Among the pieties from all sides on the anniversary of the 1967 Aboriginal referendum, a jarring note was sounded last week by federal minister Mal Brough, who stressed the necessity for Aborigines to learn English.
What struck observers was that the Howard government has been hostile to bilingual education, despite its apparent educational benefits. It’s an interesting lesson on the dangers of importing American ideas without paying enough attention to their context.
For political professionals, the United States is where the action is: its vast number of elections and loose party allegiances mean unequalled scope for trying out campaign themes and strategies. What works there often finds its way around the world, even to Australia – sometimes with interesting results.
Through the 1980s and ’90s, for example, conservative politicians in Australia watched as their American counterparts scored considerable success with scare campaigns on “law and order”. But when they tried to repeat the tactic here, it proved mostly ineffective.
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The problem was that in the US, crime was seen as a racial issue, and candidates who talked about crime were understood as making a coded appeal to racial antagonism. In Australia, without the racial subtext, it lacked the same emotional appeal.
Another popular right-wing cause in America has been the “English First” movement, which argues for making English the official language of the US and doing away with measures that make special provision for linguistic minorities – notably, the provision of bilingual education.
Taken on its own terms, opposition to bilingual education seems crazy; scientific studies have consistently shown that it helps children learn faster and assimilate better. But in the context of nativist fears of Spanish-speaking immigrants, it makes perfect political sense: the subtext is not pro-English, but anti-immigrant.
Australia lacks that context; our immigrants learn English quickly, and there is no single language group, like Hispanics in the US, that even remotely threatens its predominance. But the “English first” theme has become so detached from its origins that Brough is happily applying it to a group that are not immigrants at all.