Citizen John


In his farcical futuristic novel Underground  Andrew McGahan has two fugitives pursued by the Australian security services. Under the very strict emergency laws passed by the future Prime Minister, the Department of Citizenship conducts random checks of identity cards and administers on-the-spot Citizenship Verification Tests.


Until recently, Australia had a Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, but recently, ‘Multicultural’ has been replaced by ‘Citizenship’, and some Coalition MPs have expressed concern that the proposed ‘smart card’ for accessing government services could become an identity card. There is nothing unusual about life imitating art, but it’s alarming that the Howard Government’s policies are coming to resemble satire.

The Australian Government’s plans to introduce tests for eligibility for citizenship were controversial enough. The tests will apparently examine skill in English language, knowledge of history and values. Critics correctly observe that construction of fair tests in all three areas would be difficult, and that the prospects for successful application are poor given the Government’s poor administration of other immigration policies.

The English language test echoes a time when the White Australia Policy was enforced through a dictation test in a European language and there is the potential for bias towards certain countries of origin. Tests of historical knowledge and values might be acceptable in some countries, but here, at this time, there is no consensus. Continuing hostilities in the so-called ‘history wars’ prevent agreement about a common past. Thanks to Government sponsorship of one side in these skirmishes, terms as apparently innocent as ‘settlement’ cannot appear in any such test, or the Government will be accused of trying to revise history to suit its own ideology. Then it would be accused of trying to recruit as citizens, those immigrants who share the Government’s world view.

Similar problems arise over values. Already the Prime Minister has referred to the concept of ‘mateship’ as a paradigm of Australian values and has also attempted to have the term incorporated in a Constitutional Preamble. The problem is, not all Australians share Howard’s version of mateship. His enthusiasm for the military ethos and policies that threaten to return women to the home suggest a very specific form of mateship.

The same applies to the idea of ‘a go.’ Once, the myth of egalitarianism suggested that everyone should get a fair go. The Prime Minister’s latest version seems to be that everyone should ‘have a go.’ Opportunity and compassion have been replaced by the need to try harder and to accept failure as a sign of personal shortcomings.

Thanks to Scratch

There are two more reasons that the proposed test will not receive unanimous support. First, the tests target immigrants rather than those who qualify for citizenship by birthright. This could split Australians into two classes: citizens and non-citizens. At a subliminal level, this would reinforce the idea that an Australian has a particular look, and that the ‘others’ look different.

Where is the evidence that immigrants who are acquiring citizenship are lesser citizens than the ‘native-born’? This seems to be the implication behind the decision to hold such tests.

There is no respected research demonstrating the need for such tests. Nor is there a groundswell of grassroots demand. An informal online poll conducted by The Age newspaper on 12 December 2006 found that only 35 per cent of 3196 respondents favoured the tests. On ABC radio’s PM program, Liberal backbencher Petrou Georgiou questioned the need for the test and pointed out that the Government has not produced any evidence that the current system is inadequate. The Government position as stated by Andrew Robb, then Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, is strong on rhetoric but lacks supporting evidence.

Perhaps the creation of grassroots demand is the Government’s real aim? Unfortunately, the people who resent immigrants of any sort have been encouraged over the last 10 years to feel that their views have enough merit to be expressed and to be taken seriously. This could be the wedge issue for the coming election. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser suspects that this could be the Government’s aim, pointing out that the move touches a ‘socially conservative nerve’ and will appeal to ‘certain sections’ of the electorate.

We could all do with encouragement to be better citizens. The Government insists that citizenship is a privilege and not a right. Interestingly however, there has been less emphasis on the notion of citizenship as a duty for all, including the native-born. The 2002 National Report on Schooling in Australia suggested that, compared with 28 countries in an international study, our levels of civics knowledge, engagement and attitudes show ‘some room for improvement.’ Resources could be devoted to civics programs designed by educators rather than Government ideologues.

The TAFE sector could be better resourced to ensure that all Australians become more literate. And just as judges are reminded to be aware of attitudes such as sexism and racism, so too might parliamentarians be required to ensure that their views are not frozen at the time of their election, but that they develop as the elite citizens that they are.

We might even propose a test for 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.