When I applied for permanent residency and citizenship I got a lesson in real Australian values. You could sum it up in three simple words: “No worries, mate.”
Applying for permanent residency in 1993 was a casual affair. I filled out a few forms, wrote a $400 cheque, and sent it all off from my home in Dayton, Ohio to the Australian embassy in Washington DC. I never met an Australian official face to face. I only spoke to one briefly on the phone, and I initiated that call. A few months later my permanent residency – complete with a green Medicare card – arrived.
Free healthcare and the right to live and work on a permanent basis in Australia, no strings attached, right there in my mailbox.
I moved to Australia. I had no job lined up. Being American, I expected no government welfare support. After answering some job advertisements, I decided to cover all bases and went to Centrelink to lodge my resume for prospective employers to review.
By the time I walked out of the Centrelink office that day, I had signed up for Newstart allowance and rent assistance. My Centrelink officer was a kindly Turkish man who said, “You are an immigrant, just like me. I want you to get all the support you can.”
Today this guy would probably be fired for the ease with which he handed out government entitlements. (Don’t worry, Christian Porter, I only stayed on these income supports for a couple of weeks before I found work.)
My new Turkish-Australian friend would be not only the most helpful government agent I would meet as a permanent resident, but indeed, the only one.
That is, until I went to lodge my citizenship application in 2000.
As an American, I expected there would be a citizenship test. Such tests are legendary in the USA. In preparation, I read The Fatal Shore and learned the rules of rugby league. I knew the Dismissal was a constitutional outrage and that Harold Holt may or may not have been abducted by spies. I even grudgingly accepted that the Americans may have killed Phar Lap.
“What’s on the Australian citizenship test?” I asked my Australian husband.
“There’s no such thing,” he said.
I refused to believe him. I called the Department of Immigration. They confirmed: no test. You’ve lived here long enough as a permanent resident. Just show up at your appointed time with the paperwork filled out. Later, there will be a ceremony in your local council area. That’s it.
Well, that wasn’t quite true.
I lodged my form. A Polish-Australian woman was on the other side of the counter, processing my paperwork. We exchanged pleasantries, establishing she was born in an area of Poland I had visited. Then she said, “OK, we are almost done. Now, just a few questions. Can you tell me the rights and responsibilities of Australian citizenship?”
I said, “I was told there would be no test.”
She said, “Well, you have to answer this question.”
So, I started, “Well, you have to vote, and, um, to follow the laws, and, um, defend the constitution, and … ”
She gave me a withering look and grabbed a pamphlet from her desk. She turned the pamphlet towards me, pointed her finger at the third paragraph, turned her head away from me, and said again, “What are the rights and responsibilities of Australian citizenship?”
Suffice to say, I passed.
Here’s the thing: I was a young, well-educated, English-speaking, healthy woman who grew up in a liberal western democracy. I had an Australian partner who collected me from the airport on arrival. I was unencumbered with children when I came here. My religious faith was shared by most of the population. I even had family connections to Australia through my mother and grandmother.
I had every advantage as a migrant yet at times I still felt left out, confused and on my own when it came to understanding the culture, history, rules, values and language (Aussie slang) of my new country. How in goodness’ name is a person who lacks some – or all – of those natural advantages supposed to integrate into Australia? How are they supposed to learn Australian values?
Sure, there are community groups and organisations, some with government funding, that help newly arrived migrants. But they are underfunded and under-resourced. They live year to year on government grants. Their funding is easy to cut: their constituency isn’t one that can complain very loudly.
Later, I genuinely learned the rights and responsibilities of Australian citizenship and ran for state parliament. I represented an electorate where 40% of people were born overseas. Yet in the decade I served in office, whether as a MP, minister or premier, I saw little evidence that our federal government had developed anything more sophisticated than a “she’ll be right” attitude when it came to integrating new citizens into Australia.
The prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, and the immigration minister, Peter Dutton, are correct to point out that Australia can do so much better at binding new migrants to our Australian community and its values.
But they are so wrong in their approach.
The Turnbull government’s changes to citizenship requirements lack sophisticated thinking about who we are as a nation and how we best invite new migrants to join us.
Instead, Turnbull and Dutton are appealing to nativist, xenophobic and racist attitudes for base political purposes. Their newfound concern for citizenship requirements is disingenuous: Turnbull didn’t mention changing citizenship requirements in his National Press Club address in February when he set out his priorities for the year. The new questions are designed to stoke fear and instil suspicion. These measures will be ineffective and, most likely, counterproductive.
If this is the best that Malcolm Turnbull can offer, well, Australia, we’ve got plenty to worry about, mate.