I don’t know if I’m tired and I don’t know if I’m ill… In praise of Australian values

I really like Australia.  It is a great country.  It could be better.  Sure, it’s better for me than it is for many others, but I’d rather live here than anywhere else in the world.

The Left struggles with patriotism.  It smells too much like racism.  It whiffs of conservatism.  It looks too much like a relic of a colonial past where we cared about the Mother Country or the Fatherland, a concept which made people fight pointless wars in foreign countries and steal resources.  Isn’t it just irrational jingoism about the place where you were accidentally born?

The issue has raised its head in public policy again due to the Turnbull Government’s decision to tinker with the Citizenship Test: ‘Membership of the Australian family is a privilege and should be afforded to those who support our values, respect our laws and want to work hard by integrating and contributing to an even better Australia‘.

So let’s do a quick tour of the policy questions and the underlying philosophy of patriotism.

Let’s deal with the big issue up front.  To what extent is the decision to tinker with citizenship policy a genuine attempt address a problem, and to what extent is it political opportunism?  The answer, of course, is the latter… but name a political party which isn’t currently engaged in political opportunism?

The complaint is the kind of opportunism on display.  Turnbull is accused of trying to dog whistle to One Nation voters.  But isn’t this a good thing?  Of all the policy options on the table to attract racist yokel voters back to a mainstream party, tinkering with citizenship policy in the most performative way possible is probably the best option.  I don’t know what all the other political parties are going to do to stop the advance of One Nation, but this seems like a pretty good pathway.

Citizenship policy engages one fundamental question: who should be entitled to the political rights of Australian citizenship?  There are broadly two extremes.  The first is that everybody in the world should be entitled to the rights of Australian citizenship because there should be minimum exclusion.  The second is that very few people in the world should be entitled to the rights of Australian citizenship because there should be maximum exclusion.  Most people sit somewhere in the middle.

There are a number of considerations that inform people’s views on this.  One is about personal security.  To what extent should a person be able to invest in their future?  If there is minimum exclusion to citizenship, then a person can choose to make Australia home move quickly to purchasing a home, starting a family, schooling their children, &c., &c.  If there’s maximum exclusion to citizenship, then they might refrain from putting down too many roots because they might need to leave the country at any minute.

We see this debate flare up when somebody moved to Australia when they were 2 years old, commit a string of terrible crimes, and then discover that Australia can cancel their permanent residency and return them to a country where they don’t speak the language or know anybody.

But another consideration is about community security.  To what extent should a community be able to bestow upon itself privileges that it doesn’t bestow upon somebody else?  So, for example, a country might want to invest a lot of resources into its citizens, but it can only do that if there is some cap or restraint on the number of citizens.

Where this flares up is in regard to unemployment benefits.  People (wrongly) think that ‘too many’ people from overseas come to Australia, get super pregnant, and then sit on welfare.  Racism gets mixed in with a real issue: if there’s no barrier to citizenship, what stops a flow of people from the global south to the global north and what are the consequences for both?  It is very easy to take hard line positions on this on either end of the political spectrum without really engaging in the intellectual puzzle here.

It is in the middle of this policy that Turnbull has engaged the ‘Australian values’ question.  So we are positioned somewhere down the maximum exclusion end of the policy, and this (barely noticeable) tinkering says: ‘One of the barriers is that you have to have the same values as the rest of the community.’

This should not strike us as particularly odd.  If you think the purpose of our political system is to create a liberal democracy, then you’d probably want some kind of process to get people to affirm that they have consistent values.  This is — in the truest sense — performative.  People can lie.  But so what?  Isn’t the point here to make some sort of grand statement rather than to weed out the undesirables?

Or, to put this a different way, why would you want this to be more than a mere performance of agreement with liberal democratic values?

The counter to this position is that we should not demand the performance and just assume that people know if you want to live in Australia, you need to express views that are broadly consistent with liberal democratic beliefs.

I think the counter argument is confused about the nature of social performance.  There’s nothing real about citizenship.  It’s not like the Blue Fairy turns marionettes into real children.  Citizenship is a social construction and part of that social construction is the performance of values.  The citizenship test gives the official seal of approval to a certain kind of performance.

It’s not unreasonable to disagree with this position and say: ‘Nope, the government should only do those things which are necessary and no more.’  I think our disagreement would be deeper than the mere citizenship test.  I think our disagreement there would be about the role the State has in shaping culture (or, rather, the cultural function of the State).

There’s a more productive conversation to be had about the content of that values statement.  My complaint is that the ‘Australian values’ being performed are not terribly aspirational or uniquely Australian.

