Last week the Senate referred the legislation for the citizenship test to an inquiry, with submissions to be received by 31 July. This legislation has had the soft left excited for months, and this inquiry will set off another round of criticism. Though welcoming an opportunity for people to have their say, Australian Democrats Senator Andrew Bartlett issued a media release saying:
“I am concerned that the government is planning to spend over $100 million on a citizenship test that runs the risk of reducing an important unifying concept to little more than a game of Trivial Pursuit.
“Citizenship is a common bond that the government has seen fit to turn into a wedge to foster community division.
This debate has become heated partly because it combines (or appears to combine) two things which excite the left: race/ethnicity and John Howard. An article by Katharine Betts and Bob Birrell in the most recent issue of People and Place quotes many remarks along the lines of those in Senator Bartlett’s media release, some going so far as to suggest a citizenship test takes a step back in the direction of the White Australia Policy.
Sometimes a way of securing a more rational discussion of an issue is to put it to one side and discuss a proxy issue – one which raises similar considerations but lacks the same emotive political context. As it happens, we have a possible proxy issue in Australia’s recent past, the teaching of civics in schools.
Civics education was added to the political agenda in the early 1990s. Ironically, in light of divisions over the citizenship test, it was favoured by the soft left because of its possible benefits to the republic campaign. As then Prime Minister Paul Keating put it in 1994:
Learning about the Constitution apprises people of the fact that we’ve got a Constitution which was designed by the British Foreign Office to look over the Australian Government’s shoulder.
But the woeful level of political knowledge revealed in various surveys ensured that civics education acquired bipartisan support. When he was Education Minister David Kemp advanced civics education through the Discovering Democracy curriculum materials. The logic behind civics education is clear: if people are to participate effectively as citizens there is minimum level of knowledge that they need to have.
The same considerations apply to a citizenship test. The right to vote is one of the few legal differences between being a citizen and being a permanent resident, and if Australian school children are expected to acquire minimal levels of knowledge before casting their first vote, shouldn’t migrants do the same? As Sinclair Davidson and Christina Yan have pointed out, many migrants come from countries with very different political systems. If we discuss the citizenship test in the context of civics knowledge more generally, much of the political heat could be taken out, allowing a more sensible discussion of whether or not such measures are likely to have benefits (as I understand it the international evidence on the contribution of civics education to future effective citizenship is at best mixed, but I would not claim any expertise on this matter).
This debate has been complicated because knowledge of ‘Australian values’ will also be tested. Though the draft questions discussed on this blog and elsewhere last month were subsequently revealed to be a News Ltd invention rather than the government’s own draft, they did highlight the potential problems with tests on something as vague as Australian values compared to questions about the machinery of Australian politics relevant to citizenship that can with more certainty be classified as right or wrong.
But to the extent broader Australian values should be tested, the time to do it would be before permanent residence is granted. Effectively, permanent residence is the entry point into Australian society – not just the right to be here on an ongoing basis, but when most legal rights are granted. While would-be permanent residents will be:
required to sign a statement indicating that they have read, or had explained to them, material on the way of life in Australia and that they understand and respect Australian values and agree to abide by Australian laws
this stops short of a test. It could easily be argued that any long-term stay in Australia would benefit from the kind of general knowledge of Australian society, values and traditions proposed for the citizenship test that will in fact at earliest occur years later. Citizenship is primarily about membership of the Australian political community, not Australian society more generally, and requires different knowledge.
Personally, I am still undecided on what should be done. But I think we can have a clearer and calmer debate if we separate out the Australian values and Australian citizenship components of the debate, and decide the latter at least partly in terms of whether or not we believe civics education to be a good idea.