Citizen Robb


The concept of citizenship underpins Western society. It informs the elements of our culture that we take most pride in and defend most vigorously.

But lately, a strange thing has been happening in some Western nations. Rather than being celebrated as the prize of Enlightenment culture, citizenship has been wielded as a kind of weapon. And as a result, the great positive power of citizenship is being traduced.


Ironically, citizenship in these nations is being traduced as part of a so-called defence of Western values by leaders who are most ferociously engaged in the twin wars of the 21st century the ‘war on terror,’ and the ‘culture wars’ between conservatives and progressives.

Australia won’t be left out of the battle over citizenship. Earlier this month, the Federal Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, Andrew Robb, suggested that applicants for Australian citizenship should be required sit a test to assess their understanding of ‘Australian values’ and to prove their ‘fluency’ in English. Robb asserted that his proposal was aimed at attracting citizens who were willing and able to integrate seamlessly into Australian society.

Robb defined Australian values as ‘respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual, commitment to the rule of law, commitment to the equality of men and women and the spirit of the fair go, of tolerance and compassion to those in need.’

Just how these values are uniquely Australian is unclear. More properly, they are universal in Western societies witness the UK, Europe, Canada and the USA where it is argued that precisely these values are under threat from migrants and refugees who apparently don’t subscribe to them.

All this talk of ‘values’ has displaced the fundamental equation that lies at the centre of the Western concept of citizenship: that of rights and responsibilities. While we hear much about the responsibilities of citizens to subscribe to so-called national values, uphold national laws and accept the basic principles and structure of society we haven’t heard much lately about the rights those citizens can expect from their country in return.

Born-and-bred Australian citizen, David Hicks, might have something to say on this subject. Having been abandoned by his native country, Hicks has been forced to turn to Britain, where his mother was born, in a desperate bid to have his human rights upheld. In the same week that Andrew Robb defined ‘Australian’ values, the British Attorney-General, Lord Goldsmith called for the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, in which Hicks has been held without trial for more than four years, to be closed:

There are certain principles on which there can be no compromise. Fair trial is one of those which is the reason we in the UK were unable to accept that the US military tribunals proposed for those detained at Guantánamo Bay offered sufficient guarantees of a fair trial in accordance with international standards.

Britain ‘s commitment to the principles that underpin Western democracy and citizenship were clearly displayed when, at the insistence of its Government, all British prisoners being held at Guantánamo Bay were repatriated without charge. Despite the Blair Government’s appeals against judicial rulings granting Hicks access to British citizenship, the fact that an Australian was forced to turn to another country to uphold his basic rights has reduced the concept of Australian citizenship to a hypocritical joke.

Thanks to Bill Leak.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Our current Prime Minister’s heroine and role model, Margaret Thatcher, once declared that there was ‘no such thing as society’ but if that’s so, then how can there be a society to integrate into, or a set of national values to subscribe to? Do we perhaps only want to speak of values when we’re demanding something from outsiders? Does our society no longer offer or promise something in return? Are we now really just consumers in an economy, rather than citizens in a society?

If so, maybe we need to re-frame this argument in economic terms. So how about we look at the global economy and the myriad career and lifestyle choices available to people in the new world order?

One of Robb’s more reasonable-sounding suggestions was that migrants and applicants for citizenship be forced to sit an English-language test that we should seek citizens who are ‘fluent’ in English. This shows a remarkable lack of understanding of the nature of language tuition. Fluency in English is notoriously difficult to achieve, and fluency in any language is most commonly gained once already living and working in a country.

But in purely economic terms, this suggestion also shows a woeful lack of understanding about the realities of globalisation. The world’s best engineers, doctors and scientists are not necessarily English-speaking should we be actively disadvantaging Australia in the global competition for skilled migrants by taking only those who are? If we truly want to attract the best and the brightest, rather than the most conformist, we might consider meeting new migrants halfway and provide them with effective English-language tuition once they’re here. (Australia used to operate a best-practice model of English-language tuition for newly arrived migrants, which was sacrificed in the 1990s to the gods of rationalism and outsourcing but that’s another story )

Perhaps the clearest display of the outdated, insular mind-set informing our current ruling elite can be found in the words of one of its chief cultural warriors. Hugh Morgan businessman and doyen of the Liberal Party and conservative Australia recently declared that:

Australian citizenship is one of the most valuable things any person in the world can have; yet we treat it as something of little consequence citizenship is one of the most important elements in personal identity, [and]a person who is a citizen of two countries has, at the least, the beginning of a bipolar disorder.

Those sentiments, coming from a man who is supposedly one of Australia’s best business brains, would be funny if they weren’t so frighteningly out of date. They show a complete failure to grasp the realities of the globalised movements of human capital. If this attitude is indicative of the Australian values that Morgan and his cronies want us to take into the 21st century, then we’re in trouble.

Let’s hope it was one of Hugh’s (lame) jokes.

Rather than pay lip service to so-called ‘Australian’ values, the Howard Government would do well to make sure it discharges its responsibilities with regard to all its own citizens first.

For a Government so enamoured of the phrase ‘mutual obligation,’ one has to wonder why it doesn’t seem to apply to them.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.