What must a citizen know?

The previous Australian junta introduced a "citizenship test" for those wanting to become naturalised Aussies. It includes such gems as who Don Bradman was, who wrote a song that isn't even officially our anthem (Waltzing Matilda - Tom Wait's version is way better), and other fluff. About one in eight failed the first round. Similar tests apply in the US, Canada and the UK, I gather.

This raises the question of the title. What must a citizen know?

I hold a somewhat spare view of this topic. A citizen must know only that which all citizens are obligated to know, and for my money, that is rights and duties. Sports and culture are not to be imposed on citizens, for these are made by citizens, not the constitution of the state. Those of us who are already citizens need not know about The Don or Banjo Patterson. We need not even know about previous prime ministers (which is a position not mentioned in our Constitution, by the way). All they must know is what they are required to do and what their rights are. The rest is cultural imperialism, or at worst, racism. Australia back in the White Australia policy days (not that long ago - I was ten when it finally died) had a "language test" it used to keep the nignogs out - and that language could be Latin, Chinese or Esperanto if the officer administering it didn't want the person to come in. This is another version of that.

So, what must we ensure that our citizens (and not merely immigrants applying for citizenship) know? Here's my list.

  1. The structure of government - the Parliament, the Constitution, the judiciary, and voting.
  2. Legal obligations - duty of care to others, contractual rights and obligations, the basics of lawful behaviour
  3. Legal rights - habeas corpus, arrest rights (including access to a solicitor), property rights, and representational rights in legislatures.
  4. Basic English. This is the official language of Australia and ought to be understood. However, when I say basic English, I really mean basic. There are perhaps a 1000 words of English one must know to get by in Australia.

That's it. I do not see the legitimacy of any further test for citizenship. It is my experience that immigrants who naturalise are often better informed on Australian society than their native fellows. They often take up the culture and history more enthusiastically than we who are born here. This indicates to me that our education system is failing us. How anyone can get through 12 years of education without understanding Parliament or the legal system is beyond me, unless we simply do not teach them properly. But knowing about past PMs or writers of catchy jingles is just irrelevant to whether or not a person will be a good citizen.

One thing that we ought to insist upon to new Australians, however, is that the ethnic tensions of their home should not be played out here. When I was a kid, Serbs and Croats would go at each other, occasionally in violent affrays (love that word). More recently the idiot broadcaster Alan Jones stirred up anti-Lebanese tensions that resulted in riots. These activities ought to merit an automatic jail term (and Jones ought to be jailed just for bad taste and ignorance, but that's another rant). But the law covers this, and if it were applied equitably it would be sufficient (that is, if idiot xenophobic broadcasters didn't have prime ministers as personal friends, and were basically untouchable).

We have a damned good structure to our society if only authorities would act accordingly. If we insist that our citizens know what that is, and what is required of all, then maybe we'd all be better off. I know that naturalised citizens will insist that we play by the rules they were taught makes up our social fabric, moreso than the often-apathetic native borns will.

[NB: I do not suggest that this is true of other nations' tests - let the commentators discuss that below.]

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I reckon you're pretty much spot on. New immigrants need to know their rights (and thus duties.) They need to know that what a secular democracy means. They need to leave their blood feuds and cultural baggage that violates a nation's laws behind.
Know who Don Bradman was or what Vegemite is is unecessary jingoism. Like John Howard really.

By Brian English (not verified) on 03 Jan 2008 #permalink

Yes, I was not sufficiently clear about secularism, but that follows from a knowledge of the Constitution:

Australian Constitution - Section 116 - Commonwealth not to legislate in respect of religion

The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.

I feel somehow strangely proud that I knew who Don Bradman was without looking him up.

That can't be bad for someone born, raised and living in a country that's never had a televised cricket match - ever.

I'll be expecting an Australian passport in the mail any day now. Who knew it would be that easy?

"New immigrants need to know..."

Yes, certainly, but shouldn't that be handled when they arrive, not after living in Australia for four years? There must be paperwork before getting a permit to stay. That sounds like a good time to inform them about the ways of the land.

By Lassi Hippeläinen (not verified) on 03 Jan 2008 #permalink

Canada has a citizenship test that is based on a booklet called A Look at Canada, provided on-line. It's a combination of civics and geography that is fairly practical in scope. When I was the CO of an Army unit, I made my Lieutenants take the practice test without reading the booklet. The point I tried to make to them was that, if they were expected to be our nation's representatives abroad, how well did they know their nation. They found it eye-opening. In reality, if you're good at the undergraduate skill of read-and-regurgitate, the multiple-choice test is easy after you have read the booklet, unless you have difficulties with both French and English.

Maybe it's because of all these problems with extremism in Europe---in which ethnic tensions play only a minor part---that many people see it differently around here. So do I to a certain extent. Rights and obligations, command of language, knowledge about basic democratic structures, yes yes. But the problem is that many people, just look at the Netherlands or Great Britain, just memorize what they're supposed to know, and then culturally ghettoize themselves and violently rant against everything the adopted culture is all about, from freedom of speech to not treating women like cattle.

So there is something amiss, here. The Dutch, I once heard, introduced a movie prospective immigrants are obliged to watch, packed with cultural memes and achievements the people in the Netherlands are proud of, from gay rights to having a joint or a beer in your favorite coffee shop. So people who are "offended" by gays kissing each other or women showing their face or, goodness forbid!, their ankle in public, might please reconsider.

I don't know whether that works out, doesn't seem to right now, but it might just be that the idea to have an eye on the barn door came a little late. But in principle I gather it's not a bad thing to state in clear terms, look, this is our culture, and we like it that way, and we like to see it prosper and develop in this general direction, and we're glad to welcome you if you feel you'd like to be part of it.

Of course, this is not a "test" in the sense you posted about, John, and such "who was ..." and "what is ..." questions are pretty strange and silly indeed.



"But the problem is that many people, just look at the Netherlands or Great Britain, just memorize what they're supposed to know, and then culturally ghettoize themselves and violently rant against everything the adopted culture is all about, from freedom of speech to not treating women like cattle."

This is a legitimate problem, but the solution is not tests that force people to learn who was who twenty years ago in culture or sports. As you mention, people just memorize it and go back to doing what they were going to do anyway - and why wouldn't they? This kind of trivia is completely orthogonal to those things that really matter when it comes to building a free society, and I really don't understand how anyone can think it's relevant to citizenship.

My own opinion on how to solve this is that very few people are equipped to change their core set of values once they're past the age of about 30. Therefore, we should educate the young, and limit the excesses of the old until they die or go senile. It's a slow process, but I know of no historical example of immigration that took less than three generations to integrate.

By konrad_arflane (not verified) on 05 Jan 2008 #permalink

Surely I agree, but ...

konrad_arflane sez:
Therefore, we should educate the young, and limit the excesses of the old until they die or go senile.

... that is a major problem because one these excesses precisely consists of trying to circumvent educating the young, from putting them into segregated schools to shooting them in case the education effort worked out too well. So I'm wary of putting all my eggs into the basket of "slow process" techniques.


There are perhaps a 1000 words of English one must know to get by in Australia.

1. Foster's
2. Koala
3. Kangaroo
4. barbie
5. Neighbours
6. crikey
7. g'day

I give up. What are the other 993?