Just What Are the Australian Values Our Politicians Wish to Test Migrants On?

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6 July 2017

In June of this year the government introduced legislation into the House aimed at “strengthening” the requirements migrants would be obliged to meet in order to qualify for Australian citizenship. One of the requirements, we are told, is that prospective citizens will have to demonstrate a commitment to “Australian Values”.

Nobody, however, seems able to agree on precisely what these “values” are, although a number of commentators suggested that as a people Australians cherish certain things, ranging from a firm belief in having tomato sauce on the barbecue sausage to notions such as a “fair go” for individuals.

The Prime Minister is fond of using such phrases as ‘a rules based international system’ or ‘a commitment to the rule of law’,’ usually in the context of denouncing a person or country that, in the Prime Minister’s eyes at least, fails to meet the standards he expects.

So, in the spirit of helping the government decide if a ‘fair go’ and a ‘commitment to the rule of law’ are indeed suitable criteria, I thought it would be helpful to look at some selected features of Australian history to see how those concepts might be applied.

Can we say, for example, that the aboriginal people have had a ‘fair go’? Did the refusal to acknowledge their human status until the 1967 referendum (nearly 200 years after the invasion) impinge on their capacity to have a ‘fair go’.

Despite handwringing reports on a regular basis pointing out the sustained levels of disadvantage and the need to ‘close the gap’ some uncomfortable truths remain. On virtually every significant social indicator, from infant mortality, to educational standards including even basic literacy, to having basic utilities like electricity and clean running water to their sub-standard dwellings, to employment and much else, Aboriginal people continue to languish at Third world levels. Is this a ‘fair go?’

The current convulsions over whether people of the same gender should be allowed to express their commitment to each other in a marriage ceremony reveals more than residual bigotry or homophobia. The polls consistently show that 70% or thereabouts support amending the law to allow same sex couples the same rights as heterosexual couples.

The government however, insists on a plebiscite, which, if the polls are correct, will show overwhelming support for change. Yet the plebiscite will not be binding on members of Parliament who will vote in accordance with their own beliefs. So why spend $200 million on an absolutely pointless exercise when the end result will be a voting exercise that could be achieved tomorrow and save the taxpayers $200 million? The answer must be because we have a government so captive to its reactionary rump that it ignores the democratic wishes of the overwhelming majority of the people. Can someone please explain how this is reflecting an Australian value?

Let’s look at Turnbull’s favourite phrase of a rules based international order. There is actually such a creature. It is found in the UN Charter, international Conventions, customary international law, and the rulings of the World
Court among other places. It is here however, that one struggles to equate the supposed value that Turnbull cherishes, with the government’s actual practice.

In my view, Australian foreign policy would benefit from a real commitment to international law as reflected in actual practice. If we truly did hold this as an Australian value, then we might have avoided the following, very small sample.

  • Invading and occupying Iraq on the basis of multiple lies leading to the destruction of a society, the displacement of millions and the deaths of more than a million Iraqis.
  • Taking part in a ‘coalition’ in Syria that is in flagrant breach of international law; helps rather than hinders the terrorist organisations operating there; lying about the reasons for joining this blatant attempt at regime change; and refusing to release the legal opinion on which the decision was allegedly based.
  • Breaching a whole host of international Conventions, including the Refugee Convention, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the International Convention on Human Rights. The best illustration of this is denying refugees due process of law, locking them up in off-shore detention centres, and making it a crime for journalists, doctors and whistleblowers generally to report on actual conditions in these gulags.
  • Maintaining a studied silence when the rights of others are grossly violated, as with the Saudi led attack on Yemen, or the treatment of the Palestinians.

There are many other examples. Try as I might, I cannot reconcile these examples with anything remotely approaching a commitment to a ‘rules based international order’, much less a ‘fair go’ for the victims of this disgraceful conduct. If the government itself cannot abide by the rules it says are essential, how reasonable is it to expect prospective citizens to commit to upholding them? Hypocrisy is the kindest word that comes to mind.

One final thought. The Australian Constitution is almost completely silent on guaranteeing basic human rights. Successive governments have refused to countenance introducing a Bill of Rights or its equivalent to align Australia with every other country that belongs to that group that we are otherwise more than please to associate our name with, liberal democratic societies.

It is little wonder the government is having trouble finding a morally and logically consistent definition of what exactly constitutes ‘Australian values’. After all, that exercise may lead to some uncomfortable introspection. Critical self-examination is definitely not something one associates with ‘Australian values.’

*Barrister at Law and geopolitical analyst. He may be contacted at joneill[at]qldbar.asn.au

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