Citizenship and belonging

5 Sep 2006

Unravelling Identity: Immigrants, Identity and Citizenship in Australia
Trevor Batrouney and John Goldlust
Common Ground, 251 pages, $45

Borderwork in Multicultural Australia
Bob Hodge and John O’Carroll
Allen & Unwin, 252 pages, $35

Reviewed by Peter Mares

I WITNESSED Australia’s inglorious exit from the World Cup in a packed Balmain Rugby Leagues club. Many in the crowd were sporting green and gold, and when it came time for the pre-match national anthem, the crowd rose almost as one to join in a well-oiled and full-throated rendition of Advance Australia Fair. I was glad that my reluctance to take part was masked by the fact that I was already standing - at the bar as it happens, trying to order a beer before kick-off.

In the 2006 Colin Simpson Memorial lecture for the Australian Society of Authors, poet Dorothy Porter declared that “at this present time” she loves her cat more than she loves her country. Porter also declared that she loves the poem “For My Cat Jeoffrey,” by Christopher Smart (an eighteenth-century poet who spent much of his life in an asylum), astronomically more than the “drab strains and drab pompous lyrics” of our national anthem. Perhaps Dorothy Porter and I are both un-Australian, but then patriotism, surely, is not measured in decibels.

The louder “Australian values” are spruiked, the less attractive they become. And the volume seems to rise in inverse proportion to our confidence that those values are indeed deeply embedded and widely shared in the community. Since at least Cronulla, and probably since 9/11, there has been a sense that Australia is under threat from within. How else are we to understand calls by prominent Australians (such as mining boss Hugh Morgan or senior Liberal MP Wilson Tuckey) to do away with dual citizenship? Political arithmetic will ensure that such ideas have little life beyond the opinion pages: as the prime minister has pointed out, as many as five million Australians may have the right to hold a second passport (the largest group of them British).

But a lesser probing of immigrants’ commitment to Australia is on the cards. Andrew Robb, parliamentary secretary to the immigration minister, has promised to take “a serious look” at the merits of a compulsory citizenship test. Potential Australians would need to prove “a functional grasp of English” and “a general understanding of Australian values, customs, laws and history” before graduating to become, officially, one of us. The justification for such a test is that it will “help people integrate more successfully.” This is bunkum. English language skills, understanding the fundamentals of the legal system and familiarity with Australian history may indeed aid people in the process of settlement and belonging, but a formal test of such knowledge is more likely to divide than to unite. A citizenship test holds out the superficial promise of acting as some kind of population filter, to ensure that immigrants measure up to certain predetermined Australian qualities. But even if such an idea were desirable it would not work, since candidates for the test would already be among us, living in Australia as permanent residents. If they failed the test, they would probably go on living here, now confirmed in the status of permanent “outsider,” having expressed the desire to become Australian and suffered humiliating rejection.

There is already a requirement that prospective citizens demonstrate a basic understanding of English (although this is waived for anyone aged over fifty, presumably on the premise that old dogs struggle to learn new tricks), and most skilled migrants demonstrate a reasonable level of English language before they even get a visa. A more rigorous language test would disproportionately effect the citizenship aspirations of people who come to Australia as refugees.

Yet in Unravelling Identity, Trevor Batrouney and John Goldlust found that refugees are the most eager of any migrants to confirm allegiance to their new home. This can have a practical aspect - Australian citizenship may be the key that opens the door to international travel - but in the interviews conducted by Batrouney and Goldlust, it was the emotional reasons that most often came to the fore. Refugees were eager for the certainty and sense of belonging that citizenship confers. Equally important was the desire to do “the right thing” by Australia as an expression of gratitude for the safe haven that had been offered to them. Take Thuy, a refugee from Vietnam:

I said to my wife and kids that: “Well, this Australia is really your new country, your new nationality and that you have to do anything for the country.” I encourage my kids give something back to Australia, even someone want to go serve army or navy, we are ready to do anything for Australia.


