A new citizenship test for migrants is not a step towards reintroducing a racially discriminatory immigration policy, Prime Minister John Howard says.
Mr Howard has announced migrants wanting to become Australian citizens will need to sit English exams and pass multiple-choice tests on Australian society.
The 30 test questions, drawn from a pool of 200, will cover topics such as history, system of government, sporting traditions and mateship.
But the election-year policy, announced a year to the day after racial violence exploded at Sydney’s Cronulla beach, already faces opposition from moderates on the government’s backbench.
Mr Howard today insisted there was a need for the test.
“I think there is a view in the Australian community, a very strong view, that we need a greater emphasis on the things that unite us rather than the things that make us different,” he told ABC radio.
“By all means, respect cultural and ethnic diversity.
“We will retain a non-discriminatory immigration policy. We will not be discriminating on the basis of race or ethnicity or nationality when choosing new migrants.”
Mr Howard said migrants needed to learn about mateship, but he could not outline how the concept would be tested.
“Mateship is a great Australian concept, it’s a concept of everybody pulling together in common adversity,” he said.
“It’s a concept of treating people according to how you find them and not according to the colour of their skin.
“It’s very much part of our ethos. You say ‘How do you test it?’. Well, I’m not going to start canvassing what the test is.”
The test will only apply to migrants aged between 18 and 60 who are taking out citizenship, which they can seek to attain after spending four years in Australia.
But there will be tougher standards for those seeking permanent residency, including the requirement that they sign pledges to respect Australia’s laws and societal values.
Mr Howard said he held reservations about “zealous multiculturalism”.
“If it means that you emphasise diversity rather than unity, then I do have a problem with it,” he said.
“I prefer to talk of integration. I prefer to speak of a cohesive, integrated Australian society.”
The prime minister insisted it was not too harsh to expect migrants to be able to speak English and know about Australian culture and society after spending four years in the country.
“(The test is) a positive way of ensuring that newcomers are more fully integrated into Australian society,” he said.
“It is not unreasonable, four years into the time that you have lived in this country, that you have some working knowledge of English and you have some understanding of the basic values and aspirations of Australian society.”
He agreed some Australians were concerned about increased levels of Islamic migration.
“Some people are clearly unhappy with a very small minority of that part of the community but it’s not fair to brand all Islamic Australians with the misdeeds of a very small number,” he said.
“The indications (are that) some of that very small number have no desire to integrate into our community.”
ASPIRING Australian citizens would not be required to know Don Bradman’s batting average to pass the Government’s citizenship test, according to the parliamentary secretary for immigration, Andrew Robb.
But applicants should have an understanding of the significance of Gallipoli to Australians, Mr Robb has told The Age.
The test would assess basic English skills, as well as knowledge of the Australian way of life and “our shared values”.
“We are trying to measure whether people have an understanding of what makes Australia tick,” Mr Robb said. “It might be something which indicates that people know a lot of Austra- lians are obsessed by sport.”
This did not mean everybody had to be interested in sport—much less know “Bradman’s Test average or who was the last Australian cricket captain”.
But the test would help prepare migrants for people “endlessly talking about sport” at work, he said.
The questions, in multiple choice or true and false format, would also cover practical issues, such as what phone number to call in an emergency.
Mr Robb was speaking amid growing debate over the proposed test, with the National Ethnic and Multicultural Broadcasters Council branding it discriminatory and divisive, and arguing that “most Australians born and raised here would have difficulty mastering the test”.
Several Government MPs, including Victorians Petro Georgiou and Russell Broadbent, have also expressed concern, while new Labor leader Kevin Rudd reacted cautiously, saying he had not yet given the Government’s proposed set of values detailed consideration.
Adding to the debate, Prime Minister John Howard said yesterday he preferred to use the word integration, rather than multiculturalism, when describing Australia’s capacity to absorb people from diverse backgrounds. If multiculturalism was used to emphasise diversity rather than unity, the Prime Minister said he had a problem with the term. “I prefer to speak of a cohesive, integrated Australian society,” he said.
Refusing to suggest how understanding of mateship could be tested, Mr Howard defined mateship as “a concept of treating people according to how you find them and not according to the colour of their skin”.
Mr Robb said he he did not believe the US citizenship test, which asks people questions such as the year in which the constitution was written, was an appropriate model for Australia. “The US test to me was a recipe for rote learning,” Mr Robb said.
“Some history is important—the fact the country is 200 years old not 2000 years old is relevant in terms of the character of the nation, but who did what, why and when may be totally irrelevant.”
He also said it was important people understood events such as Gallipoli that had shaped the Australian character.
Mr Robb said he was more attracted to the British model, which tested applicants’ knowledge of practical “everyday” issues. A practice question in the British test includes “Can your employer dismiss you for joining a trade union—true or false?”
Meanwhile, Mr Rudd has dumped Kim Beazley’s controversial proposal for all people seeking visas for Australia to sign up to a statement of Australian values. Mr Rudd admitted that the proposal “probably wasn’t properly considered at the time … it’s time we put that behind us and looked forward to how we deal properly with the proposal the Prime Minister has put on the table.”
The Beazley plan—which was devised by immigration spokesman Tony Burke, one of Mr Rudd’s supporters—ran into immediate flak, especially from the tourism industry.
Mr Rudd has reacted cautiously to Mr Howard’s citizenship test, with Mr Burke writing to the Government seeking details of the planned new English language test, the general knowledge test, and what additional resources the Government is willing to put into the teaching of English to migrants.
—Jewel Topsfield and Michelle Grattan