Let’s stop taking our citizenship for granted
They take on the privileges of Australian citizenship with little real knowledge of, or attachment to, our key values and institutions.
I’m not talking about migrants, who at least have to pass a minimum test for citizenship.
I’m talking about young Australians who are ‘born’ into citizenship and who receive the full privileges of a citizen on their eighteenth birthday.
This coming Australia Day, I’d like to suggest that we create a new civic ‘rite of passage’.
It would be simple – every 18 year old would be required to formally take the oath of citizenship as part of registration as a voter.
Australian born citizens have been able to participate in citizenship affirmation ceremonies for some time. I think we need to go further. The main common rite of passage for 18 year old Australians should not be Schoolies Week.
Our most recent assessment of students against a civics proficiency standard revealed that only around 50% of high school students in NSW met the most basic of proficiency levels.
The NSW Minister for Education – who put out the gobsmackingly misleading press release ‘Australian values on top in NSW’ – could take delight only in the fact that the other states were worse, with Queensland, WA and the Northern Territory having only 30-33% of their young citizens meet the basic proficiency level.
There are some who think that our easy going approach to patriotism is one of our national traits, and a positive one at that. My fear is that we are producing generations of young people who are ignorant of our democratic processes.
They are unable to articulate, let alone promote, a democratic identity and set of principles when challenged by competing identities or ideologies.
According the civics assessment, less than half of year 10 students nationally meet proficiency standards that mean they understand our federal system of government and recognize that respecting the right of others to hold different opinions is a democratic principle.
Unlike their forebears, Australians under 50 have not been tested and shaped by real fights to achieve basic workers’ rights, or by savage depression, or by hot and cold wars against fascism and communism.
How would their commitment to our values and institutions stand up under any real test? If reports about some of the views being expressed on racist Facebook sites that purport to champion Australian values are accurate, we have real problems.
The evidence of our civics assessment is that most young Australians are ignorant if not apathetic when it comes to what defines and makes our liberal democratic polity, and underpinning civic culture, work.
We need, first and foremost, to continue to strengthen civics education and testing at high school. I pay tribute to the foresight of Bob Carr in that regard – the only reason NSW scores higher than other states in this area is because of his early leadership in re-orienting the curriculum around history and civics.
But let’s also build some gravitas and pride into becoming a full citizen at 18. To get a license to drive you must front a registry, complete a test and make certain written declarations.
I would make a young person’s 18th birthday an important civic occasion.
They would have two choices: to go to a location at their local Council to register as a voter and take the oath of citizenship, or to join with new Australians in taking the oath at a citizenship ceremony, for example on Citizenship Day in September, or even better, at an Australian Day ceremony, with their family and friends present to celebrate the occasion.
They would get a citizenship certificate. But – no oath, no vote.
And for those of you who are unfamiliar with the affirmation version of our oath, it reads as follows:
As an Australian citizen, I affirm my loyalty to Australia and its people, whose democratic beliefs I share, whose rights and liberties I respect, and whose laws I uphold and obey.
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