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What is this citizenship kerfuffle about?

By Raja Ratnam
Created 15/10/2006 - 13:20

Raja Ratnam [1] is a Webdiarist who worked, at the level of Director, for about 9 years, in the Department of Immigration in the 1980s, on policy on ethnic affairs, citizenship, refugee and humanitarian entry. Under the name Arasa, he is the author of Destiny Will Out, a personal narrative based on his own work and settlement experience, The Karma of Culture‚ (Trafford Publishing, Canada) and Hidden Footprints of Unity (Sidharta Publishers, Melbourne). This is his first piece for Webdiary.

by Raja Ratnam

There’s a kerfuffle going on about the grant of citizenship and Australian values. What is it all about?

Before 1948, Aussies were British subjects. That was reasonable, since the population was almost wholly British in origin. The non-British present were not that different culturally, in terms of traditions and values. I mean, a field of wheat remains what it is even it is enhanced here and there by the presence of some rapeseed and other grains of value, does it not? Australians enlisted to fight for Britain, burying any priest-driven antipathy between Roman Catholics and other Christians.

In 1948, about the time I arrived in the country as a British subject, Australia introduced its own national identity. The pre-existing White Australia policy led to the first minister for immigration (Arthur Calwell) doing his best to keep the country white. I had Buckley’s hope then of ever being allowed to settle in the country, as I was coloured. Yet, I carried a British passport as a document of identity – and I had right of entry and residence in Britain as a colonial subject.

Ironically, in about 1982, it was my expert team in the Citizenship Branch in the Department of Immigration that carried out the first major review of our citizenship legislation. Almost all of our recommendations became law. The then prime minister (Bob Hawke) confirmed in the parliament the essence of the revised citizenship – a commitment to Australia. Amusingly, at about the same time, the British Government changed its laws to exclude people like me. No, it was not tit for tat! Just as Australia was no more Britain’s backyard, so Britain was no more a haven for former colonial subjects.

A key feature of my team’s recommendations was that no one could govern, fight for, or administer Australia without being an Australian citizen. As a consequence, an academic English friend of mine had to pay a re-entry fee to return to Australia whenever he attended conferences overseas; and his English wife had to obtain the grant of Australian citizenship to continue as a teacher in a state school. Their children, having been born in Australia, were Aussies by birth. Men who had fought overseas as Australians suddenly found themselves having to apply for Australian citizenship. This naturally upset a few of our military chieftains.

The large post-war immigrant intake from Europe settled in easily. The bulk of this intake came in as able-bodied workers. Even the middle class war-displaced Europeans had to work with their bodies and hands for a couple of years. They readily set out to learn English and to adapt to the institutions and social mores of Australia. Their successful adaptation to their new home is reflected in the absence of ethnic ghettos, and in English being the language used in public places. Contrary to some strident assertions by the more chauvinistic of the second generation Aussies (ie the offspring of immigrants, the first generation), no settlers were denied the right to continue to pray as they wished, to eat the food they wished, to speak their mother tongue, to dress as they wished, and to practice their own traditions. Australia is the country of freedom of expression. Cultural integration, not assimilation, was expected; and achieved.

The children and grandchildren of the immigrants make a real contribution to this integration. Just as the various tribes of the British Isles formed themselves into the British people, a revised Australian identity also evolved. Today’s school children do not appear to be as aware, as their parents might have been, of differences in religious beliefs, skin colour, and ethno-cultural practices. Their parents certainly displayed less prejudice than the grandparents might have towards people not of their kind. Our teachers also contributed substantially to this increasing tolerance and subsequent acceptance. Such social integration does not deny individuals their right of pride in their ancestry, for what that is worth, for we are all worthy.

All of the above is history. To keen and objective observers of society, much of it is not new. What is new and problematic is the complex impact of easy access to Oz citizenship; an increasing cultural and ethnic diversity in a much expanded immigration intake; claims from of the newer arrivals of cultural superiority; and a surprising upholding of ancestry and associated religio-cultural practices by some Aussies as somehow durable and unchanging for ever.

