Politics 101: Australian citizenship test changes – accommodating or discriminatory?

Image Credit: Cordelia Hsu. 

Image Credit: Cordelia Hsu. 

Fatima Olumee separates fact from fiction and breaks down Peter Dutton’s proposed changes to the Australian citizenship test.

In many ways, the relaying of information regarding Peter Dutton’s proposed changes to the Australian citizenship test has been akin to a game of Chinese Whispers. Parliament bills are always confusing to decipher, however, this particular bill unleashed a tsunami of conflicting facts that sent many heads into an absolute tailspin. But never fear! Your friendly neighbourhood politics-decipherer is here to sort the fact from all the nonsense…

Before we dive into whether or not the changes are fair, let’s observe the facts.

On 15 June 2017, the Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton proposed an overhaul of the Australian Citizenship test to address concerns of national security and to, “confirm an applicant’s loyalty to Australia and its people.”  The changes included:

Credit: Fatima Olumee, 2018. Information from  here.  

Credit: Fatima Olumee, 2018. Information from here. 

The two changes that seemed to spark the most dissent from impending citizens were the longer wait time for residents and the English language test. The latter proposal has caused more speculation and confusion than ever, with Dutton proposing that applicants must achieve a Band 6 or higher in the general stream of the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) in order to pass. Dutton proposes that impending citizens should possess a “competent” level of English rather than the “basic” conversational understanding of English that is currently considered satisfactory to pass the citizenship test.

The intriguing thing is, opposition spokesman for citizenship and multicultural Australia Tony Burke told ABC Insiders in June 2017 that an IELTS Band 6 is equal to the required level for university entry in Australia. Dutton argues that Burke’s claim is a “red herring” and completely false, despite being confirmed by many linguistics experts such as Dr Ute Knoch, the director of the Language Testing Research Centre at the University of Melbourne.

In a way, these changes strive to plant a giant asterisk next to “For those who’ve come across the seas, we’ve boundless plains to share”. It seems as if these ‘boundless plains’ are only open to those who can prove themselves, whether that be through a tougher English language exam or consistently demonstrating their contribution to society. Amidst all the noise this debate has sparked, have any of us stopped to consider if current citizens emulate the proposed changes?  As someone who was born in Australia, I have never had to convince anyone of my “Australian values sentiment” or emphasise that I am constantly employed or looking for work. To what end does Dutton’s vision align with what is expected of existing Australian citizens?

Many resident migrants breathed a communal sigh of relief when the bill failed to pass the senate in mid-October 2017. But Dutton isn’t ready to give up playing hardball just yet. He expressed his firm commitment towards pushing the reform to the National Press Club in Canberra on 21 February 2018. The only way that Dutton can succeed is if he makes significant changes to his original bill.  This means lowering the pass grade of the English test from a Band 6 (“Competent”) to a Band 5 (“Modest”).

The changes to the test have incited a stir throughout the nation. Does the test emphasise learning English as a significant stepping stone to successful assimilation, or does it discriminate against migrants of a low English-speaking level through higher standards of testing? Assimilation itself places a tremendous amount of pressure on citizens to almost instantly identify as Australian. Does the test only add to this pressure?

Migrant residents are already entitled to 510 hours of English Language tuition from the AMEP in preparation for the current citizenship test. According to the 2016 Census, approximately 16% of the population doesn’t speak English at all or very well.

Despite this fact, University of Melbourne Linguistics Professor Tim McNamara stated to the ABC that hiking up the proficiency level is “discriminatory” and unnecessary for citizenship purposes. According to a 2006 ABS study, almost half (47%) of the population had literacy skills below level 3. Only one-eighth of this number is made up of migrants.

Australian politicians are always stressing the fact that our nation promotes the iconic “fair-go” and the Australian value of integration. But the real question is, are Dutton’s proposed citizenship changes genuinely giving migrants a fair-go? And if so, does increasing the English language proficiency level set impossible standards or assist in providing the necessary tools for successful cultural integration?

This article was brought to you by Fatima Olumee, a second-year Journalism student. Besides being an absolute bookworm and obsessed Potterhead (not to be confused with Pothead), her passions include yoga, horse-riding, and Bollywood movies. This girl is a big bag of weird… the good kind, she hopes.

If there are any current political topics that you would like Fatima to break down, please email publications@utsoc.com.au.