One change to Australia’s immigration process that was snuck into Budget 2020 is the requirement for partner visa applicants to sit an English language test, which feels eerily similar to the White Australia Policy from decades ago.

These new changes would require anyone who wants to come to Australia on a partner visa to prove they speak good enough English, and if their loved one in Australia is a permanent resident rather than a citizen, then they’ll have to do a test too.

“It’s a much more basic level of English language competency and we think this is important to just enable people to engage to access government services,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said at a separate press conference for multicultural media.

He went on to claim that people who don’t speak English are more at risk of being victims of domestics violence or wage theft. However this new policy does nothing to combat either of those things.

According to the government, this new rule will “support English language acquisition and enhance social cohesion and economic participation outcomes,” but heaps of people are pointing out how discriminatory the changes are.

“The visa is there to reunite loved ones,” Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia CEO Mohammad Al-Khafaji tweeted.

“Language is irrelevant.”

The news came as a “huge shock”, Melbourne-based migration agent Ranbir Singh told SBS Punjabi.

“We weren’t anticipating this development,” he said, adding that people are hungry for details about what it might mean for existing and future visa applications.

One Canberra woman whose Indian partner speaks fluent English told the Sydney Morning Herald that while her partner could easily pass an oral test, he might have trouble with a written test simply because he didn’t have the opportunity to complete school.

The two have a one-year-old son in Australia, and the changes have thrown a spanner in the works for the plans to start a family here.

Meanwhile, Shadow Minister for Multicultural Affairs Andrew Giles said he was “very concerned” about the changes to partner visa applications.

“How is this relevant to Australians [who] choose to marry? Who was consulted about this change? What does it say about our multicultural society?” he said.

Victorian Labor MP Julian Hill also called the policy a “nasty, effectively racist, measure that will destroy the love and relationships of thousands of Australians.”

Some visas such as student visas and skilled worker visas already have English tests for obvious reasons, however partner visas are designed to reunite couples and families regardless of their language ability.

Language tests (either in English or any other European language) were also part of the White Australia Policy from 1901 until 1958.

We’ll have to wait and see what the test look like and how they’re administered, but judging from the first reactions, it’s set to make things a whole lot more difficult.

Image: Getty Images / Sam Mooy