Speech to The Sydney Institute
*** Check against delivery ***
Earlier in the year, in a major speech at the Menzies Research Centre, I outlined the emerging challenges that we face as a successful multicultural nation.
My key point was that Australia is perhaps the most successful multicultural country in the world - built upon a policy of integration - but there are indicators today that we are not doing quite as well as we have done in the past. Our values are sometimes challenged; there is a higher than ever degree of concentration of the overseas born in particular geographic areas; and a rise in lack of English language capability.
I indicated my concern that we are at risk of drifting towards a more European model of multiculturalism, where parallel communities have developed, rather than maintaining our successful path of integrated multiculturalism, where communities and people blend together as one.
Today I would like to expand on one of the most important elements to maintaining our successful model: a shared language. I want to outline the troubling decline in English language capability, why this is a concern, and then the steps we should be taking to address it.
While the case for a shared language is self-evident for most, it is not to the Labor Party which has taken a strong stance against any suggestion that English should be adopted by migrants. This speech makes the case that English acquisition is not just in the interests of our nation, but in the interests of individual migrants as well.
The shared language decline
Let's start by looking at the numbers. In recent decades, each Census has asked the same question in relation to English capability. Four options are given: very well, well, not well or not at all.
What it shows is that both the absolute number and proportion of the Australian population not speaking English has increased significantly.
In 2006, about 560,000 people did not speak English well or at all. By 2011, that figure had grown to 655,000 and in 2016, it was almost 820,000. If we continue on the same growth rate from the past five years, Australia will be home to one million people who do not speak English well or at all by 2021. (If very young people are excluded, we will reach one million by 2026).
Further, as Melbourne University's Professor McDonald (one of Australia's top demographers) points out, the Census data is likely to be an underestimate given the nature of the question and who completes it.
What explains this rapid growth in numbers not speaking the national language? There are several factors.
Most important has been the increase in number of migrants generally combined with the growth in proportion coming without English language skills. In 2006, for example, 18.6 percent of new migrants did not speak English or speak it well. However, by 2016, this figure had jumped to 24 percent.
Further, it is not automatic that people naturally pick up English if they are living in the country for a period of time. Almost 10 percent of the overseas born cannot speak English well or at all after 17 years of residence. This represents probably half of the people not speaking English when they arrived.
In addition, Government policy has only required English capability on limited categories of entrants to the country: on the primary applicant for skilled migrants and students. There is no English requirement for the secondary applicant (i.e. the spouse or family of the primary skilled applicant), nor the family reunion stream or humanitarian stream. This meant that last year, only 29 percent of migrants faced an English test before getting permanent residency status.
When a person applies for citizenship, the current policy requires the passing of a multiple choice citizenship test, which is in basic English. But the test only assesses reading comprehension, not verbal or listening skills, which are arguably the most important for social integration. A person is able to repeat the citizenship test as many times as they wish.
Lack of a common language matters
Does it really matter that so many cannot speak the national language and that the number is growing rapidly?
The answer is that it does on three levels: for the migrant themselves; for the nation's social cohesion; and for a well-functioning democracy. Let me address each in turn.
First, for the migrant. The evidence is compelling that the single most important measure of successful settlement in Australia is the ability to communicate in English. This is stated by respected authorities, such as the Productivity Commission, and migrant groups, and is backed up by the data.
The employment data is the most clear. A 2016 University of Melbourne study found that 82.7 percent of male native foreign language speakers who also speak English very well are in employment (69.7 percent in full time employment) versus only 39.8 percent of those who don't speak English at all.
Among women whose native language is a foreign one, the figures are even more stark: 69.3 percent versus 18.7 percent. As Professor McDonald notes, this has changed from the late 1980s and early 1990s when women's employment was less affected by poor English skills because they worked in "low status jobs". Those jobs, however, have largely disappeared, and "low English proficiency is now a major employment barrier for both women and men."
The evidence is equally compelling with the humanitarian intake. According to the Centre for Policy Development, 85 percent of those with good English skills are in the labour market, versus only 15 percent of those who do not speak English well.
From a social perspective, it is also clear that English underpins greater engagement in the broader society. This, of course, is common sense, but the academic research also backs it up. Khoo and Temple from Australian National University find that people who spoke English well were more likely to participate in sports and recreation groups and to be involved in trade unions, professional organisations and some types of community groups. "It is clear", they state, "that English language proficiency and education give immigrants more confidence to engage with the wider community."
Access to important services such as health, Centrelink and domestic violence services are difficult with poor English, even when interpreters are available.
Even as we age, English matters. McDonald notes, citing multiple pieces of research, that "poor English exacerbates isolation among elderly migrants." (Of course, many elderly migrants, who may have learnt English, often revert back to their mother tongue in old age.)
This is not to say that a person cannot have a great life and make a terrific contribution to Australia while speaking little or no English. There are thousands of examples, which show exactly this.
But there is always a gap. We don't have police officers on the street who all speak 200 different languages. Our medical staff in our hospitals may have some language skills, but not every foreign language can be accommodated immediately.
Just because some do well without English, does not mean English is irrelevant, as the data clearly shows.
The importance of English to an individual migrant's success in Australia is why key migration groups stress its imperative.
For example the Chair of the Australian Multicultural Council, Dr Sev Ozdowski, said language was a key component of our national cohesion. Without functional English, migrants will be "pushed into bad jobs and on to welfare."
The Australian Multicultural Foundation says that English language learning was a key to breaking down barriers, promoting integration, removing the fear of the unknown and providing employment. The Settlement Council of Australia also endorsed English language as important to many migrants' ability to settle well in Australia.
In short, if we want migrants to continue to do well and continue to be at the centre of our society, and not at its fringes, then a command of English is essential.
If the only concern with the decline in English capability was the impact on the individual, then there would be a case for government support for those to learn English, but not a case for a formal requirement to do so. After all, the interests of the individual are best looked after by the individual concerned.
However, there are also broader societal concerns to a significant proportion of the population not speaking a shared language. In particular, the impact on social cohesion and our democracy.
As I mentioned at the outset, Australia has been a tremendously successful multicultural nation in large part because our multicultural policy has been firmly founded on integration. Over the decades, people from around the world have come to Australia, adopted our values, shared our loyalties, contributed to the society, and been warmly welcomed by the existing population.
We have worked side-by-side, played sport together, and interacted. This successful integration is what makes Australia unique.
But a common language is the glue to this. Without a common language, how do we speak to our neighbour? How do we understand each other? How can we successfully work together? If we cannot communicate, it is difficult to integrate.
This is why the increasing number of those not able to communicate in English is concerning. If the numbers remained small, then the impact on social cohesion would not be great. But as we approach a million with little or no English capability, it is probable that we will begin to see more social fragmentation.
This is particularly so given the concentration of non-English speakers in particular pockets, largely in Melbourne and Sydney. There are suburbs where up to 1 in 3 cannot speak the national language well or at all. Further, because of the concentration in particular areas, there is less demand on the individuals to have to interact with other Australians. And, as Oxford Professor Paul Collier points out, the fewer the interactions, the slower the integration.
Finally, a high number of people not understanding the national language is not ideal for our democracy, particularly in a country of compulsory voting. While there are foreign language newspapers and radio stations in some languages, the national debate is conducted in English and a person who cannot follow the debate will be at a disadvantage. Already, there are an estimated 350,000 people who are adult citizens with little or no English capacity.
A lack of English also means a greater reliance on foreign media sources, some of which may have interests that are not always aligned with Australia's.
Before moving to how we should address these challenges, let me address an issue which is often put to me. It is sometimes said that the Greeks, Italians and other southern Europeans who came in great numbers to Australia post World War II prove that we don't need to worry about English capability. After all, they succeeded very well despite many lacking English.
It is true that they helped build modern Australia. However, there are key differences from that era.
To start, the numbers with no or poor English today is much greater than then - approaching one million. There are 67 suburbs in Sydney alone where the overseas born is more than 50 percent and where there is often a high degree of lack of English capacity.
More importantly the employment market is fundamentally different. Back then, poor English was less of a barrier because of plentiful low-skilled jobs in factories or construction sites where their fellow workers spoke their native language.
Today, however, as Professor McDonald notes, low-skilled jobs have largely disappeared from the Australian labour market: "Most jobs in manufacturing, construction and mining now require more advanced skills and good knowledge of English to acquire the necessary skills." Further, modern occupational health and safety standards require a basic understanding of the language.
This is why the employment data is so stark today between those with English skills and those without. In the 1950s and 60s, there was consistently close to full employment with the unemployment rate as low as 1.3 percent at times. Today, a person without English will struggle to get work.
Addressing the decline
I mentioned earlier that the Government already requires English capability as a pre-condition for certain visa classes, in particularly the primary applicant for skilled migration visas, student visas, and all the skilled migration permanent residency visas.
