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The Case For English: 15 June 2018

On Thursday 14 June 2018 the Minister for Multiculturalism and Citizenship, the Hon Alan Tudge MP, delivered a speech to the Sydney Institute, titled: “The Case for English: Why a shared language is key to social cohesion and economic success”. You can read the full transcript of his speech here.

A key point in the Minister’s speech is that English language skills are good, not just for migrants coming to Australia, but also for the country more broadly. SCoA endorses this view, and agrees that statistics show us that migrants are much more likely to find sustainable employment, and to enjoy many of the other aspects that, combined, deliver the best possible settlement outcomes if they can conquer the not-so-easy feat of mastering the English language. SCoA and its members view the acquisition of English language as being a crucial part of the settlement process, and not a precondition to commencing that process.

SCoA is heartened by the Minister’s commitment to cultural diversity in Australia, in saying: “there is immense value in being multilingual and in retaining multiple languages. And this is not just for social and cultural reasons, but also for economic reasons.”

SCoA celebrates the cultural diversity of Australia and recognises the enormous contributions that migrants have made, and continue to make, irrespective of their language background or the method by which they arrived in Australia. This view was echoed by the Minister, who said that his concerns about English language should not be interpreted to  “…say that a person cannot have a great life and make a terrific contribution to Australia while speaking little or no English. There are thousands of examples, which show exactly this.”

However, the overarching focus of the Minister in his speech has been to resurrect discussions about what, if any, English language ability should be expected of migrants as a precondition to their acquiring citizenship or, indeed, the grant of a permanent visa.

To put this in context, the Minister’s speech yesterday represents a departure from the government’s 2017 proposals to require applicants for citizenship (with limited exceptions) to achieve a Level 6 IELTS ranking before becoming eligible. This proposal had the potential to operate in a significantly divisive and exclusionary manner, and the Minister has acknowledged that IELTS “was largely developed for academic and skilled migration purposes” and that there are significant issues in imposing such a requirement at the time of application for citizenship.

The government has reached this conclusion after conducting considerable community consultation over the past 6 months and SCoA acknowledges the Minister for taking on board the significant concerns raised about that proposal.

Instead of requiring citizenship applicants to demonstrate level 6 IELTS English, the Minister suggests that the government is considering a number of options, including making English language classes mandatory for all migrants and/or testing any applicant for permanent residency to assess their English “conversation” skills.

There are a number of levels to these options that need to be explored and SCoA will welcome any opportunity to conduct meaningful discussions with the Minister and his Department about each option put forward and its merits.

Without having access to any detail, we are concerned about the mechanics of making English classes mandatory for all migrants. At the moment the Adult Migrant English Program is not funded to support all migrants, and many would never have the capacity to engage with that program without some level of government support to do so. Indeed, it is well known that even for migrants who do have supported access, a plethora of competing priorities and personal circumstances can impact their ability to properly engage with AMEP.

SCoA would suggest that rather than making such lessons mandatory, the government would be better served working to ensure the accessibility and availability of a range of tailored and flexible English language solutions. As a result significant thought must be given as to how the settlement sector and allied service providers can be adequately resourced to ensure all migrants can access AMEP or equivalent English language assistance. To do so presents a real opportunity for Australia to lead the world in providing inclusive and welcoming language services to all migrants. We suggest the result will inevitably be a greater uptake of English language lessons, stronger social cohesion and, ultimately, better employment outcomes.

The second element of the Minister’s proposal is to test “conversational English” for all applicants for permanent residency. “Conversational English” has not yet been defined and may be the subject of a newly created, Australian-focused testing system.

The greatest concern held by SCoA and its members is that this “conversational English” test would be used to determine a migrant’s eligibility for a visa. This proposal is immediately contradictory to the notion of making English language services in Australia more accessible (or indeed mandatory) as the Minister has flagged: if every permanent resident has already had to establish their “conversational English” skills, why would they then need English language lessons following arrival?

More importantly, however, SCoA is concerned that the imposition of an English language test on all applicants for permanent residency will undo almost fifty years of non-discriminatory migration to Australia. It is acknowledged that some visa applicants are already tested for the English language ability, but this is only where the purpose of their visas is directly linked to said ability (for example skilled migrants or students). For other migrants, including family sponsored migrants, the ability to speak English has no direct link to the purpose of their visa. As a result, the only conclusion to be drawn from imposing English language testing on such migrants is that it will serve to discriminate against those who don’t speak English.

It will come as little surprise that SCoA’s greatest concern is reserved for Australia’s most vulnerable migrants: refugees. The 1951 Refugees Convention and its 1967 Optional Protocol explicitly require that state parties operate their humanitarian program without discrimination. Non-discriminatory refugee policies are essential to ensuring Australia plays its role as a global citizen, offering protection to those who need it most. English language ability must never be a consideration in determining who is entitled to Australia’s protection.

We must now wait to see how the government decides to develop and implement the ideas and issues raised by the Minister on 14 June. As mentioned above, SCoA will seek every opportunity to engage in dialogue with the government over any proposals it puts forward, and we sincerely hope that a transparent, fair and appropriate mechanism can be agreed upon which encourages and supports the uptake of English language for migrants in Australia but stops well short of penalising and excluding those who don’t, or can’t, speak English prior to their arrival.

For more information on this issue, see this brief article on ABC Radio which features SCoA CEO, Nick Tebbey and Deputy Chairperson, Melissa Monteiro of the Community Migrant Resource Centre, Sydney.

To discuss or provide feedback to SCoA on the matters raised above please contact our National Office on 02 6282 8515 or info@scoa.org.au