CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia will demand new citizens pass an English language test and sign up to undefined Australian values, Prime Minister John Howard said on Friday, but denied any racist overtones in the coming policy.
Howard said the conservative government was also considering lifting to four years from three the wait for new immigrants to become an Australian and imposing a "fairly firm" test on knowledge of Australian history.
"It won't become more difficult if you're fair dinkum, and most people who come to this country are fair dinkum about becoming part of the community," Howard told Australian radio, falling back on a local slang term for genuine.
Australia is a nation of immigrants, with nearly one in four of the country's 20 million people born overseas. Almost six million people have settled since 1945 and Australia plans to accept about 144,000 new immigrants in 2006-07.
But the government is concerned the rapid transformation could fuel tensions and is determined to make sure new arrivals leave divisive national, religious and ethnic allegiances behind.
Race riots between young Muslims and mainly-white surfers flared in Sydney's southern beach suburbs in December 2005.
Howard said the English test would not be a return to the kind of tests used until the 1950s that excluded mainly-Asian migrants under the "White Australia" policy. But new citizens in future would need to know more about the Australian way of life.
Australia's opposition leader Kim Beazley this week drew criticism, including from within his own left-leaning Labour Party, after calling for tourists and immigrants to sign a pledge to uphold Australian values on their visa applications.
One national newspaper carried cartoons of new arrivals queuing at customs booths and being forced to drink cans of beer as grim-faced border guards looked on.
Kerry Nettle, a Senator from the left-leaning Australian Greens party, accused Howard of mounting a political fear campaign with the new test.
"The prime minister should shut up and stop scaring people for cynical political advantage," she said.
But Howard said he could not understand criticism of the English language tests.
"The great unifying thing about this country is language," he said.