Prime Minister Howard’s citizenship test requiring those seeking citizenship to demonstrate an understanding of English and to pass a test on Australian history, culture and values is a sensible way of promoting integration and of signaling to those electing to become Australians that our society is not an empty slate – a cultural void without history – that is always enriched by having greater cultural diversity. It isn’t – some forms of diversity and some cultural values we should not accept.
Australia is a remarkable country with high living standards, a soundly-functioning democracy, high levels of gender equality and low levels of religious and political conflict. These are not negligible achievements and need to be appreciated by migrants coming from cultures without such achievements. Moreover, Australia does have a history of white settlement that has played an important role in conditioning the national character. Australia’s aboriginal history, extending back 40,000 years or more, is one of the oldest on earth and needs to be appreciated by all those who live here.
Likewise the need to confirm a signed agreement to adhere to the Australian way of life and to Australian values is a useful way of signaling to migrants that Australian residents do place value on our cultural successes. People who come from cultures that are thousands of years old but who still see women as pieces of meat and those who see it as reasonable to kill women seeking to gain an education or to kill those who seek to practice their own religion are not welcome here whatever the cultural ‘enrichment’ they can transfer. Nor do we want migrants in Australia who are prepared to use violence to thwart Australian government policies, including our foreign policies.
Labor’s immigration spokesperson, Tony Bourke, almost predictably described the proposed test (without having seen it) as a ‘trivia night’ test. Like other Labor politicians (and those on the left) he apparently sees Australian history and culture as a blank slate and hence as ‘trivia’.
The citizenship test and the signed affirmation can be criticized – it will not screen out the religious nuts and fanatics who can deceive their way around the test and affirmation - but it will signal to them the Australian intent to affirm certain values.
There is the legitimate claim that some useful people will not seek citizenship because of the test. This is partly true because citizenship in many cases – for example with respect to British citizens living in Australia - does not increase advantage over simple residency. This is another policy failure that needs to be addressed. But the citizenship test and the affirmation fill an important gap in our citizenship procedures.