This week, the federal government will disclose its planned changes to Australian citizenship. The legislation being presented to parliament will change the permanent residency requirement from one year to four, institute a values test, introduce stricter English language competencies, and require applicants to demonstrate that they have integrated into Australian society.
Back in April when Malcolm Turnbull unveiled these new citizenship requirements, the Prime Minister indicated that they will put “Australian values at the heart of citizenship processes.” However, when the question was directed to him on what constituted ‘Australian values,’ the Prime Minister initially hesitated to define them despite his eventual explanation. He expressed: “Australians have an enormous reservoir of good sense, and we know that our values of mutual respect, democracy, freedom, rule of law, those values, a fair go – these they are fundamental Australian values.”
This moment of vulnerability brought immediate disparagement from media and political observers. As the leader of the nation, Malcolm Turnbull struggled to articulate succinctly what Australian values are which made me reflect – as citizens, do we recognise what these values are and/or how do they differ from one individual to the next? Looking toward social commentary and the Twitterati, people have put forward amusing suggestions whilst others provided serious annotations, including criticism of past and present government policies.
The changes to Australian citizenship requirements are appropriate and necessary. Through this lens, I began to contemplate my values considering the government’s recent changes to Australian citizenship requirements. It made me reflect on a recent encounter with an old colleague. Unbeknown to me at the time was his personal journey since we last met a few years ago. Sitting down across a busy mall, I am introduced to his fiancé. Spending our lunch together, James and his partner reminded me of my origins, upbringing and family. A reminder that we all came from migrant families and being the first generation born in Australia. We both shared stories of growing up in multi-ethnic families and how it shaped our values and lives today. That discussion redirected my thoughts about my parents, our life experiences and how they defined us as individuals, and what we deem are ‘Australian values.’
Australia has a powerful sense of self and we as a nation-state must characterise and solidify ‘Australian values’ clearly within our narrative. It must be embedded within our aspirations, sentiments and within our day-to-day. It is thus, the foundation and our guiding principles as citizens.
This is what I hold dearly as ‘Australian values.’ Firstly, it involves respecting the individual. It is accepting that every person has a right to live life in the way he or she chooses – free from intolerance, hostility and obstruction stemming from a misguided collectivist mindset, while also observing the rule of law and demonstrating mutual respect.
As citizens in a liberal democracy, we have a duty of responsibility to be active participants. Margaret Thatcher once identified consensus is “the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values, and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects; the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead. What great cause would have been fought and won under the banner: ‘I stand for consensus?’”
Freedom of speech should be an integral part of our society. It enables me to wear my values proudly. It is imperative to ensure that we have the intellectual machinery where we can experiment, advance ideas through debate and discussion and allow those viewpoints to prosper. Recent instances, such as the shutdown of screens of The Red Pill and the Section 18C case against Queensland University of Technology students, prevent our right as citizens to deliberate and examine positions.
It is also about advocating equal opportunities and pushing ourselves to be the best that we can be. In many respects, the tall-poppy syndrome has been a harmful predisposition in our society, particularly in regards to aspirational individuals. To drive our thinking forward – whether it is creating new businesses, developing new inventions or advancing new ideas – we must promote personal initiative and achievement. It is about celebrating one’s success and ensuring we do our utmost to nurture it and provide an environment that cultivates ambition. Importantly, driving a meritocratic culture and removing the injurious effects of mediocrity.
Every one of us will have a personal perspective of ‘Australian values’; there will be some who perceive the values I have expressed as liberal democratic values rather than uniquely Australian values. Either way, these are the values I personally subscribe to and hold dear.
John Varano is a senior researcher at the University of Oxford – Saïd Business School.
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