Does swatting up on Oz make us better citizens?

First published in The Age in 2008.

I ADMIT it: I didn’t know that Nancy Bird-Walton’s aviation teacher was Sir Charles Kingsford Smith. Nor could I recognise “whose rights and liberties I respect” as the fourth line of the Australian citizenship pledge. But I had better memorise those facts — and several hundred others — if I hope to become an Australian citizen.

Since the Howard government implemented the citizenship test just over 18 months ago, more than 25,000 aspiring citizens have sat the exam. The stated aim is to help migrants “integrate” and “maximise the opportunities available to them”. Apparently, taking the exam also promotes “social cohesion”. Whether it has achieved these aims is open to debate.

Several months ago, my family and I became permanent residents after more than five years in Australia. So we have joined the queue, alongside natives of more than 75 countries, waiting and hoping to be accepted as Australians. Although lining up to sing Advance Australia Fair, we’ll each be carrying our own personal, ethnic and national stories — stories that have shaped who we are, how we think and act, and what we believe. Does our allegiance need to be tested and, if so, is the citizenship test the best way of testing it?

Under the scheme, in two years our family will be eligible to sit the exam. We can take the test as many times as we need in order to pass it, but we must pass it to be granted citizenship. Thus far, about 83% of immigrants have passed on their first attempt. The percentage passing in the “skilled stream” is 99%, dropping to 82% in the “humanitarian program”.

Of course, it’s not surprising that skilled migrants — those with degrees and other qualifications — are better prepared to study for and sit a computerised exam, memorising facts, such as what year Edith Cowan became the first woman to enter an Australian parliament (1921). But will that knowledge make them better citizens? Those in the humanitarian program are there because they need compassionate consideration and a new start, not a failed exam. A recent article in The Age reported that one of the country’s top barristers is questioning the legality of the test, given the high level of English required to pass.

I am an American, but the test won’t ask me about the Port Arthur massacre, or how that tragedy led to a readily accepted culture of gun control, distinct from my native country’s bizarre stance on the issue.

My husband, a Kiwi, from the land of water a-plenty, won’t be required to visit the Murray-Darling Basin to see the effects of drought and have the concept of three-minute showers indelibly stamped on his forehead. Nor will our children, who have lived half their lives in France cutting their teeth on baguettes and brie, be taught the history of pavlova and lamingtons.

Yet these must be considered integral facets of being Australian, as much as knowledge of history or anti-terrorist sentiment. If these citizenship tests are meant to do more than sift through Muslim extremists, then they should be representative of Australian life. But even if the essence of being Australian could be captured on paper, I wonder if it can be taught overnight or tested.

Being French, for example, is nurtured and developed over years. Appreciation for aesthetics, respect for elders, understanding one’s place in society and a love of food and fine clothes are enforced from an early age. When French children attend maternelle (kindergarten) at the age of three, they are served a four-course lunch every day, including a cheese course, and taught to love and appreciate good food.

It’s the same for Americans (sans the cheese course). Many of my core values come from growing up in the US, in a small suburban town in northern California. I was blanketed in a warmth and friendliness I’ve not found elsewhere. I was taught to look after and trust my neighbours, and bring them a steaming apple pie the day they moved in next door. We believed you could achieve whatever you wanted if you worked hard enough. My parents, and their parents, lived by these values. To me, they were an integral part of being American.

Five weeks after arriving in Australia, our then six-year-old son performed in a school concert. Wearing a cork hat, he joined his new classmates in proudly singing: “But no matter how far or how wide I roam, I still call Australia home.” Will our kids, as immigrants, really call Australia home? Deep down, beneath their foreign passports, will they ever swoon at the raw beauty of the Bass Coast, crave a hot pie at the MCG in June and sing Paul Kelly songs in the shower? Will they be Australian? There’s something to be said about knowing one’s roots and having a deep sense of attachment to a place. After living in six countries over 20 years, I wonder if I’ve lost that. I hope they can find and keep it.

It must be asked whether this citizenship test is attempting to measure something that is unmeasurable — being Australian — which is learned slowly, over time, sculpted by people, events and life itself. We all witnessed true Aussie grit and mateship in Tasmania two years ago, when the colleagues of Brant Webb and Todd Russell risked their own skin down a mine shaft digging out their friends.

For those immigrants leaving dictatorships — such as Zimbabwe — democracy took on a new meaning when upstart Maxine McKew stole the prime minister’s seat.

As we, the Australians-to-be, live in our communities year in, year out, we will come to know the quiet generosity of school families who cook meals, taxi kids around and clean houses when children are in hospital or death strikes unexpectedly.

Eventually we will be able to not only follow a game of footy or cricket, but understand the role of these sports in the nation’s psyche — and not begrudge it.

Becoming Australian is not something that can be bought or taught or tested. Nor does it happen overnight. But until our law changes in respect to immigrants, I had better get it straight in my head that it was Edmund Barton and not Donald Bradman who was the first prime minister of Australia.