The Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee is holding an enquiry into proposed changes to the Citizenship Act.  The bill being considered is the “Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Requirements for Australian Citizenship and Other Measures) Bill 2017”.

The Bill includes the following provision:

“At the end of section 46 Add:

Required information or documents

(4)              …

(5)              The Minister may determine:

          (a)              an Australian Values Statement; and

          (b)              any requirements relating to the Australian Values Statement….”

The Minister (that is, the Immigration Minister) is therefore given the power to decide what constitutes an appropriate statement of Australian Values. The significance of that power should not be underestimated.

The values which define a nation’s character are, typically, very diverse. It is not easy to imagine that every person in any nation would identify the same values as characteristic of that nation. The proposed amendments noted above would produce the result that adherence to Australia’s values would become a touchstone to citizenship. It seems odd then that one person should have the power to determine, for the nation at large, what its values are. For example, the history of Australia since white settlement could lead a person to suppose that Christian principles were central to Australia’s values. But that proposition would be inconsistent with aspects of Australia’s conduct (past and present) and inconsistent with section 116 of the Constitution, which says:

“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.”

It is worth noting that the proposed s. 46(5) may not prevent a Minister from including, in a Statement of Australian Values, a requirement to adhere to Christian principles. This would be objectionable on at least four obvious grounds:

  1. The fact of growing Islamophobia in the community;
  2. The fact that people from various religious backgrounds join the Australian community and contribute greatly to it;
  3. The fact that such a requirement would be inconsistent with section 116 of the Constitution, even if not in breach of it;
  4. The fact that the indigenous peoples of Australia embrace religious views which are pre-Christian.

It seems highly undesirable that any one person, whether a Minister of the Crown or not, should have the power to determine what the nation’s values are, especially when his or her determination has the potential to affect a person’s right to citizenship.

There is a further point. A Statement of Australian Values already exists, as part of the process of applying for permission to enter Australia. If it is a template for what is proposed, then we have a problem.

The Australian Values Statement, in Form 1281, provides as follows:

“AUSTRALIAN VALUES STATEMENT

This statement must be signed by the main applicant and each person aged 18 years or over who is included in the visa application, unless they have already signed it on the visa application form…

I understand:

  • Australian society values respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual, freedom of religion, commitment to the rule of law, Parliamentary democracy, equality of men and women and a spirit of egalitarianism that embraces mutual respect, tolerance, fair play and compassion for those in need and pursuit of the public good;
  • Australian society values equality of opportunity for individuals, regardless of their race, religion or ethnic background;
  • the English language, as the national language, is an important unifying element of Australian society.

…”

(emphasis added)

What is notable about the parts emphasised is that they are difficult to reconcile with the idea of imprisoning innocent people who have sought a safe place to live, and in particular they stand awkwardly with treating asylum seekers the way we do in order to deter others from seeking asylum in Australia.

If we are to have a Statement of Australian Values, the Parliament should ensure that it genuinely reflects Australia’s values as reflected by its conduct as a nation, and the Parliament should ensure that all members of the Parliament could, in good conscience, say that they embrace and live up to the Values reflected in the Statement.

It is notorious that Australia’s treatment of people seeking asylum has been trenchantly criticised by various NGOs. If we are to have a Statement of Australian Values, it should either reflect our willingness to behave in ways that had attracted that criticism, or else our conduct as a Nation should be made to conform to the Statement of Values. Failing one or other of these, the proposed Statement of Australian Values would only survive at the frontier where self-delusion meets self-congratulation.

And while it is true that the English language is important in Australia, there are some Federal MPs whose grasp of English is so tenuous that they would probably fail the Values Statement.

Submissions can be made online at http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/ Committees/OnlineSubmission or via email to: legcon.sen@aph.gov.au

The text of the bill and the Explanatory Memorandum can be found here