An examination is to test knowledge in a specific area of a topic. The new citizenship test is a mish-mash of general knowledge, opinion and poor history. The multiple choice style of question is always dangerous: it needs to be absolutely precise in its wording and in its answers.

The test is not precise; it’s riddled with ambiguities and debatable interpretations, and it is, ultimately, useless as an exam. Admittedly, there is a 60% pass mark, meaning that those questions that might be challenged may not prevent someone entering (provided, of course, they pass the second attempt), or at least, on their second attempt, the candidate can be re-educated to reach the magic 60%.

The questions range from the banal (Which is a popular sport in Australia?) to the pointless-without-context: (What is the national plant of Australia?). (The popular sport one is problematic — how does one define ‘popular’? Are popular sports broadcast by the Nine Network? Do more than 100 people play it on the weekend? How many houses in Australia have a ping-pong table? How many people play table tennis more than once a year? How many play cricket that often?).

And how does knowing the national plant improve (or not improve) your citizenship? Asking which party holds power in Australia is also problematic: in the states, it is currently the ALP; federally it is the Liberal/National Coalition. And indeed, purists might argue that no party holds power as such: a majority of seats in the House of Representatives (at the federal level) is held by the Liberal/National Coalition. However, a series of checks and balances is in place to prevent too much power held by the Government. A better wording of the question would have been ‘Which party or coalition at the federal level holds the majority of seats in the House of Representatives, and therefore comprises the Government?’ with an appropriate selection of parties.

Yet, there are worse problems in the quiz. Who is Australia’s head of state? Among the answers to choose are ‘Queen Elizabeth II’, or the Governor-General, Michael Jefferey. Which one is right? Are our immigrants supposed to know the intricacies of the Balfour Declaration (1926), the Statute of Westminster (1931), and the Australia Act (1986) and the full context in which these things were developed?

Pages and pages of ink have been spilled on the question of head of state. The governor-general is appointed by the Queen, on the advice of the Prime Minister, to be the Queen’s representative. This suggests the Queen, and the Constitution states the Queen. Yet, in all practicality, it is the governor-general who performs the function of the head of state. It is a question that cannot be answered effectively in a multiple-choice format. It cannot be answered effectively in less than a paragraph.

As a teacher of Australian history and politics, I am all for a well-informed and interested community in regards to these subjects. (Indeed, more Australians should learn these subjects). But ultimately, the test itself fails. It is interesting to note the questions, and the answers, promote a certain attitude. What influence on Australian values has Judaeo-Christian philosophy had (a vast amount), but how much has been due to secularism (a vast amount as well)? Again, a multiple-choice format is just not expansive enough to deal with such subtleties. It makes one wonder: according to this test, what types of immigrants are acceptable, and what types aren’t?

D L Lewis is a professional historian. He has lectured at Australian Catholic University, Sydney University and WEA.