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STANDING COMMITTEE ON LEGAL AND CONSTITUTIONAL AFFAIRS
16/07/2007
Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Testing) Bill 2007

CHAIR —Welcome. Is there anything you would like to add about the capacity in which you appear today?

Ms Adoniou —Yes, TESOL stands for ‘teachers of English to speakers of other languages’.

CHAIR —Thank you for that. The Australian Council of TESOL Associations has lodged submission No. 34 with the committee. Do you wish to make any amendments or alterations to the submission?

Ms Adoniou —No.

CHAIR —We invite you to make an opening statement, at the conclusion of which I will invite members of the committee to ask some questions.

Ms Adoniou —If you do not mind, I will read my opening statement so that I do not distract myself. I act as a representative for the Australian Council of TESOL Associations. We are the national association representing ESL teachers in Australia. We are really pleased to be here to give evidence to the inquiry. It is exciting to be part of the democratic process and to share the expertise of our membership, but, more particularly, to give a voice to our clientele, which classically does not have a voice in such forums.

We understand emotionally and socially where this bill has come from. It comes from a desire to have a secure and cohesive society in a world which, currently, seems far from safe and secure. Not unreasonably, the belief is that such a society is more easily achieved if we all speak at least one common language—in this case, English—and if we all aspire to the same core values by which we should all live. With these two things in place we would be unified within and, as such, be stronger as a whole to resist any attacks, metaphorical or real, from without. We understand where the bill has come from.

We agree with those two key components for a unified society—that is, a common set of values to aspire to and live by and a common language. We need a way to achieve that and the government with this bill, via DIAC, proposes that a test would achieve that. The idea is that anybody wishing to become an Australian citizen—although not those who achieve it by virtue of being born here—should do a test of 20 multiple-choice questions and therefore prove that they, one, speak English and, two, aspire to and live by the values we deem to be Australian. In proposing the test, the government and DIAC are making some flawed cause and effect assumptions: the first is that the ability to pass a multiple-choice test would be evidence of a person’s language proficiency. We in the language teaching trade call that communicative competence—that is, the ability to get the job done with language, which is what we hope citizens of Australia would be able to do. That could include being able to negotiate the deli at Woolies, phone the bus timetable hotline to find out when and where the next bus leaves from, complete your tax form, read a newspaper, write a university essay or read the equipment safety instructions in the workplace—any of thousands of everyday language encounters that make up everyday living in Australia. A 20 question multiple-choice test will simply not give evidence of that kind of communicative competence.

The second flawed cause and effect is that the ability to recall facts about history and legislation has a causal link to aspiring to and holding certain values. For example, I could be given a choice of three questions: can I identify how many stars there are on the Australian flag and what they stand for, when Australia was federated and how many houses there are in parliament? If I can, therefore I aspire to values of equality for men and women, mateship, fair go or whatever values we deem to be Australian. Obviously, the test will neither prove that people can speak with communicative competence nor will it prove that people aspire to live by a certain set of shared values. The test will show us who is able to reproduce some knowledge about certain aspects of Australian history and legislation on the day of the test.

Our own test-taking experiences tell us that that is what you do in a test: you are able to reproduce something on the day of the test. That is not what DIAC wants proof of, it is not what we want proof of and it is not what the government wants proof of. It is not meeting the original aim of the bill. We all want a secure and cohesive society—a society that aspires to a common set of values which guide the way we live our lives and a society which speaks a common language which thereby guarantees that we all have equal access to the opportunities which living in Australia brings. The test will not give us these things, but let’s not give up on the original goal. Let’s rethink the challenge and come up with another solution. Let’s come up with strategies that are more likely to achieve these aims. The simple, quick answer to both of those is if we want people to be able to speak English then we must teach it. If we want people to aspire to certain values then we must give them ownership of those values.

CHAIR —Thank you. I appreciate your opening statement.

Senator NETTLE —How would you give people a sense of ownership over the set of values? On the first point about competency of language, you are obviously well qualified to be able to talk about how to do that. Do you have views or perspectives on how you would do the second part around values?

