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Citizenship as Trivial Pursuit
Chris Saliba is one of Webdiary’s active citizen journalists, having contributed numerous articles and book reviews over the past three years. His Webdiary archive is here, and he also has his own website. In this article, Chris subjects the Federal Government’s new citizenship test to critical analysis.
Can you become a better citizen by passing a citizenship test?
This is the argument behind legislation recently passed by parliament on September 10. Labor voted with the government on the citizenship test bill, but it was opposed by the Greens and the Democrats. Petro Georgiou was the dissenting Liberal.
Last September Family First’s Steve Fielding indicated he would pass the bill. I called his office to see if there had been a change of mind over the past year. An adviser from the senator’s office told me that Family First had voted yes to the bill, and that they had a lot of support for the citizenship test from their constituents.
When I asked if Senator Fielding had read the draft booklet, Becoming an Australian citizen, from which the questions for the test are to be taken, I was told by his adviser that she was not at liberty to say. Further probing received the same response.
Family First will release its official response once they receive the questions to be used in the test from the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship’s office.
The bill will require most permanent residents to successfully complete a citizenship test before applying. The test will cost the applicant $120 (payable as part of the overall application fee for citizenship). Pensioners can get a discounted rate of $40. According Democrats Senator Andrew Bartlett the cost of implementing the test will be some $125 million.
The draft booklet from which the 20 multiple choice questions will be derived has been released for public perusal. Despite the controversy surrounding the test, there’s not that much in the booklet that is particularly contentious.
Rights and responsibilities are laid out, Australian history is briefly explained, key national symbols, emblems and icons are demystified, sporting achievements are highlighted, national holidays are listed (in case anyone should forget) and, most importantly, part three tells aspiring citizens how the country is governed.
Tricky questions like Australia’s indigenous population, and their fate under European settlement, are treated candidly.
‘It is estimated there were some 750,000 Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia at the start of European settlement in 1788. This population declined dramatically during the 19th and early 20th century due to a number of factors, including conflict with the new settlers and especially the impact of new diseases. At the time of the 2006 Census, Australia’s Indigenous population was about 483,000.’
Elsewhere we are told that Australia has been a remarkably peaceful country, ‘except for small scale battles between settlers and Aboriginal people.’ Sure, people will argue over the scale of the battles. Nevertheless the government doesn’t pretend that these early conflicts never happened.
These matters of indigenous dispossession are set out in unemotional language, eschewing any moral perspective. The almost halving of the Aboriginal population is something that just happened.
Australia’s anti-Asian past is also dealt with. ‘Australians had also become conscious of the need to keep out the people who seemed to threaten their new way of life.’ The racist sentiment, and policy, of early Australia is briefly explained as a need to create social cohesion and keep out ‘foreign outcasts (who) worked for low wages and lowered the dignity of all labour.’
Other aspects of the draft unmistakably show John Howard’s hand. It is clear the Prime Minister is still haunted by the culture wars.
Mateship is made a uniquely Australian experience. ‘A mate can be a spouse, partner, brother, sister, daughter, son or a friend.’
The ANZAC legend gets a big grey box, highlighting its importance.
Sir Donald Bradman is identified as the greatest batsman of all time. ‘He was small and slight but amazingly quick on his feet, playing his shots almost like a machine.’ Never having taken a moment’s interest in cricket, I have no idea what this means.
Despite the dogged insistence that the blokey ‘mateship’ be applied to all human relationships, the draft booklet is overall pretty unremarkable.
If that’s the case, you may ask, what’s everyone’s problem with it? Shouldn’t people who want to become citizens assimilate, learn our values, educate themselves as to how our parliament and institutions work?
Shadow Minister for Immigration, Integration & Citizenship, Tony Burke, doesn’t believe the test is a radical departure from current practice. Nevertheless, he provided an ironic story when delivering a speech to parliament on 21st June this year discussing the bill.
