An adequate knowledge of Australia : constituting the knowing citizen in contemporary Australia

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The Australian citizenship test was introduced by the Howard Government in October 2007 in order to assess whether migrants and refugees seeking the conferral of Australian citizenship had ‘an adequate knowledge of Australia’. This new requirement was enacted in the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Testing) Act 2007 and it was made technical and calculable through a standardised computerised test administered to prospective citizens by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. The requirement that test candidates have an adequate knowledge of Australia placed the onus on migrants to learn about Australian history and a set of ‘core’ values known as ‘Australian values’ that were believed to epitomise the ‘Australian way of life’. In this way, the Howard Government viewed the conferral of Australian citizenship not as a status that bestowed civic rights and responsibilities on new citizens but instead conflated becoming a naturalised Australian citizen with the notion of ‘being Australian’, a form of subjectivity that the new citizen had to learn, embody and live by. This new order of knowledge was a key governmental strategy that required migrants become knowledgeable citizens of Australian culture in order to integrate into the broader Australian community and secure social cohesion. New, too, under this testing regime was the requirement that candidates self-regulate their learning and preparation for the test. Civic education no longer remained part of settlement and language programs for newly arrived migrants as they now had to engage in private study of the contents of the resource booklets, Becoming an Australian Citizen and Australian Citizenship: Our Common Bond. Since the electoral victory of the Rudd-Gillard Governments, the legislative requirement to have an adequate knowledge of Australia that is included in the revised Australian citizenship test has shifted from a mandatory knowledge of Australian values and Australian history to knowledge constituted as the responsibilities and privileges of Australian citizenship that are promoted as part of the taking of the Pledge of Commitment. Yet, while the orders of knowledge required to pass the test have changed, the desire that new citizens ‘perform’ Australianness still remains. Informed by Foucault’s writings on genealogy and governmentality and situated in the field of cultural studies, this thesis explores how the concept of becoming an Australian citizen is produced in and through the assemblage of texts, discourses and institutions engaged in the production of becoming an Australian. Using textual analyses of key government documents on Australian citizenship, political speeches, newspaper reports and migrant interviews, the analysis suggests that the main aim of the Australian citizenship test is to reassure the ‘mainstream’ community that the Australian way of life will prevail in modern Australia. By revealing the shifts, effects and inventiveness of these discourses about what constitutes the ‘true’ Australian identity and what represents the ‘real’ Australian, this study allows us to imagine other forms of subjectivity and alternative versions of national histories and civic values that come together to make up the everyday desires of belonging within the Australian community.
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