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Citizenship test is no joke

  • 11 February 2008
The Rudd Government should immediately abolish the tests introduced by the Howard Government to determine eligibility for Australian citizenship. The tests have deterred applicants, discriminate between immigrants on several criteria including country of origin and type of visa, and embarrass the rest of us. It must be possible to find alternatives that achieve the better purposes of the tests.

When the tests were proposed, many sets of likely questions appeared. It was easy to satirise the tests because various policies of the Howard Government suggested it wanted 'people like us' (PLU) to qualify for citizenship while excluding the non-PLU. The choice of a test also reflected the hard nosed approach to determining merit that the government applied to education and to social welfare.

The most sinister aspect of the tests was the possibility that the government wished to move away from a human rights based approach towards reciprocity. The notion that people acquire civil and political rights simply by being born involves Australia in all sorts of messy procedures such as rescuing boat people and providing overseas aid. It would be tidier, simpler and more efficient to have a system ofresponsibilities that began and ended with Australian citizens. Unfortunately,the tidy approach is often the most inhumane.

The government's attitude was demonstrated clearly enough in its moves to prevent asylum seekers using Australian appeal processes, and in its complicity in allowing the US administration to deny its terror suspects, such as David Hicks, access to courts.

Tests, including language tests, have been used in the past to exclude people for political reasons. The treatment of anti-fascist campaigner Egon Kisch in 1934 was a most bizarre case of politics masquerading as bureaucracy. To escape the condemnation of non-British Europeans, immigration regulations allowed for the testing of visitors in any European language. Kisch was an expert in several languages, and so the government of the day exploited the benign clause to apply a test in a Scots dialect.

While the case had many complications, surely one lesson was that governments should not be allowed to implement policies that are an open invitation to cynical exploitation.

The elites who run Australia have traditionally ignored issues of citizenship. The Constitution granted by the British left us as subjects of the crown, not as republican citizens encouraged to decide our own destiny. Until recently, there has been bipartisan avoidance of genuine commitment to civics education.