“This is not a negative discriminatory test, this is a test that affirms the desirability of more fully integrating newcomers into the mainstream of Australian society … It is designed, not as some kind of Trivial Pursuit, but is designed to ensure that people do understand and have a working capacity in the national language, which is English.” John Howard, 2006

So, apparently, John Howard (and his immigration parliamentary secretary, Andrew Robb) didn’t get it right back in 2006. Now we need a tougher English test and a test that better affirms mainstream values — not just requiring citizenship applicants to agree to a list of them. And you’ll only be able to take it three times (Robb wanted applicants to be able to “sit the tests as many times as they needed to”). And they stuffed up on the residency requirements — Howard extended the residency requirement to four years, including one year as a permanent resident. Now it needs to be four years as a permanent resident, apparently. Thankfully, Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Dutton are here to save us from the failings of John Howard.

Howard’s citizenship test and process changes had no impact on immigration, which by 2006 had more than doubled over the previous decade, and would continue to rise thereafter; it was nearly 200,000 in 2014-15. Whether they produced any cohesion, or whatever other nebulous, Aussie values-derived social benefit they were supposed to generate, isn’t clear — how do you measure such things anyway? It was Australian values theatre. Like security theatre, which is intended to convince voters measures are in place to protect them from terrorism but which doesn’t create any meaningful obstacles to attacks, it was intended to appear to address, and perhaps exploit, community fears.

And there was much fear in 2006, especially in Sydney, directed at Muslims. The Cronulla riots had happened the previous summer. A series of sexual assaults in 2000 by a gang of Lebanese rapists had returned to the headlines with the re-sentencing of some of the criminals. A senior Muslim cleric had attacked women who didn’t wear head coverings as like “uncovered meat” (drawing the fury of his own community along with everyone else). At the start of the year, NSW Premier Morris Iemma had established a Middle Eastern Organised Crime taskforce within the NSW Police, amid feuds between crime families and claims police were intimidated by ethnic gangs. Shock jocks like Alan Jones were at their most hysterical; years later, Jones would be ordered to apologise for a number of his comments about Muslims.

In contrast, the fear Turnbull is trying to address today is more economic. There are pockets of islamophobia, of course, though primarily in conservative political parties and among News Corp commentators. As the new 754 visa and Turnbull’s incessant talk about Australian jobs and Australians first demonstrate, however, the fear is of immigration as a threat to jobs, not a threat to culture or social cohesion. The other fear that the changes address is Turnbull’s own fear for his leadership, with yet another embrace of a right-wing position to placate his enemies. Ironically, it is Peter Dutton who is by his side for this values theatre (Michaelia Cash was the relevant minister for the 754 announcement, but she was nowhere to be seen, it was Dutton instead). This crackdown on immigration is lifting Dutton’s profile and building his cachet with the right of the party — although no one is asking why the government feels the need to remedy such high-profile failings in a portfolio that Dutton has been running himself for more than two years.

And Howard, at least, could speak with perceived political authority on Australian values — the electorate had a strong sense of who Howard was and his own values, even if they didn’t agree with them. Turnbull, in contrast, has discarded the electorate’s sense of who he is and his values — Turnbull had the strongest brand in Australian politics — in favour of embracing a wide range of positions entirely contradictory to what the electorate believed about him. And so it continues — Turnbull is probably the last politician you’d expect to be waving the flag and an Aussie values test at migrants.

Howard also had an infinitely better political instincts than Turnbull. Part of the reason he was so eager to embrace issues such as nationalism was that he knew the left would react hysterically to it, thereby linking him more clearly with mainstream voters. But it didn’t help him, in the end — he got his citizenship test through in early 2007 and was gone by November that year, having lost his own (very multicultural) seat. Will Turnbull’s shoddy remake fare any better than the original?


Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey