Worth promoting, worth defending: Australian citizenship, What it means and how to nurture it – Address to the Sydney Institute, Sydney

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Worth promoting, worth defending: Australian citizenship, What it means and how to nurture it – Address to the Sydney Institute, Sydney






On this day, seventy-five years ago, in this city of Sydney, an elderly woman by the name of Helen Porter Armstrong passed away. We know her better as Dame Nellie Melba.

She had been born in Richmond, Melbourne, almost seventy years earlier, the daughter of David Mitchell, a successful building contractor. She attended the Presbyterian Ladies College where she took singing lessons, and later studied under the retired Italian singer, Signor Pietro Cecchi.

In 1885 this protestant, married and separated mother of one was engaged as the principal singer at St Francis’ Catholic Church in Melbourne. Shortly afterwards she travelled with her father and young son George to London, and then on to Paris to learn singing under the famous teacher Mathilde Marchesi, who declared her to be a star.

In December 1886, at a concert given at her teacher’s home, she sang for the first time under the name of Madame Melba, in honour of her home town.

Despite going on to fame and fortune among the sophisticates of Europe and America, Nellie maintained her love for, and loyalty to, the country of her birth. She returned to her homeland for a triumphant tour in 1902, when the new nation was barely a year old. From 1909 she divided her time between Australia and Europe. During the war years she raised some £60,000 for the Red Cross by her efforts.

She was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1918, and a Dame Grand Cross in 1927. In May of that year she sang the national anthem at the opening of the first parliament house at Canberra.

Dame Nellie Melba reached for the world stage to fully realize her talent and develop her ability. Her international success was a source of great pride for her fellow countrymen and her country was a great source of pride for her.

Peter Allen, born Peter Woolnough, grandson of a Tenterfield saddler wrote of his experience of international success and the love of country in a famous song I still call Australia home.

This song is something of an anthem for those Australians now recognized in Hollywood or on Broadway or Wall Street and other centres of the arts or business around the world. There are many Australians who live overseas because their talent or ability or drive has taken them on to the world stage. Like the sportsmen and women we admire so much they want to compete against or work with the world’s best. In doing so they stretch themselves and their abilities. This does not mean they have turned their back on their country. For many of them the love of country grows stronger through this process. Apart from anything else, living overseas gives them a comparison to measure all the benefits that Australia brings.

Our Ambassadors around the world are not just those employed by the Department of Foreign Affairs. They are the Australians who live and work in foreign countries who can explain what Australia is like; who demonstrate the warm hearted nature of the Australian character.

Sometimes you will hear criticism that talented young Australians go overseas to work. This is nonsense. There are some skills they can only learn through international exposure. They want to be the best. And this is good for Australia. Talented young Australians around the world are a great national asset.

If we are promoting tourism to Australia it helps to have Australians who are well known in foreign markets doing that for us. If we are promoting inward investment, it helps to have Australian business leaders who are known and respected to tell the story of Australia’s economic achievements. There is a great deal of advantage in a diaspora.

The Jewish diaspora, particularly in the United States is one of the great strengths Israel has in generating international political support. The Irish communities scattered around the world have endeared themselves and their country to millions. Ireland is a small country of around 4 million people. For a hundred years its principal export was its people. And not by choice. Now that diaspora, far greater than the population of Ireland itself, is generating a massive flow of investment back to the ‘old’ country.

The Irish Government understands the significance of this and it dispatches Ministers to St Patrick’s day celebrations in far flung places like Australia so it can promote Ireland for tourism and investment purposes.

I was quite surprised to be asked to speak at a St Patrick’s day function some years ago. As the son of a Methodist lay preacher who was raised a Baptist I was not a promising starter. But the organizers had done their homework and found a Catholic grandmother and a great, great grandfather who had emigrated from County Leitrum to Australia in 1837. On St Patrick’s day we are all Irish. And I am a little bit Irish on the other days too.

But Australia is not an emigrant nation; not like the Greeks or the Irish. Australia is an immigrant nation. This is a defining characteristic of who we are.

Outside Australia ‘s indigenous people, we are all immigrants or descendants of immigrants some earlier than others – but all with an experience of immigration during the foundation of modern Australia . Australia is part of the New World the world of immigrants not part of the Old World the places they embark from. This is why we are suspicious of inherited titles and privileges. Nobody can afford to get too precious about their position or entitlements in this country because we all know that position and entitlements are comparatively new.

Australia’s immigration experience is also a broad one. Originally it was Anglo-Celtic but after the war our immigrants came increasingly from southern Europe. In more recent times Vietnamese and Chinese immigrants have grown considerably in numbers. And all these immigrant communities have made successful contributions to Australian life.

Australia is often described as a successful multicultural society. And it is in the sense that people from all different backgrounds live together in harmony. But there is a predominant culture just as there is predominant language. And the political and cultural institutions that govern Australia are absolutely critical to that attitude of harmony and tolerance.

Within an institutional framework that preserves tolerance and protects order we can celebrate and enjoy diversity in food, in music, in religion, in language and culture. But we could not do that without the framework which guarantees the freedom to enjoy diversity.

On Australia Day this year, as I always do, I attended a Citizenship Ceremony at the Stonnington Town Hall in my electorate of Higgins. People from 36 different countries were taking out Australian citizenship this year. Various dignitaries Local Mayors, State and Federal MPs give speeches at these ceremonies and because it is Australia Day, they usually try to make some observation on what it means to be an Australian.

One of the speakers this year extolled the virtues of multiculturalism telling those attending that becoming an Australian did not mean giving up culture or language or religion or opinions and it certainly did not mean giving up the love of their country of birth. The longer he went on about how important it was not to give up anything to become an Australian the more it seemed to me that, in his view, becoming an Australian didn’t seem to mean very much at all other than getting a new passport. This State MP finished up his speech by telling the new citizens that they had done Australia a great honour by choosing to come to the country and choosing to become its citizen.

By this stage I was feeling quite guilty that we had detained these good people so long. Here they were doing us a favour and we were standing on ceremony.

But I realized that this confused mushy misguided multiculturalism completely underestimated the audience. People who have moved to another country, people who want to take out citizenship do it because they have positive reasons to do so. They consciously decide to embrace a different country and what it stands for. They want to be part of it. They are conscious that this is not a trivial event. It is a big decision. Becoming a citizen of another country changes their identity.

I was reminded of this recently when watching the Socceroos play in the World Cup Qualifier against Uruguay. A television commentator was moving amongst the crowd that was lining up to come into the ground. He came across an elderly woman with a heavy accent. He asked her where she came from, and she replied, I come from Uruguay to Australia twenty years ago. The reporter said, So you’re barracking for Uruguay . The woman was outraged. No! she yelled back at him. I go for Australia ! and looked incensed that he would think otherwise. Whether she went on to say Australia is my country I can’t be sure but that is what she meant.

If you loved Uruguay, wanted to speak Spanish, loved Uruguayan food, culture and political institutions you would not mark out Australia as the place to pursue these passions. The fact that you have moved to Australia says that there is something about Australia that you want to embrace that you do not find in your country of birth. If you turned up to take an oath of allegiance to Australia you might be surprised to hear that being an Australian involves nothing more than keeping your great love for Uruguay.

People come to Australia and become Australian citizens because they want to embrace the things this country stand for. We should be proud that people from all over the world come here looking for Australian values our values and want to embrace them. Values like…

  • Economic opportunity: Australia is an open society where inheritance and heredity do not govern a person’s economic opportunity. Hard work brings rewards.
  • Security: Australia is not subject to revolution, war or political violence. A person who wants to live in peace can do so.
  • Democracy: Government is accountable to public opinion and changes peacefully through voting in secret ballots.
  • Personal Freedom: An individual is free to write, to think, to worship and act as long as this does not impinge on others. Importantly women have a high measure of personal freedom in Australia .
  • The Physical Environment: Australia has clean air and safe food and water. It has open space and natural beauty.
  • Strong Physical and Social Infrastructure: Australia has roads that are paved, where traffic moves. It has hospitals that can treat illness and a good education system. It has aged and disability care.

The Australian Citizenship Oath or Affirmation tries to capture the essence of what it means to be Australian, it reads as follows:

From this time forward [under God] I pledge my loyalty to Australia and its people, whose democratic beliefs I share, whose rights and liberties I respect and whose laws I will uphold and obey.

To be an Australian citizen one pledges loyalty first:- loyalty to Australia. One pledges to share certain beliefs:- democratic beliefs; to respect the rights and liberty of others; and to respect the rule of law.

