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Speak English youse bastards

By John Tomlinson - posted Thursday, 27 April 2017


Prime Minister Turnbull says that people who want to become citizens should speak English and uphold Australian values. I was born in Queensland 74 years ago to parents who spoke English; they also had been born in Queensland. My father also taught Latin, French, Greek and German. My mother was a music teacher and I am tone deaf. I have no doubt that in modern Australia the capacity to have a command of English enhances one's job prospects and makes living here easier.

But I have met people who were born here and who have only a tenuous grasp of the English language. English might be their fourth or fifth language - the others are Aboriginal languages of their language group and neighbouring Indigenous language groups. I have dyslexia, wear hearing aids and as a result find learning a language other than Australian English very difficult.

When I was growing up the white Australia policy utilised a dictation test to keep non-Europeans out of this country. Immigration officials could demand of anyone wanting to enter Australia that they prove they were literate in any European languages that the official chose. If they wanted to keep someone from landing they picked an obscure language for the dictation test. Mr. Turnbull's demand that applicants for citizenship must have a competent understanding of English is just an updated version of the dictation test.

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I am uncertain what the term "Australian values" mean. When Mr Turnbull spoke about Australian values he suggested that Australians embrace a peaceful existence – life without violence. I note that Australia Day, the 26th January, celebrates the day in 1788 when the English invaded this country. This was the start of English expansion across this continent; then owned and occupied by Indigenous nations. Many Indigenous leaders have, at least since 1938, attempted to convince white governments that the choice of this day is anathema to many Aboriginal Australians. Maintaining that Australia Day should be the 26th of January is a value imbued by racism.

We have many platitudes to disguise the fact that this country was seized from the original owners at gun point. Instead of invasion we speak of settlement, taming the bush, development, expansion and even bringing civilisation to the natives. But there were too many massacres, too many frontier wars, frequent distribution of smallpox infected blankets, regular poisoning of waterholes and other atrocities. Aboriginal women were taken as were Aboriginal children whenever it suited the white pastoralists and farmers. There have never been treaties signed, never has just reparation been provided. Non-Indigenous interests have continued to prevail. This country was founded on dispossession and invasion – the right to control this land is maintained not on just terms as treaty partners but upon the right of conquest. Are these the foundations of Australian values which the Prime Minister wants us to celebrate as citizens?

Since the Second World War Australian troops have sided with colonial masters in Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia. We invaded Korea with the Americans, have gone all the way with LBJ and every other US president who asked us to join in wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and the Middle East. Even today we supply, from Pine Gap, North West Cape and Geraldton spy bases, vital information to the US to allow them to more accurately target drone strikes in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and wherever. What values are implicit in this history? Could it be a combination of loyalty to declining powers, siding with the schoolyard bully and indifference to the plight of the vulnerable.

In recent years, we sided with Indonesia in their invasion of East Timor in return for an inordinate share of Timor Sea Oil. We continue to support the Indonesian occupation of West Papua to get some counter terrorist cooperation from the Indonesian military. Since 1961, the Indonesian military have killed somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 West Papuans. People have been shot for raising the West Papuan independence flag, the Morning Star, or holding protest meetings. How would we describe this Australian value? Connivance, desertion of the powerless or short-sightedness, seem likely candidates?

Ever since the Keating government, in 1992, introduced policies of mandatory detention for asylum seekers arriving by boat it has been a downhill slide for Australian humanity. In 1999, Howard introduced 3-year Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) for asylum seekers. We now have mandatory detention, TPVs, boat turn backs, incarceration on Manus and Nauru and a refusal to unite families or bring those found to be refugees to Australia. What values are implicit in such policies? Perhaps indifference to suffering, tolerance of cruelty, xenophobia or sadism?

Since 1975, neoliberal economic policies have come to dominate in industry, in universities, in the street, in schools and have even emerged in kindergartens and child care centres. The Commonwealth Employment Service has been privatised and the unemployed are now subjected to surveillance by for-profit firms. Centrelink now employs three private debt collecting firms, encouraged by secret commissions, to stand over clients whom the government believes may have been overpaid. The generosity and scope of social welfare systems have been cropped. Minister Allan Tudge believes that he now has the right to release confidential information about clients who criticise Centrelink. What values are in play here? I would think greed is good, bugger the poor, and mean mindedness.

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Turnbull also mentioned family violence not being tolerated in Australia. Well that came as a shock to those who work in women's shelters across Australia. Women's shelters have borne the brunt of the many austerity drives of recent years. Community Legal Centre workers and Legal Aid solicitors who act for victims of domestic violence had been threatened with losing up to a third of their funding until the Turnbull government belatedly backed down on the 24th of April this year. What values are implicit in such neoliberal cutbacks? Male chauvinist arrogance, uncaring and ignorance I would suggest inform such policies.

At the turn of the 19th century, Australia with its arbitration system, basic wage, age and invalid pensions was regarded by European visitors as a leader in social welfare and employment policies. From then until around 1978 welfare provision grew in generosity and scope. A sense of universal provision was a driving value, egalitarianism was in the air, justice and a determination that people should receive their entitlement abounded. The white Australia policy had been thrown on the scrap heap. The Whitlam government had even considered introducing a guaranteed minimum income. Families were finding it increasing viable to purchase their own homes. The Housing Commissions in each state supplied shelter at an affordable rate to low income earners who could not afford to buy. It was easy to take pride in being an Australian when solidarity and fairness prevailed.

Joe Hockey's 2014 budget with its "End of the Age of Entitlement" masthead was the final nail in that coffin. Unfairness, looking after the big end of town, ignoring the impoverished, belittling the unemployed, entrepreneurialism, doing better than the Joneses, incarcerating asylum seekers in far off places, cutting foreign aid, increasing military expenditure, expanding anti-terrorist legislation, defending the right of racists to be bigots, cutting expenditure to Indigenous communities, reintroducing work choices type legislation, battering unions and ensuring that people of the same gender can't marry: these are the Turnbull government's agenda. These are his "Australian values". Well I say to him that he can stick his Australian values.

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About the Author

Dr John Tomlison is a visiting scholar at QUT.

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