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Aussie Aussie Aussie: Is the Australian citizenship test fair?

The Australian citizenship test has just turned four. Its birthday passed without fanfare but this is not surprising. Soon after its introduction, a Labor government review addressed early concerns that…

Would you be out for a duck in the citizenship test? Flickr/R@VITH

The Australian citizenship test has just turned four. Its birthday passed without fanfare but this is not surprising.

Soon after its introduction, a Labor government review addressed early concerns that it was irrelevant as a requirement for solid citizenship, as well as being unfair and discriminatory toward certain groups. Since then it has had a charmed run.

As a result of that review the test was revised and in October of 2009 the Australian Citizenship Test Mark II took over.

We’ve heard barely a peep since. It was fixed up, you see. Or was it?

Race relations

First, some background. In April of 2006, Andrew Robb, then Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, announced the government’s intention to take a “serious look” at introducing a formal citizenship test.

Robb’s announcement came at a time when the Cronulla riots of that summer were fresh in Australian minds. It was also two days after Anzac Day, an apt time to call for a pledge of loyalty to the national family.

Race relations and social cohesion were hot and had been for a good while. Cronulla had come at the end of what had already been a bad year; London had been bombed in July, 2005 and Bali in October.

Both John Howard and Peter Costello had given prominent speeches in early 2006 that had raised the subject of the country’s need for social cohesion.

Howard’s baby

The test that emerged is popularly perceived as John Howard’s baby. Launched in late 2007 with his prime ministership all but gone, it was seen by some as yet another cynical attempt to trade on public sensibilities surrounding multiculturalism that had worked well for him in the past.

Howard’s links to the test were strengthened by the contents and layout of the preparation materials. Becoming an Australian Citizen was a 46-page document heavy on what it means to be Australian and on “Australian values”. Included were historical events and other ephemera, the knowledge of which seemed to have little bearing on being a good citizen: the national flower was there, as was the national gemstone. Sydney, it said, is host to the “largest number of Rugby League clubs in Australia”.

Good to know. There was also some useful information for tourists. Adelaide has “many fine examples of colonial architecture”. Okay.

And then there was Don Bradman, who still attracts much of the ridicule surrounding the citizenship test. In truth, Bradman was never a great feature of the test. Of the 13,000 or so words in Becoming an Australian Citizen, he took up around seventy-five, none of which referred to his batting average.

Bradman did appear in a sample question on the government’s citizenship website throughout the life of the original test. Again, his batting average was not required knowledge, merely that he was a cricketer and that Walter Lindrum and Hubert Opperman were not.

Raising the mark

If the citizenship test was indeed John Howard’s baby, he gave it up for adoption just eight weeks after its birth, when Kevin Rudd relieved him of his post in November of 2007.

Not far into 2008 the first statistics emerged from the test and confirmed what many had feared; that is, that the test would be an impediment for certain groups trying to gain citizenship. Humanitarian visa holders were failing at a far greater rate than skilled migrants and family stream candidates.

Chris Evans, in charge of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, called for a review of the test in April 2008. He gave the brief to Richard Woolcott, a highly respected, former career diplomat. Woolcott’s job was to investigate any “unintended consequences” arising from the test.

Woolcott and his committee determined that the test was “flawed, intimidating to some and discriminatory” and in need of “substantial reform”. The Labor government thanked Woolcott, ignored his most crucial recommendations and revised the test, raising the pass mark from 60% to 75% along the way.

The new test took effect on October 19, 2009. As before, candidates were faced with a 20-item multiple choice test though this time it was based on the better-designed resource booklet, Australian Citizenship: Our Common Bond.

Bradman appears only in the new “non-testable information” section. Lindrum and Opperman were discarded altogether. The golden wattle and the opal made it through, however, still required knowledge for citizenship applicants.

Bradman farewelled

The press hailed the new test as better and fairer. Bradman had finally been dismissed. “Test a duck for the Don” said The Australian. Lindrum “black-balled by law ‘n’ order” said The Age.

In truth, Labor has taken a flawed test and made it worse.

The latest statistics show that the new test is harder, but only if you’re in the Humanitarian Program. If that is your lot, then know that from your cohort, which represented 4.6% of the total number of test takers in the 2009-2010 year, came 45% of the failures on the first or second attempt at the test.

