Rudd pledges to keep Howard citizenship test

Issue 

Ever heard of Walter Lindrum? No. How about Arthur Streeton or Nelly Melba? Don't ring a bell either? Well, that's OK as long as you were just playing a game of trivia or filling in a crossword. Unfortunately, not knowing the answer to these or similarly trivial questions can have a more serious outcome nowadays — it might actually jeopardise an immigrant's chances of becoming an Australian citizen.

Since October 2007, applicants for Australian citizenship have had to sit a compulsory test and answer 20 random questions taken from the government's 46-page Becoming an Australian Citizen booklet to prove they can "fit in" with the rest of us.

The quiz on Australian history, values and culture includes 20 multiple choice and true-or-false questions. Apart from scrutinizing applicants' knowledge of events and people that many Australian-born citizens are not familiar with, the test also rates English proficiency quite strenuously.

Since the introduction of the new test, coupled with a doubling of the application fee, a sharp decline of applications has been registered. The decline was especially notable from people who entered Australia under the humanitarian program as refugees, or come from non-English speaking countries.

According to the January 30 Melbourne Age, immigration department figures show that applications for citizenship ranged anywhere from 11,340 in July 2007 to reach a peak of 21,110 in September 2007, then dropped to 2170 last October. In November the number was 3190.

Apart from the sharp decline in applications, new statistics also reveal a high test failure rate. The Department of Immigration and Citizenship's January 2008 Australian Citizenship Test Snapshot Report notes an overall failure rate of 18%. Of most concern is that 20% of all humanitarian program applicants fail the test.

Amnesty International Australia also reports on its website that Sudanese applicants recorded a failure rate of almost 30%, followed by Afghans (25%) and Iraqis (16%). Applicants from the humanitarian program also accounted for the highest number of test repeats.

Dr Berhan Ahmed, chairperson of the African Think Tank, an advocacy body for African and refugee communities in Victoria, told the January 3 Age he wasn't surprised at the high failure rate. "By focusing on obscure facts and value interpretations that would confound many Australian-born citizens", he said, "the test is not only onerous and ambiguous, but completely antithetical to the traditional Aussie spirit of inclusion and a fair go for all".

Migrant and refugee groups opposed the introduction of the test from the start, claiming it was unnecessary and discriminatory.

In its discussion paper "Australian Citizenship: Much more than a ceremony", the Victorian Immigrants and Refugee Women's Coalition, for example, argued that the proposed citizenship test would especially disadvantage migrants from non-English speaking backgrounds and humanitarian entrants, discouraging them from becoming citizens.

The VIRWC also warned that the test would lead to a two-tiered system, where people who did not speak fluent English would be seen as less worthy of being citizens.

The VIRWC argued that government resources would better spent on improving English-language training and settlement services for migrants and humanitarian entrants.

Senator Chris Evans, the new immigration minister has made it clear that the test is here to stay, though he's proposed some changes such as dropping some of the sports trivia questions. PM Kevin Rudd told Channel Seven on January 28: "The concept and direction [of the test] is right and we supported that in the past."

Questions about 20th century Australian cricketers might get the flick, but the real problem is the entire concept of a citizenship test. Tests, including language tests, have been used in the past to deny non-Anglo immigrants equal rights and treatment. The new federal Labor government appears to be happy to continue on that path.

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