A proxy debate on the citizenship test

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.

21 thoughts on “A proxy debate on the citizenship test

  1. I completely agree with the idea of removing the hysteria from the debate. However, I’m still not sure of the value of questioning people on the issues you suggest (although they seem much better than the previous questions). I doubt, for instance, that the average Australian could tell you a whole lot about how parliament is structured (how many parliamentarians there are, how boundaries are selected etc.), or why it is structured that way for that matter (apart from copying the Brits). I still constantly forget even the basics of how the upper house works (let alone how it works in practice), and I’ve no idea why Australians elect a whole lot of lawyers to make complex decisions on things they know nothing about (apart from copying the Brits), let alone what cultural implications that has.

    Perhaps just having a test of common things that are legal/illegal might be more useful, although even then, if it doesn’t stop people doing these activities, that doesn’t seem too great either. I also doubt there are many places you can come from and not stay within the law, even if you don’t know the first thing about it. There might be a few places you can (some places don’t have driver’s licencese, for instance), but it would be much smarter and simpler to target those people from those places with the information pertinent to them, although admittedly I can here cries of racism etc. if that was done.


  2. Conrad – It’s true that the average Australian doesn’t know much about politics, but that was the ‘problem’ civics education was designed to remedy. The major question here is how much that matters. Perhaps more so in Australia than elsewhere, as here the know-nothings are forced to vote and therefore influence the choice of government. On the other hand, there is a line of argument that says that people can form political judgments based on following the party or leader that appeals to them, or conforming with peers, or taking expert advice, etc. On this argument, those who do have political knowledge will steer those who do not, avoiding the need for the mass of people to have any great knowledge themselves. Civics has often been favoured on the left (as it was originally in Australia) as it was thought to help empower people, so that they could decide rather than just follow. But as I noted it is an empirical question as to whether it achieves this or not.


  3. Australian values and aspects of Australian citizenship as you describe them are inseparable. These aspects are manifestations of Australian values. Aspects put in place by those who framed the Constitution which have since been neglected, or important issues on which the Constitution is explicitly silent, are themselves “Australian values”.

    Conrad, it’s not just in upper houses of parliament that you’ll find people making decisions whose consequences they cannot fully comprehend. It happens in large organisations, where people will make a mockery of their qualifications by imposing some measure that has not been well thought out, or which failed last time it was tried (and the maker of that decision did not know about this, let alone investigate why and how to avoid failure). At any sporting match you’ll find spectators who are far more considered and wiser than the spur-of-the-moment players.


  4. Andrew ignoring the question of whether ‘soft left’ is a useful tag, it’s disingenuous to imply that only one side of politics is ‘excited’ about the issue. Most of the discussion I’ve read concerns the merits and feasibility of testing ‘values’ with a multiple choice test, coupled with lots of light-hearted banter about the kinds of Aussie factoids we should expect new citizens to know. The most passionate comments I’ve read have come from people who would generally be labelled ‘right wing (degree of rigidity unspecified), ranting about the importance of speaking English and leaving your degenerate homeland culture behind if you want to be graciously accepted into our ranks.


  5. “ranting about the importance of speaking English” – could be me. I think a passable undestanding of English is probably necessary to be a citizen. I may have a romantic view of the process (who couldn’t love Leo Rosten’s Hyman Kaplan books) but surely learning the language of the country you hope will adopt you is the least committment you can make, and one which should benefit you as much as anyone else?


  6. Ken – Maybe; much of the left and elements of the conservative right are deeply concerned with identity, which tends to bring out the passions. But the post was prompted by Bartlett’s comments and I had recently read the Betts/Birrell piece which collated left hyperbole for me, so that was my starting point.


  7. “but surely learning the language of the country you hope will adopt you is the least committment you can make, and one which should benefit you as much as anyone else”

    This sounds like hypocritical white-man stuff to me, often said by people who haven’t thought too hard about it. No doubt it is in your own interest to learn the language, but it is also worthwhile noting that substantial expatriate communities exist in many parts of Asia where probably 95% of them don’t speak the local language. But it doesn’t hurt anyone (excluding their children, some of whom also don’t learn the local language!!), and in fact their benefit is great despite not speaking the language, which is why the countries have them. Here’s an easier way to look at it. If Bill Gates wanted to move to, say, Germany, but didn’t speak German, would you deny him?


  8. Conrad – Whether speaking English is a critical part of acquiring permanent residence is one thing, but citizenship another – it’s unlikely that anyone could competently perform the duties of citizenship (ie voting and jury duty) without understanding English.


  9. An easy way to determine “Australian Values” is to look at section 2 of the draft EU constitution which outlines fundamental rights:

    Click to access text_en.pdf

    The EU spent big bucks, (and did translations for non-english speakers), and all we’d have to do is search-and-replace “Europe” for “Australia” – unless of course Australian values don’t have much to do with Western values as worked out by the home of western values ….

    Is there anything in the charter you object to? If so, why?


  10. Andrew — all electoral stuff is translated into numerous languages, so I don’t see the slightest problem in voting if you can’t speak English. I also don’t see why you couldn’t have translators in juries if you really wanted to include the very small number of people who don’t speak English well enough — some of whom exist in Australia in any case — also, I personally wouldn’t stop people becoming citizens if the worst thing they can do (or more accuractely can’t do) is jury duty. There are many worse things I can imagine, and they would represent a tiny tiny proportion of the population.

