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Under pressure? Blow the dog whistle!

12 Dec

Did any of you wonder 1) why the Prime Minister and not the appropriate minister made the announcement about citizenship and English tests and 2) why he chose to do it now? Not too difficult. See Rudd puts Labor in front: Newspoll in today’s Australian. A minor factor, too, might have been the resurfacing of Pauline Hanson who is seeking to supplement her pension fund by going for an election she will probably lose. (Unsuccessful candidates, provided they get a certain percentage of the vote, get monetary compensation in Australia.)

VOTERS have overwhelmingly endorsed Kevin Rudd as Kim Beazley’s replacement to head Labor, handing him the biggest boost in the polls for an Opposition leader in decades. According to the latest Newspoll survey, taken exclusively for The Australian at the weekend, the ALP’s primary vote jumped seven points to an election-winning 46 per cent.

At the last election, under Mark Latham, Labor’s primary vote was just 37.6 per cent, and it is considered essential for Labor to have at least 40 per cent of the primary vote to win an election.

On a two-party-preferred basis, the ALP has enjoyed an eight-point turnaround since the last election to hold a 10-point lead over the Coalition, 55 per cent to 45 per cent.

Well why not? Dog whistle politics has always worked for John Howard in the past, and for that reason I have posted a trip down memory lane by putting my Massaging the Asylum Seekers (2001-2004) here as a page, with updated links.

Thinking about the PM’s ludicrous solution to real concerns some have about community harmony, I think we need to be careful in our responses so that the harm he is deliberately setting out to do to his opposition is minimised.

1. Remember his suggestions are for CITIZENSHIP not for IMMIGRATION, though the effect surely, along with the already existing points system which favours English speakers, would be to make speakers of languages other than English think twice before applying to come here. It has to be said that it is advantageous for Australian citizens to have competence, even fluency, in the country’s official language. The situation here is quite different, we also need to recall, to the USA where in some areas Spanish offers a real challenge to English and may even become an official language in the future, though that is not likely in the short term. There is no such “threat” to English in Australia.

2. While it is true that it is an advantage to speak English, it is also an advantage to all of us in social and economic terms to encourage people to do better than monolingualism. In most European countries very many speak more than one language, and we have tended to lag in this area. A pool of fluent speakers of languages like Mandarin is an asset for Australia, and language teaching in schools should also be encouraged. In the recent past we were showing signs of appreciating this, but the current emphasis on English as cultural unifier, while having some merit, could lead to a depreciation of other useful language assets.

3. There are two separate issues here which easily get confused: language knowledge and cultural knowledge. There is no reason to suppose that knowledge about Australian values, politics, and history is not possible in Greek, Italian, Serbian or Mandarin.

4. There is already an interview system in place before people are granted citizenship. The necessary cultural knowledge can be, almost certainly is, addressed at that stage. A multiple-choice test, whether on paper or online, IN ENGLISH is in fact testing more than cultural knowledge. It is doubling up as a language test. It is discriminating in favour of those who are skilled in that kind of test and against the less well educated or the elderly. It is probably, really, just a cheap and lazy “solution” to issues which in fact require increased investment in migrant education and support services.

5. Rather than promoting harmony, the present proposal, especially the rhetoric surrounding it, can only come from a determined assimilationist and monoculturalist, and tends to promote division through reinforcing stereotypical “speak English you wog bastard” responses. In my view Howard has been a lazy thinker in this area. Petro Georgiou (one of Howard’s own party but a bit of a party pooper) can see that, because he knows the migrant experience first hand and knows very well there are good Greek Australian citizens out there, especially those who arrived in their mature years, whose English may be quite basic, who may well have failed under the new regime: “Liberal MP Petro Georgiou signalled last night that he would oppose the Government’s legislation. ‘I’m concerned that the tightening of the requirements will create unreasonable barriers to the acquisition of citizenship and that it will prevent people who would make a wonderful contribution to Australia from becoming citizens,’ he said.” (SMH)

Play it carefully, Mister Rudd, because you are up against one of the world’s great experts on “divide and rule”. If he can get you and your colleagues in a cleft stick or pour acid on your internal divisions he will. I am sure you know that. He is also brilliant at stealing the headlines, and that is what yesterday’s announcement was about. It didn’t work for The Australian today, but it sure did for The Sydney Morning Herald.

Be careful, too, throwing the word “racist” into the debate. Howard has framed things so that will work to his advantage. Unjust, stupid, impractical, unnecessary, dishonest, ill-conceived, discriminatory… all those are OK.

Later

Senator Andrew Bartlett and I are pretty much in tune on this one, it seems, but read one or two of the comments. Bruce has a post, linked in the comments below. I am still careful about invoking racism myself, as I have had that boomerang on me in the past. John Howard, meanwhile, is maintaining yesterday’s announcement had nothing to do with today’s poll, and that may be right. He says it was scheduled some time ago. There was no mention yesterday, though, on the Prime Minister’s website or on Immigration and Multicultural Affairs. I looked. I also suggest he would have known that this time of year it would be not unlikely that the Labor Party would have had its leadership spill; they tend to happen at this time of year, and you didn’t need to have supernatural powers after Kim Beazley’s performance this year to suspect it would have been on, or even to surmise Rudd would have won. He would also have known that this would lead to an unusual interest in the Labor Party.

As a matter of interest, I was invited on Sunday to join the Labor Party. I declined.

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4 responses to “Under pressure? Blow the dog whistle!

  1. Bruce

    December 12, 2006 at 5:11 pm

    Aren’t dog whistles a little more subtle? This is more a fog-horn methinks…

     
  2. ninglun

    December 12, 2006 at 5:14 pm

    Perhaps we just see what he’s up to more clearly these days. I hope others do, and I hope it doesn’t work, but I fear it will.

     
  3. Bruce

    December 12, 2006 at 5:55 pm

    Hmmmm… Will people notice… What Howard has been saying of late amounts basically to;

    “Well I don’t think that people will be interested in Pauline Hanson, and she hasn’t got her facts right; the African’s aren’t diseased. We need to keep the blackies out with English tests, not medical screening. That’ll be more effective!” – Howard’s Id, poorly filtered by way of superego*.

    * I’m being semi-facetious; I’m not a Freudian.

     
 
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