Testing times for 'Australian values'


Graham Matthews

The church and state hierarchies have combined to defend Australian values from a supposed assault from Islamic culture. But so feeble are the values that PM John Howard, Catholic Archbishop George Pell and Liberal MP Andrew Robb hold dear, that anyone who wants to become a citizen must be able to regurgitate them on demand.

Robb, parliamentary secretary for immigration and multicultural affairs, released a discussion paper on "citizenship testing" in a speech to the first national conference of imams, held in Sydney on September 17. Robb said that citizenship was a privilege, not a right. "It is a unifying force in Australia and if we give it away like confetti it is not valued", he was quoted in the September 18 Sydney Morning Herald.

The citizenship test demands applicants prove that they are well versed in "Australian values". How? They must be able to answer 30 questions, both written and verbal, around issues such as Australia's national symbols, values and parliamentary democracy. The test will also require applicants to prove that they have a sophisticated grasp of English — a fluency far higher than current requirements. The questions will be random to prevent applicants from learning the answers by rote.

Robb's decision to launch the government's resuscitated White Australia policy at an Islamic conference came less than a week after the 5th anniversary of the bombing of the World Trade Center in the US. Robb demanded that the imams preach in English so that "the young people in their communities can understand Islam in an Australian context". He also repeated the government's mantra that imams must pay special attention to condemning terrorism.

On September 18, Australia's most senior Catholic leader, George Pell, following the lead of his boss, the pope, repeated the lie that Islam is a violent religion. "They [people of the Muslim faith] show the link ... between religion and violence, their refusal to respond to criticism with rational arguments, but only with demonstrations, threats and actual violence", he said, referring to international protests against Pope Benedict XVI's quoting of a Byzantine emperor's chacterisation of Islam as violent. Pell's comments dovetail with those of Howard, who has accused "a small section" of the Muslim community of preaching violence.

The PM is attempting to position "Australian values" as the centrepiece of his re-election bid. Given the widespread anger about his anti-worker laws, including from many who voted for the Coalition last time, Howard thinks that he can win them back using the race card. After all, there is the Tampa precedent.

In 2001, the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa rescued 433 stranded Afghan refugees who the Howard government had refused to allow into Australia to seek asylum. The Coalition, with ALP backing, ran a racist campaign against asylum seekers, securing Howard an election victory despite his unpopular goods and services tax.

Today, Howard is whipping up racism to frighten workers into voting for him as the true defender of the "Australian way of life". Forget the fact that your job is less secure, that you work longer hours for less pay, that you've been forced to cash in two weeks of your annual leave. Returning Howard is the only way to ensure Australia remains the land of the "fair go".

It's also not coincidental that this xenophobic campaign, associating the Muslim community with terrorism, has been stepped up following last month's community outrage at Israel's war on Lebanon. But labelling whole communities as "un-Australian" and as refusing to "integrate", and determining that prospective citizens will be tested for "Australian values", smacks of desperation.

On September 15, Howard praised the Greek community for its integration into Australian society, contrasting it with the Muslim community. Speaking at the Hellenic Club in Canberra, he said: "The key thing is that people should integrate into the mainstream of Australian life, and the Greeks have done it brilliantly."

Has Howard ever been to a Greek Orthodox mass? Or a synagogue? The languages used by the priest, or rabbi, are certainly not English. Should those preachers also be forced to use the local tongue? It's only since 1970 that the Catholic mass has been delivered in English, so why aren't Catholics a little suspect?

How are citizenship aspirants to learn English to the appropriate level? As Labor Senator Annette Hurley pointed out on September 15, the federal government has cut $10.8 million from the Adult Migrant English Program. Only 11% of those who complete the courses have functional English and some 62% of migrants do not participate because the system is inflexible, not catering for those who have found work or need child care.

For those who are able to attend the language classes, the federal government offers only a certain number of hours. If you need more time, you pay it.

While the Labor Party has criticised the government's line on English language courses, when it comes to the politics — so-called "Australian values" — Labor leader Kim Beazley is standing shoulder to shoulder with Howard. This shouldn't be surprising; the ALP introduced the White Australia policy, which governed immigration from 1901 until it was gradually dismantled between 1949 and 1973. (It nevertheless remains iconised in the national anthem "Advance Australia Fair", the singing of which the government has recently pushed to make mandatory in schools.)

Beazley, who toyed with the idea of making tourists tick boxes on their entry cards pledging "respect", has shifted his focus to those applying for permanent residence. Rather than wait until a migrant applies for citizenship, Beazley believes that these people have to already have an understanding and respect for "Australian values". He told radio shock jock Alan Jones on September 15, "When you come into this country on a permanent basis ... you come ... with a defined statement of respect for Australian values. Citizenship is a way station, that's down the track. My concern is at the beginning of the process, not the end of it."

The political cost of the "Australian values" debate is growing. For those unable to learn English quickly, or for whom cultural and religious beliefs are intrinsic to their very being, or those who prefer to hear religious instruction in their own language, the noose of suspicion is tightening. Want to live in this country and have the freedom to pursue your own beliefs? Sorry, it's "Australian values", John and Kim-style, or go back to where you came from.