Petro Georgiou, Liberal MP for Kooyong. Photographer: Peter Hislop
by Petro Georgiou, Liberal MP for Kooyong
Presented at Manning Clark House Weekend of Ideas "Australian Citizenship - is it really worth having?", 29-30 March 2008
On 1 October 2007 a new citizenship test was instituted, with the legislation being supported by both the Coalition Government and the then Labor Opposition.
The new test was commended as a mechanism that would enhance the integration of aspiring citizens and reassure the community that migrants were committed to the Australian way of life.
My position is that the arguments advanced for the test were and are profoundly flawed.
The new test is punitive; it turns its back on our tradition of inclusive citizenship; and will prevent many meritorious aspiring citizens from full membership of the Australian community.
Today I want to focus on an aspect of the new test that has received little attention, one that affects all of us, Australians by birth and by choice.
The fact is that the aim of the new test is not simply to better assess whether newcomers are fit to become Australian citizens.
What the new test seeks to achieve is to set out a template for Australianness which impacts on all Australians.
The explicit rationale for the test is that our social cohesion demands a shared national identity, a shared vision of a common destiny.
As such, the test not only provides a mechanism to sift out those newcomers who should not be permitted to become citizens.
It also establishes a standard of conformity for all of us and it makes any one of us who does not fit the model a potential outsider.
Several weeks ago, former Prime Minister John Howard delivered a lecture in the United States in which he reviewed the achievements of his government.
Speaking of its accomplishments on what he described as ‘the social front’, he said this:
…we emphasised our nation’s traditional values, sought to resurrect greater pride in her history and became assertive about the intrinsic worth of our national identity. In the process we ended the seemingly endless seminar about that identity which had been in progress for some years.
The Howard Government’s achievements both internationally and domestically are many.
But I think John’s unilateral declaration of ‘mission accomplished’ with respect to the discussion of Australian national identity is incorrect.
This weekend’s forum on Australian citizenship demonstrates that the “seemingly endless seminar” goes on.
I think it is important that it does and I thank you for inviting me to join you.
Today, I propose to speak about the new citizenship test as an instrument used by the government to advance its idea of Australian national identity.
In practical terms, the genesis of the new test was John Howard’s Australia Day address to the National Press Club in 2006.
The Prime Minister remarked that the Australia Day celebration of citizenship “embodie(d) a profound truth and a simple irony.”
The truth – he said - is that people come to Australia because they want to be Australians. The irony is that no institution or code lays down a test of Australianness. Such is the nature of our free society.
The then Prime Minister identified the maintenance of social cohesion as a key issue for Australia in the 21st century, an issue which involved achieving a balance in questions of national identity and cultural diversity.
He did not expressly indicate where he thought we had got the balance wrong but I think the following passage clearly indicates what he had in mind:
Australia's ethnic diversity is one of the enduring strengths of our nation. Yet our celebration of diversity must not be at the expense of the common values that bind us together as one people - respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual, a commitment to the rule of law, the equality of men and women and a spirit of egalitarianism that embraces tolerance, fair play, and compassion for those in need.
In my view, the unquestionable fact is that it has always been the case that ethnic diversity has been set within a framework of core values.
But John Howard’s point goes well beyond this. Diversity, according to him, must not be celebrated “at the expense of ongoing pride in what are regarded as the values, traditions and accomplishments of old Australia”.
There are many values, traditions and accomplishments of old Australia that we should take pride in.
But I and many others would celebrate the virtues of diversity above what I think would be commonly regarded as some of the other values and traditions of ‘old Australia’.
Some were wrong and we should not take price in them. For instance, the values embodied in white Australia, the values reflected in the treatment of our indigenous people, and the values reflected in the subordinate status of women.
One does not have to be a member of the black arm-band brigade to believe that some of our values and traditions were wrong.
Less than three month’s after Howard’s address, Andrew Robb, the then Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, publicly advanced the idea of a new citizenship test.
Andrew saw no irony in quoting the Prime Minister’s observation that we did not have a test of Australianness because we are a free society, and then asserting that we needed a new citizenship test to support a common sense of national identity.
A new test, it was said, was required to meet the challenges of a changing composition in the migrant intake. According to Andrew:
The twin challenges of global terrorism and the ageing population require us…to become even more skilled at integrating an increasingly diverse population.
The notion of the new test as a counter-terrorism measure was obviously unsustainable and was soon abandoned.
The evidence for the change in the composition of our migrant intake was seriously flawed but continued to be used to support the need for a new test.
In November 2006, Andrew delivered a further significant speech entitled, ‘The importance of a shared national identity.’
He used this occasion to link his advocacy for the citizenship test with concerns about multiculturalism, foreshadowing the demise of the term from official language.
Multiculturalism was vague and meant different things to different people, said the Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs.
Some – he said – interpreted multiculturalism as a philosophy which rejected the idea of an overriding Australian culture. Andrew went on to say:
Advocating the equality of cultures, or a community of separate cultures, fosters a rights mentality, rather than a responsibilities mentality. It is divisive.
Few could have been really surprised when just a couple of months later the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs was renamed the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.
Legislation for the new citizenship test was introduced into the parliament in May and it became law on the 17th of September 2007.
In the preceding months and during the debate in the Parliament I questioned the various arguments advanced by the government for the new test and said that they were without foundation and that the new test would not only harm aspiring citizens but would diminish us as a nation.
Nothing which has transpired since has allayed my concerns.
Today I want to zero in on issues relating to core or common values and of national identity.
I don’t have any objection in principle to government promoting awareness of and respect for core values such as democratic principles and the rule of law.
From its earliest days, the policy of multiculturalism was premised on there being a framework of core values.
