever pass the test. Moreover, it’s far removed from the reality of how migrants learn English.
Excerpts, such as the 50 words below, taken from the proposed International English Language Testing System (IELTS) comprehension exam, are mind-boggling:
By carefully preplanning projects, implementing pollution control measures, monitoring the effects of mining and rehabilitating mined areas, the coal industry minimises the impact on the neighbouring community, the immediate environment and long-term land capability.
Achieving IELTS level 6 is a difficult task. It is the same level required to enter university as an international student, and, anecdotally at least, many international students still don’t achieve that level until after studying at an English-language institution. Even for migrants with access to resources and education, who have been learning English since they were a child, the test could prove difficult. And for native English speakers, too: Adoniou points out that NAPLAN results show that 15.3% of Australian Year Nine students are performing below this level.
Currently, the government offers 510 hours of free English tuition to migrants. According to Labor MP Tony Burke, this tuition could conceivably help a migrant achieve level 4 in the IELTS. But having to rely on the inadequate English tuition offered to build up to passing a standardised test that promotes coal is completely divorced from the functional and useful English that migrants might need.
Furthermore, the expectation that a person speak and write fluent English at the time of applying for citizenship is deeply ignorant of the migrant experience. Citizens for whom English is a second language have managed to live, work, build communities and networks, study, have families, be politically active and engaged, and be an integral part of Australian life, without being fluent in English. Depending on the level of education they are afforded access to, they may still not be able to achieve the new expected level of English fluency over their lifetime; my mother, as but one example. This doesn’t stop them from having a place in Australian civic life. My mother still votes, has a community around her, holds down jobs, watches Home and Away. While she may not be able to write an essay to pass an IELTS level 6 exam, she can still go about her daily life with perfectly functional English.
Dutton’s changes are inhumane and cruel, but also absurd: they attempt to shape Australia in to something it isn’t and never has been – a white Anglo country. For academic and activist Aileen Moreton-Robinson, this sort of false imaginary has played out in settler societies the world over, which is why, in our social and cultural institutions, these countries are presented as white possessions. We are told and in turn repeat fabricated histories and distorted half-truths to convince ourselves that white dominance is a birthright. It was the ideal of this imagined country that drove the White Australia policy, and now drives Dutton’s attempt to resurrect the policy in a different, modernised form; this imagined country relies on an idea of migrants that is deeply racist, untrue, and founded on an internalised racial superiority.
The sort of Australia that the Coalition appears to desire is one where migrant or culturally and linguistically diverse communities don’t belong, where migrants from non-Anglo countries aren’t given the opportunity to lay down roots and build a life for themselves and the generations that will come after them, even though some of these communities have been moving here at least as long as British colonisation.
Two other galling changes to citizenship hurdles are pledging an allegiance to Australian values instead of a commitment, and extending the requirement of pledging allegiance to anyone over sixteen. The change of wording from allegiance to commitment is significant, in terms of what Minister Dutton must feel is missing from current citizenship requirements. A commitment implies a two-way relationship between host country and the new citizen. But a democratic society should allow its citizens to criticise, to question, to challenge and to propose changes to the values of their country. An allegiance to the values, as determined and measured by minister Dutton himself, is wholly different. Framing the relationship between government and citizen in this way could have far-reaching implications for political censorship.
Worryingly, it will be the Coalition who will determine what these so-called Australian values are, and up to Dutton himself to determine if applicants have sufficiently integrated into this image of Australia. He will also have a singular power to veto applications. This from the man who has been happy to preside over the human rights violations and torture of vulnerable people on Manus Island and Nauru.
The Australia that Dutton imagines is one where everyone speaks fluent English and pledges allegiance to a set of values shaped by a rhetoric that should have died with the dismantling of the White Australia policy. It is one where migrants need to be reminded that welfare is ‘a safety net, not a way of life’, be asked directly if they reject domestic violence (while the Coalition continues to defund DV services and create economic instability), and where the level of English needs to be higher than many of those who vocally oppose immigration. It is an Australia where citizenship is a privilege that should not be extended to ‘ethnics’ found threatening, and least of all to Muslims.
Dutton’s campaign makes it clear to migrant families and the broader population exactly who is in charge, and who needs to step into line; who has agency and who doesn’t; who is a legitimate citizen and who is not.
If this imagined country is not the kind of country you want to live in, Colour Code has recently started a campaign against the changes. We have also started a petition, which we’d encourage you to sign. You might also consider contacting your local member of parliament.
Labor has unanimously voted to block the legislation, but should the legislation pass the lower house, the Coalition will need the support of crossbenchers in the Senate. Pauline Hanson’s far-right One Nation have indicated they will back the bill – but want the minimum wait to apply for citizenship to be extended to eight years. The Nick Xenophon Team have tentatively said they may back the legislation, but have misgivings about the test. If you would like to let the NXT senators know your thoughts on the matter, you can contact them via the details below:
Nick Xenophon: firstname.lastname@example.org or (08) 8232 1144
Stirling Griff: email@example.com or (08) 8212 1409
Skye Kakoschke-Moore: firstname.lastname@example.org or (08) 8232 0020