An English test for citizenship? Just another barrier

A dedicated English language test as part of a citizenship application is an odious barrier and does not reflect a society I want to be a part of.

Yet the ability of migrants to speak the English language in Australia is essential. I understand there is an alternative argument that some who cannot speak English can and do make meaningful contributions to our society but for the average migrant, English language is the starting point of economic and social success. It is vital to social cohesion and the traditions of Australian settlement.

Instead of barriers to citizenship, support should form the foundation of an inclusive citizenship. To begin, there is already a de facto English test given the citizenship test is taken in English. Formalising this process into two separate tests would adversely formalise  a tiered membership to our society.

We do not want new migrants enclosed and removed from society, stuck on the edge, always peering in. Proficiency in English language is the single most important factor to ensure this does not occur. In the 1980s, the average income gap between those migrants who could and couldn’t speak English was about 10 per cent. By the 1990s, this had grown to about 20 per cent. Today, this gap is between 35 and 40 per cent.

This should be the number one piece of evidence that drives policy and program support for new migrants from non-English speaking backgrounds. This suggests there is ample room to support medium term increases in labour productivity given 60 per cent of our population growth is from migration.

The underlying factor behind this income trend is easily recognised. As the labour market increasingly values human capital, those without the associated skills such as literacy and linguistic fluency fall further behind.

Despite this entrenched trend, there is little policy recognition this is occurring. Instead of arguing the merits of an English language test for citizenship, perhaps we could focus instead on creating English language proficiency in newly arrived migrants?

We know for instance that 94 per cent of migrants in the Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP) believe it is important to learn about employment. “Words to Work“, an AMES survey report into the AMEP, found that only 27 per cent of migrants were happy with their level of English after completing their eligible hours.

Despite being perhaps global best practice in delivering language support to new migrant arrivals, the AMEP is in need of an overhaul. 510 hours of eligibility is enough for about six months full time training. Migrants leave the program without ability to engage fully in the labour market or broader society. A immediate doubling of eligible hours would step one in helping to foster improved English proficiency.

Step two is to expand the eligibility for the AMEP. There are about 60,000 students per year in the program yet this excludes long-term temporary migrants who in all likelihood will end up as permanent residents. Why should someone wait 4 or 8 years to undertake an English language class if they know they are in Australia for the long haul? At a minimum, eligibility should be extended to the partners of 457 visa holders.

Finally, the program is still delivered roughly as it was over the past three decades. There is a teacher, a classroom and face to face learning environments. In a situation where there is enormous pressure to work for many migrants, program flexibility is a must. Mixed use classes, a heavier focus on employment and variability of lesson delivery are desperately needed when the program is next tendered.

There will always be some who do not make the transition to fluent English. This is to be expected but not punished. It is demonstrated across language and countries that older migrants struggle mightily compared to younger migrants to learn English. Further, an increase in linguistic diversity – speaking Chinese or Arabic and not just Germany or Dutch – has increased the difficulty for Australia’s migrants as a whole.

The worst outcome is permanent exclusion from society because barriers to entry are too high. An English language test for citizenship would be such a barrier. This exclusion would occur despite an indefinite right to remain in Australia. A tiered, broken system of residency with little long-term hope.

Under the Howard government, the residency requirement for citizenship increased from two years to four years. This is hardly remembered these days but it was a sign that the barriers to citizenship grow greater. Time passes and the extension to four years is not a deal breaker (but should be reconsidered in my opinion). An English test does not simple fade with time. It would be a permanent reminder that some are more equal than others in Australian society and we would be worse off for it.

The deliberate exclusion of Australian citizenship

On Australian immigration policy, it’s not often you see evidence which provides immediate clarity on an issue.

I came across this graph yesterday:

Australian citizenship by year of arrival

(Source: ‘The Unequal Treatment of New Zealanders in Australia’, by David Faulkner. With thanks to Paul Hamer for supplying the data, derived from ABS Census results)

This demonstrates one of the gross inequities afforded to one group of migrants living in Australia. Since 2001, many New Zealanders live and work in Australia yet are unable to become citizens. This is represented by the steep drop in citizenship rates above for New Zealand citizens in 2002.

Those born overseas generally become citizens, at least after a period of time. The ‘citizenship lag’, as seen by the sharp end of the blue line is due to the four year requirement to become a citizen. Those born in New Zealand have never been as enthusiastic for Australian citizenship as others however since 2001, have largely stopped becoming citizens completely.