For example, Malcolm Fraser said back in 1981 that:
Multiculturalism is about diversity not division – it is about interaction not isolation. It is about cultural and ethnic differences set within a framework of shared fundamental values which enables them to co-exist on a complementary rather than competitive basis. It involves respect for the law and for our democratic institutions and processes. Insisting upon a core area of common values is no threat to multiculturalism but its guarantee, for it provides the minimal conditions on which the well-being of all is ensured.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights explicitly calls on governments to actively promote certain values. In particular, article 26 provides:
Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms…
With governmental funding, the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission and the state and territory counterparts conduct community education programs intended to encourage greater respect for the rights they are established to promote.
Of course, there is considerable room for debate about which values should be considered ‘core’ and promoted.
Even if the new test was just a test of English and knowledge of core values, I would still have strong reservations about its efficacy, necessity and fairness.
I have outlined these before and they run from the problem of the level of literacy required to the very need for the test itself.
However, its aim goes well beyond this.
It goes to the government’s development and fostering of an Australian national identity.
This was clearly indicated in Minister Kevin Andrews’ second reading speech when introducing the legislation.
After mentioning that the test would promote commitment to values such as equality of men and women, he said the following:
…having the knowledge and more importantly an appreciation of the events that have shaped this country and the institutions that have been established as a result will help foster a nation of people with a common purpose.
. . . the introduction of a citizenship test is . . . a key part of maintaining our national identity.
It is our sense of reciprocal obligations and a vision of a common destiny that has been foundational to Australia’s success.
The words of Henry Parkes, the father of Federation, first said at Tenterfield in 1889, remain true today: we are ‘one people, with one destiny’.
Parkes is cited at length in the book that citizenship applicants have to study. The entire passage from which Kevin quoted reads as follows:
There is no other way for true federation of this Australasia than to unite under one great government. It will be a fatal mistake to curtail the power of the government we shall create when we are one as an Australian nation, as brave and as powerful as any other nation on the face of the earth, when we shall have become ‘one people, with one destiny’, and when we shall be bound together by that crimson thread of kinship that can never perish.
On another occasion Parkes elaborated what he meant by ‘the crimson thread of kinship’, in these words:
The crimson thread of kinship runs through us all. Even the native-born Australians are Britons, as much as the men born within the cities of London and Glasgow. We know the value of their British origin. We know we represent a race…for the purposes of settling new colonies, which never had its equal on the face of the earth.
Henry Parkes is a historic figure, a man of his time and place and we do need to recognise his role as a founder of the Federation.
But to say that his words are as true today as they were over one hundred years ago is wrong.
Parkes’ vision for Australia certainly did not embrace non-discriminatory immigration, cultural diversity and racial equality.
In the 21st century Australia, his slogans of ‘one people, with one destiny’ and ‘the crimson thread of kinship’ are not ones that should inspire us or that should be offered up as a sound basis for contemporary social policy.
It seems to me that it is not the business of liberal democratic governments to dictate a common purpose and destiny.
In the political arena and throughout civil society, we quite properly have a plethora of competing and complementary ideas about ourselves as individuals, as groups and as a nation.
As I noted earlier, the Labor Party supported the citizenship test legislation, though a number of its members expressed reservations during the parliamentary debate.
The new Labor Immigration Minister Senator Chris Evans has stated that the operation of the citizenship test will be reviewed next month, having been in place for six months.
The government has not yet published the review’s terms of reference but given its support for the test it remains to be seen whether we will get the fundamental review that we need to have.
Will it examine whether the knowledge people have to have to pass the test will make them more grateful and better citizens than those who acquired citizenship in the previous decades?
Will it consider whether the test is penalising, excluding and alienating people who would make worthy members of our community?
This is as yet unknown.
Mr Rudd however sent us a message in January. After a Labor source was reported as questioning the fairness of a test which asked prospective citizens to name Australia’s greatest cricketer of the 1930s, Mr Rudd’s response was that:
the concept and direction is right….We just want to make sure all the details are right for the future. I think the Don is safe.
The citizenship test constitutes an incipient template of Australianness.
It has potential implications for all of us.
This is not a fanciful concern.
The new citizenship test was modelled in part on a test that had been introduced by the UK government only a short while previously.
Now the UK government believes that the notion of British citizenship needs to be strengthened for all its citizens, including the native-born.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s view is that ‘we need to do more to entrench the notion of Britishness in British society.’
I don’t want to comment at length on the British situation but it is worth noting the riposte of The Times newspaper:
The British have been rightly suspicious of state-sponsored patriotism, finding political efforts to nurture a national culture distasteful and populist appeals to nationalism dangerous…It is not for this or any Government to impose a top-down model of national identity for the rest of us. The job of the Government is not to manufacture identities. It is to foster a society that allows British people the security, freedom and opportunity to be who they are.
This encapsulates the concerns I have shared with you today about our new citizenship test.
John Howard was right in January 2006: in a free society, no institution lays down a test of Australianness.
This is not an irony. It is a basic tenet of our democracy.
It is not for the government to impose a top-down model of national identity for the rest of us.
The job of the government is not to manufacture identities.
It is to foster a society that allows Australian people the security, freedom and opportunity to define and redefine what they believe it means to be Australian.
I am confident that this is the way the majority of our citizens want things to be.
I also suspect that attempts by politicians and self-appointed cultural warriors to foist a constructed identity upon our society will be in vain.
We will be debating Australian identity for the foreseeable future; in my view, one of our strongest values is a healthy scepticism of authority.
Irving Kristol Lecture, delivered by the Hon John Howard, to the American Enterprise Institute, Gala Dinner, Washington, DC, USA, 5 March, 2008.
The Times, March 12, 2008.