Tuesday, November 14, 2006

"A wolf in sheep's clothing": divisive, isolationist and purpose-built to win the xenophobic vote at the next election

Eva Sallis of Australians Against Racism has issued the following warning about Howard's proposed citizenship test:

"The proposed citizenship test is to be debated soon. I have read the briefing paper put out by the government, and it is a sweet tongued piece, inviting agreement through age old tricks of rhetoric. It presents an earnest and benign government working for the good of all, and proposing to help those least supported, like refugees, towards the ultimate goal: being fruitful as citizens of Australia. The paper is so disarming, it has to be read in the context of contemporary social and media debates and the current government's policy history to make any sense of it.

All the problems of the paper are covert or unstated.

Many people are responding to it in detail, from the members of many communities who feel insulted by the retrospective illegitimacy to their belonging in Australia that it implies, to those concerned with its divisiveness for new communities settling in here, and the wedge it potentially drives between communities. This test will entrench scales of worthiness among citizens. Poor English will be used by the broader community to ostracise and vilify to a greater degree than it already is, given such a sanction.

With this editorial comment, I would like to draw attention to some longer term implications. I will put them bluntly, rather than arguing point by point with what I think is a dishonest and disingenuous document.

1. Can we prevent the test being used for cultural screening? I don't think we can, as I think that is its purpose. I think we all know that the test is devised to exclude, rather than, as the paper suggests, 'help', some applicants for citizenship. We can guess from Howard and the media's dog whistle what cultures of origin would be most often excluded. The pretense that this is not about people of Middle Eastern or Muslim origin is to me and I hope to many transparent nonsense.

2. I think DIMA’s record as a reliable and responsible government department must be taken into account. DIMA or an offshoot of DIMA would devise and administer the test. Why would any of us expect DIMA employees to administer the test without taking unwritten policies into account? Given what we know of DIMA's actions in the past, why should we expect better when they are to be unscrutinised gatekeepers able to exclude precisely the people they wish to exclude, and have spent billions on excluding over the past seven years?

3. The longterm effects of screening out particular cultures, if you accept that this is a possible effect of the test, must be considered. If the refusal rate for people of Middle Eastern and or Muslim origin is high, (which I believe is the intention) the long term implications for the Middle Eastern and Muslim communities in Australia and for all Australians are terrible. Think about a growing ghetto of people with no citizenship rights, deportable at the discretion of the Minister. This is of course what the government wants: containment of all to control the imagined possible terrorists. But this is an appalling way to think about a community, and spectacularly damaging.

Think about it: Such containment would ruin the relationships between our communities. Such containment would generate fear, uncertainty and anger in the Australian Middle Eastern communities, citizen and non citizen alike. Such containment would endorse every prejudice in the broader community, peddling fear between peoples with far reaching consequences. This is a way to generate violence, and will not 'help' anybody.

Remember that the detention centres were acceptable to many ordinary people on the argument that the government wouldn't do such a thing to people if it didn't know they were dangerous: the argument that we were being 'protected' from detainees - who, it turned out, were simply very traumatised men women and children.

Far from 'helping' Australians be better citizens, this proposed test could signal the end of an Australia that is unique and precious, in which the members of our many communities have equal rights and value before the law.

Finally, I would like to remind the Australian Government that its arrogance about the English language is cause for dismay to our many communities. We are a multilingual land and the richer for it. English is not Australia's first language, and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander elders who speak their mother tongue fluently and as their primary language are true, living, national treasures."

I can confirm the Howard Government does not deserve the trust the community places in it to do the right thing in our name. It has given up any right to that presumption a long time ago. Concerned citizens need to constantly make their voices heard over the shrill hectoring of Howard apologists and hate jockeys. The US mid-term elections reveal that low rent political machines can be derailed by public scrutiny.

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