May 16

The proposed citizenship test: a novel proposal

One of the big political issues in recent times, both here and overseas, has been whether some test should be imposed on applicants for citizenship.  The debate has tended to be about whether there should be a test and if so what knowledge about Australia should be in it.  In an article in the National Observer [Spring 2006 Number 70], “The Unmentionable Problem of Australian Citizenship,” Mr. John Stone, the former Senator, has made a novel proposal.  He was responding to a discussion paper, “Australian Citizenship: Much More than a Ceremony,” released on 17 September 2006 by Mr. Andrew Robb, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, as that portfolio was then known.



Mr. Stone argues that at no point did the discussion paper squarely address the fact that the present arrangements for citizenship are wide open to corruption. “In a system in which citizenship is chiefly valued for its rights and privileges that is hardly surprising. But in a system which is (or should be) seen as part of Australia’s overall security defences, that must change”.



Mr. Stone says that while a citizenship test might usefully require applicants to have some factual knowledge of Australia, “it would be silly to require them to sign up to various subjective beliefs (“a fair go", "a decent wage for a decent day’s work", and so on) that might be loosely described as "Australian values".  I would add “mateship”. How could that be possible turned into a legal obligation? 



But Mr. Stone has a more fundamental objection to the approach to a citizenship test. He says that just as, in the debate about so-called Bills of Rights, the approach of most lawyers is fundamentally wrong, so, in the debate about citizenship obligations, there is much talk by journalists and politicians that is fundamentally misconceived.





In the Bill of Rights matter, he says, “lawyers invariably start by trying to set down all the things they can think of that people should have a "right" to do. He argues for the reverse. What should be set down (not in a Bill of Rights, but in the criminal or civil statute law) are the things that people should be debarred from doing. Apart from those things, people should be free to do as they wish.”  In this, Mr Stone reflects the accumulated wisdom of the English speaking countries. Even the US Bill of Rights was not conceived as a statement of individually enforceable rights, but rather a series of constraints on the law making powers of the then new federal institutions. That is an historical fact.




The nub of Mr. Stone’s argument is that applicants for citizenship should be required to sign up to a formal rejection of those beliefs and practices which are unacceptable in Australia. Mr Stone gives examples. He says that it “is not acceptable that women and men be treated unequally. It is not acceptable that men or women should be debarred from marrying a person of a different faith or none. Certain cultural practices, such as female genital mutilation, are abhorrent and cannot be practised in Australia. Wives cannot be divorced other than by due process of civil law, with matrimonial property apportioned according to that law. Homosexuality, however abhorrent it may be to Muslims, is not illegal and cannot be the subject of physical or other violent attack. Church and state are not the same, and cannot be accepted as such.  There is only one system of law, and any other system (e.g., sharia law) cannot be tolerated; and so on”.



He says that citizenship, which today is regarded chiefly as a credential which gives access to numerous privileges, should entail a lasting two-way mutual obligation. Those receiving citizenship should legally undertake to adhere to the rules laid down in a "prohibited list". Failure to do so should constitute grounds for revocation of that citizenship and (depending on the seriousness of the offence) deportation.




Whether or not we agree with Mr. Stone, he has raised an important issue, the obligations a new citizen should undertake.  It is regrettable that neither the politicians nor most of the media commentators have responded to his suggestion for an enforceable agreement setting out those matters which a new citizen agrees not to do, rather then the values to which he or she should subscribe.



Incidentally, the ACM National Council agreed on an approach to the discussion paper which would be in accordance with the ACM mission. This will be the subject of further column. 







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