It has been about 40 years since the White Australia policy was abolished, and the government now boasts that Australia’s migration program allows people from any country to apply to migrate, regardless of their ethnicity, culture, religion or language. But does the migration program still contain a racist element?

As a relatively recent immigrant from South Korea, I have been fortunate enough to be free from the much more blatant form of racism that was once commonplace in Australia. Nevertheless, immigrants from non-English speaking backgrounds still find it difficult to obtain the right to live in Australia. This is largely because in order to be eligible for the various permanent residency visas, the applicant must satisfy the English language threshold requirement.

Because of this, many applicants need to go through the stress of sitting the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) test to prove that they have at least a competent level of English language ability. I had to sit this glorious test last year (and paid $330 to do so) despite having completed years 7 to 12 in Australia and being a high-achieving law student at the University of Melbourne.

Thankfully, I got a sufficiently high score the first time around (but then, if I didn’t, there would be a serious question mark next to my first class honours law degree). However, I know of very few people who did get a high enough mark the first time around.

One of my friends (who is a highly intelligent and hard-working teaching student with a degree in bio-medicine) had to sit the test three times to get a sufficiently high score (and ended up spending close to $1000 to do so). She has completed most of her high school years in Australia, so her English (in my opinion) is good enough for her to become a competent science teacher. After she failed to get the requisite score the second time around, she seriously considered leaving Australia and becoming a teacher elsewhere, which I think would have been a loss for Australia given the shortage of teachers we have here.

I can imagine that a significant number of potentially valuable immigrants to Australia would choose to go elsewhere because of this English requirement.

Of course, I could have avoided all this grief if instead of my South Korean passport, I held a passport from one of the following countries: the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, the US and the Republic of Ireland. If you hold a passport from one of these countries, you don’t need to worry about the English language threshold requirement.

Hang on. Aren’t all these former British colonies (except, of course, Britain itself) where people of Anglo-Celtic descent form the majority? Surely exempting these countries from the English threshold requirement is not racially motivated. After all, these are all countries where English is the official language. That would make sense, right?

Well, no. English is not even the official language in the US (at least on the federal level). Canada’s official languages are English and French. On the other hand, English is one of the official languages in Singapore; but Singapore is not one of those countries exempt from the English requirement. So we can’t justify exempting these countries from the threshold requirement on the grounds that English is their official language.

I also have doubts about whether every citizen of the UK, Canada, New Zealand, the US and Ireland speaks impeccable English. It is true that a higher percentage of citizens of these countries would pass the English requirement than say, citizens of countries such as South Korea (but perhaps not Singapore).

But my main issue is with the generalisation. Most people who meet me for the first time think I was born and raised in Australia because my English is very good. But I still had to pay extra $330 to prove it. I was even questioned by one of the people at the IELTS test centre as to why I was sitting the test given that my English was better than many native Australians.

On the other hand, an uneducated person (say, without any generalisation, a US citizen) with limited English abilities at best would not need to worry about meeting the English language requirement. I’m no racial hypochondriac, but I would call this racist. Under the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth), racial discrimination includes discrimination based on national origin.

The former PM John Curtin, who is revered by many in Australia as a defiant leader during the country’s difficult times in the midst of the Second World War, once said: “This country shall remain forever the home of the descendants of those people who came here in peace in order to establish in the South Seas an outpost of the British race.”

Australia has come a long way from this once-held vision of an otherwise respectable PM. But if you think that racism is history in this country, you’re kidding yourself. Australia still effectively favours immigrants from the UK, US, Canada, New Zealand and Ireland by making a whopping generalisation of millions of people’s language abilities simply based on their national origin. I just hope that one day, Australia’s migration program will be completely free of any racist element, and well and truly quash Curtin’s bigoted vision of this country being “an outpost of the British race”.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey