Citizen cane

As ever, it was Peter Dutton whose language made clear the government’s purpose. Immediately, as changes were announced to citizenship, he was talking about migrants “contributing and not leading a life on welfare”. Migrants had to prove “they haven’t been perpetrators of domestic violence or whatever the case might be”.

And, moments later: “We would ask questions for example, as we’re seeing in Melbourne at the moment, if kids are roaming the street at night as part of gangs, in the Apex gangs or elsewhere, in cities like Melbourne, whether or not that is adopting an Australian value.”

The thoughts were half-formed but forceful. “You decide in your application, when you want to become an Australian citizen, that you will adopt Australian values. And we are very clear about saying that today in the announcement, because we are making no apologies for the fact that we do want people to be able to integrate.”

And then, as if to damn recent citizens: “There are some checks undertaken at the moment but they’re clearly insufficient.”

There was a time when Malcolm Turnbull was better than this. It was a time when he spoke without caveat about “the most successful multicultural society in the world”. Not this week: “The points that Peter makes are absolutely correct.”

That old language was still there as the prime minister announced his changes to the citizenship process, although it was cantilevered with a new purpose. “We are an extraordinary nation,” Turnbull said. “You know, we’re not defined by race or religion or culture, as many other nations are. We’re defined by commitment to common values, political values, the rule of law, democracy, freedom, mutual respect, equality for men and women. These fundamental values are what make us Australian.”

Now it was about “a stronger Australia, stronger citizenship, stronger citizens”. The same sentiment accompanied his Clayton’s overhaul of temporary work visas: “I’m putting Australian jobs first, Australians for Australian jobs first.”

This is the rhetoric of race. It’s a sly whistle, familiar to anyone who has watched politics in this country. In fact, it was almost identical to a John Howard announcement of similar reforms in 2006. 

Nowhere is there credible research to suggest new citizens are more likely to perpetrate domestic violence. Properly administered, the 457 visa class is about filling jobs where there are no local alternatives.

The issues Turnbull and Dutton whistle at are already addressed by law. But a witch trial on “Australian values” is a useful distraction for a government without purpose. New migrants are a neat villain: they can’t vote, and they rarely talk back.

This is a country of decent values. But when politicians seek to use those values for cheap gain, to disfigure them with vile intent, it is this country’s job to say no.

An English test and questionnaire could be announced without mention of welfare or criminality, but without these demons the English test and questionnaire would never serve their true purpose: to profit from and feed the anxiety a fringe of voters have about race.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 22, 2017 as "Citizen cane".

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