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.