Small ‘l’ liberals, White Australia & Citizenship

Last Thursday Leigh Sales “grilled” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull over proposed changes to Australia’s citizenship laws. Changes include a more stringent English language test, proof of integration into Australian society, and a four-year waiting period for permanent residents to apply for citizenship.

Sales considered these proposed changes to be an aberration of Australian liberalism and out of step with Turnbull’s own political philosophy.

Towards the end of the interview she asked:

LEIGH SALES: Before you became Prime Minister, your image was that your values put you in the small ‘l’ liberal tradition of Alfred Deakin and Malcolm Fraser.

Can you today name one policy position that you hold that aligns with that tradition rather than with the conservative wing of your party?

Ironically, the policy that Turnbull could name is the very policy under discussion. The tightening of citizenship laws, especially using racialised notions of cultural values, English-proficiency, and religious belief is deeply entwined with the legacy of Deakin.

Historian Joanna Cruickshank, quoted Alfred Deakin in an article on the enduring power of white supremacy in Australia. Speaking in 1903, Deakin said:

“A white Australia is not a surface, but it is a reasoned policy which goes down to the roots of national life, and by which the whole of our social, industrial, and political organisations is governed.”

Another Australian historian, Stuart Macintyre, quotes Deakin during a debate on the Immigration Restriction Act (1901) saying:

The unity of Australia is nothing, if that does not imply a united race. A united race means not only that its members can intermix, intermarry and associate without degradation on either side, but implies one inspired by the same ideas, an aspiration towards the same ideals, of a people possessing the same general cast of character, tone of thought…

Turnbull is careful to avoid explicit appeals to race in the ethno-biological sense. However, his emphasis on the “unique” Australian values – “freedom, equality of men and women, mutual respect, the rule of law, democracy, a fair go” – serve as markers, shibboleths and “tone of thought” for indicating who is “in” and who is “out”.

The subtly of these dynamics was demonstrated when asked about who can integrate into Australian society. Turnbull gives a quick – “of course they are” – in response to Sales’ question “Are Jews who celebrate Hanukkah integrated into Australian cultures and values?” In contrast, he gives a bumbling non-response to the question about whether a woman who wears a headscarf is also integrated.

MALCOLM TURNBULL: Well, people are free to wear whatever item of clothing they like. I mean, bear in mind, I say again and again, whenever I talk about Australian citizenship and Australian values, I say that the foundation of our success, our extraordinary success, is mutual respect.

And that means… It’s a two-way thing. You respect others in their diversity and they respect you. It’s also about respecting the equal rights of men and women. And that is vitally important.

This and other tortured debates about the right and wrong way of applying Australia values of a “fair go” and “mutual respect” reveals the implicit way some forms of life are accepted and others are rejected.

Turnbull’s proposed changes to the citizenship laws do not stray far from those who went before him. From Deakin to Abbott, Australian liberalism (spelled with a small or large ‘l’) has tied itself in knots to restrict the entry and freedom of racialised others. Despite his progressive shtick and love of public transport, Turnbull is no different.

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