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September 2006
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Daily Media Quotation

Politicians Have Skewed The Citizenship Debate

September 28, 2006

by Kenneth Davidson - The Age

I find the debate about "Australian values" and the proposed citizenship test for immigrants creepy. The test has more than a whiff of the dictation test introduced in Australia at Federation to reinforce the white Australia policy and keep political undesirables out of the country.

Those who think the politicians from both sides who are leading this debate are attempting to unify the country behind a shared set of values forget that the business of politics in a democracy is to get political power by dividing the electorate in order to create a parliamentary majority.

I am sure, when pressed, most politicians and most of the community would come up with more or less the same list encompassing a "fair go" the freedom to do our own thing providing it doesn't interfere unduly with the freedom of others to do their thing in the context of what we would all describe as an egalitarian society.

But what is meant by an egalitarian society? I can accept there is a trade-off between equity and efficiency, but all too often technical economic debate is used as camouflage to hide substantive social justice issues and effectively disenfranchise the majority.

Despite the economic and social "reforms" of the past decade, "egalitarian" hasn't become a dirty word. Politicians on both the "left" (defined as those committed primarily to equality) and on the "right" (defined as those committed primarily to individual freedom) still unblushingly confess their commitment to an egalitarian society. However, a gulf exists between what either side imagines an egalitarian society to be.

There is a world of difference between "freedom to do your own thing" and "freedom from want".

Again, this is the stuff of politics. If we can discuss the multiplicity of issues that fall under these two headings then we will define and sharpen what we mean by freedom, egalitarianism and what we owe to each other.

A more fruitful discussion should focus on the institutions that reflect and reinforce the values to which we subscribe, institutions that we undermine to our collective peril. These institutions include Australia's unique system of arbitration and minimum wages, which evolved out of the determination of liberal politicians, led by Alfred Deakin, to take the class war out of industrial relations. This system served both the Australian economy and society well. It will quite properly be at the centre of political debate going into the next election.

Even more important is the role of public education, which hitherto has played a pivotal role in creating a shared vision for Australian society. One of the most passionate defenders of public education is Canadian John Ralston Saul, who spoke in Sydney last week.

Canada's history, particularly its ability to absorb a huge number of immigrants without the strains that have blighted other settler societies, mirrors our own. So do the threats to its public education. Saul said: "A tidal wave of specialists have drawn as their principle conclusion that inclusive systems which serve the public good are no longer viable. In other words, the ideologies and fashions of our day are devoted in good part to a return to the tragedy of the class-based society."

According to Saul, one of Canada's primary obligations to immigrants "is to provide an intense, inclusive public education system which will allow them and their children to adjust to Canadian society".

The implicit suggestion in the Coalition's values debate is that government schools are being rejected by the middle class because secular education is value-free. The real reason is the systematic under-resourcing of public education so that the weak flame of universalism can be snuffed out in favour of funding by vouchers.

The hypocrisy of this policy, which encourages the establishment of Islamic, fundamentalist Christian and Exclusive Brethren schools (whose enrolments are often only a fraction of the enrolments of government schools that are closed because they are uneconomic), is displayed by government ministers such as Treasurer Peter Costello, who recently lectured Australian Muslims to adopt the secular values of Turkey imposed by Ataturk in the wake of the break-up of the Ottoman Empire.

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