Pledge to re­open Aus­tralia iden­tity de­bate

With the gov­ern­ment pre­par­ing se­cu­rity-driven changes to cit­i­zen­ship, it is also ready­ing to kick­start a new de­bate on Aus­tralian val­ues. Karen Mid­dle­ton re­ports.

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page -

At the dozens of cit­i­zen­ship cer­e­monies in Aus­tralia ev­ery year, new cit­i­zens are not the only ones asked to take the pledge.

While it has no le­gal weight for any­one else, those who are al­ready cit­i­zens or who just call Aus­tralia home are also en­cour­aged to af­firm their com­mit­ment.

“I pledge my loy­alty to Aus­tralia and its peo­ple, whose demo­cratic be­liefs I share, whose rights and lib­er­ties I re­spect, and whose laws I will uphold and obey,” the new cit­i­zens say.

After­wards, wit­nesses are invited to make the same af­fir­ma­tion “as an Aus­tralian citizen”, with those who are not yet cit­i­zens en­cour­aged to join in from the next line.

They are as­sured no records are kept of who does and who doesn’t. But they are en­cour­aged to par­tic­i­pate as a kind of re­newal of vows to their coun­try, vows that un­til then many have never been called upon to make at all. It’s a re­minder that most Aus­tralian cit­i­zens by birth or de­scent never have cause to de­clare their com­mit­ment out loud.

As the fed­eral gov­ern­ment pre­pares to make se­cu­rity-driven changes to cit­i­zen­ship, The Satur­day Pa­per has been told it plans to use the in­tro­duc­tion of new tougher cri­te­ria to drive a na­tional dis­cus­sion on what be­ing Aus­tralian re­ally means – the val­ues that lie at the heart of the pledge and the obli­ga­tions they en­tail.

It may in­volve hav­ing Aus­tralians make such a na­tional af­fir­ma­tion more reg­u­larly.

It’s an ac­knowl­edg­ment that the new­est Aus­tralians are of­ten much more fo­cused on their re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to the na­tional com­mu­nity than those who were

born into it or have lived in it all their lives.

Pro­po­nents of such a de­bate want it to fo­cus on is­sues such as equal rights re­gard­less of race or gen­der, po­ten­tially link­ing it to the do­mes­tic vi­o­lence de­bate.

They are be­lieved to want in­creased em­pha­sis on the con­tri­bu­tion of In­dige­nous and mul­ti­cul­tural her­itage to our sense of Aus­tralian­ness and to de­bunk once and for all the no­tion that the Aus­tralian char­ac­ter draws on Bri­tish foun­da­tions alone. But some view the un­fold­ing cit­i­zen­ship dis­course with sus­pi­cion and con­cern.

For the past month, Im­mi­gra­tion Min­is­ter Peter Dut­ton has been flag­ging changes that would have would-be cit­i­zens’ back­grounds scru­ti­nised more thor­oughly and re­quire them to sign up to a more spe­cific set of val­ues and obli­ga­tions.

The Mi­gra­tion Coun­cil and the Fed­er­a­tion of Eth­nic Com­mu­ni­ties’ Coun­cils have warned against de­mon­is­ing mi­grants, es­pe­cially refugees.

The gov­ern­ment is plan­ning to jet­ti­son the cur­rent cit­i­zen­ship test in­volv­ing 20 mul­ti­ple-choice ques­tions on the demo­cratic be­liefs, rights, lib­er­ties and laws to which the pledge al­ludes. In its place will be what Dut­ton calls a “more ob­jec­tive” as­sess­ment – a de­scrip­tion that may it­self be sub­ject to de­bate.

Last week, he of­fered a lit­tle more de­tail. “That is, that we look at the con­duct of peo­ple over the pre­ced­ing three or four years of their res­i­dency here,” Dut­ton told Sky News. “Or in some cases, po­ten­tially, you could look at peo­ple’s con­duct in an­other coun­try be­fore they ap­plied for per­ma­nent res­i­dency to come here.”

