Australia, or, more specifically, the ever-infuriating John Howard, wants to impose a test of proficiency in English as a requirement for citizenship (he also wants to test ‘Australian Values’, but the idea is just too ludicrous to spend any more time on).

I remembered reading Mike Carlton’s take on the concept of language proficiency tests in Australian history and stumbled upon a particular case that I thought must have been a joke. Alas, it turns out to be factual.

Australia’s immigration policy while Howard’s hero, Robert Menzies was Attorney General, included a clause (section 3(a) of the Immigration Act of 1901) that immigrants and visitors could be subject to a dictation test in an unspecified European language. If you don’t believe me, here‘s a facsimile of the act itself.

This wasn’t used much, it seems, but in 1934, an anti-fascist, anti-war Czech intellectual by the name of Egon Kisch arrived in the country. As this was back in the good ol’ days when Australia was (more) fond of fascistic policies like White Australia and Eugenics (before its name was tainted by Hitler), Kisch was considered to be an undesirable and subsequently subjected to the dictation test.

Kisch was fluent in a number of languages, including Czech (naturally), German and English. So testing him in one of these languages wouldn’t have done the trick. He was in fact tested, I’m not kidding, in Highland Scottish Gaelic, a language that was spoken at the time by only 1 in every 600 Scots.

Anyway, enough of that nonsense and back to reality. The test of English proficiency is only good for the government, which seems to be pretty good at getting re-elected by demonising minorities (remember Tampa?). And there is no better minority for this purpose than people who don’t speak English.

If I am wrong about the government’s motives and they nobly want people speaking more English, then wonderful, I would fully support such a policy. But surely a far better way to do it would be to fund English language courses for those whose English proficiency is less than some desired level. Without providing such support, the government cannot reasonably reject someone’s claim to citizenship and base it on the applicant’s language ability.

There are problems though. Most notably is that the government’s entire socio-political philosophy boils down to user-pays, which would preclude the public funding of English language courses. They would therefore be prohibitively expensive for most of those whom they are intended to help. Even if they were publicly funded, there would be people who work a number of jobs to support a family starting out in a new country and cannot spare the time to learn English.

At the end of the day, is it entirely necessary to be fluent in English to live in Australia? I don’t think it is. I mean, it’s probably be beneficial to speak the official language, but given the multilingual nature of urban life these days, I’d consider it entirely avoidable. By way of an example, Centrelink offers many of its services in 66 spoken languages as well as Auslan. Moreover, there have been periods of large immigration into Australia numerous times in the past, in which very large populations of people spoke very little English. I would hazard a guess that not speaking the official language back then would have been a lot more problematic than it is now. So why impose such a citizenship test now?

Basically, I’m going to resort to my usual, but historically impeccable cynicism of this government and assume that they’re planning on another socially divisive issue of Tampesque proportions in order to win yet another election. They will vilify some of Australia’s most disadvantaged inhabitants; migrant workers who, for one reason or another, do not speak English as well as the ethnic majority. Is anyone else reminded of an episode of The Simpsons?

Immighants! Immighants! I knew it was dem! -Moe