Criticism of the Australian Government’s citizenship testing proposal

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The Australian federal government is proposing that, in order to become Australian citizens, immigrants should have to pass a number of Australian language and history tests and sign some sort of pledge to adopt Australian values. The reason given for this proposal is to improve national identity, but the implied reason is to also bolster national security.

The government believes that immigrants are refusing to assimilate into Australian society and forming their own insular groups. They are concerned that this behaviour results in immigrant communities that do not contribute or hold allegiance to Australia. In the worst case, they worry that such groups may present a danger when their beliefs constrast significantly with wider Australian society.

There are a number of a serious flaws in the logic behind the government’s proposal. Primarily, the government fails to differentiate between culture and ethics. Secondly, the proposal is necessarily divisive contrary to its purpose. Finally, full implementation of such a policy would be incredibly difficult as “Australian culture” is almost impossible to define.

Consider the differences between culture and ethics in relation to whether a group of immigrants will contribute to society or present a danger to Australia. The government implies that those that do not share Australian values may not believe in things such respect, decency, or “a fair go”. This assertion falsely insinuates that such values are unique to Australians, and I can fully understand how other cultural groups could find this offensive.

We have every right to refuse citizenship to those with criminal records, and possibly even to those who would impose an economic burden upon Australia. However, we should not be able to refuse citizenship to those who possess all required moral qualities in their own terms. All values that we can reasonably impose on people in Australia (citizens or visitors) are embedded in the legal system. There is no need to add a subjective set of values by means of a pledge.

Rather than encouraging unity, the government’s proposal is necessarily divisive. Immigrants that satisfy all current ethical and legal requirements for admission as Australian citizens would be prone to further subjective cultural assessment. The message this communicates to wider society is that you need to be ascribe to an ancillary set of cultural nuances in order to be Australian. This promotes people to hide their own cultural differences and justifies those that criticise them.

The final problem with the government’s proposal is there is no authority on what constitutes Australian culture. When individual Australians attempt to determine Australian culture they will tend to produce either a set of stereotypical mannerisms and beliefs or a summary of their own views. The former is clearly a caricature of Australian life that does not represent a large amount of modern Australian society. The latter is strongly skewed by factors such as age and socio-economic status, which arguably affect individual culture at least as much being an Australian citizen.

Unfortunately, the federal opposition is not providing a dissenting voice of reason in regards to this issue. Quite the opposite; they are proposing that tourists should have to sign a pledge of allegiance to Australian values as part of their visa applications. This is even more ridiculous as they are merely visiting Australia, and probably doing so to learn about Australian culture and values. It would be appalling if the first thing tourists must learn about Australia is that we don’t want them if they aren’t just like us.

Important: The Citizenship Testing Discussion Paper is on the Australian Government Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs website. There is also a Community Consultation Form that you can use to provide your input on this issue. The closing date for submissions is 17 November 2006.