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Thursday, 11 October 1984
Page: 1626


Senator GRIMES (Minister for Social Security)(11.21) —I am reminded of the time when, soon after Senator Martin and I came into this place, we had, I think, a two-hour debate in this chamber with six lawyers and Senator Cavanagh, who was a lawyer in every sense but degree, over the meaning of the term 'of the '. I sat here fascinated, as did everybody else. At the end, no one knew what the term 'of the' meant in the legislation in any case. I think I had better go through this step by step. The reason-the basic reason-that the term 'adequate' was changed to 'basic' is that the Government was convinced by those who administered the Act that the term 'basic' was a better description of the guidelines for knowledge of the English language than was the term 'adequate'. Senator Macklin now says that the term 'basic' means that the guidelines are not adequate. The preliminary statement concerning those guidelines is:

Apart from certain statutory and discretionary exemptions an applicant for Australian citizenship must satisfy the Minister that they have a basic knowledge of the English language.

For this purpose a basic knowledge of English may be demonstrated by an ability :

(a) to respond in simple English to questions in simple English about personal particulars during the citizenship interview

(b) answer yes or no, or in simple English to factual questions on the responsibilities and privileges of Australian citizenship.

(c) respond in English when taking the Oath/Affirmation of Allegiance.

It is particularly important that an applicant's ability to respond to questions not be confused by the interviewer's use of complex words or sentence structures. It is essential that where an applicant's proficiency in English is limited, interviewers-

(a) speak slowly and carefully, saying each word clearly but without losing the continuity of sentences;

(b) looks directly at the applicant when speaking.

Now that is the sort of test, if you like to call it that, that applies now. The thing about that, the thing about what has happened in the past and what will happen in the future, is that adequacy in English or whether a person has the capacity to handle basic English is a judgmental thing. It will depend on the judgment of the person conducting the interview. What is set down are certain guidelines, certain parameters, not only about what is necessary from the applicant but also what is necessary from the interviewee, which is fair enough.

What Senator Martin and her colleagues want to do, I suggest, is to apply the Australian second language proficiency rating standards, and apply them only partly. These were a development of the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs. They were developed for the purposes of adult education in English. They are not a test as such; they are a means of observing language behaviour and coming up with some assessment of a person's capacity. But in those cases when the ASLPR scale is being used, the interviewee is not necessarily aware that his or her language proficiency is being assessed. It is a tool which is being used increasingly to assess people's proficiency for those educational purposes. To take that tool, chop out the written and the reading capacities of it, and just use the spoken and listening capacities that are being observed in it and somehow try to develop an objective test to what is and was and always will be, I suggest, a subjective test by the interviewer who is interviewing people for citizenship applications, that is not the correct way to go about it. I would not have thought, until we were convinced-I wish to heavens we had not been convinced-that we should change the term 'adequate' to the term 'basic'. But there has really been no argument in this area. I cannot remember any discussion in this area since the days of the 'white Australia' policy when we used to give people tests in Welsh and ancient Gaelic. I cannot remember any discussion or controversy.

We became convinced by those in the bureaucracy and others that the term ' adequate' was not adequate to describe the test that we were using and we had better use the term 'basic'. We put in the term 'basic' and Senator Martin then says: 'That is really not good enough. You need a more objective test'. Senator Macklin says: 'Basic does not describe the regulations you are using adequately. You will have to change the regulations'. It is a bit of a mess. Quite frankly, I cannot get terribly excited about the whole business, having been through this debate and the legislation.

What we need is some sort of guidance for the people doing the interviewing as to their responsibilities in assessing a person's capacity to respond in simple English, to answer in simple English and to understand basic English, with the exceptions that we all know about of elderly people and others. Whether we call that basic or adequate I really cannot get myself into a lather about it. But I am not convinced-certainly the Government is not convinced-and nor is the Department, which actually developed the Australian second language proficiency rating test, that its test should be used in some objective way. It seems to me that, in a genuine attempt to get everything into neat little boxes, Mr Macphee, Senator Martin and others have tried to make this more exact, and I do not blame them. But I do not think it is an area where we can be exact. I think it will always be an area in which sensible, humane, sympathetic interviewers will assess people's capacity to cope with the language of this country, which is English.

For better or for worse the guidelines that we have now are as good as any we are likely to get. Whether we describe them as adequate or basic, I really do not care. But we came to the judgment-we were convinced by those who have to administer the legislation is that the term 'basic' is a better one. I can assure honourable senators that, if anyone tries to change anything from adequate to basic or from basic to adequate in the future and I hear about it, I will really want to know why it is being done and I will really want to know whether it will cause the sort of debate that it has caused in this place.