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

Changes to citizenship to also reopen debate on Australian identity

An Australia Day citizenship ceremony takes place before an A-League match at Melbourne’s Etihad Stadium on January 26.
Credit: DARRIAN TRAYNOR / GETTY IMAGES

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.”

Tougher character test

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.

‘An intergenerational story’

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.”

How to avoid exclusion

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 Fierravanti-Wells, 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.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 18, 2017 as "Pledge to reopen Australia identity debate". Subscribe here.

Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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