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DateLine Sunday, 3 June 2007

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Waltzing Matilda Test for Aussie migrants

Light Refractions by Lucien Rajakarunanayake A friend of mine, a quick-witted mechanical engineer, is ahead of his times. He began saving his head long before this became the vogue among yuppies here. A few years ago he had to travel on assignment to Australia.

When he went for his visa interview, the visa officer spent a long time checking his application and asked him, "Do you have any criminal record?" His prompt response was to ask whether that was still a qualification for entry to Australia. No more questions. He was issued the visa.

I was reminded of this on reading the news of a new draft law being presented to the Aussie parliament for a special test for those seeking Australian citizenship. They will be tested on knowledge of English, as well as Aussie history and culture.

Long before this Draft Bill came to the Aussie parliament there were consultants on Aussie citizenship offering help to would-be migrants to the Kangaroo Land, on beating this new barrier to their dream life Down Under.

With private tuition being a means to a very lucrative income, there are a few persons holding special classes, for a princely fee, to train applicants for migration to Australia to scale this latest hurdle.

I happened to get a seat in one of these classes.

With most of our Burghers migrating to Australia in the mid 50s to the 70s, the class comprised Sinhalese, Tamils, with a sprinkling of Malays and Moors. The Tamils felt more at ease because most of them had family over there, ready to offer them additional distance training via e-mail on how to face this new test.

The teacher was quick to come to the point. "This class will not teach you English for Australia, which is a highly specialised subject, requiring an extra fee. It is very different to English, English. We will concentrate here on history and culture. One of the questions most likely to be asked is who were the first settlers in Australia? Can anyone answer that?"

Several hands went up. The first person to answer said: "The Aborigines."

"I guessed you will say that.

"Now remember not to use the word Aborigines in any of your answers. You can lose marks."

"Then who were the first settlers?"

"They were those who arrived in 1788, the eleven ships of the First Fleet that landed their 'cargo' of around 780 British convicts at

Botany Bay in New South Wales. Two more convict fleets arrived in 1790 and 1791.

Make a note of that.

"But weren't these convicts?"

"Yes, they were. But again try to avoid using the word convicts in your answers. It is better to say that Botany Bay was a Penal Colony."

"Did they all come to Botany Bay?"

"No, no. There was a good spread of the convict population, for cultural diversity. While the early convicts were all sent to Botany Bay, by the early 1800s they were also being sent to destinations such as Norfolk Island, Van Diemen's Land,

Port Macquarie and Moreton Bay."

"Were all these first settlers, men?"

"Good question. Nearly 20 per cent of the first convicts were women.

"The majority of women convicts were sent to the 'female factories', which were originally profit-making textile factories. You might get a few more marks if you say the Paramatta Factory grew as an enclave for pregnant women and also doubled as an orphanage from the 1830s."

"Did all these colourful first settlers come from England?"

"No again. While the vast majority of these early settlers were English (70%), Irish (24%) or Scottish (5%), this population had multicultural origins, much to the annoyance of today's white Aussies. Some convicts had been sent from various British colonies such as India and Canada. There were also Maoris from New Zealand, Chinese from Hong Kong and slaves of African origin from the Caribbean."

"What had they been convicted for?"

"Very interesting: Remember it was the heyday of the British Empire. A large number of soldiers were transported for crimes such as mutiny, desertion and insubordination. "Most of the others were thieves who had been convicted in the cities of England. The Irish had been convicted for rural crimes, such as stealing sheep. 'Transportation' the fashionable word for this exercise was an integral part of the English and Irish systems of punishment. Simple larceny, or robbery, could mean transportation for seven years. Compound larceny - stealing goods worth more than a shilling (about $50 or Rs. 5,500 in today's money) - meant death by hanging. With transportation, the English and Irish saved the cost of imprisoning these people back home or the rope of the hangman. The men who were sent had usually been before the courts a few times before being transported, while women were generally transported for a first offence."

"When did this system of bringing settlers end?"

"Well the records show that when the last shipment of convicts disembarked in Western Australia in 1868, the total number of transported convicts stood at more than 162,000 men and women, transported on 806 ships."

"Why did it end?"

"The transport of convicts to Australia ended when the population stood at around one million. By then there were enough people there to take on the work, and enough people who needed work. The colony could sustain itself and continue to grow. The convicts had served their purpose."

It was time for me to leave the class.

It is a strange beginning for a country now trying to export democracy to the Middle East and even helping kill the Iraqis to achieve this. It is also strange why Prime Minister Howard is so worried about the new boat people from Asia seeking migration to Aussie land. With no criminal records, they should be able to serve

Australia even better than the original settlers. Anyway, it seems time to sing "Let's go waltzing Matilda with me."

 

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