A couple of days before Christmas, I had an argument with my sister, V. It began soon after she asked me what I thought about the Howard government’s introduction of a test to determine whether those seeking Australian citizenship are sufficiently versed in the history and language of Australia and the apparently common values of its present citizens. My first response was that I’m not sure whether most present citizens of Australia, myself included, would pass such an examination. I elaborated, that as a way to ensure social harmony, since that is the stated goal of the test, it was a decidedly flawed idea.
I argued that the test assumes that people making the major decision to become Australian citizens are not already interested in finding out about the country of which they wish to be a part. It strikes me as a strange premise from which to begin assessing those who want to make their lives here. Why mark the beginning of the application process with such a divisive and damaging accusation of disinterest? Isn’t an application for citizenship an unequivocal expression of interest in Australia? It concerns me that as a people we can’t identify (empathise?) with those who want to be Australian citizens’ desire to belong to a relatively peaceful and democratic society. Isn’t that much of what is being expressed when an application for Australian citizenship is lodged? Where does the notion that applicants are not interested in Australia in any meaningful way arise? For what nefarious purpose do we imagine the applicants want to become Australian citizens?
V countered with the evidence that there are many migrants who have been in Australia for many years and still do not speak English. I’m convinced that this ‘evidence’ has been sourced from A Current Affair or Today Tonight, where one or two instances of something are invariably and dishonestly inflated to become a pervasive state of emergency. If someone doesn’t speak English in a country where the official language is English, then I imagine that it’s more of a problem for them than for the maintenance of social order. I think it would be beneficial to know English, so that social isolation might be avoided—if that’s an issue, which it can be—and I imagine it would be infinitely easier to do your shopping, pay your bills and complain to your local, state and federal government authorities with English than without it.
V then cited the Cronulla riots, saying quite strongly that ‘Something has to be done!’ This startled me, because as a statement, it was infused with such fear. She was obviously quite frightened, and she elaborated, envisaging that Australia would become like the UK, which, drawing from her experience of living in London for six years, she characterised as a society rife with racially motivated violence.
By this time, we had both accused one another of speaking disrespectfully to the other, and I was ready to drop the whole thing.
It isn’t that I don’t share my sister’s fear about the prospect of a violent society, and it turns out that she isn’t convinced of the efficacy of the proposed citizenship test either, but she would accept it as the start of measures to ensure a peaceful society, it would be ‘something’, whereas I think, as I indicated above, that such a test is premised on an uncharitable vision of those seeking a life in Australia, one that places them in an untenable position of having to prove themselves to an unforgiving audience. I’m not sure that placed in such a position myself I wouldn’t be seething resentment at having to constantly prove my allegiance. I would be more than surly if I was constantly found inadequate as an Australian. Is it any surprise that anger boils over in the face of such harsh judgement; anger and its expression through violence that itself is interpreted as irredeemable evidence of an Un-Australian character?
My mother has often told stories of feeling unwelcome in the years since our migration to Australia on account of her British-ness. To this day, she remains sensitive to being called a ‘pom’, because in the mining and resource towns we lived in for many years, she reports that it was directed towards her in its pejorative sense. She is also incensed when people correct her pronunciation, which she attributes to her West Midlands accent, rather than ignorance. There are many issues at work in my mother’s experience of migration that I wouldn’t want to discount: it must have been overwhelming to move away from established support networks of friends and family to the other side of the world with three children under the age of five. Still, as migrants, the British were wooed by the Australian government of the day. Virtually free passage eased the economic burden, and while the charge of ‘whingeing pom’ may have smarted, certainly no person of English extraction was being accused of not sharing Australian values and so destroying the fabric of Australian society.
The other aspect of my family’s migration that I can’t forget amidst the whole debate that my sister raised, is that we left England in response to my father’s fears about the influx of immigrants to that country, especially from the West Indies. Now that I’ve chosen to research in the field of Cultural Studies, I often pause to reflect on the irony that I was born in the very year, in the very place, that Stuart Hall assumed the directorship of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham. And within a year, my father had ushered his family away from what he perceived to be a disintegrating society to one where the substance of the White Australia Policy was still celebrated, if not officially sanctioned.
I mentioned this, what I consider to be a shameful reason for our immigration, to my sister, and she retorted that our parents had wanted a better life for us. I can’t argue that moving to Australia didn’t afford us better opportunities than might have a been available to a tool-maker’s family in Birmingham. Still, while I’m aware that those same opportunities weren’t available to everyone, I can’t celebrate the fact of our comparatively comfortable lives uncritically. (Just this year, I attended a class, where a fellow PhD student related the story of his father’s unsuccessful attempts to migrate to Australia from Fiji, just a few years before my family moved. His father migrated to the UK.)
In an attempt to calm the waters between my sister and I, I told her about a Christmas card I had received from another office-mate of mine. Quite frankly, I was surprised to receive a card from J, because she is Muslim. And you know, I really don’t care about getting Christmas cards, being a heathen and all. In discussion with D, who had also received a card from J, we concluded that she had wanted to acknowledge that Christmas was a significant celebration in Australia, and she didn’t really know either of us well enough to know that she wouldn’t be hurting our feelings by not acknowledging it. J’s gesture was very kind and we took it in that vein. To my disappointment, V nodded approvingly and took it as evidence that J was making an effort to share our values. I began to say, ‘but she doesn’t want to move to Australia permanently, she’s studying here...’, and no doubt I would have gone into a rant about what a ridiculous thing this whole expectation that everyone from non-Christian, non-Anglo origins should constantly perform their allegiance to Australia, in an attempt to satisfy those who will never be convinced. But I didn’t.
To be continued...