15 September 2006

Australia flags English test for 'fair dinkum' migrants

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Migrants to Australia would have to pass an English language test to prove they were "fair dinkum" (genuine) about fitting into the country's society, Prime Minister John Howard has said.

Howard also said the length of time migrants had to live in Australia before they could become citizens would be increased from three to four years, under changes to immigration rules.

Under the proposed changes, which will be officially unveiled in a government discussion paper Sunday, migrants will also have to demonstrate a knowledge of Australian history.

Howard, who has spoken at length in recent weeks about the need for Muslim migrants to integrate into Australian society, said people who genuinely wanted to fit in would have no problem with the government's blueprint.

"Certainly we are going to lift the waiting period to four years, there will be a fairly firm English language requirement and the paper itself ... will contain quite a number of issues," he said.

"It won't become more difficult if you're fair dinkum, and most people who come to this country are fair dinkum about becoming part of the community.

"I think most people will welcome it. You'll certainly need to know a good deal more about Australia and about Australian customs and the Australian way of life."

Howard, whose conservative government has been in power for a decade, said the changes were a step away from "zealous multiculturalism" and a reassertion of an Australian identity.

The opposition Labor Party leader Kim Beazley weighed into the debate this week when he suggested migrants and tourists should sign a declaration saying they support Australian values before they could get a visa.

The values cited by Beazley included freedom, democracy, respect for women and "mateship".

Labor Party officials also said that Howard's government had cut funding to English language classes for migrants in recent years, hindering their attempts to integrate.

Greens senator Bob Brown said the English test marked a return to the White Australia policy, a discriminatory immigration practice that favoured caucasians over all others. It was abandoned in the early 1970s.

"To make that (an English test) a hurdle to becoming an Australian is moving back towards the White Australia policy," he told reporters.

"It simply means it's going to become harder to come to Australia if you don't have an anglo background, and that's not what this country ought to be."

Federation of Ethnic Communities' Councils chair Voula Messimeri said she could not see what Australia stood to gain by the plans.

"We don't support a tough language test because we feel it will discriminate against people from communities where they don't speak English," she said.

However, the Australian Multicultural Foundation said it supported the principal behind the proposals but demanded any changes should apply to all potential migrants, not just those from non-English speaking backgrounds.

"It should apply whether they're from Ireland, whether they're from Sri Lanka, whether they're from the Middle East or whether they're from Canada," foundation spokesman Hass Dellal told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

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