HENRY REYNOLDS. Citizenship and English proficiency and indigenous people.

So we have the anomalous situation of a projected citizenship test which large numbers of indigenous people could not pass.

The government’s citizenship reforms are still being debated in the Parliament. One of the most controversial provisions concerns the level of English proficiency required for the granting of citizenship. Minister Dutton has suggested on many occasions that commitment to learning English is one of the indicators of an individual’s desire to be a part of the Australian community. It would also enhance cohesion and solidarity. While language proficiency might well increase an immigrant’s employability, it may have no bearing on the broader question of engagement with the national project  Both Minister Dutton and Prime Minister Turnbull have talked widely about the need for a commitment to vaguely defined national values which seem to be whatever the government considers important at the present time.

One of the most pertinent criticisms of the language test is that many native born Australians would be unable to qualify. The same is true of many older migrants and particularly those who arrived here with limited education. But an even greater complication with erecting linguistic barriers is the situation of Aborigines and Islanders living in remote areas of Australia. Strangely enough this problem seems to have escaped serious consideration. But if there is a strong correlation between proficiency in English and good citizenship, where does this leave indigenous Australians who don’t speak the language at all or use non-standard English?  We are after all talking about a significant number of Australians who occupy large areas of the continent.

In the Northern Territory over 50% of indigenous families speak their traditional languages at home. In remote areas this figure increases to over 80%. Over 40 languages are still spoken in Australia by more than 50,000 people. There are as many as 30,000 speakers of the two creole dialects, one in the north-west, the other in Torres Strait. And even then the story is not complete. Even amongst those people who no longer speak a traditional language, their English is more like a dialect and quite different from what would be required to pass Minister Dutton’s citizenship test.

So we have the anomalous situation of a projected citizenship test which large numbers of indigenous people could not pass. That would immediately set up different classes of citizens. There would be those who qualified by birth and those by certification. And the problem doesn’t end there. It is highly unlikely that first nation’s people living in remote areas would subscribe to what the government defines as Australian values. Their prior commitment would be to that traditional trinity of kin, custom and country. Does this make them un-Australian, I wonder? Or are there many ways of being Australian not considered by the government?  What indeed of those people whose deepest commitment is to the land itself and not to a particular set of nationalist values?

Clearly what lies at the heart of the new citizenship test is the desire for conformity more easily imposed on migrants than the native born. That this underlies Minister Dutton’s plans should occasion no surprise. He spent his whole childhood and adolescence in the highly illiberal, authoritarian Queensland of Joh Bjelke-Petersen and as a young adult was socialized in the State’s deeply discredited police force.

Henry Reynolds is an eminent Australian historian who has focussed on frontier conflict between indigenous people and European settlers, and has written many books on that subject.

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3 Responses to HENRY REYNOLDS. Citizenship and English proficiency and indigenous people.

  1. Paul Laris says:

    An acute and apposite reflection. The incoherance of Dutton & Co in calling for a citizenry of inforced conformity from a values base of individual freedom typifies this government. Ironically, the rhetoric superficially calling for a more unified Australia carries noxious seeds of division and

  2. Jim Kable says:

    I am travelling in a land where there are many ways of being a citizen – none of which in law are subservient to or in hierarchy to the others. I have pointed out in other forums that Peter Dutton is of limited intellectual capacity – a concretist – incapable if abstraction or of understanding nuance and that in fact his Bjelke-Petersen days of policing makes him unfit for being a national political representative. I doubt that even he could pass the test he wants to set for those wishing to apply for Australian citizenship. In response I would like to suggest a test for being able to stand for political office: Yes, Australian only citizenship; but then that the person shall have had a passport applied for personally and used personally – not by way of official delegation or group travel arrangement – and will have back-packed or in other ways been to discover the world. And then returned to contribute from what they have learned – not necessarily from formal overseas study – but from the experiences gleaned along the way. No one out of “Young this” or “Young that” be permitted into Parliament. And no lawyers! And no party apparatchiks attached to politicians – rather from a pool of public servants individuals to a limited number be appointed to politicians and ministers as official advisers. And no lobbyists unless totally and with absolutely scrupulous transparency all discussions available to be laid out same day. We could clear half the parliament right away – at the very least – and we might finally get some honestly wanting to serve the country and not their vested interest overseas buddies. Peter Ditton would be long gone. Then we could allow those wishing to give up other nationalities and take on only Australian citizenship – whether they could write a PhD or manage to go shopping in the local market place. The mere idea that those applying for citizenship would not want to do their best in the national language of English is mystifying and derogatory. And it is a continuum – over time one gets better. I want to live in Japan when I was in my early 40s having just begun to study the language aged 40. I lived in a privileged educational/community sphere – but I strove my utmost to take on as much of that complex written and spoken mode as I could – unsure about whether I might return to Australia or not. I did return to Australia – but before I did I had a level of fluency I took some pride in – given the age at which I had begun. I do not regret that effort. It has given me some measure of respect for all those in Australia of non-English speaking backgrounds arriving as adults who develop fluency. And then to the central point of Professor Henry Reynolds’ essay – Indigenous Australians who speak little or no standard Englush and who couldn’t give a toss (even if they knew what that meant) about Don Bradman or other so-called “Australian” values -vas defined by whom – Peter Dutton or MacMansions Tremble? Ye gods!

  3. Ann Tulloh says:

    S Africa has 12 official national languages. Australia could do something in that direction.
    The Germans not only want the immigrants to learn their language but to also learn about their culture. So should everyone, born Oz or wants to become Oz, be tested on aboriginal cultures?

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