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On being a good Australian and a bad migrant



Politics can often be a case of history repeating. The last time Australia introduced a language test — the infamous Dictation Test — it cemented for itself a legacy of 'White Australian' nationhood that stands to this day.

Citizenship ceremonyRecently, the Turnbull Government proposed a bill that carried strong echoes of the White Australia policy and the dictation test. This Citizenship Bill failed in the Senate, and there is cautious optimism that the exclusionary processes it aimed to implement would now not be so even though the government confirmed it will be repackaging the bill for a future submission.

The bill's proposed changes included longer permanent residency times before being allowed to apply for citizenship, the necessity of sitting a high-level English proficiency test (and being limited in the number of times the test can be taken), and proving that steps have been taken to integrate into Australian society. While the overall bill ramps up the difficulty of becoming an Australian citizen, the latter element especially depends on 'proof' of Australian values or integration that is open to active contestation.

There are many questions one could ask around these ideas, and many of them have been in the mix since Australia declared itself a nation. Aside from the many critiques around definitions of Australian identities or values, I often wonder: Does being able to say you're a good Australian mean you are a good Australian? Similarly, are you only a good Australian if you can say you're a good Australian?

At heart, of course, these are questions grounded in the value of language and identity — does a good Australian have to speak English? My father spoke English fluently when we migrated to Australia in the late 1970s. He had had the privilege of attending a Chinese school in Malaysia that taught English to that level of proficiency.

As a Colombo Plan scholar, he undertook his university studies here in Australia and we later came to live in Brisbane as a family. Our whole family, having been schooled in Australia, are all fluent in English. Indeed, I was awarded my PhD in literary studies. I think that might make me an uber-good Australian! Yes, I say that with more than a drop of sarcasm.

I should point out here that being an 'uber-good Australian' also happens to make me a bad migrant in the eyes of some. I may have great English skills but I offer little value to those who want to engage me as a cultural insider or bridge-builder with Chinese or Malaysian groups and communities.


"I am not one of those useful migrants that many government White Papers desire as their gateways to economic opportunity and national prosperity."


I am monolingual. I'm not a staunch observer of cultural rituals or habits. I don't even — wait for it — eat chili. I am not one of those useful migrants that many government White Papers desire as their gateways to economic opportunity and national prosperity.

Just for the record, and to end my tongue-in-cheek-ness, I don't think I am an uber-good Australian, or a bad migrant. These kinds of valuations are exclusionary and based on cultural and racial stereotypes, and they offer only a contingent acceptance of the different groups that make up our society.

Alana Lentin writes that the White Australia policy was not retracted 'primarily because of the immorality of its existence, but because of the demographic demands pressing down on Australia as an economic actor', and that Australia finds racism easy to deny because intentions are prioritised over actions. Let's look beyond the stated intentions of our government and their alarmist rhetoric about national security and focus on their increasingly xenophobic actions.



Tseen KhooTseen Khoo is a lecturer at La Trobe University and founder/convenor of the Asian Australian Studies Research Network (AASRN), anetwork for academics, community researchers, and cultural workers who are interested in the area of Asian Australian Studies. She tweets as @tseenster.

Topic tags: Tseen Khoo, citizenship, Asian Australians



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Existing comments

The concept of a language test or a demand that an immigrant speaks English reminds me of an African doctor who came to me to be trained in surgery a few years ago. He spoke excellent English. After a few months he said to me, " You Australians are mad. You will never become a united, homogeneous country when you allow so many different languages in the public domain". He explained that in his home country there were some 140 odd different dialects spoken. In all public exchanges, however, Swahili was the compulsory national language used in all government documents, newspapers, advertising, street names etc. He said that a common language unites a people. He found difficulty with the many languages in shops and advertising in Newtown Sydney. He said it was clear that we were not one people with one identity because of our language differences and inability to inter-communicate. 'How can you understand each other if you don't speak a common language'? he asked with a modicum of dismay.

john frawley | 02 November 2017  

When my late husband (born in Sri Lanka) and I (born in the UK )arrived with two children in Australia for his government job in 1970, our British passports (mine included the children) each bore a stamp near the back beginning with Z followed by a number (different in the two passports,)I have long believed it probably identified the bearers as being "not white" as that was the era of the "White Australia " policy. We became Australian citizens in 1975. Our third child, adopted from Vietnam in 1975 ,received Australian citizenship as my husband was Australian by then. I hope all potential migrants are treated the same now and that the U.S.A policy of discriminating against applicants born in certain countries is not followed here.

