Re-reading what it means to be Australian

I was recently re-reading this excellent ANUPoll by Jill Shepard, ‘Australian attitudes towards national identity: citizenship, immigration and tradition‘, published in April 2015. The first question in the poll is the most interesting, asking what does it mean to be Australian?

Before I saw this poll, I’d always assumed being born in Australia would be considered the a critical factor when it comes to understanding what makes someone Australian. Turns out that’s not the case. Language skills and holding citizenship are clear markers over birthplace.

There are other interesting bits here as well. Respect for political institutions and laws is almost universal in terms of what it means to be an Australian. Yet in the same year, the Scanlon Foundation social cohesion survey found just 16 per cent of respondents consider the system of government ‘works find as it is’. Trust in politics, the media, and a raft of other institutions is stuck compared to where it was a generation ago. Clearly trust and respect as not mutually exclusive but the sheer size of the disparity feels important.

We’re four years removed from these results and a fair bit has happened in that period in relation to public debate on migration and citizenship. I imagine there has been some movement on the margins but I’d be surprised if there was wholesale change in the general shape of opinion, given the way these attitudes tend to form and hold over time.

In the last Parliament, the Turnbull Government’s proposed citizenship changes were defeated, primarily due to opposition to a higher English language test and the restrictiveness this would engender. The public debate was a rarity. Not since the introduction of the citizenship test by the Howard Government had the relationship between citizenship and recent migrants made such a splash in politics.

But the debate remained straightforward: imbuing value by generating a more exclusive citizenship, and opposition to this. We never moved past the legislative proposals and into a more substantive discussion. No-one was challenged if they said ‘citizenship is a privilege’. Personally, it strikes me as only half the equation. If we accept we live in a liberal democratic state, we should not ignore the responsibilities of the state to maintain a threshold number of citizens.

Re-reading the results above prompted me to think about what I’d like to see more when it comes to thinking about the settlement journey of recent migrants. A bigger conversation about how governments of all jurisdictions can make learning English easier. A more critical examination of how recent migrants access citizenship and what it means to them. And while I recognise these are not questions that fit neatly into a news cycle, they remain prescient for proactively shaping the society we want to live in instead of simply responding to a more negative alternative.

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