To contrast, those arriving in 2004 are now majority Australian citizens at 56.4 per cent. Yet only 7.8 per cent of New Zealand-born arriving in same year have become Australian citizens. Over time, the blue line will likely continue to shift right and up while the red line will likely remain stagnant. This will grow the gap between the have’s and have not’s of Australian citizenship.

This is due to a new set of regulations established in 2001, placing New Zealand citizens into the same category as all other migrants in relation to gaining a permanent resident visa and a pathway to citizenship.

One of the arguments at the time of these changes was to place all migrants, regardless of origin, in the same situation. The reforms were sold as an appeal to fairness.

The main problem with this argument is the ignored context. Australia and New Zealand have an ‘open border’, allowing citizens to live and work in each country without restrictions.

The combination of an open border, and the provision of standard access to permanent visas, has resulted in a 13 year (and counting) period of time where many New Zealand citizens live and work in Australia without any hope of becoming an Australian citizen. This precludes access to a range of government support measures and creates a de-facto separation between those who can and cannot access Australian citizenship. In the most extreme cases, this means people who have severe health issues, or those who cannot speak English, are denied basic services provided to the vast majority of others who live in Australia. The appeal to fairness in 2001 was in fact a penny pinching measure designed to stem the flow of New Zealand citizens to Australia – an abject failure by any measure.

At the time, the ALP supported the 2001 reforms. It’s time to reassess these measures as they speak directly to the exclusion from Australian society of those who are here to stay. In simple numeric terms, 10,525 New Zealand citizens arrived in Australia in 2003 and still lived here on Census night 2011. More than a decade later, only 1051 are Australian citizens. This is unacceptable for a party that professes to be the best of both social-democracy and social-liberalism in Australia. The great social advancements of the last government – the NDIS in particular – are excluded to these people, despite living and contributing to Australia, in some cases for over a decade.

In his Australia Day speech this year, Bill Shorten said:

And the sooner we recognise the benefits that migration brings, the faster we will arrive at a policy that truly reflects the warmth of the Australian people.

One has the feeling he was talking about asylum seekers but this important evidence from the 2011 Census shows we have more than one area to focus on before we arrive at a policy that truly reflects the warmth of the Australian people.

Book Review: Tim Soutphommasane’s “Don’t Go Back to Where You Came From”

In “Don’t Go Back To Where You Came From“, Tim Soutphommasane has written the new benchmark on Australian multiculturalism, with one major caveat.

His ability to clearly define Australian multiculturalism is the centrepiece of the book, “If there’s an essence that defines multiculturalism, is it liberal citizenship” (p.49).

Multiculturalism emerged as a reaction against an ideal of cultural homogeneity which has defined nationhood across most Western nation-states. Those who didn’t belong to the domination national group within a state were either to be assimilated into it or excluded from it altogether. A multicultural state is based on a different idea. Rather than assimilate or exclude differences, the state should recognise and accommodate cultural diversity. What this means in practice will vary, depending on the minority cultural group in question. For indigenous minority peoples, multicultural rights may mean the recognition of land rights or self-government rights; for immigrant groups, it may mean, amongst other things, the introduction of discrimination laws or greater sensitively to diversity in public institutions. Either way, a multicultural state involves some set of ‘group-differentiated’ rights or policies targeted at minority groups who have been traditionally excluded from the nation-state.

Soutphommasane is particularly good on why Australia has succeeded where others have failed. Compared to the U.S. and Canada, multiculturalism in Australia is “straightforward”. Integration of migrants has been “an overwhelming success”. He serves up litany of facts concerning education, language and employment to show why this has been the case. His case is strong, particular as a response to those attracted to the idea multiculturalism has failed, the forceful claim argued by David Cameron, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkosy.

Nothing illustrates this better than the attraction of multiculturalism as ‘nation building’. “Many of those sympathetic to cultural diversity regard the very idea of nation-building as anathema”, writes Soutphommasane. Incorporating nation-building into the multicultural story, jingoistic exclusion is severed away.

This flows into the guts of what the future holds for Australian multiculturalism, particularly the discussion on population, a bigger Australia.

Reading this chapter, I sensed something close to sadness from Soutphommasane. Up until this point, the book is a celebration. The unique ability of Australia to overcome past wrongs and triumph over the difficulty of diversity is lauded. Yet on population, a shadow clouds the future.

He opens with a description of Julia Gillard’s first major speech as Prime Minister, one where she repudiated Kevin Rudd’s call for a big Australia and toughened government asylum policy.