In a useful opening chapter, Batrouney and Goldlust remind us that citizenship has different meanings in different places and at different times. Historically, republican France stressed the civic aspects of citizenship as “as primarily a formal and legal status assigning to individual recipients clearly defined rights and benefits,” whereas the emphasis in Germany was on “the cultural nation” and loyalty to a shared ethnic and linguistic identity. Until relatively recently, Australians had no citizenship - we were simply subjects of the British Crown. Even after the Nationality and Citizenship Act came into force in 1949, “citizenship was still conceptualised in relation to British culture and ethnicity, not in terms of the rights and responsibilities of citizens and the State.” It is only since the late 1960s, when the rights of citizenship were extended to indigenous Australians and the White Australia Policy was dismantled, that a more civic notion of citizenship has begun to emerge.

The bulk of Unravelling Identity is a discussion of detailed, open-ended interviews conducted with 128 immigrants to ascertain their feelings about Australia and their country of birth. Unfortunately, the interviews themselves were carried out more than a decade ago, so the responses contain no specific reference to contemporary events or to what is often seen, rightly or wrongly, as the primary fault-line in Australian society today: the divide between Muslim and non-Muslim. This is regrettable, but the interviews nevertheless elicit a fascinating range of responses on universal questions of belonging and identity. They remind us that identities are not fixed and immutable: all of us, regardless of our origins, inhabit different identities in different contexts. Nor are we given a completely free pass where identity is concerned: identities are also imposed upon us. Seth migrated to Australia from Sri Lanka:

I would love to call myself an Australian, but I’ve occasionally heard, like even at my workplace people saying look who are the “true blues.” You guys are not “true blues.” You think: “oh, okay, right, you say what you want to say, maybe I’m not.”

The markers of Australianness that immigrants identify in themselves do not always coincide with the official version of what makes a good citizen. Sunil, from India, jokes that he is truly living “an Aussie life” because he doesn’t know his neighbours.

Contemporary identities are “complex, hybrid and variable,” and tensions around identity and belonging are “rarely permanently resolved”. The relationship of a migrant to their home country remains “open to revision” and is influenced by the “development of a new and ongoing relationship to Australia.”

This kind of understanding is what Bob Hodge and John O’Carroll in their book Borderwork would approvingly describe as fuzzy logic. The alternative is crisp logic, thinking that attempts to draw strict borders around notions of identity and belonging, and which inevitably results in the unproductive dichotomy of “us” and “them.”

Borderwork is an interesting book that covers an enormous amount of territory, with chapters on Aboriginal Australia, Islam, Australia and Asia, Australia and the Pacific, and Anglo-Celts, as well as more theoretical discussion of issues such as racism, tolerance and multiculturalism. It addresses hot topics (like Cronulla and the Tampa affair) and is peppered with interesting anecdotes and case studies that help to illustrate the authors’ arguments and to expand our understanding of Australia’s “multiculture.” (For example, did the inspiration for Ned Kelly’s armour come from China?)

One of the book’s most challenging arguments is that the fiercest explosions of “racism” sometimes have more to do with similarity than with difference. The authors cite the examples of German Jews and Chinese Indonesians, two groups deeply integrated into the societies that ultimately turned against them. Viewed through this prism, the Cronulla riots take on a different complexion and can be seen as a clash between two groups of young Australian men who both like to hang out at the beach: “The problem is not that “they” are different; rather it is that “they” are just a little bit too much like “us” - “they” live next door, take “our” jobs, go to “our” schools.”

Exactly where this leads in policy terms is not clear, but it serves as a reminder that the “trajectory of multiculture is not simple, linear or predictable, and seemingly massive borders can be created and removed in a trice.” In this sense “borderwork” - the ways in which “humans construct, maintain, police and negotiate a range of relationships, whether based on similarities or difference, love of fear” - is an ongoing project.

In the end, Hodge and O’Carroll probably try to achieve too much: Borderwork strives to be a textbook, a teaching resource, a contribution to social theory and a critical survey of the issues for a general reader. These different aims conflict at times and the text is weighed down by terminology (like schismogenesis and cosmogenesis). But it does offer a more hopeful vision of multicultural Australia than that which generally prevails - one in which the Cronulla riots cannot be taken as definitive proof of policy failure.

Andrew Robb might do well to read both these books before launching into a decision about whether or not to introduce compulsory citizenship tests.

Peter Mares is a broadcaster and senior research fellow at the Swinburne Institute for Social Research This review first appeared in the September 2006 edition of Australian Book Review.

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