On Saturday 30 June, Neos Kosmos published an article by the Hon Alan Tudge MP, in which the federal Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs argued on the contribution of the English language to Australia’s migrant success story.

“Learning English […] delivers enormous benefits to newly arrived migrants because it helps with settlement, integration and with finding a job,” the minister wrote, outlining to the policies undertaken by the federal government to assist migrants improve their English skills.

“A shared common language is the glue to a cohesive society. […] This is important, because being part of the broader community helps newly arrived migrants to integrate well and settle into life in Australia.”

A conversation starter, the article came as a response to months of speculation about the introduction of an English language test in the citizenship application process, offering significant input. Neos Kosmos reached out to the Victorian Multicultural Commission (VMC) for a reaction. The VMC sent us the following statement:

Minister Tudge’s opinion piece contains many positive statements about migrants; upholding their right to retain and practice their cultural heritage, and the economic benefits this generates for Australia. In DFAT’s 2017 White Paper, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s introduction states that ‘Australia is the most successful multicultural society in the world’. The Victorian Multicultural Commission (the Commission) is very pleased that Minister Tudge reflects this statement, and describes how people in Australia with foreign language abilities ‘enrich the social, economic and cultural life of our nation’.

The Commission certainly echoes these sentiments. We see multiculturalism as an invaluable national asset which contributes greatly to nation-building and is deserving of further investment.

As the voice of linguistically and culturally diverse communities in our state, the Commission is mandated to provide their direct link to government. The Commission consults with multicultural communities on a regular basis, including through our state-wide regional advisory councils, whose members represent more than 50 different cultural backgrounds. Community members raise systemic issues which affect their ability to participate and connect with Victorian or Australian society. Access to sufficient English tuition is a consistent topic, and one which the Commission advocates for consistently.

Victoria’s diverse communities overwhelmingly report to the Commission that 510 hours of ‘conversational’ English is not enough. These findings are consistent with the Commonwealth’s 2015 evaluation by ACIL Allen, which concluded that:

“The AMEP [Adult Migrant English Program] benchmark of functional English is, by definition, insufficient for participation in vocational education and training (VET) beyond the Certificate I/II level, and higher education, and considered by some stakeholders and AMEP participants as insufficient to gain employment.”(ACIL Allen Evaluation, 2015).

In its knowledge of settlement, the Commission has found that when migrants do not enrol or remain enrolled in English lessons, it is because of other urgent settlement needs such as housing, employment, settling children in schools, and so on. Humanitarian entrants are particularly vulnerable, needing to rebuild their lives. For those coming from areas of conflict, the need to recuperate from trauma is pressing. The duress of mental ill-health also affects ability to learn. The Commonwealth must take these matters into consideration.

While the Commission commends the Australian Government’s ongoing investment in English language for migrants, we have gathered evidence of people falling through the cracks, and of unmet needs. The Commission suggests that current levels of investment do not necessarily equate with evidence of meeting needs or improving outcomes. Rather, an investment that looks for incentives for business and industry to support English lessons through programs either delivered at workplaces or through day-release programs, would be more effective and deliver better results. The Commission has heard of many instances where people have had to drop out of AMEP in order to take a job, and would recommend that Job Active and AMEP need to be better aligned in this regard.
Multiculturalism is a national asset that contributes to building the nation, and the evidence demonstrates that migrants are quintessential change agents. This is what we should be capitalising on and investing in. The Commission is concerned that the discussion around changing the requirements to be met in order to qualify for Australian citizenship is binary, divisive, and lacks an evidential need for such change.

The Commission invites members of diverse backgrounds to provide their feedback about this matter via [email protected], and would be pleased to meet with Commonwealth officers to discuss this matter further, in the best interests of the nation and all people who have made it their home and contribute to its prosperity.