Ms Adoniou —Yes, I do because I am an educator. So I know that, in order for anybody to feel connected to anything that you wish to teach them, they must feel they contributed something to that, particularly something as abstract as a value. It is not a piece of knowledge that I have learnt and therefore I live by it. Abstract concepts like this need to be debated and there needs to be some kind of national discussion about what these values may be and also an acknowledgement that people coming into the country also aspire to these very same values. It is wrong to call them Australian values. We should perhaps be calling them values that Australians live by, acknowledging that many of these people come in with these values already. There is certainly nothing quintessentially Australian about mateship; there is nothing quintessentially Australian about a fair go. The things which are oft quoted—the birth of a nation at Gallipoli, where mateship was one of those defining things about being Australian—exist in other countries. That kind of mateship in war and in desperate situations is true of many other countries.

With respect to the notion of mateship, I will use my children as an example. You may be able to tell from my surname that I am married to a Greek. However, the other half of me is that quintessential Australianess—we could probably trace ourselves back almost to the convicts—a white Australian. My husband was a new immigrant to this country; he came here in 1984. My children’s history and their values—the ones we all talk about—include the fact that our Australianess was born in Gallipoli. They had great-great-grandparents who fought in the Great War and in the Second World War. But they have a great-grandfather on the other side who was also part of the Greek nationhood in the Second World War, when they said ‘No’ to the Germans and the Italians coming through. That was when Greece became a democratic country. That is their history, too, and my children are Australian. These values come to them from both their Greek side and their Australian side. They are these little Australians who, irrespective of where they came from, deserve to have all of their history and their values acknowledged.

I talk about my children because I know my children, but every person who comes into this country has a similar set of values that can so easily be acknowledged, talked about, shared and debated. Then we really will have a set of values that are Australian, rather than a patronising idea that they are somehow Australian values that you will come to and be given, forgetting that these values were already within the people who came here. It is just that they manifest in a different way. They may not manifest in Gallipoli or on the cricket pitch or wherever, but they manifested elsewhere in their experiences. When people can share that, then we will all be aspiring to and living by something. There is no way a test could do that. But debate, talk and acknowledgement right from the beginning. Before our refugee migrants come into Australia they do an AUSCO program—an Australian Cultural Orientation Program—a two-week program. They are given two weeks of Australian knowledge. They sit in classrooms in the camps and they are inundated for two weeks with all the things they may ever need to know about Australia. It also has a faulty piece attached to it—’Just sit there and let’s pour facts into you, such as how a microwave works or what the voltage is in Australia.’ It could easily be a discussion around much deeper things, including what you value, what you will find in Australia, what you want out of your life, how Australia will give this to you and how the common values you will find in Australia are the ones you already have. People are aspiring to the values that we offer them in Australia. That is why they want to come and why they want to leave where they are.

Senator NETTLE —In your submission you talk about the tests in the UK, Canada and the USA. You say that there is no evidence that these tests provide these countries with any greater sense of shared identity or values than ours. You go on to say:

Indeed, there are quantifiable statistics to suggest that it is just the opposite.

Can you expand on that?

Ms Adoniou —I do not have the stats here, so I will not be able to talk from a statistical point of view. We can probably talk from a media point of view. We do not have any evidence that either Canada, the United States or the United Kingdom have a society that does not have disenfranchised groups within it, even though they have citizenship of those countries.

We certainly saw that with the London bombings. These people had British citizenship, but it certainly did not mean that they automatically aspired to some kind of British value system—whatever that may have been—or that they felt part of that safe, secure and cohesive society. They certainly did not feel part of a cohesive society. There are many indications that there are many disenfranchised groups within the United States, including those who were born there but including people who have been given citizenship or who, in fact, have been denied citizenship and have since been sent home to their countries—for example, to Cambodia and Laos. Up to this point, we seem to have the most cohesive society and it would seem strange to be suddenly pursuing policies pursued by other countries which do not seem to enjoy the cohesivity that we have. We seem to be fixing something that is not currently broken. I worry that what we will do is disenfranchise, disengage and marginalise people and the consequences of that could be exactly the opposite to what this test aspires to achieve.