    My gripe is really just against the constant tirade that one hears in Australia against those that don’t speak English (including from left-wing commentators like Russell it appears) despite the fact that (a) enclaves of English speakers that do not speak the native language exist in numerous countries; (b) Its hard for me to think of groups less willing to speak the native language of their expat residences than Australians, Brits, and Americans; and (c) most of the people I deal with everyday with very poor English make my life better in any case — and they’re the poor ones who I doubt got screened for English in any case.


  11. Dave – I agree that most ‘Australian values’ are also values of other Western countries, but if we had a permanent residence test it would make sense to include things that are facts rather than values, such as aspects of Australian culture and history.

    Conrad – I doubt there are many monolingual Australians who are citizens of and permanently living in non-English speaking countries, and if they are citizens this would be by birth or descent. I think the requirement to speak the national language is unremarkable.


  12. “all electoral stuff is translated into numerous languages, so I don’t see the slightest problem in voting if you can’t speak English.”

    Conrad, 18 June.

    “migrants were more likely to lodge informal, or invalid, votes.”

    The Age, 19 June.


  13. “migrants were more likely to lodge informal, or invalid, votes.”
    So what? It’s compulsory to vote, not to be any good at it.

    I can’t see the issues of “aussie values” or “aussie culture” tests being any different to the beat up over gay marriage. It’s just another dog whistle to the hounds of ignorance, yet will make absolutely no difference to the makeup of immigrants turning up in Australia. That’s always been governed by tweaking the parameters over skills tests, family reunions and arbitrary decisions about what constitutes a refugee anyway.

    It’s stupid distractions like this that make the Howard government so untrustworthy, Beazley was a fool for taking the bait when he was leader of the ALP.


  14. As an aside, have you seen Bruce Tranter’s paper in the March 2007 Australian Journal of Political Science? He uses right/wrong questions in the AES to show that if only civically-informed voters had cast ballots, Labor would have won most of the recent federal elections.


  15. Leaving aside the ‘soft left’ tag, I think the idea of looking at the civics education debate is useful up to a point. I think we could do with a lot more civics education, but efforts to do so could well get mired in a sterile ‘culture wars’ debate.

    But we do still have to deal with what is actually being put forward, which is a new type of citizenship test, which on current indications won’t sit too neatly with a civics education test (although perhaps the Senate inquiry will clarify that).

    At the moment, there are three main issues which stick out to me:
    1. will migrants have to know a bunch of stuff (even if it is civics in its narrowest sense, rather than ‘values’) that many Australian born people don’t in order to become a citizen;

    2. many migrants I’ve heard from see this whole exercise as sending a signal that we’ve got a problem with migrants who are ‘unAustralian’. Given that this whole thing is being allegedly done to improve national cohesion and identity, I’m not sure this is a terribly helpful outcome (although I’m not in a position to judge how widespread this perception is)

    3. Why are we creating more bureaucracy and spending a not insignificant amount of money on developing and administering this thing, unless there is a currently significant problem? If there is a problem currently, what is it and where’s the evidence that shows this will help fix it – rather than for example putting the $100+ million into, say, civics education (or more English language funding, or other settlement help) for new migrants. If there is a problem, it would seem to make sense to address it when people first arrive, not when they’ve already been resident here for at least 4 years.


  16. Labor would have won most of the recent federal elections.

    Is this good or bad? I have my own view, but I’m not convinced that this trumps an argument for civics education.


  17. Australian Values, Australian Gold

    I live in a nation of ghosts and spirits, of Anzac martyrs and rural massacres. The damp soil of Gippsland, the haze of her mountain ash – I was born here; but if you think that being Australian is a birthright, you do not understand my country. My country is wattle and blood.

    Melbourne is all around me, the ferns protecting William Ricketts, the river whose Yarra water draws up the clay, the bindi-i in the summer grass, and the two-dollar buskers and cafes edging the wide streets.

    The magic of my land whispers deeper than prawns on barbies and bikinis in utes. I have lost patience with displays of bloody-minded jingoism. Posts are for football, not for displaying the flags of patriotic insecurity.

    Leaving Bendigo in 1916, my great grandfather’s mining lungs could not contend with the poison air of the Somme fields. He died on a hospital ship, never to return. He had marched under the flag and sung the anthem; they were rags and noise compared to the children he left orphaned at home. The entrepreneurs of war lied to him, but his intention was true.

    I am a part of the Australian community. Do not glibly say “one nation”: our country longs to be as one.

    We slag on the vacuous slogans of politians and the questionnaires of immigration bureaucrats. Our parliament mound infested with termites. They rejected our values when they took office shaking the hands of the perentie clans, their business mates. Leadership must be earned. Our Kelly sons went way too far in their war on the authorities, but we felt the injustice that took them to the edge.

    Nor do we fear religion. We have been inside temples and churches, listened to humanists and prayed in mosques. Our feeble attempts to understand the transcendent only gives us affection for our fellow peoples, and a desire to depose the little kings of racism and fear that threaten their peace.

    We celebrate our failures. Peter Lalor’s wounding at Eureka stockade, the betrayal of Nancy Wake in resistance France, Albert Namatjira despondent in prison; these people are our characters. To be ‘true blue’ is not the ashes of success; it is to have integrity.

    We demand a fair go for all humans, for family and friends and especially strangers. We barrack for the underdog (even at times for Collingwood!). We want to hear the stories of the refugee children, to decide for ourselves. And we know that it is never too late to engrave a treaty, to admit our past failures.

    For I am an Australian, my culture the bastard child of indigenous and intruder civilisations. Not until I acknowledge our rainbow heritage can I know who I am. Only when I understand that this ground cannot be bought and sold am I truly at home. The home that I love.

    Coburg, June 2007


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