This, however, represented only 29 percent of those who became permanent residents last year.
For those without English skills, the Government offers free English language classes through the Adult Migrant English Program. New migrants can access 510 hours of English language classes if they have below functional English. In some cases, they can access 1,000 hours. This year, we will spend over $300 million on this program - an increase of more than $50 million since we came to office.
Not all migrants, however, take up the offer of free classes to improve their English. For example, a study of humanitarian migrants showed that one third were not doing English language classes three to six months after arriving in the country.
Since April of last year, the Government has been examining how to create more incentives for residents to boost their English capacity, particularly before becoming a citizen.
The Government announced last year a proposal that an English language test at Level 5 IELTS would be required before becoming a citizen. (Initially it was suggested it should be Level 6). Level 5 is a "modest" level of English defined as "a partial command of the language" where the test taker "copes with overall meaning in most situations, although they are likely to make many mistakes." There are four parts to the test: reading, writing, listening and speaking. There was always a proposal to exempt the over 60s and under 16s and those with disability.
Since the beginning of this year, I have been undertaking further consultations with migrant and business groups, academics and other interested stakeholders to assess their views on the need for better English language skills in Australia.
There is a strong understanding and support for English being learnt for the reasons outlined above. However, based on the feedback from the consultations, the Government will examine further a number of new proposals.
First, whether the IELTS system is the best one for assessing English capability. The global test was largely developed for academic and skilled migration purposes and serves well for our skilled migration applicants. But if the objective for other applicants is social cohesion, then an Australian developed test may be appropriate, focusing on the most important elements for integration: listening and verbal skills.
Second, an English requirement at citizenship level only may be a disincentive for someone becoming a citizen. Instead they may choose to stay on permanent residency, which brings most benefits, but not the vote or passport. And from society's perspective, doesn't bring the final pledge of allegiance.
It has been suggested that basic conversational English capability should be required before receiving permanent residency. This would become a stronger incentive to learn the language as permanent residency is the most important objective for many.
We will examine these suggestions as we develop our final proposals. There is no suggestion to change the age or other exemptions.
Having a formal language requirement is not a new concept. Most other large immigrant countries have formal requirements before citizenship is granted.
For example, there are formal requirements for language skills at IELTS levels 4 or 5 in the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.
It is important to point out that our proposals do not seek to discourage anyone from speaking another language. In fact, it is the opposite.
While ideally everyone has the capacity to speak English, there is immense value in being multilingual and in retaining multiple languages. And this is not just for social and cultural reasons, but also for economic reasons. In a competitive, global economic environment, it is in our national interest not only for newly arrived migrants to learn to communicate in English but also for Australians to learn to speak other languages. In doing business with our overseas partners, a linguistic advantage is invaluable.
So while I stress the importance of English, I also stress the value of language skills more broadly.
As a nation, we are getting better at acknowledging second and third languages. All states and territories offer a "Language Other Than English" program with it being compulsory in some states. Recently, the Turnbull Government introduced language study at the pre-school level.
However, we still have a way to go before reaching the standards of other countries in second language skills.
As outlined, the Government believes that it is in both the national interest as well as the interests of individual migrants to address the decline in English language capabilities.
We are committed to ensuring that migrants continue to arrive into Australia and thrive; we want Australia to continue to maintain social cohesion and not start to fragment.
We are considering this carefully and consulting broadly. We know from survey data that 92 percent of Australians of all backgrounds considered that the ability to speak English was important to being Australian.
The Labor Party's position is disappointing. Ever since we started discussing the need for a shared language, the Labor Party have been opposed and have actively campaigned against it. Labor leaders have held community forums and are running scare campaigns. It is shameless and divisive politics.
Moreover, their views are based on false compassion. They encourage migrants to view themselves as victims and therefore see it as unfair to set expectations upon them. But the reverse is the case. They are doing no one a favour by setting miserably low expectations upon new arrivals, knowing that if their English is poor, their opportunities in Australia will be diminished. To a migrant who has come through the humanitarian stream, a lack of English will likely mean a life on welfare.
Migrating to a new country is an enormous gamble. People take enormous risks to uproot their lives to make a new start in a new land. They come here because of the freedoms and opportunities our nation affords them and their families. They do not come here to fail but to succeed. Migrants have made an enormous contribution to the successful building of our nation.
We are committed to ensuring that we continue to place migrants in the centre of Australian life, not on the fringes. This fundamentally requires the ability to communicate in our shared language - English.