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A Real Test of Diversity

By Saeed Khan - posted Thursday, 5 October 2006

It seems multiculturalism and the ethnic population have become a constant target of conservative politicians in recent times. The leadership of ethnic communities has been so far on the back foot trying to defend its rights and values. But for how long?

Federal Liberal politicians talking about Australian values, citizenship tests and English language skills are not putting forward anything new. They are attempting to rewind the clock back to early 1900s despite the lessons learnt in the past. What’s even more disturbing is that the ALP leadership is in agreement.

The call for Australian values is quite xenophobic at its core. It is just another dig at reviving Hansonism by making an issue out of ethnicity. 


However, at a tactical level, the values debate is a multi-layered camouflage and a well-constructed distraction for an average punter. On one hand, the government wants to be seen tough on migrants to support its national security agenda. On the other hand, to support Australia’s economic growth, immigration has risen under coalition government. The business pressure is such that the Australian government is contemplating allowing sweatshops across Australia filled with foreign workers.

Then there is the off-shore outsourcing. Driven by cost cutting, thousands of jobs in business support services are going overseas. To combat a successful industrial relations campaign against its WorkChoices agenda to lower minimum wage, the government wants to manufacture a greater evil. John Howard has figured out that in the face of rising interest rates, slump in property market, and increased cost of living, he can’t win the argument. So it’s better to bash migrants and multiculturalism and start a new home turf.

Now back to language tests. According to Professor Andrew Jakubowicz of University of Technology Sydney, in 1902-03 the first Dictation Test was introduced for prospective migrants to Australia. It was conducted 1359 times from 1902 to 1909 and with only 52 people passing. After 1909, and until 1958 no body passed it. Why? Because the test was being conducted in a language in which the perspective immigrants had Buckley’s chance.

The Dictation Test was applied as a part of the White Australia Policy in the name of seeking literate migrants.  It was an overt discrimination against Asian and some European migrants and outright racism.

The Dictation Test was also used most famously in 1938 to try to keep out Egon Kisch, an anti-Nazi activist trying to warn Australians about the danger of Hitlerism.  When the Dictation Test failed the Attorney General of the day, R. G. Menzies, drafted a Sedition Act against speaking ill of Germany, among other things, which was recently brought up to date.

It was only due to an extreme labour shortage in the booming post-war economy that attitudes to the immigration of people from Southern Europe improved after World War II. The 1958 Migration Act introduced a simpler system of entry permits and abolished the Dictation Test.


Do we want to go back to the policies of White Australia and embarrass ourselves all over again?

The selective government policy of skilled migration has not been a major success either. Let’s take the health system for example; there is an apparent shortage of doctors in Australia and most practitioners are aging and not enough coming through. This trend is set to continue as China and India are developing as new economic powers. Already there are examples of skilled migrants migrating back to their countries of origin. Do we need a citizenship test in addition to our highly bias skilled migration program? No.

It is believed that overwhelming majority of those who have not taken up citizenship come from English speaking countries such as United Kingdom and New Zealand. These tests are not for them but mostly aimed at the most vulnerable part of ethnic population, the elderly, most of whom have come through family reunion programs and don’t enjoy the same benefits in the first place.

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Article edited by Mark Bahnisch.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

Edited versions of this article have been published in the Indus Age in May 2006 and the Inner-Western Courier on 19 September 2006.

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About the Author

Saeed Khan is a writer, diversity advocate, a former Deputy Chair of the Ethnic Communities Council of NSW and a former Treasures of the Federation of Ethnic Communities Council of Australia (FECCA). Twitter @saeedahmedkhan

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