New Australian citizenship test: can you really test 'values' via multiple choice?

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Alex Reilly

The Morrison government has announced plans to revamp the Australian citizenship test. From 15 November, there will be new test questions on ‘Australian values’.

What does this new, ‘clear focus’ on values involve? And what is the best way to assess values?

How do you become a citizen?
According to the 2007 Australian Citizenship Act, you can become an Australian citizen “by conferral” if you,

  • have been a resident for four years, with at least one as a permanent resident
  • have a basic knowledge of English
  • have an adequate knowledge of Australia and the responsibilities and privileges of Australian citizenship
  • are likely to reside in Australia or maintain a close and continuing association with Australia, and
  • are of good character.

Since 2007, the English language and “knowledge of Australia” requirements have been established via a “citizenship test”. According to the Department of Home Affairs, applicants between 18 and 59 need to sit the test.

The test is multiple choice, with 20 questions in English. An applicant must get 15 correct to pass.

It is based on a booklet that includes information on “Australia and its people”, “Australian democratic beliefs, rights and liberties” and a crash course on government and the law. The updated booklet now includes a section on “Australian values”.

How is the test changing?
Last week, acting minister for immigration and citizenship Alan Tudge announced an increased focus on “values”.

Acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge at a press conference Acting immigration minister Alan Tudge wants more focus on ‘Australian values’. James Ross/AAP

Mr Tudge says this will require potential citizens to understand Australian values like freedom of speech, mutual respect, equality of opportunity, the importance of democracy and the rule of law.

We are asking those who apply for citizenship to understand our values more deeply before they make the ultimate commitment to our nation.

The increased focus requires applicants to get all five test questions on values correct. Applicants also still need to score at least 75 per cent overall.

Why have a test?
Those in favour of a citizenship test argue the burden of having to pass the test gives citizenship greater gravitas. It promotes citizenship as a ‘privilege’ and not a right one acquires through long-term residence.

But the idea that citizenship should be difficult to achieve is a recent phenomenon in Australia.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison at a citizenship ceremony in Canberra. Australian citizenship is not automatic. Mick Tsikas/AAP

In the 1980s and `90s, the federal government ran campaigns to encourage permanent residents to become citizens, so they could fully participate in Australia’s civil and political life. In 1984, the Australian Citizenship Amendment Act reduced the English language requirement for citizenship from “adequate” to “basic”, while applicants over 50 years were exempted from the language requirement.

In 1994, a parliamentary inquiry also recommended the widespread promotion of citizenship.

However, in the 21st century, amid concerns over international terrorism, there has been an emphasis on citizenship as a privilege. In 2015, the Abbott government commissioned Liberal MPs Philip Ruddock and Concetta Fierravanti-Wells to lead a national consultation on citizenship. As their report states,

Overall there remains a strong view in the community that Australian citizenship is a concept worth valuing and certainly worth protecting. While we strongly encourage migrants to become citizens, it is not something that should be earned too easily or given away cheaply.

Can you test values?
Mr Tudge’s press release says the new test will have “more meaningful questions that require potential citizens to understand and commit to our values”.

The booklet provides six pages of information on our values, which includes statements such as, “Australians value ‘mateship’. We help each other in times of need”. And, “in Australia, the lawful actions of the police should be supported”. It also notes, “it is important to learn to speak English”.

This is an example of a practice question on values:

Which of these statements best demonstrates Australian values about freedom of expression?

a) everyone can peacefully express their opinions within the law

b) people with different views from me need to keep quiet

c) only approved topics can be discussed.

There are significant reasons to doubt the usefulness of these questions as part of the criteria for citizenship.

First, identifying the correct answer does not necessarily say anything about a person’s actual values. Most people can spot examples of freedom and equality, regardless of whether they are committed to them.

Second, if people get an answer wrong, it is likely to say more about their English comprehension than their values.

Having said this, there is a role for civics education for citizens and prospective citizens alike. Discussing and comparing values and identifying where they differ across nations and cultures is valuable for the formation of a coherent political community. It is the reduction of these complex questions to a multiple choice test that is the problem.

Permanent residents already have Australian values
When it comes to the values of citizenship applicants, the government should take comfort in the fact that they have already lived and contributed to the community for at least four years.

Crowds at NRL match on Sunshine Coast. Australia has had a citizenship test since 2007. Darren England/AAP

In 2014, the government also tightened the ‘character test’ for permanent residents, making their deportation mandatory if they have been sentenced to imprisonment for a year or more.

Since last year, it has also had legislation before parliament to make it even easier to fail the character test over certain ‘designated offences’, including sexual assault and aggravated burglary.

So, there are safeguards in place.

Applicants for citizenship are already entitled to live in Australia permanently. They demonstrate their commitment to Australian values through participation in work and community activities, sending their children to school, and obeying the law.

These are more effective ways to demonstrate Australian values than through correctly answering multiple choice questions.

The changes to the citizenship test are a public relations exercise, consistent with the Coalition government’s use of citizenship as a mechanism of exclusion.

Perhaps it is not surprising these changes have been announced at time of great uncertainty, when external threats loom large, both across and beyond our borders.The Conversation

Alex Reilly, Professor

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

What do you think of the additional questions about Australian values? What questions would you like added to the test?

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Total Comments: 6
  1. 0

    had a read and would pass easily – this is not unreasonable

  2. 0

    I have had citizenship for over fifty years, it is a complete waste of time and has no advantages, in fact it has cost me money on several occasions as a couple of now required facts were omitted in the old versions of the document. My advice is don’t bother with it.

  3. 0

    We should learn from Switzerland, how to set the appropriate tests for Citizenship, so that it Is a seriously valued by the applicant.

  4. 0

    If we look at what Labor has done with the illegal boat arrivals when they let 50,000 people into Australia it comes as no surprise that in 1984 Labor was in government when the rules regarding citizenship were relaxed. Again, a further relaxation of the rules in 1994 was under a Labor government. Citizenship should be earned, not just given to those who cannot speak English and have been in Australia for a few short years. I believe that granting citizenship should also have it as mandatory that the applicant should be employed and paying tax.

  5. 0

    Knowing our English language should be a given if people want to become Aussie Citizens, why would you want to live in a foreign country and not know how to communicate has got me beat.

    • 0

      Agree Misty. But more to the point, why would politicians be stupid enough to make taxpayers fork out billions for translation services and foreign language signs. We really are mugs to let them get away with such nonsense.



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