Australia: Citizenship, like charity, must begin at home

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon May 1 12:52:10 UTC 2006

Citizenship, like charity, must begin at home

May 1, 2006

Two months ago Peter Costello spoke out against "mushy, misguided
multiculturalism", proposing that migrants who do not share "Australian
values", such as the rule of law, be denied or stripped of citizenship.
Last week, the same venue - the Sydney Institute - hosted Andrew Robb,
parliamentary secretary to the Immigration and Multicultural Affairs
Minister. Robb added to the topical mix by proposing a compulsory
citizenship test for prospective migrants to measure their grasp of our
language and culture.

Both politicians raised their balloons in the face of what many consider
the pre-eminent contemporary threat to Australia's social cohesion: the
importation of a fundamentalist streak of Islam, infecting local Muslims
with an inability to lead peaceful and productive lives as Australians.
There is still scant empirical proof of that particular pudding - despite
the noisy and opportunistic assertions of a range of commentators. As Ed
Husic (Labor's candidate for Greenway, the target of an anti-Muslim smear
campaign in the last federal election) indicated more quietly at the
Sydney Institute last year, the vast majority of Muslim Australians are,
like non-Muslims, law-abiding citizens. The day after Robb's speech, the
former academic historian Keith Windschuttle used it to crank up the
volume of a disingenuous tune.

Robb had carefully pinned his proposed test to notions of integration and
connection with the mainstream, throwing in potentially constructive
suggestions such as establishing an institute for Islamic studies down
under. Windschuttle, however, used the terms assimilation and integration
interchangeably, claiming a citizenship test would help break down "the
sort of tribalism that the multicultural policy that's dominated
immigration affairs for the past 30 years" had instituted. "We have had a
policy that's been telling people that they can retain all of their
previous cultures, and that not only includes cultures but all the
previous grievances, their local hatreds of various nationalities in their
old country and we've seen people bring a lot of that baggage to
Australia," he said. No matter to Windschuttle that key documents of that
policy-in-action, such as the 1992 report of the Australian Law Reform
Commission's inquiry into Multiculturalism and the Law, chaired by
Elizabeth Evatt, told people something very different.

The Evatt report emphasised that social cohesion depended on multicultural
policies based on the premise that "all Australians should have an
overriding and unifying commitment to Australia", and requiring all
Australians to accept "the basic structures and principles of Australian
society - the constitution and the rule of law, tolerance and equality,
parliamentary democracy, freedom of speech and religion, English as the
national language and equality of the sexes". That message in a bottle
closely resembles Robb's bottom-line vision of Australia as "a diverse set
of communities drawn together" by common values. "Values such as respect
for the freedom and dignity of the individual, our commitment to the rule
of law, our commitment to the equality of men and women, and the spirit of
the fair go, of tolerance and compassion for those in need," he said.

This may explain why Robb's mooted citizenship test is now in the
political mainstream, as Michelle Grattan observed in the Sunday Age
yesterday. So what's the problem with a citizenship test? Shouldn't we
embrace this practical step towards value-added citizens? The answer is
no. Not because it's not desirable that all citizens have functional
English and understand their rights and responsibilities as Australians.
Rather, because Australians' understanding of the core values articulated
by Evatt and then Robb has been fundamentally contested - if not degraded
- in the intervening time, an era characterised by the ascendance of the
oi-oi-oik factor fuelling Hanson, Windschuttle and fellow travellers,
which recently erupted in its ugliest version on Cronulla beach. What does
"respect for the dignity of the individual" mean to Australians in 2006 -
Cornelia Rau, Vivian Solon, "sorry"? How about "commitment to the rule of
law" - David Hicks, secret policing, the AWB scandal? The "equality of men
and women" looks increasingly compromised by a dysfunctional blend of
fertility panic, corporatised child care and affluenza.

Notwithstanding all this, we may still justifiably love this sunburnt
country. If we truly do we must recognise that, like charity, citizenship
begins at home. We should put more effort into interrogating our own
commitment to "Australian values" - at least before we dictate them to

Dr Natasha Cica is a strategy and communications consultant.

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