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The Independent Weekly
Don Riddell an independent voice
We re getting a new citizenship
test this month. It s a bit
more realistic than the
present one. And it s certainly
more honest than the ones still
disturbingly well within living
memory, when we presented those
people we wanted to keep out with
a smug smile and a literary test in
say, Gaelic or, if there was even the
slightest chance of a bit of Scottish
in the mix, we could try Urdu or
perhaps the diabolically difficult
Since then, we have discovered
that letting people in is actually good
for us. At its simplest, we eat better.
At its most complex, we think better.
Or to simplify that complexity, we
It s not been entirely easy for
After World War II, we worried
about the "DPs" -- the Displaced
Persons from war-ruined Europe.
Some of us called them "Balts"
because some of them may have
come from those states along the
Baltic Sea between Russia and
Germany, even if we didn t know
the order in which the countries
fitted. They carried briefcases, some
of them, so we called those "Balt
bags". But haven t they mixed in
well. They re part of us. The social
and business pages are full of them.
They re even some of our models
There are hiccups, of course.
Soccer and tennis, for example, seem
to bring out odd Balkan relapses, but
we re gradually making them realise
those wars and hatreds belong to
other countries, not Australia.
After the Vietnam War, we wor-
ried about the refugees who crashed
through every obstacle to get here.
We called them "Boat People" and
some of our tighter-bummed people
called them "illegals". But haven t
they enriched us. Look at the exam
results. They ve taken us to new
levels of skill and knowledge: even,
perhaps, made the rest of us work a
With all this behind us and with
thousands of other people from
dozens of other places, we should
have been ready for the next wave.
But we weren t. The new flood of
"Boat People" produced a sort of
mental return to Gaelic, Urdu or
perhaps the diabolically difficult
Faeroese. We panicked. The Keating
Labor Government hastily built
what it called a detention centre
up on the north-west coast, with
spillover places in the big cities.
We were, in effect, locking people
up -- men, women and children -- for
what could be years without a clear
idea of what to do.
With wars convulsing first
Afghanistan then Iraq, the leaky
boats became a growth industry
for cynical people smugglers. The
now Howard Coalition Government
built more prisons, including a huge
one near Port Augusta and tried to
shuffle some of the wretched around
the Pacific. Release was a bureau-
cratic minefield, with parts of the
bureaucracy still thinking in Gaelic
(or Urdu or perhaps the diabolically
Oh, we had our reasons, we
traditional Anglo-Celts. Some of us
took up mouth-frothing xenophobia,
a return to the "Yellow Peril" of
ancestral fury. But it was more than
that. Now we had terror -- al-Qaeda
and New York s 9/11 atrocity, and
the nightmare of Bali. So we added
suspicion and intolerance. And, for
the first time since Catholics and
Masons struggled for supremacy in
the important ranks of the pubic
service, we had religion. So we
added a new sort of bigotry.
The Middle East is still a mess.
The boats are still coming. The Rudd
Labor Government is still packing a
big centre on Christmas Island and
still conjures the charade that it is
not part of Australia. But it doesn t
want to imprison children and it
has given the bureaucracy a more
comfortable language. Religion and
bigotry, however, have still not been
This is difficult. Australia is
supposed to be a Christian country.
But this is largely nominal. We
are, in fact, mainly secular, with
Christianity echoed more in our
laws, ethics and institutions than
in obvious practice. The Muslim
religion may share a belief in peace
and equality, but it is demandingly
obvious -- from bearded men and
headscarved women to an insistence
It will be difficult for the Muslims.
Australia can never ask them to
look away from Mecca just as we do
not demand the Catholics deny the
Vatican, but like the British, the
Irish, the Europeans and the Asians
who have come here, they have to
feel that they are Australians. It will
be love of Australia that makes them
root out the Wahhabis and other
cults who talk of death. There are a
few other non-Muslim cults we could
do without, as well.
The new citizenship test, of
course, is designed to make everyone
understand and love Australia. It
won t do that on its own, but it may
help a little.
The previous one very much
reflected John Howard, bless
his cricket-loving soul, a sort of
cavalcade about the country. You
had the feeling that if you knew Don
Bradman s batting average, you
This one concentrates more on
what it means to be an Australian,
the rights and responsibilities.
Law Professor George Williams
has noted a couple of bloopers. For
instance, it gives the impression
that only the Commonwealth taxes
us and the states have all the police.
That, as Prof Williams observes,
will come undone when they are
hit by an eager array of state
taxes and probably the first police
they deal with will be the Feds. A
personal plea would be to add that
Australians don t carry knives.
However, just like any other
test, it is something that can be
learnt for the day and promptly
forgotten. Too many of these very
new Australians will then join
too many of the rest of us in not
really understanding how we are
The booklet the test is based
on -- Australian Citizenship: Our
Common Bond -- does spend a lot of
words on trying to define that odd
thing we call mateship. A "mate is
often a friend, but can also be a total
stranger" one who, when you car
breaks down, rushes in to try to help
you push it out of trouble.
That, we still hope, is part of what
we think it is to be an Australian.
It is something that would be very
difficult to translate into Gaelic,
Urdu or even the fiendishly difficult
Of course, the whole subject of
migration -- for or against -- is an
entirely different matter.
What it means to
be an Australian
The new citizenship test, of course, is
designed to make everyone understand and love
Australia. It won t do that on its own, but it may
help a little.
Xenophobia and fear of terrorism has seen many men, women and children locked up.
Photo: Angela Wylie
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