May 17

The proposed citizenship test: ACM’s submission

In our last column we referred to John Stone’ s proposal that rather than a citizenship test which only examines knowledge about Australia , a new citizen should enter into an enforceable agreement not to do specified acts  which are prohibited in Australia.  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.



On the release of that paper, the ACM National Council agreed on an approach to that discussion paper which would be in accordance with the ACM mission. The task of writing the paper was delegated to the National Convenor, who was authorised to send the submission to the Federal authorities. The ACM submission in November, 2006, “A Formal Citizenship Test?” has been posted to the ACM site, [click on “Resources” then “Articles of interest”.]




The submission recognized that ACM supporters, while united in support for the ACM mission, will have different views on whether a formal citizenship test should be introduced. It assumed, however, that there would be a broad consensus on two points.



 The first point is that it would be wrong for an Australian government to place total reliance on any citizenship test as the sole or dominant method of ensuring that immigrants to Australia are appropriate, that is, that there first loyalty will always be to Australia and its constitutional system, and that they will make a positive contribution to the nation. In our view, it is a core function of the Australian government that immigrants be carefully selected as having a clear potential to satisfy this criterion. The submission stated that it is a fundamental duty of government to ensure, as far as is reasonably possible, that immigrants will make good and loyal Australians. In our view, anything less would be an abdication of responsibility to present and future generations. A citizenship test should not be seen as a substitute for this, and not only because all immigrants do not seek citizenship. We said that ACM believes that most Australians would agree on this point.



 The second matter was our view that the present formal method of becoming a citizen, a sort of test, is grossly inadequate. A Pledge, whatever that is, is a pale shadow of an Oath, or an Affirmation. It is hardly as solemn, and there seems to be no legal consequence in making a false pledge. We pointed out that when a citizen is called as a witness in court, or becomes a Federal member of parliament or a Minister of the Crown, or enters into matrimony, the seriousness of what is said and what is promised is reinforced by swearing an Oath or making an Affirmation.



We said that the requirement to swear an Oath or make an Affirmation has gradually and in our view, regretfully, been weakened. In 1986, on the recommendation of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission, the requirement for new citizens to renounce all other allegiance was abolished. In addition, they no longer had to state their names. We find the latter difficult to understand. The requirement to state one’s name when making an Oath emphasizes the personal nature of the commitment. Then in 1993, arguing this would further the cause of multiculturalism, the Oath of Allegiance, in which the new citizen also swore to observe the laws of Australia and fulfil his or her duties as an Australian citizen, was abolished.  The Oath was sworn on the Bible, or in a way consistent with the new citizen’s religion, while those without a religion or who objected to swearing an Oath could make an Affirmation. This was replaced by a watered down pledge, read by large groups in unison.



The submission argues that it is surely time to restore the formal Oath of Allegiance, or Affirmation, which should best be sworn separately by each new citizen before a delegate of the Commonwealth, with of course, the option of making an affirmation. After all, an Oath or Affirmation, admittedly sworn in groups, is constitutionally required to be made by Members and Senators at the Opening of each new Federal Parliament, and that can only be abolished if the people agree in a referendum.



 In the view of ACM, the citizenship test should have as a necessary ingredient, the formal commitment, and this is best done by the solemn and public administration of an Oath of Allegiance to the Sovereign.  To those republicans who object –and not all do- we pointed out the obvious –that Australia remains a constitutional monarchy. The people in 1999 overwhelmingly and in all states voted to retain the nation’s oldest institution, the Crown, and clearly rejected the republicans’ preferred constitutional model.



ACM also addressed three other matters raised in the discussion paper. These were the proposed requirements in relation to English, knowledge about Australia, and Australian values.



As to an English language requirement, we observed that it is self evident that a high level of English is needed to participate as an Australian citizen. That said, it is clear that many otherwise worthy immigrants have, or have had a poor standard of English. Given its mission, we thought it inappropriate for ACM to come down strongly in support of a mandatory English test. However given the skills requirement to obtain work today, which is significantly different from the post war era, it is difficult to see how, refugees excepted, persons could today be chosen as immigrants if their standard of English was inadequate. This in our view came back to the core function of government in the selection of immigrants.




As to a minimum knowledge of the country, we said that immigrants should be well informed about Australia, and in particular our history, our system of governance, our customs and our values. Given that our language and our institutions have been imported and Australianised, that understanding obviously extends to a broad history of  Great Britain.  This is not to give some preference to Britain – a similar approach would be needed in New Zealand and Canada  where this would obviously have to extend to France. (Indeed, given its foundation, similar considerations would even apply to the United States.) We annexed a paper on the pillars upon which our nation is founded, an understanding of which is, in our view, vital.




 As to the third matter, Australian values, we said that ACM believes that immigrants, while retaining aspects of the way of life of their former countries, should be committed to the core values of our nation. We believe these flow from the pillars on which this nation was founded. We said that much of this commitment, or of a willingness to go down this path, should of course be established when a person is selected as an immigrant, and not left to the application for citizenship.







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