The citizenship test for Hyperbolia

The government’s announcement of a citizenship test put today’s Crikey contributors into an intense competition as to who could come up with the highest level of hyperbole. Richard Farmer started off with an allusion to the White Australia Policy and its infamous dicatation test:

Just as his predecessor a century ago hid the real anti-Chinese reason behind the dictation test, there was no mention yesterday of the growing fear and resentment of Muslims in the Australian community. This Prime Minister is trying to get the political benefit of pandering to anti-Muslim feeling without having to say so.

I’m not sure what the controversy is here. After all, we already ask citizenship applicants questions in English, to which they must reply in English. Perhaps the test will be harder, though this is not clear from what has been released so far. It will be internet-based rather than interview-based, but that can cut both ways. Some people find reading and writing easier than conversation, but others do not. In any case, to most people an English requirement will seem like common sense. In the 2003 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes 92% of people thought speaking English was important for being truly Australian. Views were much the same among respondents who did not speak English at home – 90% agreement on its importance. Seven of the eight Arabic speakers in the sample held the same view. Nor is a belief in the need to speak English a sudden response to a ‘Muslim’ problem; 86% of respondents felt this way in a 1995 survey.

If a Newspoll in September is any guide, support drops off a bit when questions about Australia’s way of life are added to the English requirement, but not by much: 77% support overall. But Irfan Yusuf sees something much more sinister:

It is for Australians to decide how their culture (or should that be cultures?) is defined. It isn???t for governments to legislate to create a class of new citizens bound to one version of this culture. I believe there is a place in the world for government-sponsored and legislated culture. It???s called North Korea.

I think Irfan and Farmer have just passed the citizenship test for the state of Hyperbolia; whether they have made a useful contribution to debate in Australia is much less clear.

18 thoughts on “The citizenship test for Hyperbolia

  1. I think The Australian stated that there would be an oral component as well as a multiple-choice section.

    From my perspective, the issue is that this debate has tried to stir up the view that migrants don’t “our values” and that there is a problem that they don’t and refuse to learn to speak English.

    In particular there’s the fear that as there has been concern about the Muslim community and Hilaly’s comments these issues will inevitably merge in people’s minds.

    The entire debate hasn’t been useful and has been a distraction. It just plays on things that seem logical without any sound logical basis.


  2. I don’t believe a written exam is a useful test of citizenship. Think about people who commit crimes against Australian society: they tend to speak English perfectly well and many of them will have (or can fake) a passing knowledge of Gallipoli or whatever else one might consider an Australian value.

    It adds no value because it will be another forbidding but eventually petty inconvenience for those who will fit in well, while for those who won’t it will make no real difference.

    The PM said that “having a go” is an Australian value that may be assessed, yet it is hard to see how a risk-averse public servant might assess this quality in a person who has fled their homes and encountered great hardship, many hazards and no small heartache in coming here.

    Even a well-calibrated and finely assessed test won’t exclude those who won’t fit in, and won’t act to welcome those who would. It is more than fair to doubt DIMA’s ability to assess such matters. It’s ridiculous at best, contemptible at worst; pardon me for not indulging this waste of resources that can be reasonably interpreted as a dog-whistling exercise, which is itself contemptible.


  3. The entire debate … has been a distraction.

    From what? The government wouldn’t want to distract people from the excellent economic performance, or anything else they have control over. If anything making it harder for citizenship makes it harder to fill skilled labour shortages. In any event, migrants to Australia do not need to take the test, only those who choose to become citizens. Many migrants would be here on temporary visas, others on permanent visas may never become citizens. So this test is hardly keeping migrants out.


  4. I think a reasonably rigorous English test makes sense. After all, there simply aren’t as many unskilled jobs around these days as there were in the 1950s and 60s and assimilation is (or should be) an important objective for any immigration policy. But I am not sure what an Australian values ‘test’ would include other than something about support for democracy and broad legal equality between men and women. But surely anyone could ‘fake’ their response to questions like those?


  5. Rajat – I quite like the Dutch video test that confronts migrants with some of the realities of a modern liberal society; it is much more confronting than rote-learning answers to an internet test.


  6. It’s a stupid rote learning test that will be hijacked by the Combatants of the Culture Wars. Has anyone seen the syllabus and the references to reconciliation, multiculturalism, etc? Why is Howard so fond of setting up these future gifts for the Left of politics?

    And it’s ironic if the aim is to keep out Muslim fundies. These Sheikhs have memorised their Korans from back to front. Do you think they’re going to have a problem passing a test like this if they’re younger generation and fluent in English?


  7. The irony, Jason, is that I think you’re right that it’s a skirmish in the kulturkampf rather than anything practical. But given its provenance it’s more likely to be tilted towards the right than the left.

    And it will be barrier to some would-be citizens – though not the Muslim fundies for the reason you point out. I have an Irish born relative by marriage who lived in Oz for 30 years but would not become a citizen until the oath of allegiance to the British queen was removed from the ceremony by the Hawke government.


  8. “Has anyone seen the syllabus and the references to reconciliation, multiculturalism, etc? Why is Howard so fond of setting up these future gifts for the Left of politics?”

    For your benefit Soon.


  9. I’m a Muslim and I don’t quite understand why this is seen, by some, as something that will discriminate against Muslims. In order for a test to be discriminatory against Muslims there would need to be questions that a Muslim would find impossible or very difficult to answer but a non-Muslim would find easy. I don’t see how this is possible.


  10. Andrew E, I should have been more explicit. What I meant was that there are fewer jobs around that someone can walk into and not have to communicate with the general public (in English).


  11. On a tangential note, someone who works in another country’s immigration department told me the other day that it’s easy for the Australian government to get more UK migrants – they just increase the weight that our points system allocates to english proficiency. S/he told me that this has in fact occurred in Australia over recent years, though I can’t seem to locate the relevant evidence on


  12. Having seen a sample of questions for the test on The Age website, it seems to be less about values and more about basic facts. It’s true many locals would struggle to pass, but arguably, many long-time car drivers would struggle to pass the written component of a driver’s licence test – that doesn’t mean it’s pointless. I don’t think it’s altogether a bad thing if intending migrants have to spend a few hours swotting up on Australiana. Whether the citizenship test is an efficient way of promoting Australian values or securing high quality migrants is a separate question.


  13. hi i am not so keen of citizenship test.while it can be easy and reasonable for people who have been here for a while or have been studing here but it is not fair for others who are new arrival , too old to learn somthing.
    totally it can not be acceptable option to decide about who is more whorthy to live in australia


  14. Raha

    A) You cannot become a citizen as a new arrival. you have to have lived in Australia for a couple of years to be eligible to apply.

    B) It does not decide who is worthy to live in Australia, merely who is granted citizenship (a priviledge).

    It does surprise me that this seems to have caused such a stir in Australia. In the UK a similar test was introduced by a Labour government with barely a murmer of dissent.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s