Sat, Sep 23, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Rhetoric heats up in debate about Australian values

There has been much laughter during the recent discussion over whether to force immigrants to pledge to uphold cultural norms, but the debate also has a dark side

By Ben Sandilands  /  THE OBSERVER , CANBERRA

Australian television and radio current affairs programs have been testing panels of citizens from all backgrounds to see if they can name the first prime minister, say how many states there are, describe Australia's unique preferential voting process, or tell why the kangaroo and emu were chosen for the national coat of arms.

Everyone has been failing miserably. The answers: Edmund Barton was the first prime minister; there are six states; the voting system defies simple English -- thus the correct answer is "I don't know" and the kangaroo and emu were chosen because they cannot take a step backwards.

The tests are the funny, or sad, side of a more serious debate about how immigrants -- and especially Muslims -- should be integrated into Australian society.

Prime Minister John Howard kicked the debate off by calling for more stringent citizenship tests for immigrants and for granting visas.

He has released a discussion paper proposing that immigrants wait four years, not two, to be eligible for citizenship, that they pass an English language test and that they affirm an oath to "Australian values."

But then the opposition leader Kim Beazley embarked on what political commentators called "a bidding war to be tough on Muslims" by calling for all international passengers to sign a pledge to adhere to Australian values on arrival.

It was a blunder from which he is still trying to extricate himself, as the tourism industry raised the specter of 5 million holiday makers a year, led by New Zealanders, the British, Germans, people from the US, Singaporeans and Samoans being confronted with -- and perhaps being paralyzed with mirth -- by a values pledge at passport control.

Beazley has refused to speculate on what other countries might require if, for example, Australians had to pledge to uphold Indonesian values before hitting a beach in Bali, or Turkish values before making the pilgrimage to Gallipoli, a famous World War I battleground that defined the ANZAC spirit of friendship, courage and sacrifice.

Or, as various wits asked: "What if we made the Poms sign up for drinking beer cold and they retaliated by making Aussies sign up for warm beer tasting like furniture cleaner as part of British values?"

The debate is at times uglier than it is amusing. The Howard government is at pains to claim that it is not about Muslims, but the Muslim community isn't buying the official line for a second, even though it doesn't speak with one clear voice any more than the Jewish, Greek Orthodox, Protestant or Catholic communities.

The prime minister preceded his Australian values announcement by a speech two weeks ago, in which he criticized "some" Muslims for being slow to learn English, accept Australian ways and recognize equal rights for women.

This week, his parliamentary secretary for immigration and multicultural affairs, Andrew Robb, said Islamic clerics should preach in English. The question as to whether the Australian government would require Jewish clerics to cease preaching in Hebrew -- or various Orthodox priests to desist from preaching in Greek or Armenian -- was left unanswered, as was any detailed definition of Australian values, outside of John Howard saying they included "a fair go."

But asked if an immigrant who had paid taxes, worked hard and "done good" in the Aussie idiom would be thrown out of the country on failing an English language test, Howard said: "If you fail to pass a visa requirement, that's generally the rule."

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