The problem commences with that simplistic ‘shopkeeper’ attitude that the more consumers we import the better, allied to a belief that the greater the ethno-racial and religio-cultural diversity the better. How so? No adverse consequences for that hard-won Australian identity signifying social cohesion? Who cares? We are multicultural, hooray, hooray! Look at our diversity in ethnic restaurants, and our colourful workforce at the ‘coalface’, viz. taxis, baggage handling, etc. etc. Yeah!

Another significant contributor to the current problem has been the official policy on multiculturalism. Under this policy, ethnic individuals and communities are free to practice those of their cultural traditions which are clearly not inconsistent with Australia’s institutions and social mores (repeat, social mores); and to tolerate and respect the cultural traditions and practices of other communities. So far, so good. Apart from some politicians seeking to have a secular Australia governed by the preaching of their priesthood, many members of our immigrant communities have actually merged cross-culturally in the past half-century. The exceptions are some of the more recent immigrants, including many accepted as refugees.

These have chosen to form residential communities, enabling them to enjoy social cohesion within each community. Again, this pattern poses no problem, as long as the members speak English in their pubic transactions, respect the rights and cultural traditions of others, and not isolate themselves as a superior ethnic community. If their priests and politicians do not prevent it, their grandchildren, if not their children, will ensure greater integration, through education. It is, indeed, a human instinct to reach out to other humans. So, what is the problem? A very short qualifying period of residence for citizenship allows any killers and criminals to keep their heads low before being protected by Aussie citizenship; and does not give enough time for non-English speakers to learn enough English to relate to fellow-Aussies, and to learn about Australian political, administrative and other institutions, and social and behavioural values and practices. Immigrants learn about these matters by associating with, and relating to, more established Aussies. It does take time. We do not surely want immigrants disadvantaged by living in tribal communities, with its attendant risks.

All human relations require a give-and-take approach, do they not? In a comparable manner, equal opportunity in life requires, whether we like it or not, a co-operative adaptability. When immigrants choose to present themselves as significantly different culturally – by clothing, behaviour, and expressed values, what are they saying? Could they reasonably expect the host nation peoples not to see them as ‘not one of us’? What keeps individuals and communities apart are asserted differences, based on a simplistic claim of superiority. What is it about an immigrant’s faith, cultural inheritance, and ancestry that prevents him from adapting to the nation which he chose to enter?

In this context, multiculturalism is merely a descriptor for ethnic and cultural diversity. Official multicultural policies encourage acceptance of others, whilst enabling the retention of cultural practices that are not incompatible with host-nation values. They do not permit the assertion of cultural hegemony or even divergence. They do not also impede the eventual integration of new arrivals into the host peoples. This is a desirable outcome, enhancing social cohesion in the nation.

In any event, an immigrant obtaining the protection of Aussie citizenship also achieves a new national identity. This identity joins the bundle of identities which each of us possesses, ie tribal, religious, etc. Acceptance of this national identity implies a commitment to the nation and to fellow citizens. Where another nation imposes its nationality upon the new Aussie, there is little he can do, other than to avoid military service in that country. If the new Aussie chooses and accepts another nationality without losing his Aussie nationality, then the Aussie nationality is tarnished. As well, to which country does this immigrant offer commitment? If the new Aussie chooses to retain his old national identity (which he is entitled to do under recent provisions for dual nationality), as a matter of convenience in travel and business, it also diminishes his commitment to Australia. If he chooses to fight for the country of his other nationality whilst a citizen of Australia, he will be seen as a mercenary, and using his Aussie identity as only a fallback position for security.

What will he then tell his children were they born in Australia and are thereby Aussie citizens? That their citizenship has no substantive value? What sort of nation does he think will result? What will Australia’s national identity mean to them?

Since the federal government has itself diminished the value of Aussie citizenship by permitting dual nationality, it may now not be important to ask an applicant for citizenship to know enough colloquial English, or to understand and accept the institutional and social values which underpin Australia, or to seek to integrate himself into the nation. Why should he? Aussie citizenship (with passport) is only another signifier of identity.

On the other hand, if the intending Australian citizen is not going to fight for another nation, or to live in another country under the protection of his Australian passport, perhaps he should be encouraged to join his children and grandchildren in sharing the Australian nation’s ethos. But, could he not do this without taking up Aussie citizenship?

So, what is this official citizenship kerfuffle about?

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