Australian Prime Minister defends citizenship test and "mateship"

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Prime Minister John Howard is feeling pressured to explain the new Australian citizenship exams proposed by his government. Of current concern is how a potential citizen's "mateship" will be tested.

Mr. Howard has refused to say how he would assess migrants' knowledge of mateship, which he insisted was an Australian concept of "everybody pulling together..."

"It's a concept of treating people according to how you find them and not according to the color of their skin," he said.

"It's very much part of our ethos. You say 'How do you test it?' Well, I'm not going to start canvassing what the test is."

Mr. Howard also said it was not unreasonable to expect someone to have knowledge of English and an understanding of Australian society after spending four years in the country, referring to other contested points of the exam.

The citizenship test is currently envisioned to consist of 30 multiple choice questions about Australian history, government and mateship, as well as an English language comprehension exam. The test has caused unease on the coalition backbench - Victorian MP Petro Georgiou is threatening to vote against the legislation, saying the test causes unreasonable difficulties for immigrants wanting to become Australian citizens.

Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser wonders whether Mr. Howard is trying to create fear in voter's minds, predicting that the government would try to turn next year's election into a referendum on Muslim integration.

Writing in a social justice website, Mr. Fraser wrote, "Is this the politics of race? Is the government using code to say that Muslims are different and that they don't fit in?

"It suggests that the next election will be the Muslim election, as 2001 was the Tampa election, with the parties competing to claim they can best protect us from our fears.

"Our strongest weapons against terrorism are our own principles and belief in liberty. We do not need to overthrow our principles."

Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd wants Mr. Howard to explain the nature of the exams.

"When you apply for citizenship at present you have to have an interview. My understanding is that there is an assessment of a person's English language ability, which already occurs," Mr. Rudd told Southern Cross Broadcasting.

"How different is this? How real are these new proposed written tests, these oral tests, and how valuable and useful are these general knowledge tests about Australia?

"If there is going to be a higher English language requirement now, I want to know how much we're going to provide by way of English language teachers for new migrants."

Mr. Rudd says former leader Kim Beazley's citizenship policy had not been properly considered and he would like to review it.

The government's test is for migrants aged between 18 and 60 who are applying for citizenship, which they will be eligible to take after four years of residency in Australia.

Family First senator Steve Fielding, whose vote could be crucial if Labor and one or two coalition senators oppose the legislation, also backed the new measures.

Australian Education Union deputy president Angelo Gavrielatos said the government needed to improve the migrant English program, which was under funded and not giving migrants necessary language skills.

NSW Premier Morris Iemma said Mr. Howard had to be careful that the citizenship test did not exclude good people.

"A lot of citizenship is in the heart," he said.


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