The Satur­day Pa­per has con­firmed this means a tougher char­ac­ter test that would ap­ply ahead of res­i­dency, years be­fore any con­sid­er­a­tion of cit­i­zen­ship.

While cab­i­net has not yet en­dorsed the changes, the cur­rent com­pul­sory pre-cit­i­zen­ship four-year per­ma­nent res­i­dency pe­riod may be ex­tended.

Last week, Dut­ton said that whether or not ap­pli­cants or their fam­i­lies are likely to break the law or be a wel­fare bur­den would fea­ture. The as­sess­ment could go be­yond a per­son’s crim­i­nal record in Aus­tralia and abroad to per­sonal be­hav­iour, in­clud­ing of their chil­dren.

“We could look at whether some­body has been in­volved, for ex­am­ple, in do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, we could look at whether or not some­body had chil­dren that were of school age but had not at­tended school for ex­tended pe­ri­ods … If your kids are break­ing the law, if they’re in­volved in gang vi­o­lence, if mem­bers of your fam­ily have been in­volved in dis­tribut­ing drugs – I mean, it’s a com­plete pic­ture that we need to look at,” he said.

“… There are 65 mil­lion peo­ple around the world that would set up in Aus­tralia to­mor­row and I don’t think we should be em­bar­rassed to say that we want the best of those peo­ple.”

He also ap­peared to raise the prospect of pro­ba­tion. “I think there are peo­ple that would sug­gest that over a pe­riod of time if your English lan­guage doesn’t im­prove, that that goes to the ques­tion of in­te­gra­tion or the abil­ity to work or to work with your com­mu­nity or with your school or what­ever the case might be.”

A spokes­woman for the min­is­ter said he had noth­ing to add to his pub­lic com­ments.

The sec­re­tary of the Depart­ment of Im­mi­gra­tion and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion, Michael Pez­zullo, re­flected on na­tional iden­tity and cit­i­zen­ship in his Aus­tralia Day mes­sage to de­part­men­tal staff, ob­tained by The Satur­day Pa­per.

His writ­ten mes­sage told staff a na­tion was not a “blank slate” to be “com­pletely re­made ev­ery generation” but had im­plied con­ti­nu­ity through com­mon iden­tity, strong and durable in­sti­tu­tions, ex­pec­ta­tions of mu­tual trust and recog­ni­tion, and com­mon al­le­giance.

“Na­tions are bi­ogra­phies of a peo­ple – an in­ter­gen­er­a­tional story flow­ing through time,” he wrote. “Each of us car­ries a shared her­itage, his­tory and iden­tity. Our na­tional bi­og­ra­phy con­tains many chap­ters, some dat­ing back thou­sands of years, some a few hun­dred, and some, of course, yet to be writ­ten.”

The way any na­tional de­bate is con­ducted will dic­tate how those chap­ters are writ­ten.

So far, the op­po­si­tion is cyn­i­cal.

The shadow min­is­ter for cit­i­zen­ship and mul­ti­cul­tural Aus­tralia, Tony Burke, be­lieves the gov­ern­ment is de­lib­er­ately de­lay­ing its cit­i­zen­ship changes to try to wedge La­bor po­lit­i­cally as he says it did when John Howard was prime min­is­ter.

“From their per­spec­tive, it is not about the le­gal changes they end up mak­ing, it’s about the de­bate they can kick off on the way through,” Burke told The Satur­day Pa­per.

“We’re in the midst of the de­bate, whether we like it or not. You ei­ther con­duct it along the lines of One Na­tion – that is, to re­ject what mod­ern Aus­tralia is – or you em­brace mod­ern Aus­tralia and you’re in­clu­sive … What Peter Dut­ton will have to do is choose which side of that de­bate the gov­ern­ment takes.”

