The citizenship test’s a trivial pursuit

I may have unfairly maligned Kevin Andrews. Sure, he’s bungled the Haneef investigation, but the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship has been ever so industrious in the other side of his portfolio. Working together with the Prime Minister, who’s long tried to codify Australianness despite the public knocking back that constitution preamble of his, Andrews has finally provided the definitive answer to the complex, loaded question of what it is to be an Australian with a handy booklet. Apparently being Australian is all about mateship and cricket. What a surprise from the Howard Government.

There’s much more to the pamphlet than that, though. Thanks to its deliberately uncontroversial tone, much of it reads like a boring guidebook. Of course I don’t have a problem with providing information to those arriving in Australia, or seeking to become Australian citizens. And it is true that citizenship involves rights and obligations, such as jury duty, and that the deal needs to be spelled out to those wishing to avail themselves of it.
What’s more, to a new arrival (as opposed to those who’ve been here for years, and would be getting citizenship) some of the information would be genuinely useful, such as which level of government is responsible for what.
But to test people on this stuff, and only give them a passport if they get 60 per cent, is a silly notion, both symbolically and practically. Practically, the impact will be mere inconvenience. What will happen is that migration agents, or someone involved in the lucrative process of helping people settle here, will quickly cobble together a complete copy of the 200 questions and answers, and those taking the test will simply memorise them all, thus passing the test with flying colours. If people are willing to spend years and thousands of dollars getting citizenship, they’ll be willing to cram for a test.
This process will also negate the more sinister aspect of the test, which is the attempt to test everyone’s level of English. Personally, I don’t believe English competence should be necessary for citizenship. Living in Australia without English skills is tough, and the incentives to learn are many – but for migrants in their 40s and 50s (over 60s are exempt) who might find it harder to learn, I really can’t see why it’s absolutely necessary for them to do so. Generally they will have younger, fluent relatives who can help them cope. If some migrants largely prefer to stay within their communities and converse in their own tongues, then good luck to them. People who aren’t in a rush to integrate just don’t bother me the way they seem to bother, say, callers to talkback radio. Anyone who’s seen Australian expat communities will know that they aren’t exactly distinguished by a rush to embrace a new culture and language.
By all means, the Government should offer free classes, and try to encourage everyone to learn English – it’s inherently worthwhile – but requiring it seems excessive. A fiftysomething grandparent who arrives here on a family reunion visa should be allowed to become an Australian without having to prove they can answer multiple-choice questions about Phar Lap, especially when passing the test proves precisely nothing.
Does answering questions about mateship show you actually believe in it? Does choosing “Yes” when asked whether Australia believes in religious tolerance actually demonstrate a commitment to it? Of course not. You don’t integrate people by lecturing them. Values are transmitted by community contact, not by government handouts.
The already infamous passage on the mystical reverence we have for mateship will be particularly ironic to those who’ve come as asylum seekers. Sure, “mates can be complete strangers”, as the book puts it, but it so rarely works out that way.
The sample questions reveal just how banal and pointless the exercise is. They read like a particularly dull game of Trivial Pursuit. Honestly, who cares when our Federation happened, or what our floral emblem is? Knowing these factoids have absolutely no bearing on whether someone has integrated into our community, or can make a contribution to our society, or is committed to being Australian.
The whole process smacks of that particularly Howardian nationalism, which always seems to smack of trite self-congratulation tinged with insecurity. We are special, the book seems to plead. We are harmonious, aren’t we? We love sport, and the ANZACs. That’s really great. Weary Dunlop was a top bloke. “I am Australian” is an important national song. Yay. The brochure’s as cringe-inducing as a Telstra ad, or the Bicentenary.
The project is an attempt at social engineering that would be sinister if it wasn’t superficial. Of course our values are important, but this quiz simply does them a disservice. If we want new Australians to understand the importance of the “fair go”, we should try giving them one instead of bullying them into reading about it. Really, it’s just too ironic that Australia now intends to exclude people from joining it if they can’t digest a pamphlet about how welcoming it is. As for Andrews, he should spend less time making migrants answer trivial questions about Simpson’s donkey and more time answering important questions about our treatment of Mohamed Haneef.

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