human behavior

The price and privilege of citizenship

Posted in Australian Culture & Politics, Foreign Impressions, The Expatriate Life by humanb on December 12, 2006

ausflag1I’m not an Australian citizen. I’m a temporary resident, currently awaiting approval of an application for permanent residency. And I am a bit confused as to why there are such strong objections to the introduction of a citizenship test.

The Australian Citizenship Discussion Paper asked individuals and groups in the Australian community to submit comments about a proposed citizenship test for new migrants, and rightly reviewed what citizenship means and provides to those who are granted it or born with it.

The privileges of citizenship

Australian citizens have:

  • the right to live in Australia (unlike permanent residents who have permission to live here indefinitely)
  • the right to apply for an Australian passport
  • the right to register children born overseas as Australian citizens by descent
  • the capacity to seek election to Parliament where eligible
  • the right to vote in federal and state and territory elections
  • access to the full range of financial assistance for higher education under the Higher Education Loan Programme (HELP)
  • access to the full range of employment opportunities, including in the Australian Public Service and Australian Defense Forces
  • access to full consular assistance when travelling overseas

Permanent residents on the other hand, have unrestricted work rights and access to Medicare, may obtain credit and loans, and may obtain Commonwealth-supported places at Australian universities. So while they are not citizens, they are able to live here indefinitely and healthily, learn at first-class schools, buy a home, work in a country offering relatively decent award wages, and enjoy the many other benefits of being members of Australian society.

Let’s not confuse gaining temporary or permanent residency with obtaining citzenship. The difference between being a citizen and not being one, is not the difference between living a healthy, productive and fulfilling life in this country, and not. This country offers an excellent life to non-citizens like me, and I am able to both benefit and contribute to this country.

So I am hard pressed to see why it is so terribly discriminatory or unreasonable to migrants, for the Australian government to require of permanent residents some study and effort as a small demonstration of their informed commitment to Australia, before granting them the full range of privileges of citizenship given to those Australian-born.

Many citizens might fail the proposed citizenship test if they had to take it, but I don’t see the terrible unfairness in quizzing a citizenship applicant on issues to which the native has bore witness, or has been exposed over the course of years, or has been taught but has unfortunately forgotten. At the end of the day, there is an opportunity to educate a new intake of citizens in some basic elements of Australian history and culture, where the education system has failed the native born.

The Australian Citizenship Pledge

From this time forward, (under God)
I pledge my loyalty to Australia and its people
whose democratic beliefs I share,
whose rights and liberties I respect, and
whose laws I will uphold and obey.

I wonder how many current residents of Australia (temporary or permanent) could comfortably and honestly say they pledge their loyalty to Australia and its people. I think one could more easily do so after an extended period of time here, and I think one could even more easily do so with greater knowledge and appreciation of what this country has achieved historically, and stands for presently.

I am reminded of a recent trip to Virginia, when a family friend’s English wife had just passed her US citizenship test. There was an enthusiasm, positivity, and dare I say – patriotism – in her discussion of her newly gained citizenship. There was even a defensiveness in her voice when complaining about her English daughter’s reflexive anti-Americanism. Her daughter lives in England and bases her anti-Americanism on her experiences in Europe. Her mother on the other hand, bases her newfound patriotism on her experiences in America, and on her knowledge of American history, culture and present-day values.

This woman was a native English-speaker and for that reason the US citizenship test was of course, a great deal easier. I don’t deny the challenge posed to any citizenship applicant to a country in which a different language is spoken. But the challenge does not lessen the importance of knowing the basics of the language, history and culture of the country to which you intend to pledge your loyalty, for which you accept the responsibility of voting into power new governments, and whose borders you promise to militarily defend if needed.

I must admit that I find the notion of pledging my loyalty to another country and its people very difficult. I feel treasonous just humming along to the very catchy and moving “Advance Australia Fair” at the footy. But I also admit that my appreciation for this country, my sympathies and my affection for it, increase not just with my time here, but with my understanding of its history, its place in the world, its principles, its national treasures and yes, its values – regardless of whether or not those values are quintessentially Australian, similarly implemented in other countries, or just given lip-service elsewhere.

While many countries do share Australia’s values, the very business of politics is determining how such values should be implemented and legislated. This does indeed differ greatly from country to country. For example, the same values look, and are experienced differently, in Australia and America. Look at health care.

The price of citizenship shouldn’t be cheap and – with the benefits of permanent residency and the time spent under that status to learn more about Australia – that price is by no means made prohibitively expensive by the introduction of a citizenship test.

The question is: what should be tested? I think a responsible discussion of what would constitute a fair and reasonable test – a discussion introduced by the government recently – should be enthusiastically entertained by those with a stake in Australia’s future – not just sneered at and derisively thrown aside as white supremacist, divisive tactics employed for political gain.

Some of John Howard’s speculations on what should be included in any future citizenship test may seem silly and obnoxious. That is all the more reason for Australians to prevent the inclusion of such questions and make their voices heard on what should be expected of future Australian citizens.

UPDATE: Reported yesterday:

Federal cabinet today ticked off plans to introduce the new rules, under which migrants will have to wait four years to apply for citizenship and be able to speak English.

They will also be forced to sit an internet-based multiple-choice quiz of 30 questions testing their knowledge of Australian history, culture, values and government.

Interesting word choice here “forced”. A 30 question quiz is by no means a high price to pay. The level of English proficiency may be. We’ll see.

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2 Responses

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  1. […] ELSEWHERE:  Posts on GrodsCorp, Catallaxy, Blogocracy, Larvatus Prodeo, John the Analyst and Bannerman. Also some insights at Human Behaviour from someone awaiting permanent residenecy.   « New Shadow Ministry reshuffle | The Citizenship tests and voting rights »   […]

  2. […] human behavior « The price and privilege of citizenship New term: Semmelweis reflex » […]


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