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On being a good Australian and a bad migrant

  • 02 November 2017


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.

Recently, 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