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September 2006
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Daily Media Quotation

Testing On Vague Australian Values Exposes Us To Mockery

September 21, 2006

by John Warhurst - Canberra Times

The term "Australian values" causes more trouble than it is worth in public debate. That's why government ministers and politicians generally have trouble articulating just what they mean by our common values when given the chance. Since the Australian Citizenship Act 1948, our public language about Australian identity, infected by such terms, has gone backwards.

The term is used in the proposed new citizenship test, the subject of the discussion paper, Australian Citizenship: much more than a ceremony, issued this week by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, Andrew Robb.

The notion of Australian values has been a godsend for cartoonists, because there has been too much loose talk of playing cricket and drinking XXXX. We don't want our community held up to mockery in this way, but we are asking for it if we try to use such vague terms.

The term common values should be kept well away from any citizenship test. Some of the examples floated in the context of the test, such as belief in the spirit of the fair go and mutual respect and compassion for those in need, are just too abstract and contentious. Notably, the citizenship testing arrangements of Britain, Canada, the Netherlands and the United States, all outlined in the discussion paper, test concrete matters such as language and voting systems and appear to sensibly steer clear of testing values.

In defence of the need for a new test, Robb claims that we are handing out citizenship like confetti. We have always encouraged citizenship and seen failure by immigrants to take out citizenship as a failure of the system. The answer now, it seems, is to make getting citizenship harder. Yet as the Prime Minister says, faced with a waiting period for citizenship increased from two to four years, "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". Such language is forced and populist.

Howard goes on, in terms that are much clearer: "You'll certainly need to know a good deal more about Australia and about Australian customs and the Australian way of life". You'll also need to pass an English-language test, according to the Prime Minister, possibly at about the level of Year6. Howard himself recognises that most talk about values is highly political. This becomes obvious whenever Beazley and Howard talk about the content, even with Beazley falling over himself to be agreeable. What does the spirit of the fair go mean in practice? Is that what immigrants will have experienced while waiting to be tested?

The whole idea is political in two ways. First, Australians disagree about many basic values. We disagreed in 1999 about what should be put in the proposed preamble because it was a statement of values. We disagree about secular versus religious values. The parties disagree about issues such as collective versus individual aspirations and the role of government. agreement is only found at the lowest common denominator level.

While this week's discussion paper emphasises common values ad nauseam, Australians actually disagree about many things. That is healthy. In fact, the right to disagree with each other and with our governments is central to our democracy. The preamble to the Australian Citizenship Act 1948, quoted in the discussion paper, does a much better job. In 1948, Australian citizenship is described as "a common bond, involving reciprocal rights and obligations, uniting all Australians, while respecting their diversity". Why not leave it at that?

Secondly, the Prime Minister plays politics about values. He condemns multiculturalism and recent Australian attitudes towards our own identity. According to Howard, "we went through a period of time, I reckon about 10, 15, 20 years ago (note: smack in the middle of the Hawke-Keating Labor years), where we were sort of almost apologising for what this country has achieved and being too deferential to alternative cultures and what this country represents". Yet Bob Hawke was certainly not apologetic about Australian achievements. Paul Keating was certainly not deferential towards the recalcitrant Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir.

The first step in framing any test for new citizens, apart from English language testing, is to only ask questions to which there are clear and unambiguous answers. We can, for instance, ask about the Australian system of government. We can ask about Australian history and geography. We can ask about Australian cultural and sporting pursuits. But we should avoid asking about things that are vague and contentious.

The second step is to make clear that we share aspects of citizenship with many other countries. This includes concepts like support for democracy and the rule of law. Let's not pretend that very much of how we are organised is distinctive.

We should also be gracious enough to make clear that we have much to learn from our potential new citizens and, as the Prime Minister himself admits, we will be asking new citizens to pass a test that many Australians by birth could not pass. Half of the Australian community doesn't realise that we have a written constitution, for instance. The PM explains that we can choose our friends, but not our relatives, so we can be tougher on immigrants. But that line of thinking has definite limit-ations.

There are many hurdles to jump when framing citizenship tests in the highly political environment of a forthcoming federal election. Do we have the sophistication as a community to pull it off? Do our parliamentarians have the willpower to avoid politicising these issues? I have my doubts.


John Warhurst is professor of political science at the Australian National University.

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