Written by Patrick Goodenough, CNSNews.com International Editor
Asserting that Australia has been built on values based on "Judeo-Christian ethics," Prime Minister John Howard's government has introduced a new test for would-be citizens.
The move comes amid concerns about extremist views among some Australian Muslims, and at a time when some small political parties are pushing for immigration -- and Muslim immigration in particular -- to be on the agenda ahead of elections due later this year.
Immigrants who have lived in the country as legal residents for four years and want to become citizens will be expected to score at least 60 percent in a test of 20 questions taken randomly from a pool of 200 questions, covering issues ranging from "Australian values" to history, sport and political institutions. The test also gauges whether applicants have a basic grasp of English.
"Before becoming a citizen it is reasonable to expect that a person will understand the core values that have helped to create a society that is stable yet dynamic, cohesive yet diverse," Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews said in a statement.
Andrews at the weekend released a booklet from which the questions will be drawn, outlining values which he said during a press conference were "relatively uncontroversial."
"They are, for example, respect for the equal worth, dignity and freedom of the individual, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and secular government, freedom of association, support for parliamentary democracy and the rule of law, equality under the law, equality of men and women, equality of opportunity, peacefulness, tolerance, mutual respect and compassion for those in need," Andrews said.
The booklet says these values are based on "Judeo-Christian ethics, a British political heritage and the spirit of the European Enlightenment" along with "distinct Irish and non-conformist attitudes."
Andrews said that while some may regard the values as universal, "there are some cultures, for example, where men and women are not treated equally. There are some cultures in which freedom of religion is not practiced the same way as it is in Australia.
"So it's a matter of saying to people who wish to become citizens of Australia that these are the things which we think are important for all Australians."
A section on religion refers to freedom to practice any religion or none. It also stresses that issues such as divorce and property settlement are handled according to laws enacted by parliament. Many Muslim activists, including some clerics in Australia, say Muslims in Western societies should be allowed to deal with such issues under Islamic law, or shari'a.
Andrews said the booklet would be freely and widely available, and a sample test would be available on a government website. Special provision would be made for those with low levels of literacy, and anyone who failed could retake the test.
Nonetheless, the proposal has drawn flak from various quarters.
Voula Messimeri, chairwoman of the Federation of Ethnic Communities' Councils of Australia, said the proposals were "potentially discriminatory" and could lead to "the creation of a permanent underclass of non-citizens."
The Australian Muslim Civil Rights Advocacy Network said in a discussion paper that "values" are often subjective.
AMCRAN co-convener Waleed Kadous said one could subjectively argue that the current Australian government was not upholding "respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual" with anti-terrorism legislation that allows a suspect to be held without charge for up to 14 days. One could also question its commitment to "equality of men and women," given that women comprise less than 20 percent of the ruling coalition's bloc of lawmakers, he said.
"Values testing brings with it subjective measures that are difficult to evaluate and do not help to make Australia more secure nor benefit Australia in any tangible way," he said.
"In addition, introducing such measures is likely to send the wrong message from the government to the community in terms of creating a wedge between migrants and 'natives.'"
According to 2006 census figures, only about 1.7 percent of Australia's 21 million people are Muslims, but as in other Western countries with growing Muslim populations the community has assumed a disproportionately high profile since 9/11.
The radical rhetoric of some clerics in Australia, and Islamist terror attacks in Bali (2002), which cost 88 Australian lives; and in London (2005), where the perpetrators were Muslim Britons rather than foreigners, added to the concerns voiced by many Australians.
With an election approaching, the small Christian Democratic Party has called for a 10-year moratorium on Muslim immigrants, saying this will give Muslim leaders time to assess their positions on integration and related issues, including their stance on shari'a.
Pauline Hanson, a populist politician with a history of controversial anti-immigrant positions, has also re-emerged on the national political scene, declaring her intention to run for the federal Senate on a platform of calling for a halt to Muslim immigration to Australia.
Left-wing politicians have dismissed such calls as "bigoted."
Although such positions are unlikely to win formal support from Howard's coalition, a number of senior government representatives have spoken out in recent years against Muslim newcomers espousing radical views.
Last year federal Treasurer Peter Costello, often viewed as a possible successor to Howard, told foreign-born Muslims that if they could not accept Australian values or wanted to live under shari'a, they should leave.
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