The Good Citizen


2013-04-24 04.49.50 amNICK CATER

The Australian, June 2, 2015


Not everyone, to be fair, is looking forward to the conversation about citizenship the Prime Minister wants us to have. Reem Sweid, director of Muslims for Progressive Values Australia, raised this objection last week on the pages of The Age.

“The risk is that this conversation plays into that ‘Australia — love it or leave it’ mentality,” Sweid told Michael Gordon. It may encourage “the idea that, if you don’t share the exact same values as mainstream Australian society, then you are not a true Australian”.

The Age, of course, is renowned for expressions of groundless anxiety, but in this case the complainant has a point. To be a good citizen one is indeed obliged to abide by the same core principles as mainstream Australia.But the principles underpinning citizenship are less onerous than Sweid appears to imagine.

The citizenship discussion paper issued last week lists Australian core principles as “freedom, democracy, the rule of law and mutual respect”. “Love it or leave it” may be putting it too strongly, but the bottom line is that those who prefer barbarism to civilisation will probably be happier elsewhere.

Still, Sweid should not despair. Muslims for Progressive Values professes to uphold “Qur’anic ­ideals of human dignity, egalitarianism, compassion and social justice”. We seem to be on the same page.

Australians are ready for a conversation about citizenship, an institution taken for granted half a generation ago. The discussion in recent months, however, has been somewhat back to front. To decide when a passport can be revoked, we first need to consider what citizenship demands.

The mistake in past debates was the tendency to over-complicate. John Howard’s draft preamble to the Constitution in 1999 was diverted by absurd semantic arguments.

“If he had listened to Australian women, he would not have put into his draft a word like ‘mateship’”, Gareth Evans complained. “Our whole history has been too blokey, and women today and ­tomorrow just do not need language in the Constitution reinforcing that.”

The lesson for Tony Abbott is clear: overprescribing the principles of Australian citizenship inevitably will end in failure.

Neither, however, should they be understated. Donald Horne once suggested that practically everything one needed to know about core Australian values could be summed up in the words “fair go, mate”, which he claimed was the Australian version of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.

Horne, however, didn’t have to deal with homegrown jihadists. One lesson from the Lindt cafe atrocity is that the shared principles we once took for granted are less ingrained in the texture of Australian life than they once were. Clearly a new strategy is needed.

Walter Murdoch’s The Australian Citizen: An Elementary Account of Civic Rights and Duties, published in 1912, provides a helpful reference point. Shared values, tradition and custom are important, he writes. “Multitudes … are bound together by the fact that they agree, in the main, as to the way in which it is fitting for human beings to live.”

Shared values alone, however, are not enough. “What connects us to this society, as opposed to any other society,” writes Murdoch, “is that we are fellow subject to the same sovereign. We are citizens of the same great state.”

The nation-state is an unfashionable concept among the bien pensants who prefer to think of themselves as citizens of the world. That is how Kevin Rudd describes himself, according to posts on the hagiographic Facebook page Kevin Rudd: The People’s Prime Minister.

“Australia’s 26th Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, was a crowd favourite at Global Citizen 2015 Earth Day,” an anonymous post reports.

“Brilliant speaker,” posts Susie Clarke, “and how the people love him! Kevin Rudd is a Global person, not like Australia’s shameful, moronic, foot-and-mouth diseased Tony Abbott!”

There is more than a hint of cultural cringe, a behavioural pattern in estranged Australian intellectuals first noted by Arthur Angel Phillips almost 60 years ago. “There is a certain type of Australian intellectual who is forever sidling up to the cultivated ­Englishman, insinuating ‘I, of course, am not like these other crude Australians’,” Phillips wrote.

Phillips could never have foreseen where the denaturalisation of the sophisticated classes would lead once the concept of universal human rights took hold. Until the start of the 1970s, rights and responsibilities were inextricably linked with the state. Martin Luther King marched to Washington, not Geneva, to demand the state honour its commitment to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. He urged aggrieved African Americans to take responsibility to become better citizens by living diligent and sober lives.

The corruption of the sovereign unalienable rights for which King fought into the universal rights in vogue today is more recent than may be imagined. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights contemplated that it might sometimes be necessary to usurp the state but only as a last resort to overcome tyranny and ­oppression. In 2015, however, the dethronement of the state is an everyday occurrence at home and abroad. Rights are imagined to be absolute, decoupled from the individual’s relationship with the state.

Gillian Triggs, our immodest Human Rights Commissioner, treats sovereignty as an inconvenient legacy from less-enlightened times. She demands the commonwealth pay millions of dollars in compensation to unlawful non-citizens who have turned up uninvited and have yet to contribute a cent to the common good. Australia’s alleged breach of their universal rights takes precedence over their breach of border regulations or their imposition upon honest, hardworking ­Australians.

If the conversation about citizenship is not to become another pointless standoff between hard heads and soft hearts, it must reclaim the virtue of patriotism and restate the importance of the bonds between fellow patriots.That civil society began in the well-defined empires of Egypt, Babylon and Nineveh is no historical accident. The barbarity in the Middle East demonstrates the point; civilisation is maintained by borders; without them it collapses.