Australia has a history of testing would-be citizens and not stating the real reason for the tests. Just after Federation a white Australia was imposed not by openly banning Chinese and other people of colour from entering but by allowing immigration officers to exclude those who failed a 50-word dictation test in any European language the examiner chose.

Prime Minister John Howard yesterday announced a new test for would-be citizens but this time in English. The test, he told a press conference, will involve a working knowledge of the English language and require people “to have an understanding of basic aspects of Australian society, our culture, and our values and certainly some understanding of our history”.

What the PM did not say was why we needed to have such a test. What we got instead was a bald statement that other countries had tests and “it’s quite clear to me and to the Government that there is very strong support in the Australian community for the introduction of a citizenship test”.

Mr Howard carefully did not mention the M word. Just as his predecessor a century ago hid the real anti-Chinese reason behind the dictation test, there was no mention yesterday of the growing fear and resentment of Muslims in the Australian community. This Prime Minister is trying to get the political benefit of pandering to anti-Muslim feeling without having to say so.

Is the government using code to say that Moslems are different and that they don’t fit in? asks Malcolm Fraser at Australians All. “It suggests that the next election will be the Muslim election, as 2001 was the Tampa election, with the parties competing to claim they can best protect us from our fears.”

The transparent nature of Howard’s appeal to prejudice is shown by the limited impact it will actually have. New legislation will not stop migrants who don’t agree with Australian values from actually staying in the country. Permanent residence does not require citizenship. Non-citizens can live and work or get the dole like the rest of us. The only real disadvantage for the non-citizen is the risk of deportation if convicted of a criminal offence.

This debate is one which Aboriginal Australians should be following with interest too. Mr Howard on AM this morning was putting his new policy into the context of a belief in “integration” where people stop talking about multi-culturalism and we concentrate on those Australian values which he defines as:  

Well Australian values will be I guess debated by many people, but I think we all agree that democracy, we all agree that a belief in a free media, the equality of men and women, the concept of mateship, the concept of having a go and the concept of looking after the very vulnerable in our community. I think they are common Australian values on which most of us can agree.