The Politics of Australian Identity

Posted on May 16, 2008

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an article i wrote in 2006 when the citizenship test was being developed by the former Australian coalition Government.

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As Australian Muslims grapple with the fallout over comments from spiritual leader Sheik Taj Eldin Al Hilaly which referred to women as ‘uncovered meat’ and suggested they provoke rape; it’s clear to many that the country has become more comfortable with the expression of racial intolerance.

Any quick survey of media and news reports will harvest headlines such as ‘Thick Sheik’ from Sydney’s tabloid the Daily Telegraph, ‘Get rid of Hilaly Now’ from the Herald Sun and calls from conservative Politicians for his residency to be rescinded. Despite urging from some journalists, commentators and progressive politicians for restraint in the pubic debate, the outcry remains infused with racism.

For several years, ‘race ‘has become an instrument of Australian Governments–both state and federal–with which to win elections, justify the attenuation of civil liberties and rehabilitate racism under the guise of free speech.

This year, the rhetoric has been stepped up by some members of the conservative Federal Howard Government. In February, the Treasurer Peter Costello criticised ‘mushy, misguided multiculturalism’ for not demanding more of Australia’s newer citizens. He also said that those who could not honour their pledge of allegiance to Australia ‘should not be able to keep their citizenship where they have dual nationality. ‘

In August the Prime Minister, John Howard, declared in an opinion piece in one of Australia’s largest tabloids, the Daily Telegraph that it is an ‘undeniable fact that some who have come here are resisting integration. There are pockets of this resistance in different migrant groups but it is perhaps most visible at this time in a small section of the Islamic community.’

Then in September, the Parliamentary Secretary for Multiculturalism, Andrew Robb, launched a discussion paper–Australian citizenship: Much more than a ceremony. Ironically it was launched at the old Customs House building (now an Immigration Museum) in Melbourne, where discriminatory language tests were administered under the White Australia policy in the early half of the 20th Century.

The discussion paper proposed the introduction of a formal citizenship test which includes a language test, an examination of the applicant’s knowledge of Australian history, laws, system of democracy and an understanding of Australian values. It also proposes an extension from the current two years wait to obtain citizenship to four years.

Support for the test

Whilst an opinion poll showed that 77% of respondents were in favour of the test; many it seems are unaware that a test already exists for new citizens. Under the current arrangement, citizenship applicants are assessed on a basic knowledge of English, understanding the nature of the application and knowledge of the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship. New citizens also pledge to respect Australia’s democracy and laws.

So what evidence is there that the current arrangement is not working? According to some, the Government hasn’t made the case for changing Australia’s current practise.

Whilst community groups and advocates have criticised the planned changes, the most stinging criticism has come from within the Government’s own ranks. Dissident Liberal MP Petro Georgiou fired the first shot in an address to University students in South Australia where he pointed out that there has been “no detailed, robust analysis of a problem and no evidence of how the new measures would resolve a problem that has not been demonstrated”.

Joumanah Mansour, Director of the Islamic Women’s Welfare Council of Victoria (IWWCV) says ‘I’m not sure what the evidence is for it. It’s an odd debate … depending on how you come at this, it can be quite racist’

Aiming at Australian Muslims

So in the current climate is this move aimed at Muslims?

Director of the Melbourne based Australian Multicultural Foundation hopes that it’s not aimed at Muslims. ‘My view’ says Dellal ‘is that this has been evolving for some time and not aimed at a group. Australia is today one of the most diverse nations in the world… [Cultural diversity] is a solid foundation…this is about providing a framework of inclusivity.’

The Foundation has been one of the few multicultural organisations to date which has come out in support of ‘some aspects’ of the government’s discussion paper. Believing that ‘it’s good to have a discussion out there … to reassess the resources we have’. Mr. Dellal hopes that the proposed extension of the waiting period will allow prospective citizens time to engage with the Australian community and gain a better knowledge of the English language.

Community support

Already, discussions with immigrant communities in the eastern state of Victoria have revealed that there’s some support for the extension of the waiting period. ‘It gives them time to absorb the issues and that really helps them in settling here’ says Dellal.