Senator NETTLE —The other question I want to ask you—and we have heard commentary from a variety of different places—is whether there is any capacity for the testing regime to be divisive within the Australian community.

Ms Adoniou —Yes. Quite apart from the fact that it is impossible to say how it could achieve its aims, I can think of nothing more exclusionary than having a test to let you in. If we truly think of ourselves as an inclusive society then why would we use the most exclusive measure? A test is literally designed for you to fail or pass, so it is set up to keep people out. I was listening to comments made in the previous evidence: ‘Perhaps if we had more questions, we’d get a better depth of knowledge. People would be able to give a better indication of how much they understood about Australia. It would not just be a learning thing.’ As soon as you open up the breadth of the questions, you make it an extraordinarily difficult English language hurdle for people to jump over. That would be extraordinarily exclusionary. That would be an exercise in keeping people out on the basis of their ability to answer the English language questions, let alone the other questions in the test. I think it is very exclusionary. All through education, tests have been developed to gate-keep. That is what they are there for.

Senator HURLEY —Part of your submission says:

We harbour grave concerns that current English language programmes may have to abandon good language teaching practice to simply ‘teach to the test.’

Could you elaborate on that?

Ms Adoniou —This always happens in any education system. As soon as there is a test, teachers feel the need to get their students to pass the test and students put on pressure to be given what it is that they need to pass the test. Suddenly, lessons become all about passing the test. Certainly, from my experience overseas, where everybody is sitting English language tests to prove their English language proficiency, we have huge evidence that all good teaching practice goes out of the door as people do test preparation. That means they may pass the test but they will certainly lose out on all the other communicative competencies. So you focus on how to unpack the test question, you focus on understanding root words in the A, B, C part of it and you focus on picking out the key word in the root question and finding its match in the A, B, C version of it. It becomes an entire enterprise in teaching people how to pass tests.

It is very bad pedagogical practice because the aim is so limited. Your capacity to pass an English test is in no way an indication of your capacity to operate in the thousands of everyday communications you need to have. As it is, there are a number of highly researched and very complex English language exams that, for example, we ask our international students to do. They all have to do an IELTS test before they come and study in Australia. I currently teach in a school of education. Our university requires an IELTS score of 6.5. An international student can come in if they have passed this IELTS test at 6.5. It is a very complicated test. It has four different parts to it: speaking, listening, reading and writing. A lot of study goes into this. These are students preparing for tertiary level. When they arrive, these students, at 6.5, cannot operate in normal social situations at the university or outside the university. They have achieved a very high level of competency, yet they struggle. They certainly cannot do the education degree. We have had to up the level of IELTS needed to get into education because these students cannot communicate orally with their peers or with the students in the classroom. We are talking about very, very complicated exams that these people study many years for, yet they still cannot operate with community competence in all the areas they need to.

Once the AMEP, for example, is forced to focus on getting these students up and ready to pass this particular exam we will not have achieved anything. They will not be more competent in English. It will not be that you can suddenly talk more easily with them over the back fence. It will not be that you can suddenly have a conversation with your mates over lunch. It will not be that you can suddenly think, ‘I will give them the occupational health and safety manual to train everybody else.’ None of that will happen. It will not be that they can get into tertiary institutions. It will not be that they can pick up the newspaper and read it. This test will not give us that, and these are the things that we really need. If you really want people to feel like this is their country and that they have everything that everybody else has in this country then you have to give them the English language skills. You cannot give them English language skills by giving them this test. This will not do it. And the preparation for this test will not give them those English language skills.

Senator CROSSIN —Given the kinds of questions that we think are out there—and bearing in mind that we have not seen any test questions yet—will the number of hours that you are allocated for teaching English as a second language be enough and, if they are enough, will they be used solely to teach the test?

Ms Adoniou —First of all, they will not be enough because they are currently not enough. I am sorry, I do not have the hours in front of me and I do not work in the AMEP sector, but the 500 hours—516 or something like that—will only ever give the beginning of English language instruction. English language instruction will go on. In fact, the statistics and research have said for many years that you need seven years of instruction to reach native-like proficiency. That means that if, say, we get good English language instruction for kids in schools from the time they come and throughout their school years then perhaps they will leave with proficiency. But 516 hours at an AME program will not be enough and, yes, I do fear that if they are the only hours they are going to get there will be real pressure from the students, who will say, ‘Please use these hours to help me pass this citizenship test because I really want citizenship.’

