Multicultural Integration Policy: The Case for a Citizenship Test

­Is cultural and linguistic diversity a ‘threat’ to national identity? Recent debates over the Commonwealth Government’s proposed citizenship overhaul have drawn political battlelines across the process for migrant integration and what it means to be a citizen in multicultural Australia. A strengthening of the citizenship test has become a key locale for political contest, with discussion centring on the level of English-language requirements for prospective citizens. Keeping this is in mind, what is the case for a citizenship test?


First let’s tackle some assumptions. Cultures are not static but dynamic entities. Whilst multicultural integration policy should be based upon the notions of mutual accommodation and mutual respect, it must also be transformative in its challenging of behaviours which breach the expectations of liberal-democratic law. That is, multicultural integration ought to take on an emancipatory role for migrants through the framework of liberal values and principles, recognising power dynamics and sub-cultures within broader ethnic communities. This contrasts starkly against the oft-presented ‘straw-man’ of multiculturalism which supposedly protects repressive and oppressive practices in the name of ‘cultural preservation’.

Second, the days of ethno-specific national identity are numbered. As liberal democracies increasingly experience social and cultural transformations through immigration and hyper-diversity, national identity can no longer be understood through an ethno-specific lens. Instead, it is tied to shared values, history and language, where immigrants are able to enter into the nation through the integration process.

These values and norms, including democracy, the rule of law, equality before the law, civil liberties and gender equality, are already enshrined in law. Expectations, history and language can be taught through strengthened civic integration and citizenship processes, framed by the principle of integration as a two-way process of mutual accommodation between migrants and members of the host society. This two-way process entails both rights and obligations for new arrivals, establishing a boundary that sets some expectations for participation in liberal-democratic society. A robust and educative citizenship test is one mechanism available for policymakers to achieve this end.

By firmly encouraging integration as the crucial conduit for nation-building, liberal democratic societies can continue to be both progressive and accommodating, undergirded by a welcoming acceptance of culturally diverse newcomers. It is high-time to abandon views suggesting that migrants are a culturally existential threat. In fact, it is this kind of concern that sparks the greater divisions in integration debates within liberal democracies. Integration is the process through which newly arriving migrants are able to enter into a national community. But cohesive integration itself can prove to be controversial and difficult to attain when cultural diversity is presented as a ‘problem’ for integration to solve.

For this reason, Australia has taken a different approach to European liberal democracies. In Australia, multicultural integration is explicitly a nation-building process which actively incorporates new arrivals into the national community.

With the dismantling of the racist ‘White Australia Policy’ and its replacement by an immigration program founded on the principle of non-discrimination, Australia’s national identity was radically reconfigured during the post-war years. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, successive governments of both persuasions sought to reflect and incorporate non-Anglo-Celtic cultural and linguistic diversity by refashioning what it meant to be ‘an Australian’. Racism and racial discrimination were made unlawful with the introduction of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975, making way for an open national identity that is inclusive and based on liberal civic values rather than ethnicity.

Despite facing challenges in subsequent decades, the principles of multicultural integration have been maintained. For a country where around 45 per cent of people were born abroad or have a parent born abroad, Australian policymakers have recognised the importance of embracing cultural diversity as a pillar of strength.

Australian citizenship forms a significant milestone for integration because the socio-cultural and socio-economic objectives of integration are ‘checked’ through the citizenship process. A key requirement for attaining Australian citizenship is the demonstration of “an adequate knowledge of Australia and of the responsibilities and privileges of citizenship” through the completion of the Australian Citizenship Test. Questions in the test are currently based upon the freely available ‘Australian Citizenship: Our Common Bond’ resource which aims to educate prospective citizens about Australia and its people, Australia’s democratic beliefs, rights and liberties, and government and the law in Australia.

Given that citizenship is the entry to the rights and duties of a political community, knowledge and understanding of how this community functions is paramount for being an informed and participating citizen. Citizenship testing, and the associated civic values education, is a mechanism which facilitates the transmission of knowledge and understanding about how to integrate into society.

In its current form, the Australian Citizenship Test also tests for “a basic knowledge of the English language”, notwithstanding several exemptions including physical or mental incapacity. Basic proficiency in English is a critical element for attaining employment and socio-economic integration, and facilitates participation in wider society. This is not to suggest that linguistic diversity is discouraged in Australia. In fact, quite the opposite is the case, as demonstrated by continued provision of translation and interpreting services at the state and federal level, and funding for ‘community language’ education. However, a basic understanding of English remains an important component for participating and integrating into Australian society, though the bar need not be set at a tertiary level as per the Commonwealth Government’s recent proposed changes to the citizenship test.

Multicultural integration is a two-way process of mutual accommodation by both the society and the individual, and strikes a balance between the rights and obligations of migrants. On the one hand, the state actively seeks to mitigate disadvantages in the socio-economic and socio-cultural domains. This could include specialised language education for the children of new arrivals prior to entering mainstream schools, or the provision of settlement services to aid migrants in their transition to the new society.

In this same vein, the state also recognises the importance of complex cultural identities and the pragmatic benefits of established social networks, such as those within ethnic associations. In its latest statement, Multicultural Australia – United, Strong Successful, launched in March 2017, the Commonwealth Government has reaffirmed the continual commitment to mutual respect grounded by principle of equal opportunity and equal dignity for all. Accordingly, successful multicultural integration policy seeks to positively accommodate cultural and linguistic diversity to facilitate successful integration.

At the same time, it is not unreasonable to expect new arrivals to respond through active efforts to participate and integrate. The state should apply some limited pressure on individuals to integrate through mechanisms such as citizenship testing and compulsory civic integration education.

Combining support with pressure helps to incentivise migrants to integrate with their new society, however it is critical that governments are careful to find an appropriate balance. Furthermore, ‘pressure mechanisms’ don’t need to be linked with parochial dog-whistling or reactionary political argument.

Citizenship testing and basic English language proficiency are certainly compatible with a welcoming acceptance of cultural and linguistic diversity. Such obligations, when embedded in an appropriate policy framework, instil an active participation in society for new arrivals, and help to assuage anxieties which view cultural diversity as a threat to the host society.

Adam Ridley is a PhD candidate at Flinders University