“What she actually said seemed to jar with the nation-building history of Australia’s immigration experience”

Soutphommasane says Gillard needlessly conflated the issues of multiculturalism, immigration and population. He argues this is wrong, as these concepts in Australia require thoughtfulness to “clarify the relationship between them”.

I agree with this insight as well as his call for a ‘bigger’ Australia of between 30 and 36 million people (since publication, the ABS projections are nudging 40m by 2050).

However our views diverge on one major point of difference: temporary migration.

Soutphommasane is wary of how a population of temporary migrants (primarily 457 visas, international students and working holiday makers) has increased over the past decade. This growth “hasn’t been an entirely positive development”. His major concern – migrants beholden to their employers, removed from citizenship – creates the risk Australians will regard immigrants as simply guest workers instead of citizens. He approvingly quotes Michael Walzer;

Democratic citizens’ have a choice: if they want to bring in new workers, they must be prepared to enlarge their own membership; if they are unwilling to accept new members, they must find ways within the limits of the domestic labour market to get socially necessarily work done. And those are their only choices.

The chapter ends with, “If we have learned anything from the experience of guest workers in democracies such as Germany, that is one addiction Australia would be better off without”.

This is a provocative argument. After spending the first half of the book extolling why Australian multiculturalism is different from other settler countries such as Canada and the U.S., as well as why we should reject the European argument that multiculturalism is dead, Soutphommasane now asks us to recall the social debacle which accompanied guest workers in post-war Europe. Is this fair? If Australian multiculturalism is different, perhaps Australian temporary migrant is also different?

I believe this to be the case. Unlike Germany, where Turkish and other eastern European workers were fundamentally excluded from German citizenship over generations, Australia has an immigration framework which has adjusted as temporary migration has increased.

In 2012-13, a total of 190,000 people become Australian permanent residents via the family and skilled pathways. Of these, a full 50 per cent did so from within Australia. In the skilled pathway, this number approached 70 per cent. These people are temporary migrants becoming permanent migrants. Becoming citizens. This is not immigration policy designed to exclude. This is the modern iteration of a great Australian tradition.

Of course, the fact many people acquire permanent residency does not not excuse those employers who exploit temporary migrants. Nor does it stop exploitation. But to frame a conversation about hundreds of thousands of people around a very particular set of employers is not conducive to improving the immigration and population debate in Australia.

Yearning for the past, where permanent visas were granted on arrival and worked in regional Australia, is not a solution grounded in a modern understanding of labour, student and cultural migration. Instead, we should seek to ensure temporary migration policy finds the sweet spot, allowing large numbers of people to share in Australia without undermining social cohesion by creating a tiered society.

The right policy mix can achieve this. Limiting the time spent on temporary visas can substantially reduce the risk of exploitation and create direct connections to citizenship for those who desire such. This is particularly relevant for working holiday makers and international students, where work experience and an understanding of Australian labour market norms for employees may not exist. As just one example, there is no reason for instance why these migrants should hold Australian Business Numbers instead of being more regular employees. This leads to underpayment and aversion of migration regulations by employers.

However it is important to recognise the benefits of temporary migration in Australia in its own right. Australia as a country – as a nation – gains much from temporary migration. Cultural links with international students are building a connection with Asia for the next generation. My own education was enhanced hearing about the Beijing housing market and the Japanese approach to climate change. Working holiday programs allow young people the world over to experience Australia and return to their home countries. In addition, young Australians are also provided the opportunity to explore countries the world over, as this is a reciprocal arrangement. While 457 visas appear to now be simply associated with exploitation, the unrecognised story is how international labour is perhaps the key import of ideas to Australian business and industry. Soutphommasane does not shy away from some of this, citing one estimate placing 30 per cent of all Silicon Valley firms being founded between 1992-1999 by the U.S. equivalent of a 457 visa, the H1B visa. But he mostly laments what temporary migration means for the future of Australian multiculturalism given the bridge to citizenship for many.

On closer examination, this pessimism is unwarranted. In 2011, I was told less than 1 per cent of temporary migrants (excluding New Zealand citizens) have been in Australia for longer than ten years. This is important context for programs that are increasing seen as poor public policy. It is vital to keep striving for such a low percentage, as this signals temporary migration and a citizenship-based multicultural Australia can coexist (this statistic should be published and tracked, creating accountability for temporary migration policy in Australia). I agree with Soutphommasane the existence of ‘permanent temporary’ migrants would be a poor outcome for Australian multiculturalism and social cohesion. Yet it is unwise to make comparisons to guest worker programs when this is clearly not the case in Australia.