That is the other problem. I know that there were provisions for refugee learners, but when I say seven years of instruction I mean for people who are literate in their first language; I do not mean for people who have had interrupted schooling and who are not literate in their first language, because then we are starting from far, far back. We will find that these 500 hours are the beginning of helping people understand the notion of literacy—the fact that these black marks on the paper say something. That is how far back we go with non-literate refugees. So it would be impossible. Even if the hours were given over to test preparation they would not be enough—and what a horrible waste of 516 hours.

Senator CROSSIN —That was going to be my other question to you. That was why I asked you if they would just be used essentially to teach the test.

Ms Adoniou —I feel there would be no other choice as there would be the pressure from the students who are so desirous of what Australia has to offer. It is a funny notion that is in the community that somehow people come to Australia to use it. In fact, as it always has been, this is such a land of opportunity and hope for the people who come here. I know that my husband had no desire to come to Australia simply by the fact that he married me when I was backpacking over there. But when he, who came here with the notion that he would always return to his own country, went back to his own country, he decided that Australia was where he wanted to be. Now he is something like a reformed smoker and there is no other country in the world that is better than Australia. This is the notion of all the people who come here. Why would we want to muck that up with some kind of exclusionary thing that, really and sadly, takes away from our resources? Just think if there were so much by way of resources around so as to put a test together and have it there ready for people to do whenever they need to do it. I do not know how many times a year that it is going to become available, but obviously it sounds as if it will need an ongoing budget allocation.

You cannot understand how much more we need in English language teaching resources. This wave of African refugees has strained the already strained new arrivals budget. They have come with needs that we have not seen since the Vietnamese and Cambodian influx. They have not been to school. They are highly traumatised. The resources that they need are extraordinary yet we have not had any increase in new arrivals funding. We need to be teaching these people the language so that we do not have this underclass. Can you already see this underclass happening? When I go shopping out at Gungahlin or at Woolies at Dickson, I see Sudanese refugees getting and pushing the shopping trolleys. That will become the image that my children understand of black people in Australia, that that is what black people do; so they do these jobs. Why do they see this? Because these students are not being well catered for as to their English language skills at school. I do not want to see this underclass of people happening in Australia.

CHAIR —I think it is pretty well acknowledged that a knowledge of English has been a requirement since 1949 under our Citizenship Act. Obviously, you are expressing severe concerns that under this test it is going to be far more difficult or onerous. That is the sense that I am getting from you. Firstly, can you answer this: do you have any understanding of how it is tested at the moment?

Ms Adoniou —My thought is not that it will become more difficult or onerous. My question is that it would be a mistake to think that a test would be any measure of somebody’s English language proficiency; it would not be. It would be a measure of how well they were prepared for that particular test. It would give you no confidence that the person would have access to newspapers and what is happening in Australia. It would not guarantee that they could listen to the news bulletin on TV at night and understand what is happening. It would not give them access to those everyday things that they really need to be able to access if they want to feel like they are a part of Australia and that they can contribute to Australia. That is my concern with that.

I understand when you do the citizenship test that it can be an oral test and that you can be quite well supported in that. I understand that there would be provisions for something of that kind in the proposed test, which makes me wonder why it should then be discussed as a test of English language skills—because it would not be. But because it would be discussed like that, I fear that people would take it as evidence: ‘Ah, these people have some kind of English language proficiency.’ But they would not have that. This test would not give you that evidence at all.

