Twenty Questions for the Nation


I am lucky that the only terrors I fled when I came to Australia were my shrugged-off adolescence and family breathing too closely down my neck. The choice to leave was my own, as was the choice to remain. Technically, I can pick up and leave at any time.

I came to Australia on a whim. Here was a landscape big and free enough to make anything possible. Not America’s "Home of the Brave" free, an anthem mimicked in classrooms but not truly felt, but free with room to move, for the psyche to bloom. I fell in love with both its landscapes and its distance from the place I was born. The reason most Australians leave is the reason I stay.

Having become an Australian citizen 12 years ago, I was interested in the passing of the Citizenship Act last year and with it the ominous "citizenship test" that all would-be citizens must now pass. I wondered whether, even after 18 years in this country, I would pass it if I had to sit it today.

At 46 pages of historical, governmental and random cultural information, the new Becoming An Australian Citizen ("Citizenship: Your Commitment to Australia") is indeed a hefty read. It would take me a week to memorise everything in it. Somebody with limited English or limited education would be unlikely to pass it. How is this in keeping with our supposed national value of "a fair go"?

This Citizenship Test, the Government of the time argued, is similar to that used in the United States. Howard loved to evoke the United States whenever they could. This was meant to comfort us. "We are like the United States," we could think. Notwithstanding that our political allegiance with the US has hurt more than helped us in recent years, what is missing in this justification is that Australia, unlike the US, does not have a national Bill of Rights as part of its Constitution.

I began to wonder, what is the meaning of a citizen in a country with no national Bill of Rights? And what are a citizen’s "rights"?

According to the Citizenship Act 2007, an Australian citizen is anybody born in Australia (provided they are not born to an occupying enemy), adopted by Australian parents, conferred by descent or granted citizenship by application. We are also told that would-be Australian citizenship involves "reciprocal rights and obligations". Yet upon closer inspection, these "rights", are as hazy as saltwater in summer air.

For instance, the booklet states, as a new citizen, "You have a right to live in Australia." Yet in order to apply to be a citizen you have to already have been living here for five years.

Would-be citizens are also told that: "You have both a right and a responsibility to vote." While the right to vote is an important one (and, considering the historically hard-won suffrage of those who came before us, one I cherish), nevertheless a "right" is an entitlement and necessarily implies choice; while a "responsibility’, especially one enacted by law, entails no choice.

A lot of Australians don’t seem to care about voting one way or the other. Perhaps only new citizens coming from a country with no previous "right" to vote would find the responsibility a true "privilege".

It is worth asking, given our anti-authoritarian nature, whether greater numbers would turn out to the polls if voting were an enshrined right and not a legal obligation – just as, perversely, more people would probably use Sydney’s Cross City Tunnel if their other routes hadn’t been blocked. The fact is we’d rather sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the single remaining lane than be told what to do.

Freedom of speech is, according to the Citizenship booklet, an Australian "value", but nowhere is it explicitly protected. In 1992, in what was known as the Australian Capital Television Case (a battle over a law allowing unlimited free political advertising during the lead up to an election), the High Court of Australia found that the Constitution included an "implied right to freedom of political communication", though interestingly, the Commonwealth Government argued against this, saying that if the framers had wanted freedom of speech they would have included it.

More than 15 years on, what might have been a unique opportunity to battle the meaning of words – to ask, what does it mean to be Australian, what is our motto, who are we – has instead become another opportunity for one faction of the Government to narrowly prescribe the terms and conditions of our nationhood.

Consequently, the language used in the Citizenship Act and the test booklet is bureaucratic and bland, rife with cliché or simply confusing. The words used do not inspire. When interrogated, they seem to mean a lot of nothing.

So while we will not enshrine our rights, we will enshrine Don Bradman as "the greatest cricket batsman of all time". While we don’t have a national motto (who could decide between the Scots "Wha daur meddle wi me?" ie, "Don’t f*ck with me" and the UK’s strangely Francophile "Dieu et mon droit", ie, "God and my right" anyway?), we will make all would-be citizens memorise Henry Parkes’s words, that we are: "one people, with one destiny", despite all evidence to the contrary.

On a deeper level, I wonder why we need to demand others repeat – like a chorus of 200-potential-question parrots – for the purpose of the test and their subsequent citizenship: "We Are This". Is it because we don’t know ourselves?

Our Citizenship booklet states that Australia is "a nation at ease with the world and with itself". While there is certainly ease in the Australian lifestyle, we are not a nation comfortable in our own skin in relation to the rest of the world. We are largely apprehensive in relation to the world. And psychologically, interrogation of others only appears when there’s a fear for the stability of the self.

But cultural belonging is not something you can just take a test for. Cultural belonging doesn’t arrive in the form of multiple-choice questions, although there are years worth of questions to get through – "Where are you from?" being the most common, because your look or your voice never seems "right". But it does come, in time.

Participation in civic life helps to forge one’s sense of belonging. That belonging then in turn forges new links with a place, helping one to become a new person in that place. The two start to entwine. To wait until you’ve "become Australian enough" to get your citizenship is to deprive a person of that very process.

What I’m suggesting is that perhaps there is reason to grant citizenship, regardless of how "Australian" a multiple choice test declares a person; that citizenship is more necessary to belonging than belonging is a precondition for citizenship. The potential pride in crossing that threshold is enough to make a person sit up and take notice. Not to be a citizen is instead to be forever on the brink of departure. There is no need, and therefore no desire to fit in.

And while we will always be linked to our past places across the globe, what we will be, as a country, will be entirely dependent on the outcome of how we allow ourselves – or fail – to evolve.

Or maybe we’re just happy the way we are. In which case we should jettison any pretence to either an American or British model for our nation and fully embrace whatever is perversely and uniquely Australian, including our apathy. We might not be a nation to reckon with politically, we might not be a dangerous force on the world’s stage, but we do have more deadly snakes than anybody.

In that case, I propose a new motto: "Whatever it is, don’t pet it."

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.