This means one of two things: either those on humanitarian visas aren’t really trying hard enough to become citizens of Australia, or there’s still something seriously wrong with this test.

There is of course a third option: perhaps the test is working perfectly?

How Australian are you? Try the test for yourself.

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10 Comments sorted by

  1. John Harland

    bicycle technician

    There is nothing about living in Australian society.

    If the questions are so important, perhaps we should be checking that Australian-born people can answer them so that they can help migrants learn.

    Who does maintain peace and order in Australia? Only in the narrowest sense should this be seen as the job of the Police alone.

    The questions all share the same narrow formalism that continues to reflect John Howard's own outsider's view of Australian culture.

  2. Christopher Angus

    logged in via email

    Having done the practice test, I've found that covers basic Australian history and governance, the latter of which is necessary to tell new migrants regardless of whether there's a citizenship test or not. Of course, I've grown up in Australia so of course I'd find the test straightforward, but it's definitely not akin to the racist immigration 'tests' from the early 20th century.

    What's missing from this piece is what could be done to improve the citizenship test, since Kerry believes it to be…

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  3. Donncha Redmond

    Software Developer

    It's a joke. I did the Mk.1 version of the test. You get 45mins to do the test. It took me 90 seconds and I got 100% correct having skimmed the guide/booklet once. Granted, I grew up in a Western democracy and had been living in Oz for a few years before I did it, but the test is still a complete joke.

    I reckon it should be renamed the Anti-Muslim Test.

  4. John Harland

    bicycle technician

    The "history" contained in the test is restricted to the origin of Anzac Day. Although several of my granduncles were at Gallipoli, and one was killed there, I see do not see it as one of the most important events in our history. The question is a hardline political one and its placement first in the test is even more blatantly political.

    The stuff about governance may be correct in a pedantic sort of way but it is in language that is quite alien to anyone who has learned Australian English on the…

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  5. Ian Flynn

    High School Teacher

    Wow if those questions are the whole test it really is a joke. Also, if there is an information booklet that can be read before taking the test, surely all it tests is someone's ability to wrote learn information and regurgitate it for a test? Having grown up in Australia it only took me 2 minutes to read through and pick the right answers, not exactly a brain bender. As someone else said, questions 5 & 6 have multiple correct answers so that's a bit silly.

    @ Donncha Redmond, why do you say "I reckon it should be renamed the Anti-Muslim Test."? The test really hasn't got much about religion and what there is is about the separation for church and state- not exactly anti-muslim....confused.

  6. John Harland

    bicycle technician

    Any Muslim who had been anywhere they had been asked to swear an oath might be perplexed by questions 6 and 7.

    We know what the expected answers are but those are a poor reflection of the reality. Australia has a rather incomplete separation of church and state, as I mentioned above.

  7. Peter Hiscock

    Tom Austen Brown Professor of Australian Archaeology at University of Sydney

    Perhaps its better to think of the test as being about the myths of Australian life and culture rather than about actual history and social practice. That view makes sense of its emergence from the government and its apparent strangeness to those that are familiar with the country. The focus on the national mythologies speaks volumes abot the cultural attitudes involved.

  8. Anna Gorlop

    logged in via Facebook

    The test is easy if you read the book. Just compare it with the Canadian test, or the British version (Life in the UK). The Australian textbook has 20 (TWENTY) pages, and the Government hired dozens of translators (with the taxpayers' money, obviously), to translate these meager 20 pages into 37 (THIRTY SEVEN) languages! Why is that? Why would people applying to be Australian, need a translation of the citizenship manual?Weren't they supposed to speak English ON ARRIVAL? And if they were in such horrible humanitarian trouble, why didn't they bother learning the language of the country in the three years that are required to apply for citizenship? What were they busy DOING?

  9. Allison Kimber

    Asst. Manager

    I have done with the test and like to share the experience with you. All questions Questions in the test are based on the topics:

    Part 1—Australia and its people
    Part 2—Australia's democratic beliefs, rights and liberties
    Part 3—Government and the law in Australia

    And i highly recommended that you read Australian Citizenship: Our Common Bond or watch the DVD before you sit the test. Or else you can take many free test using below websites