However, Linda Burney, member of the Australian Labor Party (ALP); and Member for Canterbury in Sydney–where one of the largest Muslim populations lives–believes that ‘a lot of it is politics’. A member of the Indigenous Wiradjiri people of Sydney and a long time fighter for social justice, Ms Burney believes that ‘the current climate of living in an unstable world and a deeply held philosophical base of the Federal Government’ have informed these proposed changed to citizenship. ‘You can see it in the Indigenous area,’ she says ‘every one is made to be the same. One of the great things about Australia is that people who immigrate, adopt Australia as their home but hold onto their values. I don’t know why we’re scared of it?”

Historical Racism

Rewind 218 years to the colonisation of Australia, and evidence of the racism which marked our nation building is copious. Beginning with the displacement, massacres and stolen generations of Indigenous people; the murder of the Chinese at Lambing flat in the19th century, the internment of Germans, Italians and Japanese during WW1 and WW2; and the most recent race riots in Sydney last year at Cronulla beach; fear of the other is built into our national psyche.

Yet, could this plan provide an opportunity for a national conversation that can mitigate public perceptions of immigrant groups not integrating? Could it, as Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration and Multiculturalism Affairs Andrew Robb has contended, provide for a more cohesive society?

Sydney based Community Cultural Development worker Paula Abood sees the issue differently. ’I see no point in testing people and making them prove that they’re good Australians’ she says. ‘It’s coming from a Government that’s ideological, that’s played the race card and is not inclusive.’

Joumanah Mansour believes the current public perceptions about the lack of integration of Arab and Muslim communities are ‘based on a fantasy and impossible to allay. If there’s one culture we need to integrate to’ she says ‘surely it’s Indigenous culture.’

Australian Values

A central aspect of the discussion around citizenship has been about adopting

‘Australian Values’. Those listed in the discussion paper include respect for freedom and dignity of the individual; support for democracy; commitment to the rule of law; equality for men and women and a fair go.

But precisely how the government decided upon these values is unclear. The Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia (FECCA)–a national advocacy and lobbying organisation–argues that they are universal rather than Australian values. In its policy position paper on the proposed changes, FECCA says that ‘values are not fixed in time’ and ‘the contributions of Indigenous Australians, migrants and refugees have enriched and changed our values … shaping our Australian way of life. ‘

Arts consultant and Director of the Melbourne based Kape Communications Fotis Kapetopoulos agrees that these values are universal, but is dismayed that ‘for the first time in over thirty years, we now have leaders in Government prepared to promote division based on culture, language and beliefs.’

Learning English

One area over which there’s broad but qualified agreement is the English language component. Associate Professor in Geography at The University of NSW, Dr. Kevin Dunn believes that English is vital to participation in Australian society. But he is concerned about linking it to gaining citizenship. ‘I would be happier if there was more emphasis on English language education … for newly arrived migrants, and for those who arrived some time ago, but had not yet had the time and resources to attend classes’ he says.

Ironically, since 1996, the Federal Government has made it difficult to access English language education. Services have been cut back and access to free classes has been limited to those who have recently arrived.

‘The problem is that there’s been so many cuts to English language education; and that has mostly affected women’ argues Paula Abood. ‘I’ve worked for 20 years advocating English language education for communities, but the Government just keeps cutting back on classes and on childcare.’

‘If a person doesn’t learn English, she feels the impact’ says Abood ‘but it’s not like she breaks Australian society down. If that happens then Australian society is very fragile.’

The Future of Multiculturalism

So is this another nail in the coffin of multiculturalism?

Hass Dellal believes that cultural diversity is a strong underpinning of Australian society and that a return to assimilation will not work. ‘It didn’t work in the past, so why would it work in the 21st century?’ he asks. Any attempt to have ‘a monolithic sameness to our identity’ he believes ‘will fail because we are already diverse’.

It’s a notion that resonates with Fotis Kapetopoulos who whilst appalled by the ‘jingoism of our politicians’, believes that democracy in the end, will ‘outlive mushy nationalisms.’

Nadyat El Gawley

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