In defence of the pledge of allegiance

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.

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  1. It’s true that this pledge is not equally meaningful or relevant to all people. And to boot, as both a writer and a lawyer, it’s meaning is ambigious to me at the very best. Yes, the sentimentality is there in bucketloads, but…

    When we pledge loyalty to the Australian people, does that include union-jack wearing rioters who tear religious dress from women in the streets? Does that include so-called leaders like Pauline Hanson, Fred Nile and their followers? Does that include those who whip up hysteria about ‘boat people queue jumping to steal our jobs’? Does that include Phillip Ruddock? John Howard? Pauline Hanson? Who exactly constitute the ‘Australian People’?

    Why on earth should anyone have to attest to sharing ‘democratic beliefs’ if they want to become an Australian citizen? What if they don’t? That doesn’t necessarily make them undesirable as ‘citizens’, does it?

    Why should one have to vow that they will uphold and obey laws which may infringe on common decency and human rights? And some of Australia’s do.

    Would one feel as comfortable clutching the family Koran and reciting this pledge?

  2. Maxine, your reference to being a lawyer seems to suggest that the pledge should have some kind of legal meaning – I’d be thinking that it’s symbolic, in the same was that an Apology would be symbolic.

    And those union jack-wearing, Fred Nile-loving, boat people-hating people have rights and responisbilities too – isn’t the pledge asking for tolerance from every one, including old lefties like us?

  3. No I don’t think the pledge should have a legal meaning, though of course the act of becoming an Australian citizen is a legalistic act in that it alters your legal status – or at least, gives you certain rights that you wouldn’t otherwise have (voting, freedom of movement, education etc).

    What I mean I guess is that I spend a good deal of my time arguing over sometimes a singular word in a document, and because I do this, I immediately read the ‘pledge’ with some cynicism. I immediately think ‘this really should mean something, but actually, for all sorts of reasons, it doesn’t’.

    Your comment, Scott, raises a good point though, in that while everyone has ‘rights and responsibilities’, not everyone has to take the pledge: if those born and raised here (like myself and probably most of the Cronulla-ites, also had to swear to it), it would be a different story, and perhaps even a different pledge.

    To me, sentimentality in this context without some kind of weight behind it is pointless lip service. Ironically though, I’m sure this same argument could be used by those advocating for tighter ‘citizenship controls’.

    To me, the pledge is almost like the second version of the national anthem… “for those who’ve come across the seas, we’ve boundless plains to share”… A wonderful sentiment, but who could belt it out in all good conscience, knowing the reality of our asylum seeker situation.

    As a piece of poetry though, well, my opinion of the pledge is a whole other story: it’s beautiful.

  4. I agree with you Scott about the pledge being symbolic – like the Apology (which I assume refers to the recent apology to indigenous Australians) I think it talks to where we want to be, not where we’re at.

    As for tolerance, well, that’s tricky…the redneck headkickers aren’t abiding by the sentiment of the pledge, so while I think they are entitled to be treated the same as any one else hauled into the back of divvy van, then (providing that we do accept the sentiment of the pledge) I’m not sure that the redneck opinions are ones we can tolerate.

    Maxine, I worried when I read your first post about your reference to the Koran set against my reference to the bible. You know, I pored over those two lines trying to decide whether to include them – whether it would turn the post into a debate about something it wasn’t really about. I left the reference there because the “falling apart St James” is one of the very few items that remain from the long sea voyage all those years ago, and because for them it doesn’t represent religion but family.

    I had also wondered about Australian-born citizens who had never taken the pledge. I think if I were told I had to take it as a sixteen year old or eighteen year old (hell, if I was told I “had” to do it today) I probably would have baulked. Maybe the difference lies in those who choose to be citizens and those who don’t. Today, I would make the choice to be a citizen even if I weren’t already one.

    I’m not however convinced about the need for a different legal status for citizens and permanent residents. But that’s another matter.

  5. Each to their own. For me personally, I chanced upon both my citizenships and neither have any emotional hold on me whatsoever. I loathe the notion of the nation; my only exclusive loyalty is to my immediate family. The slicing and dicing of the human race into bits and pieces is abhorrent and the cause of endless suffering. Some places where I’ve spent a lot of time, I have affection for. I supporting the football team from the area I grew up in London; I love the Welsh countryside more than anywhere else in the world; and I feel at home on the streets of Sydney. None of this translates into patriotism. The nation-state is an antiquated, regressive and harmful construct.

    As to Australian citizenship in specific. I can only speak for myself, and am not intending to offend, but… All nations have some kind of bloody history. But for the colonial ones, and especially late colonies such as Australia, the injustice and the oppression is not just recent, it is contemporary. I cannot imagine ever being in a state of mind where I could look on the Australian flag, with its hideous little cringing tribute to the other nation of which I happen to be a citizen – and the implied continuation of the values of the Empire built on the blood and sweat of people oppressed throughout the globe – with anything but a disgust bordering on nausea.

    • Joshua, it’s nice that you’re able to enjoy the benefits of citizenship of two of the safest, most advanced nations in the world, while being so derisive of the protection and opportunity they offer you.

      What alternative are you offering to nation states? How else should we organise? Yes, the idea of the nation can be used for all manner of evil, and it’s no picnic how most of them came about – but they exist. (And really, how else are people to organise? We should have legal systems based on which London football team you support?)

      Whether we like it or not, nation decide the fate of the world – at G20, at OPEC, at the UN. These are the parameters we have to work within – why wouldn’t we want to work towards a better, fairer, more reconciled nation that will be in attendance at these global conversations?

  6. I don’t think the inclusion of the bible reference is problematic. It’s honest. In fact, (I think?) it tells us something crucial about your post – that we might otherwise assume only from ‘Western’ names: that your mother’s side of the family, like my parents, immigrated directly from a Western country, and so the notion of believing in democracy, and loyalty to their adopted country is put in context ie: the values/way of life they are pledging to uphold may not be too dissimilar from those of the country they originated from. That’s the only point I intended to raise in my reference to another religious text.(Then too, of cours you also ‘neutralise’ the bible mention with your reference to freedom to wear the veil).

    Like Joshua, I take my citizenship(s) with a grain of salt: one is by virtue of birth and the second (and I guess also the first, thinking about it), is by virtue of hundreds of years of exploitation and brutality (I am a British citizen by virtue of the fact that my father was born in Jamaica at the time it was still a British territory).

    Thanks for an interesting and thought-provoking post, Louise.

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