What's Australian Citizenship Worth?

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Years ago, a senior consultant to what was then the Department of Immigration, Multiculturalism and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA) sought my advice about their media campaign for Citizenship Day.

The consultant told me that DIMIA had no trouble convincing newly arrived immigrants from non-English speaking backgrounds to apply for citizenship. What he really needed was answers to an intractable problem: the reluctance of older British immigrants to take the next step to citizenship.

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I confessed that the issue had me baffled, too. I came out from the UK with my parents at the age of two, and took Australian citizenship in my early twenties I had no choice if I wanted to vote in this country that I felt was home, unlike British subjects who had registered with the Australian Electoral Commission before Australia Day 1984 who are still afforded, uniquely among non-citizens, the right to vote in all Australian elections. Gerard Henderson estimated the number of these non-citizen voters at around 300,000 a decade ago, meaning that there will probably be well in excess of a quarter of a million still turning up at the ballot box in 2007.

Such an exceptional privilege is surely a factor in the reluctance of this group to take out Australian citizenship with the right to vote already assured, any pledge of citizenship becomes largely symbolic. Doubtless, some of these older Brits still see Australia as a colony of the ‘Mother Country,’ and regard a symbolic transference of allegiance as unnecessary a ridiculous position in the 21st century, but one that’s unlikely to be altered by the Howard Government’s current campaign, which implicitly supports this view.

With the dropping of the term ‘multiculturalism’ from DIMA’s title and its re-naming as the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIC), Howard has achieved a long-cherished goal. As John Pilger pointed out two weeks ago in New Matilda, the then Opposition Leader declared his intentions as long ago as 1988, when he ‘announced that a future government led by him would pursue a œOne Australia Policy. ’ But yet again, Howard’s overblown, dog-whistling rhetoric about integration and ‘Australian values’ belies the reality of Australian citizenship in 2007.

The Howard Government pushes immigrants to take out Australian citizenship as a way of demonstrating their commitment to ‘Australian values.’ In his 2006 Australia Day address to the National Press Club, Howard defined these values as ‘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.’

As has been pointed out, these values are universal human values and are formulated, in one form or another, in most democracies around the world. And specifically, from an English-speaking perspective, these values are traceable to the development of constitutional law begun with the signing of the Magna Carta by King John of England in 1215. If pledging Australian citizenship is primarily about showing one’s acceptance of, and respect for, such values, it’s hard to see why people from an English background would be so loathe to sign up.

So maybe there’s more at play than just ‘Australian values.’ No one listening to the Prime Minister’s recent speeches about the need for ‘people who come to this country, who emigrate, immigrants, [to]become Australians’ would guess that the most recalcitrant group of immigrants was from the UK.

Perhaps, when considering citizenship, these people are thinking as much about their rights as they are about the responsibilities the Government keeps impressing upon them, and finding the equation a little one-sided. Perhaps the Government’s recent cavalier attitude to its own side of the bargain has prompted a re-evaluation of the benefits of taking out citizenship to the ‘greatest nation on earth.’

Compared to the rights of a citizen of Burma, or Afghanistan, Australia affords some pretty attractive protections. But compared to the UK? One look at the plight of David Hicks provides an answer to that.

In many respects, Hicks is not an appealing character. Obviously an angry young man, with some dubious morals, seriously offensive anti-Semitic views and a chip on his shoulder, he made a series of stupid choices that have landed him on the wrong side of the most Kafkaesque war in recent history.

But he is an Australian citizen.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

Unfortunately for Hicks, that doesn’t seem to mean as much as it once did, and is certainly not as valuable, in legal and human rights terms, as being a citizen of Britain. The British Government brought the last of its citizens home from Guantánamo Bay two years ago, with no apparent collateral damage to its position as America’s most valuable ally in the ‘war on terror.’ In contrast, Australia is the only Commonwealth (or European Union) country not to even attempt to secure its citizens’ release from an American military justice system widely regarded as unable to offer the guarantee of a fair trial.

Hicks’s desperate attempt, last year, to gain British citizenship was a shameful development for Australia. It demonstrated that Australians could no longer rely on their own Government to uphold the tenets of Western democracy that supposedly underpin Howard’s much-touted ‘Australian values.’ And despite his best efforts to suggest otherwise, Britain’s denial of Hicks’s citizenship application does not vindicate Howard’s indefensible stance: if anything, it is further proof of governments’ manipulation of a citizen’s rights for the purpose of maintaining political relationships.

If, as Howard asserts, the Australian civil covenant rests on such values as ‘respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual, a commitment to the rule of law . and compassion for those in need,’ then these values should be upheld unequivocally by our government in respect of all Australian citizens including those we don’t like or agree with.

Howard is defiant when confronted with his failure to act on behalf of Hicks, engaging in his usual game of obfuscation. Responding to Lex Lasry QC’s call for the Government to do its duty by the born-and-bred Australian citizen, Howard avoided the real issue by declaring that:

it’s never been part of the law of this country, or indeed international law, that somebody charged with a crime in another country has an
automatic right of repatriation to their homeland

As usual, this statement is correct but misleading. Hicks has not been charged with a crime in another country. In fact, there is no evidence to show that Hicks did anything actually illegal, rather than stupid and distasteful even the charges announced (but not yet laid) on the weekend are retrospective, accusing him of crimes that did not exist at the time at which is he alleged to have committed them.

This Australian citizen has been held without charge for more than five years; in conditions that Amnesty International has described as ‘a human rights scandal;’ and without adequate ‘assistance from Australian diplomatic representatives,’ as promised to all Australian citizens. Indeed, it was revealed last week that Hicks is now too terrified even to see Australian consular officials, fearing retribution from his captors should he seek this basic right.

In allowing the continued incarceration of Hicks, Howard and his Government are displaying their own disregard for the tenets of Australian citizenship. Obviously, ‘not ratting on an ally’ takes precedence over upholding those rights for which we are supposedly fighting the ‘war on terror’ in the first place.

Hicks’s military lawyer Major Michael Mori whose moral clarity on this issue displays a greater commitment to democratic values than is shown by our Prime Minister simply cannot understand how this can happen. ‘The US doesn’t see [military commissions]as a fair system to try their citizens,’ he told Lateline’s Tony Jones in 2004. ‘There’s only one country that has come out publicly acknowledging the military commission process is fair for their citizens and that’s Australia.’

Doesn’t that make you proud to be an Aussie?!

Howard’s willingness to abandon an Australian to a system that the US itself has deemed inadequate to try its own citizens represents the most disgraceful abrogation of civic responsibility in this nation’s history.

Thirteen years after pledging my own commitment to what I, too, once saw as the ‘greatest nation on earth,’ I’m furious at Howard’s treatment of my country and ashamed that what it means to be Australian has been so diminished by his toadying politics.

And, as a dual Australian-British citizen and regular international traveller, there’s no way I’m leaving home without my EU passport from now on.

Since 2005, New Matilda has been actively campaigning for a Human Rights Act for Australia. There have been launches in every State and Territory capital around Australia, a draft Human Rights Act has been prepared and politicians from all sides have been approached and lobbied. The campaign is ongoing and we hope to have a Bill introduced into Federal Parliament as soon as possible. If you want to participate or you need more information click here.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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