Andrew Robb proposes drawing the magic circle of Australian citizenship tighter than at any time since multiculturalism gained credible ground in modern Australia. The parliamentary secretary for immigration supports compulsory English testing plus knowledge of Australian history, culture and values. What's the rhyme and reason for this indisputably dramatic development? On the face of things, it's all about integrating migrants in our community, guaranteeing they make the most of the opportunities that life in Australia can offer, and ensuring that citizenship is not thrown away like confetti.
As far as that goes, it is difficult to object. Of course, integration is desirable. Of course, opportunity should not be squandered. Of course, citizenship brings responsibilities as well as rights and the protections of a passport. Of course, the cohesion of our society depends on core consensus about who and what we are as a people. What is not evident, however, is that the Australian multicultural project - as it is really lived, rather than disingenuously caricatured, harbours the seeds of the kind of division and irresponsibility, carried in by new or putative citizens of certain backgrounds, that would justify this kind of move.
That's the political fantasy of some, but the facts indicate the opposite. The overwhelming majority of new arrivals born without a silver English language spoon in their mouths are strongly motivated to make a home and a living in their adopted land for themselves and their children. That motivation fast-tracks action. So what if they don't hang around for the second verse of Advance Australia Fair. They get out and set up those homes and make those livings, and their offspring tend to outperform those of whiter Australia.
It's no accident or exercise in tokenism that three of the eight state and territory young Australians of the year for 2006, gonged for all-round high achievement and community contribution, have names such as Alice Chang, Felix Ho and Alen-Igor O'Hran. Below that bright line, everyone's encountered someone from a migrant family like that. And if they really know that family, they also understand that it functions well in Australian society even though, or perhaps precisely because, at home one or more of its individual members thinks, emotes and speaks in a way that mainstream Australia still considers foreign.
Defending the proposed citizenship test, Robb lamented the plight of post-World War II migrant women in his electorate, now in their '80s, who speak only Greek or Italian while their Australian-born grandchildren just know English. Everyone's encountered a black-clad Eleni or Maria like that. And anyone who really knows one will laugh at the idea that at this stage of proceedings scant English meaningfully diminishes their matriarchal influence and satisfaction.
Moving from fact back into fantasy, mine is for a mainstream Australian leader who considers it a real problem that those Australian grandchildren have squandered the inhouse opportunity to fast-track their fluency in Greek or Italian as well as English, and who opens out that zone of concern to Croatian, Cantonese, Hebrew, Arabic, Romanian, Vietnamese and beyond.
That's not about cultural cringe - but why do I have to keep adding that caveat to any suggestion we might benefit from less gazing into our comfortable cultural navel, less pianola-style banging out a persistently Anglophonic and increasingly kitsch tune?
What seems like an age ago now, Australian writer Robert Dessaix recounted never loving quite the same way again once he'd learnt Russian. That lesson might be usefully applied to enrich today's mainstream Australian perspective on, and enhance our national performance in, other fields of vital intercourse, including trade, diplomacy, governance, education, design and domestic politics. We might even see a bit less pinched counting of colour-coded confetti, a bit more panini thrown onto the water.
Back again to what's actually on our table. If Australia has or risks a serious cohesion problem related to culture and communication, this citizenship test balloon floated by Robb won't address it. Ticking a box marked fair go and trotting out catchwords such as freedom or rule of law doesn't mean all that much. Walking the citizenship talk is a bigger, deeper exercise that has little to do with jumping through bureaucratic hoops.
Further, where is the ironclad guarantee that the mentality of Australia's citizenship examiners will be duly different from that encountered by Vivien Alvarez Solon and Cornelia Rau, whose own Australian citizenship proved to be not worth the paper it was printed on at critical junctures?
Either we value people such as Chang, Ho and O'Hran as model Australians or we don't. If we do, we might care to consider Ho's response to the Robb agenda. Having come to Australia from Hong Kong in 1988 and now studying medicine, as well as serving as an RAAF reservist and St John Ambulance volunteer, Ho spoke out at a citizenship ceremony he'd been invited to address. Opposing the suggested changes, Ho said immigrants should not be expected to pass tests on Australian values - and not just because he wasn't sure his own family would pass. Shouldn't citizen Ho's Australian story be enough to capture more of our hearts - and open more of our minds?