Malcolm Turnbull’s get-tough stance on English skills for migrants is just more dog-whistle politics

The Turnbull Government’s insistence on a tougher English-language test for migrants seeking Australian citizenship is at the very least perplexing and at worst alarming.

At first blush it might appear a reasonable requirement of new citizens, but what problem is the Government seeking to remedy? Why does the world’s most successful multicultural society, as Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull so often describes Australia, suddenly need to overhaul its citizenship test, headlined by the requirement of English-language skills that many born-and-bred Australians may find challenging?

The absence of a clear explanation for a tougher English-language test can only invite the worst interpretation of the Government’s motives.

When it comes to using (and abusing) English language requirements as a barrier to migration, Australia has form going back to the very beginning of nationhood and the White Australia policy.

The Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 authorised immigration officials to dictate a passage of 50 words to a new arrival, who was required to write down and sign the given passage. The test was usually given in English, but if the migrant passed but was otherwise considered undesirable (that is, non-white), the immigration officer could repeat the test in another European language. This was the infamous Dictation Test.

The Turnbull Government is proposing nothing so blatant or draconian, but the intent would not be entirely unfamiliar to immigration officials enforcing the White Australia policy. Again, in the absence of a cogent explanation as to why Australia needs a tougher English-language test, the only available conclusion is that the Government wishes to filter out a certain group of people.

Those who support the Government’s tough stance on English-language skills say the same thing: “What’s wrong with expecting new citizens to read and write English?”

Of itself, nothing. But the tougher-test school makes various assumptions that simply do not stand up to scrutiny.

The first is that English deficiency has led to problems in the past. Of this there is no evidence; and even if it were to be demonstrated that this has been an issue, presumably it would be no greater than the problem caused by illiteracy levels in the wider Australian community. It would be unfair, not to say discriminatory, to requite new citizens to have higher English-language skills than born-and-bred Australian citizens.

The other assumption is that poor English is an unfailing indicator of character – of someone’s values, work ethic and good citizenship. New arrivals to Australia – or any country for that matter – do so with the intention of building a new and better life, with all the social and economic spin-offs that entails.

More about political optics

English or no English, some new citizens will immerse themselves in their new country, while others will leave it to their children and grandchildren to stake their claims as Australians. (And often there will be conflicts of cultural adjustment between generations, but that is a dynamic all of its own.)

The converse assumption that high English proficiency and a high score in the proposed values test would necessarily point to outstanding citizenship is simply naïve.

Criticism of the Government’s tougher approach to citizenship qualification is not to suggest that simply anyone can make Australia their home. But the Government’s get-tough approach is more about political optics than dealing with real deficiencies in our migration system. The continuation of John Howard’s infamous “we decide” mantra demonises rather than celebrates migrants to Australia; it places a question mark over the head of each person who does not sound or look like the rest of us.

If changes are needed, they should be considered at length, impartially and independently, based on public submissions and informed by Australia’s pre-eminent record as a multicultural society. Migration since the 1950s, a time of record migration to Australia, has not been without occasional social disruption, but on the whole it has delivered the society – and wealth – that most of us celebrate today.

We know what we have come to expect from Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, but surely we should expect better of Malcolm Turnbull. Their gratuitous call for tougher English-language testing is no better than those hurtful cries heard most frequently in the 1950s and 60s, “Why don’t you learn to bloody speak English!”, or more lyrically, “Why you no learna t’speaka da English?” Turnbull and his attack-dog Minister have given renewed license for such calls to be heard again.

My maternal grandparents migrated to Australia from Sicily in the 1950s. My grandfather had a rudimentary education roughly the equivalent of grade 3; my grandmother was illiterate. Neither learned to speak English, other than some basic words essential in the days of pre-self serve: milk, bread, butter, eggs. According to family lore, when my grandmother sat for your citizenship exam the English-language component involved her having to recite five English words; her selection included “Rinso” and “rump steak”.

I never heard either of my grandparents speak a whole sentence of English; they didn’t even qualify for “broken English”. Yet their contribution to Australia is beyond question.

He was always ‘Joe’

My grandfather worked in factories as a labourer for 20 years before he retired. “Giuseppe” was too difficult for his Australian workmates, so he was always Joe. Giuseppe was of a dark hue; in 1920s Australia he would have been classed as a “white alien”. (As in fact was my paternal grandfather when he migrated to Australia in 1925, except he was fair-skinned, reflecting Sicily’s own multicultural/racial history over millennia.)

But Giuseppe knew nothing of Australia’s vexed history of grudging tolerance and outright intolerance; or if he did, he did not let it get in the way of becoming a passionate Australian. His most prized possession was his citizenship certificate and his most abiding loyalty was to the Queen.

My grandmother, Rosa, was fair and blue-eyed. When she worked in her beautiful front garden, passers-by would assume she could speak English and would stop for a chat about the garden. Perhaps gardening is a universal language, because Rosa’s lack of English didn’t stop her from having the most animated conversations with little old ladies who wouldn’t have known Italy from a gum boot.

Despite their English-language “deficiency”, Giuseppe and Rosa bought a house, their five children, most migrating with them as adults, all worked and bought their own homes. Their grandchildren went to public and private schools, some played footy for local clubs, several went to university, and all went on to work in a variety of occupations: journalist, accountant, teacher, public servant and various trades.

So what’s the problem, PM? Loaded calls for tough English-language tests are clearly designed to appeal to a section of the Australian population – and backbench – whose intolerance hardly needs further stoking. The calls are presumably aimed at Muslims – or seen to be aimed at Muslims – buy they are a slap in the face for all migrants who over the decades have come to Australia with only positive ambitions: to rebuild, prosper, enjoy freedoms and to give back as best they can.

For Malcolm Turnbull to say otherwise is to repudiate his own boast that Australia is the most successful multicultural society in the world.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Follow him on Twitter @DAngeloFisher