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The new citizenship test questions purported to gauge adherence to Australian values are flawed and ethically ambiguous. By Lauren Williams.

Australia’s new citizenship test

We’ve heard this song before. In 2007, with John Howard’s grip on the leadership slipping, boat people and terrorism in the shadow of the Bali bombings on the mind, along with the Cronulla riots, Howard announced a new citizenship test to examine new Australian’s commitment to Australian integration and “social cohesion”.

And so began a decade-long debate about our national identity and who belongs.

Now, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s early leadership rhetoric of “openness” and “diversity” has morphed into nativism and identity.

There was predictable mockery after Turnbull bumbled through his appearance on 7.30 following the announcement that new citizens would be subject to a test of their “Australian values”. During the interview, Leigh Sales drilled him on how to define Australian values.

“There is something uniquely Australian about them,” he said. “We’re proud of them. We’re committed to them. We should celebrate them and we should put them at the core of becoming an Australian citizen.”

Collapsing notions of cultural identity into the law of belonging values has real consequences for Australian culture. And the practicalities of doing so are unclear. How do you test a person’s values? Certainly not with a multiple-choice question.

According to a leaked list of the questions – those designed to “weed out terrorists and wife beaters” – the test will include examples such as: “Does Australia’s principle of freedom of religion mean that in some situations it is permissible to force children to marry?” and “Under what circumstances is it appropriate to prohibit girls from education?”

Constitutional lawyer and dean of law at the University of New South Wales Professor George Williams points out one flaw with this approach: “People will just lie.”

Mohab Kamel is a 32-year-old Muslim Egyptian working in Brisbane as a technical adviser at Apple and is married to an Australian with a three-year-old daughter. Currently a permanent resident, he has been in the country four years and is scheduled to sit the current citizenship test on May 23. He says the questions are offensive.

“If I am asked if I hit my wife of course I would be offended. It’s an insult to my intelligence,” he says. “Who on earth would answer yes to a question like that? Unless they are mentally ill… so maybe what they need is psychological tests.”

The executive director of The Ethics Centre, Dr Simon Longstaff, believes the idea of allowing someone to become a citizen based on shared or common values in principle is fine, but implementing it is a different matter. In the absence of any genuine method by which a government can test commitment to its values, the whole process is vexed.

Practicalities aside, Longstaff says there are deep moral questions raised when considering the authority of the state in prescribing not just civic but cultural values.

“A value is another word for saying what we think is good,” Longstaff says. “The role values play is like signposts that point to the things that are good. They help us make our choices.”

But values, he says, are accompanied by principles that dictate how you succeed in achieving what is right. “People may have the same values but express them differently. You have to be extremely cautious when you encounter someone that has different behaviour that you do not conclude they have different values.”

According to Longstaff, there is nothing wrong with a set of universal values, or even uniquely Australian values, in theory. But others worry about the normalisation of a monoculture through imposing a system of beliefs.

Professor Williams believes the move is dangerous in that it promotes a singular national identity.

“It’s part of a broader reaction we see around the world where we are closing our borders and moving to a more insular outlook,” he says. “It could be damaging in that it suggests a singular view as opposed to multiculturalism. It’s about identity, it’s about who is with us and who is against us. It’s a powerful symbol, but a useless device.”

Australia’s diversity might be considered one of its values. Close to 30 per cent of the Australian population was born overseas, the highest percentage since the 1880s. Though ethnic diversity has been manifest as a political system in the form of multiculturalism, at its heart, unlike other countries that have a longer history defined through race, religion or ethnicity, Australia itself is defined by its diversity.

“Those countries that have a particular ethnicity or national identity, like Belgium, Israel and Ireland, as in ethnic nationality, can perhaps better identify national values,” says citizenship expert and professor of law at the Australian National University Kim Rubenstein.

 “But for a multicultural society like Australia or the US – it is civic values that are core.

“They are democratic values, and those democratic values are already being tested by the citizenship test.”

Rubenstein is suspicious of placing values – which can be tested under the jurisdiction of other areas of the law – in the realm of citizenship.

“I’m wary about the state actually dictating or even being able to assess values beyond public actions, which are already regulated by other areas of the legal system,” she says.

When new Australians take the pledge to become Australians they state the following: “From this time forward 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 fact that liberties and democratic beliefs are at the heart of this pledge is telling, and it is here where the inconsistency of the new test lies. Ironically, capital “L” Liberalism places personal liberty and the lack of involvement of the state in personal affairs as the highest political value.

“Citizenship is supposed to be much more about equality between the state and individuals,” says Rubenstein. “Personal values are in the individual’s personal domain.”

Longstaff points out that while all laws are based on values, “central to democracy, as opposed to a theocracy, for instance, is that the source of authority lies in those who are governed, which is us”.

At their heart these questions have practical implications.

Mohab Kamel has yet to be informed whether he will have to sit the revised or current citizenship test this month, but he knows why he wants to be Australian. It has to do with his personal values.

“I want to be able to vote. For me, I value being able to have a say. Whatever affects this country affects me. Because back home in Egypt voting is just something that I had to do, but there was no sense in it,” he says.

“Here I vote with integrity and my vote counts. I need to feel active. I need to contribute.”

He lists honesty, loyalty and ambition among his personal values that are relevant to his citizenship.

“But ask me if I pray five times a day…” he says, “well, that’s none of your business.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 6, 2017 as "Values added". Subscribe here.

Lauren Williams
is a freelance journalist.

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