HENRY REYNOLDS. Citizenship and English proficiency and indigenous people.

Sep 21, 2017

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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