Tim Soutphommasane has produced a book unlike any other I have read – a coherent understanding of what Australian multiculturalism means. He provides the important historical underpinnings yet paints a picture for the future, one where cohesion is strongly based on liberal citizenship. While I disagree on his conceptualisation of temporary migration, it is a great positive for Australian society he is now ensconced in the Human Rights Commission, leading from the front on this most important public good.

Advance Australia Fair, Verse 4 (!)

Original lyrics from 1879. From Wikipedia:

“Should foreign foe e’er sight our coast,

Or dare a foot to land,

We’ll rouse to arms like sires of yore,

To guard our native strand;

Britannia then shall surely know,

Though oceans roll between,

Her sons in fair Australia’s land

Still keep their courage green.

In joyful strains then let us sing

Advance Australia fair.”

“For its adoption as the national anthem, the song was cut from four verses to two.”

H/T Gaby D’Souza.

Scott Morrison, leader of the mob

A young man, likely no older than 21, lost in a society where he repeatedly experiences personal harm in the form of taunting and discrimination. A young man who finds solace in his religion. An Australian citizen, yet with conflicted emotions about where his homeland is. A person whose longing to make a difference, leads them down an unknown path.

When Scott Morrison seeks to revoke citizenship from Australian-Syrian citizens for purely political motives, he damages the relationship the government has to Australian people. Some estimates put the number of Australian citizens fighting in Syria at over 200. These cases will differ. Many may be younger people, heavily religious and egged on by others within the community. They are likely to include those influenced by extreme islamic teachings. However it is also likely there are idealists amongst them, fighting because they believe the Syrian government is an oppressive regime, one deserving of overthrow. A modern day George Orwell they might not be, but they are certainly not evil personified. As has been well noted, the Syrian opposition is a pluralistic, ‘the enemy of your enemy’ grouping of disparate organisations. This Daily Telegraph article makes a good attempt to explain some of the complexity:

Andrew Zammit from the Monash University Global Terrorism Research Centre said most fighters who returned to Australia would not become a threat, but others “could be very dangerous”.

“They can get skills, connections, and may decide to carry out violence,” Zammit says. “Authorities are very worried. They are aware that this is the greatest mobilisation of Australians to fight with jihadist groups that we’ve ever had.

“They could be travelling there with all sorts of motives, often after having watched footage of people they identify with being killed by the Assad regime. The big issue is what groups they get involved with once over there.”

This is not an apology for those who seek deliberate harm on others through radical Islam. However as Mr Zammit notes, most fighters are unlikely to become a threat.

I don’t know very much at all about Middle Eastern politics and the situation in Syria. What I do know, is that governments have a responsibility to their citizens, perhaps above anything else they do. The reason for nation states, and the reason why a population can be so riled up against migrants, are the complicated notions of sovereignty and citizenship. A grouping of people, protected (by force if necessary) by the state. In an ironic twist, the party of ‘stop the boats’, appealing to the notion of a shared community, is now threatening to expel those who are already members. While the numbers of people concerned are low, this is perhaps the most distressing policy change I have seen from the Abbott Government, given the majority are likely not to pose a threat to Australian society.

Morrison (via the Guardian and Katherine Murphy):

“We are looking right now at all the options that are before us to strengthen powers when necessary,” Morrison told 2GB on Monday. “We are looking at every option available to us. We don’t want those troubles in this country and people who bring them here should not come.”

By implying people who fight in Syria will import “those troubles” back into Australia, Morrison is ignoring the responsibility of government to its own citizens. He is appealing to base instincts, knowing hard questions rarely penetrate populist positions. Further, he is traveling on ground already explored and rejected by then-Foreign Minister Bob Carr. Currently, the Australian government cannot forcefully withdraw citizenship from these people. Of course, changing the law to accommodate such a position, while burying the complex relationship which dictates the decisions these people make, is not beyond this government. In all likelihood this will be achieved with a cheer-squad, with those opposing any action labeled as unpatriotic, trouble makers.

Is the threat to Australian society from these people so sufficient as to reject the very bond between citizens and their government? No. It is the easy path, one where the difficult decisions to engage with citizens of Australia, of other dispositions, is ignored.

What is the difference between an Australian-Syrian and simply an Australian who fights in Syria? Very little, yet this is the distinction which will determine entry to where both call home.

These are the actions of a government, and a man, which knows no boundary. Scott Morrison is leading the mob, and the results are not pretty.