Between 1901 and 1958, a 50 word text—often recounting scientific information about nature and organisms—was used to bar people from entering the so-called Commonwealth of Australia. The Dictation Test was primarily used to restrict the entry of people of colour, functioning as a key component of the ethno-nationalist White Australia Policy. The test was also used at discretion against the politically undesirable, with prominent communists, journalists and trade unionists targeted; a strategy encapsulated in the spectacular leap of Egon Kisch, a Czech communist journalist, from the ship on which he was detained onto the Melbourne quayside, breaking his leg, and his subsequent failure of the test in Scottish Gaelic. The test, though often given in English, could be given in any European language, as long as it had been predetermined by the assessor that it was a language that the traveller was unfamiliar with. Designed as an impregnable barrier to their entry, the test was only ever given to those already deemed unwelcome.
Both the British and Dutch side of my family arrived in Australia in the nineteen sixties as part of the Assisted Passage Migration Scheme, which brought working-class white families to Australia in order to fulfil a labour shortage partly caused by the White Australia Policy. In this video essay, fragments of poetry, academic texts, departmental Dictation Test samples and bureaucratic memos are intermingled with family portraits, stories and remembrances. The video discloses the brutality behind the thin veil of neutrality within scientific and bureaucratic language, and its revealing mistakes and misspeaks; as well as the state’s instrumentalisation of the white working class in the service of colonial capital and our complicity against our comrades, the racialised and excluded members of our own class.
Mia van den Bos, 2021