By “mod­ern Aus­tralia”, Burke meant draw­ing on many cul­tures and faiths and not ex­clud­ing Mus­lims. He said the gov­ern­ment’s re­sponse so far had been “to nor­malise One Na­tion”.

“John Howard would never have done that,” he said.

While ad­vo­cates of a mono­cul­ture ar­gue it is the only way to keep Aus­tralia safe, cit­i­zen­ship ex­pert Professor Kim Ruben­stein, who is pub­lic pol­icy fel­low at the Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity’s col­lege of law, be­lieves en­cour­ag­ing Aus­tralians to em­brace their “blended” iden­tity would make the coun­try safer.

Ruben­stein says recog­nis­ing peo­ple’s eth­nic or na­tional her­itage and faith as in­her­ent to their Aus­tralian­ness, not in con­flict with it, will lessen the risk of home­grown ter­ror­ism.

“If we were more able to af­firm and value our fel­low res­i­dents’ con­nec­tions to other na­tional iden­ti­ties or faith iden­ti­ties, I am of the view that would ac­tu­ally strengthen the co­he­sion of our so­ci­ety as a west­ern Lib­eral democ­racy,” Ruben­stein told The Satur­day Pa­per.

Michael Pez­zullo’s mes­sage touched on a sim­i­lar theme, sug­gest­ing Aus­tralia’s suc­cess as a mul­ti­cul­tural so­ci­ety chal­lenged the idea that cit­i­zens “have to share a sin­gu­lar iden­tity” based in race or creed. He wrote of “a civic com­pact”, say­ing Aus­tralians ex­pected all to par­tic­i­pate equally in so­ci­ety

“with a full ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the rights and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties that come with mem­ber­ship”.

He told his staff: “Our na­tional story, prop­erly told in its many phases, episodes and anec­dotes, and shorn of any mind­less chau­vin­ism, is the es­sen­tial foun­da­tional layer for the con­stant generation and re­gen­er­a­tion of our na­tional cul­ture and our tan­gi­ble sense of com­mu­nity, which brings us to­gether as a co­he­sive so­ci­ety.”

In a newly up­dated ver­sion of her book Aus­tralian Cit­i­zen­ship Law, Kim Ruben­stein can­vasses the view that the im­age of cit­i­zen­ship is blokey and can make peo­ple feel ex­cluded by gen­der, age or race.

She told The Satur­day Pa­per any na­tional de­bate on val­ues and iden­tity must be man­aged care­fully. “In my view, it re­quires a truly bi­par­ti­san com­mit­ment to not make it politi­cised,” she said.

“There is this irony, re­ally, if raised in a highly po­lit­i­cally charged en­vi­ron­ment, that there is a back­lash against norms of demo­cratic ci­vil­ity which are so im­por­tant to no­tions of cit­i­zen­ship.”

She said the gov­ern­ment should con­sider an af­fir­ma­tion pro­mot­ing lib­eral demo­cratic val­ues to be learnt from pri­mary school.

“I think that’s a bet­ter way of deal­ing with the is­sue – in­clud­ing in those val­ues the con­cept of blended iden­ti­ties – rather than through changes to the cit­i­zen­ship test.”

Aus­tralian cit­i­zen­ship has only ex­isted for­mally since 1949. Suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments have re­vis­ited it in re­cent decades.

When the Howard gov­ern­ment in­tro­duced a new Cit­i­zen­ship Act in 2007, in­clud­ing the first cit­i­zen­ship test, crit­ics blasted what they said was a fo­cus on jin­go­ism and es­o­teric cul­tural ques­tions. The most com­monly cited ex­am­ple – in­clud­ing re­cently by Dut­ton him­self – was peo­ple be­ing asked to re­call the late crick­eter Don Brad­man’s bat­ting av­er­age. (It was 99.94.)