In 2015, the Abbott Government undertook a National Consultation on Citizenship.  In its final report, it had this weird paragraph:

The Citizenship Discussion Paper set out our core Australian values which include: constitutional government; respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual; freedom of speech and religion; commitment to the rule of law and allegiance to Australia; parliamentary democracy; a spirit of egalitarianism that embraces mutual respect, tolerance, fair play, compassion for those in need and pursuit of the public good; and equal rights before the law and equality of opportunity for all.

As a conservative, I worry that this approach to Australian values is too bland.  Perhaps it reflects the fact that Australians really have lost a unique sense of identity within the Anglosphere.  Most of our cultural consumption (both online and on our prime time TV) is American.

The Burkean position is that if you want people to love their country, their country should be loveable.  Paragraphs like the above make me wonder if we’ve lost a sense of what’s loveable about Australia.

Or, perhaps more importantly, the above paragraph should highlight how we fail to live up to our own values.  ‘This is the sort of country that we want to have, but we do not always achieve it.’

Or, to put it even more bluntly, I am (according to the News Editor of BuzzFeed Australia) the King of Smug Legal Twitter and even I do not think that ‘constitutional government’ is a core Australian value.  If I were to list all the things I love about Australia, ‘constitutional government’ wouldn’t even make the top twenty and I freaking can’t get enough of our constitution.

The values expressed seem to suggest a fear of saying anything too bold lest it be considered political.  I wish it stated up front that one of our values is atoning for our treatment of Indigenous Australians.  I wish it stated up front that one of our values was about becoming a site of cultural exchange between Europe and Asia.  I wish it stated up front that one of our values was about being a steward of the environment that sees more value in our natural assets than their commercial worth as a commodity.

The problem with my position is that it then thwarts the bigger political problem of the moment: squashing One Nation.  And then we’re back to political reality: there was no expression of values that would satiate the Left, but there were values that would further disenchant One Nation voters.  Therefore, we don’t get the expression of values that we want, but we get the expression of values that we need.

This gets me pretty neatly to my final point.  The Left has largely vacated the patriotism space to the worst elements of Australian society.  Patriotism has to be more than wrapping yourself in an Australian flag and having an almighty sook about halal certification.  But this is the outcome when the more reasonable elements in society shuffle awkwardly when they talk about patriotism.  Or it’s performed ironically.

The core thread in this post is a kind of virtue politics.  What sort of society do we want to be, what should we aspire to be, why aren’t we better?  For me, the first step on this path is a collective sense of identity.  Together we share particular values that point us in the direction of greatness.  But it’s only when we invest in that collective identity that we can achieve social goals because collective identities are powerful.  If we adopt the belief that collective identities are toxic or undesirable, we abandon the space to those who will use collective identities to attack others (like racist, white pride groups).

Australians need to be re-enchanted with the idea of Australia.  It is a shame that we lost this opportunity out of political necessity.


Some people might be interested in more reading on the topics of this post.

The most recent high water mark was the 2008 review of the Citizenship Test undertaken by Richard Woolcott: https://www.border.gov.au/Citizenship/Documents/moving-forward-report.pdf

There was a national consultation on citizenship in 2015: https://www.border.gov.au/Citizenship/Documents/australian-citizenship-report.PDF

The current proposals are flagged in a discussion paper and you can make submissions in response to it until 1 June 2017: https://www.border.gov.au/ReportsandPublications/Documents/discussion-papers/citizenship-paper.pdf

There is an interesting tension between Woolcott’s position that the Government should facilitate citizenship, and the position in the latter two documents that individuals should earn the privilege.  One not unreasonable complaint about this is that some people get citizenship by virtue of birth while others need to jump hurdles to get it.  Is the logical extension of the latter position that we should subject natural born citizens to some kind of citizenship test?  How close to the citizen/civilian model from Starship Troopers are we willing to go?

The best introduction to the question of patriotism is this Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy essay by Igor Primoratz: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/patriotism/

One thing that I didn’t really cover in the above post is the link between place and cultural identity.  Often those with the most liberal attitudes towards citizenship and movement of people are those who value least the connection of a community with their land.  Framed a different way, I think they’re more willing to let economic forces sort out the movement of people without too much concern for how that impacts on culture.  I skipped around the issue above because I’m not quite sure where I sit on that topic.

The above post engaged in an extremely light engagement with the issues about ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ citizenship.  A good starting point is this chapter by Kim Rubenstein and Niamh Lenagh-Maguire: http://press-files.anu.edu.au/downloads/press/p303871/pdf/ch035.pdf

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