Australia has two faces when it comes to immigration and multiculturalism.

There’s the face of multicultural triumphalism. This is the Australia that likes to celebrate our success as a nation of migrants. An Australia that sees it as a mark of progress that our nationhood, once defined by the ideal of White Australia, now embraces diversity.

Then there’s the face of nationalist exclusion. While our political leaders like to boast we’re the greatest multicultural nation on the planet, some go out of their way to undermine that achievement. Words are never matched by deed. Whatever they might say, they signal that some of us don’t really belong here, that some of us are more Australian than others.

The federal government’s budget last week sent one such unmistakable signal. It may have been lost amid the mammoth deficit numbers but the budget papers revealed the federal government is introducing an English language test for people seeking partner visas to move to Australia. Sponsors who are permanent residents from non-English speaking backgrounds would also be subject to the test.

It remains far from clear what level of English proficiency may be required. But already the proposed change has been widely criticised. In response, the acting immigration minister, Alan Tudge, has tried to clarify that the test would require partner visa applicants only to make “reasonable efforts” to have functional English. Not that it has done much to reassure the many Australians living overseas with partners from non-English speaking backgrounds.

You can’t blame them for being anxious. History tells us how requirements such as these operate. An infamous dictation test was the cornerstone of the White Australia policy, which in the 20th century served to restrict non-white, non-European immigration. Given the lack of details accompanying the budget announcement, it’s understandable that many are worried their partners will need to pass the 21st century equivalent.

To be fair, there’s nothing objectionable about having English testing in some parts of our immigration program. You’d expect it to be a requirement for those seeking to arrive here on a skilled worker visa, for instance. It also seems reasonable that, when migrants naturalise as citizens, they should be able to demonstrate a level of English adequate for them to exercise their rights and take full part in society.

Supporting multiculturalism doesn’t mean being indifferent to integration. Of course, integration doesn’t always look or sound the way some politicians would like us to believe. It’s part of our multicultural success that many of our citizens didn’t arrive here armed with fluent English and the ability to quote Shakespeare. Speaking English with an accent other than Australian isn’t a civic inadequacy; it doesn’t mean you can’t make a contribution to the country.

The federal government’s proposed English test involves, though, a radical new step. One that goes much further than an effort to strengthen integration. It would, in effect, make English proficiency a prerequisite of love. Why would the federal government be trying to make it harder for people to come back to Australia with the people they love? Given that net overseas migration is heading negative, what exactly is the policy problem that the federal government is trying to solve here?

It’s tempting to see these moves as a continuation of a trend. The Coalition has long indulged a hardline politics around immigration and has long been suspicious of multiculturalism. It may like to put forward a triumphalist face on diversity, but it just as often adopts one of nationalist exclusion. That’s where its instincts lie.

Just join the dots. The minister overseeing these matters, Alan Tudge, has been on record warning about multiculturalism lapsing into forms of ethnic separatism. Earlier this year, he also announced that the Australian citizenship test would contain new questions on “Australian values”.

Yet those in the Coalition ranks should beware trumpeting “Australian values”. Too often there is only a selective application of these values. It’s almost like they only come into play when the government talks about certain kinds of people and migrants.

Indeed, how can we take any government talk of Australian values seriously when the Department of Home Affairs is happy to grant a visa to people with histories of far-right, white nationalist activism, as it did with YouTuber Lauren Southern, who is currently living in Australia? How can we take it seriously when a former Australian prime minister can be arguably unpatriotic and work for a foreign power, as Tony Abbott is now doing for the British government’s Board of Trade?

Just a few examples, you might say, of how speaking fluent English in no way guarantees that your values are consistent with our liberal democracy, or that your loyalty will be with Australia.