Peter Dutton's dog whistling on citizenship is a dangerous missed opportunity | Katharine Murphy

The minister is intent on stoking divisions when we could be talking about how to bring the Australian community together in all its diversity

In the event you’ve been watching the citizenship debate in Canberra with a certain degree of bemusement, wondering precisely what problem the Turnbull government is trying to fix, let’s turn the microphone over to the immigration minister, Peter Dutton.

Dutton spoke to the Sydney radio host Ray Hadley on Thursday, as he does every week. Ray wanted to know how people who couldn’t speak “the lingo” were able to get their driver’s licence. The test is offered in languages other than English.

Dutton thought Ray made a good point. (Does Ray ever make a bad point, I wonder?) The minister navigated through Ray’s point by offering an unexceptional observation. People are able to integrate more effectively if they’re able to improve their English language over a period of time.

Then the minister offered a more extensive explanation of the rationale for the citizenship overhaul, which is worth putting on the record in full.

It’s a very different period, Ray, from when people came to our country post the second world war in the late 40s, early 50s, there wasn’t the support that is available now, people were working in cutting cane or tobacco or working as tilers and whatnot.

People who are coming to Australia today are coming here to start a new life, they have the ability to learn online, all of the support around improving their English language proficiency, which wasn’t there 30 or 40 years ago.

There are some communities here in Australia, as we’ve seen in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, where no English is spoken and you know people don’t abide by many of the Australian laws.

Now, I’m saying that that is coming to an end and we want people to speak the English language. We want them to improve their English language over time. We want them to demonstrate that they’re adhering to Australian values …

After a short interlude in which Dutton characterised Bill Shorten (Labor is opposing the package) as being a puppet of his party’s left faction, who were the puppets of the Greens, and out of touch with “what I think is a commonsense approach that would be supported by everyday Australians” we were back again to the English test.

We are making the test tougher – there’s no question about that – but this is the prize of Australian citizenship and when people say, well, you know, you’ve got foreign fighters, Australian citizens overseas, why do you allow them back?

And I think as we’ve discussed before, they come back because they are entitled to come back under the Australian law and the Australian constitution because they are Australian citizens and that is why it’s incredibly important on all of those levels to get this change through the parliament.

You might need a minute to take all those feelings in, so feel free to stop reading for a bit while that settles on you.

Just pretend you are listening to some hold music and when you are ready we can work through his points in turn.

If we take Dutton at his own words, we have:

  • Rationale one: it is easier to learn English now than it was for postwar migrants because of the internet, and “all of the [unspecified] support”.
  • Rationale two: not speaking English in “some [unspecified] communities” equates with law breaking.
  • Rationale three: speaking English is a demonstration of adherence to Australian values, ipso facto.
  • Rationale four: a tougher citizenship test would somehow stop foreign fighters coming back to Australia, or perhaps screen out the foreign fighters in the first place – it’s not entirely clear.

These arguments, to out it mildly, are more front-bar wisdom than fact.

But the government evidently feels it’s on strong political ground with its citizenship foray. In our Guardian Essential poll in late April there was strong support across all voting groups – Coalition, Labor and Greens – for imposing extra hurdles before people are granted Australian citizenship.

The specific proposal Essential asked about at that time was whether people should be put on a probationary visa before being granted citizenship. That idea had 78% support.

We are living in times of acute globalisation fatigue and voters are attuned to issues of sovereignty. Politicians ignore those trends at their peril.

A lot of people with progressive social views and a global outlook are disdainful of patriotism, fancying it the thin edge of the nationalist wedge.

But I’m not disdainful of patriotic feelings. Last November I outlined in some detail the case for inclusive patriotism because we can’t ignore the fact that nationalism and nativism and xenophobia is being weaponised by the populist right, both here and around the world. We can’t ignore the drumbeat of demagoguery because it is all around us.

So I would welcome a citizenship debate that was about bringing the Australian community together in all its diversity, and welcoming and validating the aspirations of people prepared to complete the hurdles necessary to signing up for Australian citizenship.

Because I love my own country, I’m deeply bonded to my homeland – and because I’ve had the incredible good fortune to have been born in Australia, a country of prosperity and peace – I can’t imagine ever aspiring to be the citizen of another country.

Becoming a citizen of another country feels to me like an unfathomable leap, an unsettling shedding of identity.

So I have nothing but admiration for people who pick up their lives, cross the seas, join a new community, put down roots and dream a different future for themselves and their families – a future in which they have willingly joined a new tribe.

If Peter Dutton was possessed with goodwill, a conversation about fine tuning Australia’s citizenship requirements could be an incredibly affirming conversation.

It could be a conversation about how we connect with each other in contemporary Australia.

But the conversation Peter Dutton is intent on having is not an inclusive conversation, framed around commonalities.

It is a binary conversation. It’s a conversation framed with a view to stoking divisions and creating the impression that some groups are more welcome than others, and are more worthy than others.

It’s more than just an impression: the new English test being proposed is clearly designed to exclude people who don’t speak English. One academic this week invoked the white Australia policy to underscore the exclusionary implications of the policy change.

So it’s more than just a bit of cheap politics, more dog opera than dog whistle.

The crude “us and them” framing is dangerous, and divisive, and unworthy.


Katharine Murphy

The GuardianTramp

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