In fact, while Brad­man’s scor­ing prow­ess is de­tailed in the of­fi­cial cit­i­zen­ship in­for­ma­tion book­let, Our Com­mon Bond, it was never a test ques­tion. The book­let is di­vided into testable and non-testable sec­tions and the Brad­man ref­er­ence and other his­tor­i­cal and cul­tural in­for­ma­tion is in the sec­ond part.

The Rudd gov­ern­ment es­tab­lished a cit­i­zen­ship re­view task­force – of which Kim Ruben­stein was a mem­ber – that her­alded more changes, in­clud­ing a rise in the pass mark from 60 per cent to 75 per cent.

In 2015, the In­de­pen­dent Na­tional Se­cu­rity Leg­is­la­tion Mon­i­tor raised is­sues around dual cit­i­zen­ship and the Ab­bott gov­ern­ment changed the law so dual cit­i­zens en­gag­ing in ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­ity or linked to pro­scribed groups would have their Aus­tralian cit­i­zen­ship re­voked. The first such re­vo­ca­tion was re­vealed last week, in­volv­ing Daesh fighter Khaled Shar­rouf.

Be­fore that change, the then prime min­is­ter, Tony Ab­bott, dis­patched the then par­lia­men­tary sec­re­tary for mul­ti­cul­tural af­fairs, Se­na­tor Con­cetta Fier­ra­van­tiWells, and for­mer im­mi­gra­tion min­is­ter Philip Rud­dock to con­duct com­mu­nity con­sul­ta­tions and rec­om­mend fur­ther changes. Their con­fi­den­tial re­port was pro­duced last year. The up­com­ing changes will form the gov­ern­ment’s re­sponse.

Fier­ra­vanti-Wells, who is now min­is­ter for in­ter­na­tional de­vel­op­ment and the Pa­cific, told The Satur­day Pa­per there were “some very clear mes­sages” from the con­sul­ta­tions, “in­clud­ing the revalu­ing of cit­i­zen­ship, af­firm­ing the rights and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of be­ing an Aus­tralian and the need to speak English as a com­mon lan­guage”.

“Strong views were also ex­pressed about greater un­der­stand­ing of cit­i­zen­ship by all Aus­tralians, whether by birth or by ac­qui­si­tion of cit­i­zen­ship and the need for there to be strong sanc­tions against those who com­mit ter­ror­ist acts,” she said.

Fier­ra­vanti-Wells de­clined to iden­tify spe­cific rec­om­men­da­tions.

The Satur­day Pa­per un­der­stands they in­cluded a longer res­i­dency re­quire­ment be­fore cit­i­zen­ship and up­dat­ing both the pledge and the cit­i­zen­ship test.

The re­port is be­lieved to have raised con­cerns about cheat­ing on the test and rec­om­mended lim­it­ing the num­ber of times peo­ple who failed were able to re­peat it. It is un­der­stood to also reflect a sen­ti­ment from re­spon­dents that the flag should be flown more to demon­strate na­tional pride and there should be more civics ed­u­ca­tion on what al­le­giance to Aus­tralia means.

The depart­ment’s web­site ex­presses a sim­i­lar sen­ti­ment al­ready.

“It is im­por­tant for all

Aus­tralian cit­i­zens to un­der­stand our re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and what it means to be a citizen,” it says, “whether we are Aus­tralian by birth or by choice.”

The gov­ern­ment is about to make sure we do.

In the cur­rent height­ened po­lit­i­cal cli­mate, open­ing up the sub­ject is risky. While a care­fully guided de­bate could suc­ceed in de­fus­ing some of the na­tion’s cul­tural anx­i­ety, it also has huge po­ten­tial

• to go rogue.

An Aus­tralia

Day cit­i­zen­ship cer­e­mony takes place be­fore an A-League match at Mel­bourne’s Eti­had Sta­dium on Jan­uary 26.

KAREN MID­DLE­TON is The Satur­day Pa­per’s chief po­lit­i­cal cor­re­spon­dent.

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