Worst of all, we all know that you need English language proficiency to get by in this country and that it will be key to cohesion in this country, so we must make much more effort in the teaching of it. It is a misconception that people perhaps come to the country and do not try to learn English and that this test will make you try to learn English. That is not true at all. That is not my experience of any of the migrant populations that I come into contact with, and I come into contact with a lot of them. In order to learn a language, you need opportunity. In my husband’s case, when he got here he was desperate to start earning a living to support his family, so opportunity was not huge. But you also need to be taught. I know we have one or two success stories out there—’I taught myself and now I’m a huge business mogul.’ But I spend a lot of time with the Greek community here in Canberra, and they are very successful business and land owners in the ACT, and they still cannot pick up the newspaper and engage with what is written there. They still rely on their children to fill out their tax forms. That is not equal access. Just because they own a couple of key buildings in the city does not mean that they have equal access to what Australia has to offer. There needs to be English language teaching. There needs to be opportunity and teaching, not testing.

CHAIR —We have the department here very shortly, and I am sure that they will alert us to exactly how the current arrangements apply to checking the basic knowledge of English and how that will change under the proposed bill. You seem to have a view that perhaps may differ from the public support for citizenship testing—if there is public support. Do you think that there is public support for citizenship testing? The department, in its submission, indicated that a majority of the submissions to the government report received last September, October or November were in support of citizenship testing. I am alerted to a Newspoll survey in the Australian which was undertaken from 15 December to 17 December 2006. For other senators who may have an interest, this survey is in an alert digest from the parliamentary library. It is on the public record. It was in the Australian. It talks about the citizenship test coming in and then it asks whether people are in favour or against knowledge of English being a requirement to become an Australian citizen. It was totally in favour, with 85 per cent for and 12 per cent against. What would you say about that poll?

Ms Adoniou —I would say that the answer to the question is the same answer as I gave: yes, to really feel that you are contributing to Australia of course you would need to have English language proficiency. We all agree on that. What we get is a commonsense feeling out in the community—because they are not educators or teachers—that that is the end of the question: yes, they need to have English. But the next thing is: how do we make sure that people have English? We struggle with this in Australia, because, despite the fact that we are multicultural, we are extraordinarily monolingual and very far away from other countries. We have the sense that we speak English and we have very little idea of how difficult it might be to learn another language. So it seems kind of logical to us that you would need to speak English and therefore people would come here and learn English. We have no understanding of how difficult that is and what support you would need to do that. So I understand their answer to the question. Yes, we need English. But then they need to move beyond the answer to the question of how it happens. It does not just happen because you are here; it happens because you get taught the language. All of us who travel overseas know the struggle of it and how it is easy to give up soon.

CHAIR —We will be able to ask the department about the support measures available for people to learn English.

Ms Adoniou —I did not read the 1,600 submissions that went to the department, but I read the 50 or so that came here and they were overwhelmingly against the citizenship test.

CHAIR —Sure. You referred in your submission and earlier to a question from Senator Nettle about the overseas countries that use testing. Do you have any research or evidence that says that those mechanisms used in the US, the UK and Canada do not work effectively?

Ms Adoniou —All I have done is to look into the actual tests themselves. I have had a look at the questions to get a sense of where I presumed we were feeding our questions off from. In Canada there were a lot of questions around Indigenous languages and Indigenous culture, so there seemed to be an agenda there to make sure that whoever was coming into the country understood the Indigenous history of the country. The Americans seemed to be quite focused on things like the colours or the number of stripes on the flag and those sorts of things. The United Kingdom one seemed quite focused on how parliament operates. All of those could be very fine things but they give you no indication of how someone would aspire to have the values of that country. For example, I am fairly sure that any of the doctors who are currently under investigation in the United Kingdom could have passed those tests with their eyes closed, and it would not have changed their attitude to what they were considering doing.

In America there are certainly indications that a deal of migrant language education time is set aside to the teaching of the test. They have booklets that they study. There are classes that they study in their early immigration programs that are around passing the test. That is an indication of the previous questions that were asked: people will teach to the test. Then what do you have? You have somebody who passes a test. That is what you have in the end. You have no indication that they can speak the language in all of the situations that they need to. You have no indication that they therefore aspire to the values that will keep us together. As I said at the beginning, I understand why the government has proposed the bill and why the community has responded. We are living in scary times and this seems like an easy way to close the doors. But it actually disenfranchises so many people who are living in our country and closes doors to people who would be so desirous and grateful to be in this country.

CHAIR —Thank you for your evidence today.

[11.43 am]