A stronger Australia and a stronger nation through the implementation and definition of ‘Australian values’. The government recently strengthened Australian citizenship requirements, including proficiency in English and a commitment to the ‘shared values and responsibilities’ of Australians.
According to the government, citizenship is at the core of democracy and it expects certain responsibilities for those who seek it. A responsibility built upon a shared understanding of Australian values. Criminal activity, violence against women and children, as well as involvement in gangs or organised crime is inconsistent with these values.
Australia however, is still recognised as an immigration nation. It is one of the most successful multicultural societies in the world, according to AMP, with one quarter of the population born overseas. This only includes skilled migration, not humanitarian (refugee) intakes. But migration is not being well utilised in Australia, with many migrants working in low or medium skilled occupations.
The changes made in the citizenship requirements can lead to better integration. Like pushing for the incentive to learn the local language or engage in the local community. But integration in itself is very complex. It it not equal to becoming Australian. It does not mean you have to leave your own culture and become Australian. It means that you can keep your own culture and blend it with the Australian one, as long as your activities remain legal.
That is democracy, that it multiculturalism and that is religious and cultural freedom.
Multiculturalism requires sensitivity and acceptance. It is what gives us the freedom of choice to eat pizza and kebab instead of meat pies. We are all equal before the law, but we are autonomous in the way we choose to live our lives within those parameters. To understand what these changes to the citizenship means, we would have to define the meaning of ‘Australian values’.
The first question we would need to address is the divided identities within the nation itself. The most prominent one being that of Indigenous Australians. How can we ask for migrants to prove Australian values without knowing what that means beyond the rule of law? Does it include Indigenous values or is that part of Australian values?
The second question would be how do we separate between cultural values and the rule of law. Because one does not necessarily follow the other?
As the Turnbull Government stated:
“Australia must continue to attract people who will embrace our values and positively contribute – regardless of their nationality or religious beliefs”
“Citizenship must be valued and we are making changes so that the practices and principles of those obtaining citizenship are consistent with our cultural values”
Yet the values identified are legal – not cultural. For example, criminal activity and violence against women is against the law. But Australian culture is not exempt from it. On the contrary, it is a substantial issue. It is easy for the immigration minister to suggest that perpetrators of domestic violence should not become Australian citizens, but what does that actually mean?
Everyone should be equal before the law – Australian citizen or not. But the values are democratic, not culturally specific to Australia. If perpetrators of domestic violence were to lose their Australian citizenship, it would be a culturally Australian value. The culture would not accept anyone who is a perpetrator of this sort. But for obvious reason, that is not the way citizenship works.
Integration is an important part of any society. Wanting people to be part of the Australian society and sharing the same values is not disputed in this post. But the requests we have from migrants should be consistent with what we expect from citizens in legal term, not cultural.
Defining cultural values is not an easy task, but people have tried. One way of doing it is by examining cultural values. Social physiologists like Professor Shalom H. Schwartz, have identified seven distinct orientations. These measure cultural values such as individual autonomy or egalitarianism. As Nick Haslam, Professor in Psychology at the University of Melbourne shows, Australian values sit on the global mean.
This means that the Australian culture is not very ‘distinct’. But it also highlights the difference in cultures around the world. Some cultures like Sweden shows more diversion from the mean than Australia does. As seen using this interactive table.
Culture does not explain violence against women, however. Australia and other countries criminalised this behaviour, indicating it as unwanted. But it remains a big domestic issue. In fact, studies show mixed results between English speaking women and women from other cultures in Australia. The Australian culture is not proven to be different from any other culture.
Another way of looking at this is by comparing intimate violence to women globally:
The high income countries, including Australia, show a rate of 23,2 %. Although it is lower than some other regions, it is not an acceptable number. Violence is prevalent all over the world – despite culture. It is a democratic right for women to enjoy freedom of self, experiencing a life without violence. But no culture is exempt from this issue. The only difference is between countries criminalising this behaviour and countries that do not.
And this is an important distinction, because when the government uses statements like these:
“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”
together with the quotes above, it wrongly interconnects Australian values and culture with democracy and law.
The government can ask citizens to follow the Australian law and give incentives to engage more in the local community. But before asking them to ‘share Australian cultural values’, one must first be clear on what that includes. Incorporating all the citizens, including Indigenous Australian values.
Citizenship in a multicultural society cannot ask people to integrate completely on the basis of cultural values. It can however inform about the laws and the repercussions of inconsistent actions, as a democratic society.
The government should therefore identify the citizenship requirements as democratic values. Regulated under the Australian law. And applied to all citizens equally as part of a multicultural society.