November 13, 2009

Citizenship is something we do

When the Howard government introduced a formal citizenship test to replace the former less formal oral test, there was much public debate about Australian values. The question was asked: is there a unique set of Australian values?

In answering this question some said ‘no’: Australian civic values are common to most western liberal democracies. Others said ‘no’: Australian values are universal human values.

At one level these statements are true, but I answer ‘yes’. When you write our values, they are generic. When Australians live the values, they are unique.

Australia’s civic aspirations are perhaps best expressed in text in the words of the Australian Citizenship Pledge.

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.

Bob Carr said that "There’s nothing flowery or poetic about these words, but their force and clarity never fails to stir..."

As good as these words are, they are not particularly unique to Australia. You could replace the name ‘Australia’ with ‘New Zealand’ or even ‘Canada’ and it would sound right to our Aussie ear.

I recently read in the Museum of Australian Democracy in Old Parliament House that citizenship is not something you have. Rather, citizenship is something you do. It is the way Australians live and enact the values of liberal democracy and the rule of law that make the values and uniquely Australian.

Many of the basic tenants of Australia’s political and legal system were borrowed from other nations. These foreign tenants and institutions have been profoundly shaped by the Australian people – by generations of migration, our first Australians, and by the continent’s unique climates and landscapes.

No other nation has had a Harvester judgement or a Mabo judgement. Few other nations have compulsory elections. Our policy of multi-culturalism was uniquely shaped to Australia. In few other nations does the Prime Minister invite you to call him by his first name.

Australia’s civic values are made unique by the way we live them. And the way we live them, is shaped by the generations that have come before us and the unique landscape of our island nation.

Citizenship is something we do.

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