What makes you an Aussie citizen?

A FIERCE debate has broken out in Australia over the government’s new plan to force migrants wanting to become Australian citizens to learn English and know about the country’s history, national symbols and culture.

By Ross Peake

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Published: Thu 21 Sep 2006, 8:52 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 5:46 PM

They will have to pass a written test to show they grasp the concept of "a fair go" before being granted citizenship. Compassion, respect and democracy would also be included in the compulsory citizenship test.

Prime Minister John Howard says any immigrant who is "fair dinkum" about becoming a citizen will have no trouble passing the test. Under the changes, immigrants will have to spend four years instead of two in Australia before becoming eligible for citizenship.

There is nothing radical in the new test when it is compared to what other countries do. The United States, Britain and Canada all have tests, with quite detailed questions. In fact Howard foreshadowed the changes several months ago and the country will benefit from an honest debate about the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

The campaign was launched by senior government MP Andrew Robb who said people must have an understanding of what makes Australia tick as well as a working level of English before becoming a citizen. "It aims to enhance the profile and positive attitude towards Australian citizenship among the broader Australian population by promoting its role as the single most unifying force in our community," he said. "The campaign also emphasises that becoming a citizen demonstrates a commitment to Australian values and enables full participation in the community."

However, some ethnic community groups are worried about the underlying reasons and timing of the announcement and where the real debate is headed. They point out that a nation’s values and beliefs cannot simply be instilled into people by making them sit for a test.

Some critics say the new test is an xenophobic reaction that is unfair to Muslims and older migrants. They say the Howard government previously cut English language classes to some migrant groups.

In the past Howard has capitalised on fear of boatpeople. That is leading to questioning of his motives this time, with the 9/11 anniversary still in people’s minds. Howard has long said he is governing for the "mainstream". Now he is talking about "where zealous multiculturalism went wrong". He often uses the word "un-Australian" without saying what he means.

Feedback to the major political parties is that many people are concerned about immigrants not making sufficient efforts to integrate. Those citizens will be reassured by the highly patriotic tone of government advertisements now flooding the media. The theme is that being an Australian citizen is a privilege that should not be conferred lightly.

In a bizarre sideshow to the main event, Opposition Leader Kim Beazley used the 9/11 anniversary to declare that visitors to Australia should sign up to Australian values. There was incredulity on all sides of politics when he said anyone wanting a visa to travel to Australia should make a written declaration that they would abide by so-called Australian values.

As well he unveiled his proposal without consulting Labor MPs, sparking more criticism from his team of his already shaking position. They questioned why he did not use a national day for his contribution to the debate about Australian values.

The values debate is sending confusing signals to the community. "One can only imagine what the leaders of other countries think as ours pompously harness the universal values of fairness, tolerance, equality and hard work as uniquely Australian," one leading commentator laments. "[Are] they borrowing a shallow jingoistic theme for political gain, one that can pit Australian against Australian, new immigrant against old-timer, Australians of different origin against each other?"

The debate over "Australian values" comes as the country this week engages in mass mourning for two Ausssie icons —crocodile hunter Steve Irwin and legendary racing driver Peter Brock. The memorial services for the two will dominate the nation as it celebrates all that it is to be Australian.

Ross Peake is a Canberra-based political analyst.

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