Burke is the member for Watson, named after the third Prime Minister of Australia, John Christian Watson. At that time, there was no such thing as Australian citizenship: you merely had to be a member of the British Empire to enjoy full citizenship rights. Watson, however, was not his real name. It was John Christian Tanck. Having been born in Chile, he said he was born on a ship that was in international waters, allowing him to claim British citizenship even though his father was German.
According to Burke, ‘Had he told the truth about his citizenship and had our system been more watertight—say, in the fashion that it is today—he not only would never have been Prime Minister but also would not have been allowed to vote.’
Why bring this odd story up about an Australian prime minister? Was he saying it was a bad thing that John Christian Watson ever became prime minister? Was he trying to suggest that the bill could stop some very good people from becoming citizens, maybe even prime minister? Despite the fact that his speech was all about his support for the bill, I suspect the latter was the case. As Petro Georgiou said, if his parents had had to sit the test, they never would have been able to become Australian citizens.
Nor would have my Maltese grandmother. She can barely write her own name. Studying forty pages in English and then being tested on it? Forget it! She came to Australia in search of food for her children after Malta had been devastated by bombing during the Second World War, not to learn how ‘Arthur Streeton flooded his pictures with light’ or that ‘Fred McCubbin depicted that regular nightmare, a child lost in the bush.’
So what’s wrong with the citizenship test if it’s full of nifty info about Australia? (I learnt quite a few things reading it myself.)
Well, in short it’s punitive, it’s illiberal and it’s unfair. It’s also one government’s idea of Australia. How would a future Labor government write the questions for a test? How will it be used by future governments?
It also targets people with poor English, as it is people from non-English backgrounds who are the most likely to take up citizenship. The lowest take up rates for citizenship are those from English speaking countries: the UK, the US and New Zealand. The fact is, people from non-English speaking backgrounds are more committed to Australian citizenship than those from English speaking backgrounds.
The test is baffling in this regard because it seems to be discouraging the very people who most want to become citizens from doing so. It’s counterproductive, to say the least.
If we were to be really fair about the citizenship test, all citizens would be made to pass it before they were allowed to vote. As it stands, someone who’s lucky enough to be born in Australia is free to remain blissfully ignorant of how our parliament works, what happened at Gallipoli, and the importance of Donald Bradman to the national psyche.
Australians can be very lazy about their own democracy. Just recently at the Albert Park by-election in Melbourne, only 69% of the voters turned out. Of those who did turn up to a polling booth, 6.9% cast informal votes. Politicians are no better. The Liberal Party was a complete no-show at the by-election, not even bothering to stand a candidate.
Other examples abound. Remember Peter Garrett’s mysterious disappearance from the electoral rolls for a decade? Pauline Hanson’s autobiography has an illuminating section discussing how many MPs vote on bills without even bothering to find out what they’re about!
Some of our leading media commentators even find our system of compulsory voting ‘repugnant’. Michael Duffy quite candidly wrote about how he hadn’t voted at all until the 2007 NSW state election (he voted for the Greens.) Should this diversity of opinion be reflected in the test?
Face facts, everyone learns about Australia at their own pace. Some become experts, some learn no more than what see broadcast on channel nine’s A Current Affair. All of us will be ignorant on some point of Australian history or culture.
Just ask federal Education Minister Julie Bishop. She was asked last year to name the first European explorers to cross the Blue Mountains (Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson – I just looked it up in the draft booklet.) In response she testily said, ‘We’re going to play this game, are we?’
Well, yes Minister, we are. Why didn’t you vote against it if you think it’s a silly game?
A few years ago I sat down in front of the computer to try and educate myself as to how the preferential voting system works in the Senate. Some twenty minutes later, courtesy of Antony Green’s election site, I could say, ‘Got it!’ Ask me today how it works and I’m totally clueless. I don’t know how long it took me to forget what I’d learnt, but forget it I did. Now I’m back at square one, and too lazy to bother trying to learn it again.
I hope citizens who pass the test have a better memory than I do.