Mary Samara-Wickrama | 02 November 2017  

A very good article, as usual, Tseen. You certainly don't fit any facile stereotype. I idly wonder what would happen in reverse if an Australian with limited non-English facility were to apply to become a citizen of Malaysia? Learning another language is usually quite difficult in adulthood. If I were to live and work in the city I was born in, Mumbai, I would probably have to learn Marathi, unless I were employed by a foreign firm. I am not sure whether, if I wanted to become an Indian citizen, what tests I would have to pass. Would I need to embrace 'Indian values'? The Indians we knew: Hindu, Sikh, Parsi and Muslim had a considerable number of people of real integrity. Integrity could well be a fundamental 'Indian' (or any other national) value. Could it be tested?

Edward Fido | 02 November 2017  

When reading this I was reminded of my Church of Ireland grandmother, born in Armagh, Ireland, who migrated to New Zealand in 1920 (note the date), so the family could "have a better life". Right up until she died she stood when "God Save the Queen" was played on the radio. One can't brainwash a person's cultural heritage from them when they move physically to another country. The old saying "You can take the boy out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the boy" sums up the situation well. Similar comments might be made about some Irish Catholics who migrated to New Zealand back in the 1870s. Down in the gold mining areas in the South Island, their fervent Irish nationalistic behaviour was seen in much the same way that Muslim activity is now being portrayed. Their skin might have been white, but their cultural and political beliefs were not aligned with contemporary English and Scottish values. Within a few decades they had become 'good' New Zealanders. One can't force people to assimilate; they need time.

Paddy Byers | 03 November 2017  

If Peter Dutton, who is pushing this nonsense about having to be a "good Australian", is a living example of what that means, then count me out.

Brian Finlayson | 03 November 2017  

Brian Finlayson, brilliant comment! And so uber-Australian.

Uncle Pat | 03 November 2017  

Edward, does it matter what Malaysia or India would do? Surely the key thing is not what others do but what we do. When my family came to Australia in 1959, my parents spoke a bit of English. That improved but they kept their Dutch accents throughout their lives and their English was occasionally interspersed with Dutch (particularly my father's). Having had experience with the IELTS test, I doubt they would have passed it, especially if they had had to do it five years after they arrived at the time we all were "naturalised" (a phrase that always conjures up in me a chemical process that turned us into Australians). Nevertheless, they made a contribution to Australia and their communities, and their children have (I think) continued that.

Erik Hoekstra | 03 November 2017  

Erik, I think it does help me to clarify things for myself by thinking of what might happen to me and others if we applied to become citizens of another country, especially one in which the language was not English. I came here as a minor on my mother's UK passport. We had no English language problems, and, when I became an Australian citizen, I wasn't naturalised but filled in a form. Australia has changed out of sight since the 1950s and 60s and is still changing. SBS is running a short but brilliant series of ads showing various members of its staff having different backgrounds but all belonging very firmly and unapologetically to this country. My wife was recently in a major Brisbane hospital where the staff were both superb and multiethnic. That's the look of the future.

Edward Fido | 04 November 2017  

Jesus said on Maundy Thursday to the high priest’s underlings, “If I have said anything wrong, point it out. Otherwise, why do you strike me?” The genesis of the government’s citizenship bill is in its April 2017 green paper: https://www.border.gov.au/ReportsandPublications/Documents/discussion-papers/citizenship-paper.pdf What exactly is its problem? Four years on PR before applying for citizenship, scoring ‘modest’ (a concession by Peter Dutton from ‘competent’) on the IELTS (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_English_Language_Testing_System) and a three-test limit before an application for citizenship is rejected but with the PR allowed to re-apply two years later apparently without a limit on the number of re-attempts (para. 6, p. 9; para. 2, p. 13) seem reasonable. What’s the fuss?

Roy Chen Yee | 09 November 2017  

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