Last month I attended an Australian citizenship ceremony in the town hall in the suburb I grew up in. After 50 years of living in Australia, my mum decided that she wanted to become an Australian citizen.
There was no financial incentive – she would be eligible for the pension should she need it one day. There are no restrictions on her voice as an Australian – she was on the electoral roll before 1984 when the laws changed to exclude non-citizens from voting. She’s been here since she was seven – and she’ll be the first to tell you that she feels Australian.
On that evening, my mum stood up and pledged the following:
From this time forward, I pledge my loyalty to Australia and its people, whose democratic beliefs I share, whose rights and liberties I respect, and whose laws I will uphold and obey.
The whole family was there – aunts, cousins and their kids, dad, my sisters, my niece and my brand new nephew. And we were all moved.
Mum held the bible that she’d been given by the minister when she married my dad. Aunty Marg held nan’s falling apart St James. And though it was a pleasure to hear the pledge spoken by a group of brand new Australian citizens, I wondered how this context, this particular way of putting the words together, was any different from:
Come here, respect our country, respect our laws, our culture, our way of life. Be Australian, join us, enjoy this beautiful country and everything that it has to offer.
That there is Pauline Hanson, one of the few people who really do need no introduction. So did my appreciation for the citizenship pledge mean that I was one of them? The Cronulla rioters, the One Nation followers, the ‘I’m not racist, but…’s?
I had to separate the nostalgia of being there in the town hall from the words I was hearing and the ceremony I was watching. The very smell and temperature of the room reminded me of donating blood in the foyer, changing into sequined costumes in the supper room and singing Christmas carols on the stage. But having done that, I couldn’t deny that everyone in attendance was happy to be there. They were proud to have their photos taken with the Mayor, they grinned as they waved their gifted native plants at the family and friends in the audience.
I like the pledge. If you don’t like the laws it talks about, then nowhere does it say you can’t try to change them. And it doesn’t preference the rule of law over your rights – nowhere does it say that you can’t elect to use your right to protest against the laws you are bound to abide by. And it tells you that you have a responsibility to my neighbours, something that we could all be reminded of in a country where family and community is increasingly put second to capital.
As I read back over my last paragraph, I’m looking for the words, the phrases and the tone that might make me one of them. The pledge, unlike Pauline, gives all Australians rights and responsibilities: the right to be different and the responsibility to respect difference. It is easy to read it and align it with old-fashioned, conservative, John Howard-esque values simply because it is a pledge and because it refers to an idea of a nation, but to do that would be to give the pledge a meaning that it doesn’t necessarily have for those who are taking it.
(To do that would also be forgetting that it was in fact a Labor government in 1993 that updated the pledge that called ‘on applicants to commit to the Australian nation and people rather than pledging allegiance to the sovereign’, with its leader arguably the Australian leader most committed to indigenous reconciliation. In Parliament, the then Senator Faulkner said ‘As the multicultural society we are, it is proper that the pledge of commitment be one which will be equally meaningful to all our people’.)
I am proud that I live in a firmly democratic country. I feel lucky that I live somewhere where the rule of law is respected, where laws change as the people change, and as a result, justice can be served in a considered and peaceful way. I feel grateful that I live in a country where as a woman I can work, work alongside men, vote, wear a veil, wear bathers, wear bathers on the same beach as men, choose which god I want to worship, choose not to worship any god, not get married, not have children, be educated, have access to all kinds of doctors, doctors who take me seriously. I love that I live in a country that criticises itself and its leaders and that constantly strives to be better.
Australia is far from being a perfect place, I know that. In the lead-up to the election, our politicians are treating us like idiots. University places are prohibitively expensive and our two major parties seek to entrench a class divide by further encouraging parallel public and private systems. Our press is still talking about refugees as criminals, our leaders are still afraid of doing anything about climate change.
But as someone who never took the citizenship, who is here by birth rather than by choice, I look forward to a long life in a country whose democratic beliefs I share and whose rights and liberties I respect, and will happily bear the responsibility of making it a better place.