There is a lot of sense in this pledge. Unless we have a consensus of support about how we will form our legislatures and an agreement to abide by its laws none of us will be able to enjoy our rights and liberties without being threatened by others.

We have a compact to live under a democratic legislature and obey the laws it makes. In doing this the rights and liberties of all are protected. Those who are outside this compact threaten the rights and liberties of others. They should be refused citizenship if they apply for it. Where they have it they should be stripped of it if they are dual citizens and have some other country that recognizes them as citizens.

Terrorists and those who support them do not acknowledge the rights and liberties of others the right to live without being maimed, the right to live without being bombed and as such they forfeit the right to join in Australian citizenship.

The refusal to acknowledge the rule of law as laid down by democratic institutions also stabs at the heart of the Australian compact. The radical Muslim Cleric Ben Brika was asked in an interview on the 7.30 Report in August last year:-

But don’t you think Australian Muslims Muslims living in Australia also have a responsibility to adhere to Australian law?

To which he answered:-

This is a big problem. There are two laws there is an Australian law and there is an Islamic law.

No this is not a big problem. There is one law we are all expected to abide by. It is the law enacted by the Parliament under the Australian Constitution. If you can’t accept that then you don’t accept the fundamentals of what Australia is and what it stands for.

Our State is a secular State. As such it can protect the freedom of all religions for worship. Religion instructs its adherents on faith, morals and conscience. But there is not a separate stream of law derived from religious sources that competes with or supplants Australian law in governing our civil society. The source of our law is the democratically elected legislature.

There are countries that apply religious or sharia law Saudi Arabia and Iran come to mind. If a person wants to live under sharia law these are countries where they might feel at ease. But not Australia.

And the citizenship pledge should be a big flashing warning sign to those who want to live under sharia law. A person who does not acknowledge the supremacy of civil law laid down by democratic processes cannot truthfully take the pledge of allegiance. As such they do not meet the pre-condition for citizenship.

Before entering a mosque visitors are asked to take off their shoes. This is a sign of respect. If you have a strong objection to walking in your socks don’t enter the mosque. Before becoming an Australian you will be asked to subscribe to certain values. If you have strong objections to those values don’t come to Australia.

We need to be very clear on these issues. There are some beliefs, some values, so core to the nature of our society that those who refuse to accept them refuse to accept the nature of our society.

If someone cannot honestly make the citizenship pledge, they cannot honestly take out citizenship. If they have taken it out already they should not be able to keep it where they have citizenship in some other country.

Of course this is not possible for those that are born here and have no dual citizenship. In these cases we have on our hands citizens who are apparently so alienated that they do not support what their own country stands for.

Such alienation could become a threat to the rights and liberties of others. And so it is important to explain our values, explain why they are important, and engage leadership they respect to assist us in this process. Ultimately however it is important that they know that there is only one law and it is going to be enforced whether they acknowledge its legitimacy or not.

It will be a problem if we have a second generation the children of immigrants who have come to Australia in a twilight zone where the values of their parents old country have been lost but the values of the new country not fully embraced. To deal with this we must clearly state the values of Australia and explain how we expect them to be respected.

I suspect there would be more respect for these values if we made more of the demanding requirements of citizenship.

No one is going to respect a citizenship that is so undemanding that it asks nothing. In fact our citizenship is quite a demanding obligation. It demands loyalty, tolerance and respect for fellow citizens and support for a rare form of government democracy.

People will not respect the citizenship that explains itself on the basis of the mushy multiculturalism I have described earlier. We are more likely to engender respect by emphasizing the expectations and the obligations that the great privilege of citizenship brings. We have a robust tolerance of difference in our society. But to maintain this tolerance we have to have an agreed framework which will protect the rights and liberties of all. And we are asking our citizens all our citizens to subscribe to that framework.

I do not like putrid representations like Piss Christ. I do not think galleries should show them. But I do recognize they should be able to practice their offensive taste without fear of violence or a riot. Muslims do not like representation of the Prophet. They do not think newspapers should print them. But so too they must recognize this does not justify violence against newspapers, or countries that allow newspapers to publish them.

We are asking all our citizens to subscribe to a framework that can protect the rights and liberties of all. These are Australian values. We must be very clear on this point. They are not optional. We expect all those who call themselves Australians to subscribe to them. Loyalty, democracy, tolerance, the rule of law:- values worth promoting, values worth defending. The values of Australia and its citizens.