Australia: All the same, only different

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sat Dec 16 16:38:22 UTC 2006

All the same, only different

George Megalogenis sorts out the facts from the rhetoric over citizenship


The Government [and] other people have gone out of their way to suggest
that some people don't fit in. And it's always been Muslims in this
particular context. - Malcolm Fraser attacks John Howard's citizenship
policy this week.  THERE have been six significant cultural scars borne by
the Muslim community in Australia since 2001. Six episodes that politics
and the media have read, more or less together, as reinforcing fears that
a section of our population is indeed different. In rough order of
chronology, they are the Tampa stand-off and the children overboard
fiasco; September 11; the conviction of Bilal Skaf and his gang of
rapists; the Bali bombings and those that followed in Madrid and London;
last December's Cronulla riots; and the row last month over that sermon by
Sydney cleric Taj Din al-Hilali about women being meat.

The Lebanese Muslim community was tarred directly in only three of these
six events. But each time the Muslim question is raised, it is the
Lebanese, particularly those in Sydney's southwest, that people think of.
So why, despite all the noise, have the Lebanese been taking up Australian
citizenship in steadily increasing numbers since 2001? Last financial
year, 1269 Australians of Lebanese extraction became citizens. This is
almost double the figure of 665 for 2000-01, before the Muslim debate
began in earnest. The Lebanese also have jumped from 21st to 16th place on
the annual citizenship ladder. Only the Sudanese have risen faster (see

This will come as surprise to conspiracy theorists on the Right and Left
who no doubt would expect, albeit for different reasons, that Australia's
Lebanese community has been in retreat since 2001; that is, either the
Lebanese fulfilled the Right's prophesy of alienation by refusing to
become citizens or the Howard Government validated the prejudice of the
Left by finding some sneaky administrative tool to deny the Lebanese their
wish to beincluded. John Howard was at pains this week to explain that his
proposed citizenship test would not alter the immigration mix. Given that
Lebanese immigrants generally have a better command of English than, say,
the Greeks did, Howard is speaking more sense than some of his supporters
on the Right of him may want. "It's not designed to keep anybody out," the
PM told a Sydney radio station on Tuesday. "It's designed to include
everybody, integrate everybody into the national fabric."

The magic word here is integrate. It marks the latest, and probably final,
phase of Howard's evolution from his anti-Asian immigration persona of the
late 1980s to a position history will judge, in time, to be more liberal
in its application than his rhetoric. Take a step back to Howard's
wilderness years of the early '90s. By this point he had accepted he made
a mistake on Asian immigration and could not reclaim the Liberal
leadership until he had made amends. But he still believed that the
assimilation policy of the '50s and '60s served Australia better than
multiculturalism had since the mid-'70s. He confirmed this view in an
interview with The Australian in August 1991, in which he also declared
his preference for the US "melting pot".

Today, Howard is neither an assimilationist nor an advocate for the
melting pot because he thinks Australia is more cohesive than the US. His
position is somewhere between the two, which he expresses today with the
I-word. His problem - indeed, the problem on all sides of the debate - is
that no one has come up with a term to capture the bipartisanship that has
existed on immigration during the past 15 years. Two elements define the
consensus. First, the regular intake has been skewed towards those with
skills, which means, inevitably, more Asians.  This process began under
the Labor government of Paul Keating but was accelerated by Howard.
Second, there has also been a notable clampdown on asylum-seekers,
beginning with Labor's detention policy in 1992 and culminating in the
Pacific solution in 2001.

This week, Labor's immigration spokesman Tony Burke said integration and
multiculturalism were joined at the hip. "The Government has been talking
about integration as though integration and multiculturalism are mutually
exclusive," Burke says. "This is wrong.  Integration is the way to make a
multicultural society work." Burke is playing Howard's game of semantics.
He is seeking a stoush where none really exists. Like Howard, Burke and
his leader Kevin Rudd, prefer the I-word. But Howard won't terminate
multiculturalism by removing the M-word from official use because he
doesn't have a viable catchcry to replace itwith.

"I haven't used the word multiculturalism a lot," the Prime Minister said
this week. "But we're not sort of formally abandoning words, so you don't
make announcements about that, you just, over a period of time, you use
the language which best expresses the feelings you have. And I prefer to
use the expression integration." Howard's political motivation in
re-announcing the citizenship policy on Sunday is pretty easy to read: he
wanted to test new Opposition Leader Rudd and the Labor Party on race. But
Rudd wasn't interested in an argument about citizenship. "I said at the
outset I do agree with Mr Howard that citizenship is a privilege, not a
right," Rudd said on Tuesday.

Rudd latched on to the obvious weakness in the Government's statement: the
absence of detail on the tests that will be taken by all future
citizenship applicants. The Government couldn't specify how proficient the
English of immigrants should be or what sort of questions they would have
to answer on Australian values. "I don't think it's responsible for me to
make a judgment on the run,"  Rudd said, playing a dead bat straight out
of the Howard stroke book. The Opposition Leader wants to see the fine
print before responding. "My understanding is that there is an assessment
of a person's English language ability which already occurs. What I'm
trying to establish is how different this is." The Government copped more
criticism from its own ranks than it did from Team Rudd. Leader of the
Government's moderate minority, Petro Georgiou, echoed the fears of former
Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser that Howard was aiming to deny
citizenship to certain groups. Georgiou said he was "concerned that the
toughening of the requirements" would "create unreasonable barriers to the
acquisition of citizenship and will prevent people who would make a
wonderful contribution to Australia from becoming citizens".

"The upshot may very well be that the successful settlement of immigrants
is undermined rather than enhanced," Georgiou said. Note the contrast with
Rudd's response. While both men said they looked forward to the detail,
only Georgiou expressed the reservation up-front that Howard was being
anti-immigrant. One of the many ironies here is that the Government didn't
seem that concerned when citizenship numbers were tumbling in the late
'90s. As the Government cut the immigration intake in its first term, the
citizenship rate, in turn, fell with a lag, from 112,343 in 1997-98 to a
low of 70,836 two years later. But as the immigration intake has been
expanded, so has the number who formally commit to Australia. Last
financial year, the Government finally broke six figures again, with
103,350 citizenships awarded. The Lebanese, incidentally, are 1.2 per cent
of the larger cake, compared with a low of 0.8 per cent in 2001-02. The
last word belongs to the Government's resident maverick Barnaby Joyce.
He, more than any other commentator, cut to the chase by saying the
citizenship changes amounted to a Seinfeld moment: a debate about nothing.

The Nationals senator says he doesn't think a citizenship test will stop
"wackos coming into the country". But he can't see the harm in passing the
legislation if it makes voters feel safer. "If people believe that this is
the way that you're going to stop lunatics coming into the nation, well
and good," Joyce said this week. "If that makes people happy ... let's
vote for it, but my honest opinion is it's not going to make a lot of


N.b.: Listing on the lgpolicy-list is merely intended as a service to its members
and implies neither approval, confirmation nor agreement by the owner or sponsor of
the list as to the veracity of a message's contents. Members who disagree with a
message are encouraged to post a rebuttal.


More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list