There’s a lot more to being Aussie than an entry test

MOST times when I hear politicians spruiking "Australian values" my toes and jaw start to clench.

For, almost inevitably, the shared values we hold dear, or to which we at least aspire when we're at our fair dinkum best, are being appropriated for nefarious, political purposes.

They all do it when it suits. The most recent to give me foot cramp and lock jaw, was Alan Tudge, the current Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs, whose parents, like mine, were Pommy migrants.

On the ABC's RN Drive program last week, Tudge was promoting the Turnbull Government's proposal for a new "values assessment" for entrants to Australia.

"The values that we are talking about are the basic values upon which Australia has been built - liberal democracy, the rule of law, equality of men and women, respect for each other," he said.

And just to complete the mixing up of what constitutes the Australian character with our system of government and some of the doctrines and rights associated with it, he named "freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of worship" as being other "key" Aussie "values".

Well, kick my kelpie and call me a cab.

Here I was thinking Australian values and qualities included things like a strong sense of social equality, expecting to be given a fair go (free from patronage and obligation) and being willing to give others the same standing, ready to lend a hand to those who need it, particularly mates, a predisposition to being open and upfront with others and being able to spot (and take the piss out of) big noting, bullshit artists a mile away.

John Hetherington was proud to emigrate to Australia and adopt its values. (Pic: supplied)
John Hetherington was proud to emigrate to Australia and adopt its values. (Pic: supplied)

How I ended up being eligible to stick my oar in this is because my Pommy father fell in love with the Aussies with whom he served in the Middle East during World War II and his take on the Aussie spirit adds a few more to the values and qualities list.

Like many war veterans, he didn't speak at all about the blood and guts he saw spilt, but he always enjoyed talking about the Aussie comrades he admired and who influenced the rest of his life.

They were very good, very tough soldiers, he said. If "take that position", was the order of the day, the ensuing route would be swift and efficient.

But on a personal level they were easy going, always up for a laugh, a leg pull and a practical joke. They didn't take themselves too seriously.

They had a healthy scepticism of authority and of anyone who "put on the dog", sensing ostentation and arrogance to be a mask for innate shortcomings and limitations.

This latter quality was something to which Dad, who made good his escape from the pretensions of his socially ambitious family by disappearing into the desert, joining the British Palestine Police before the war and then the Army, related very well.

Dad was told he was OK for a Pommy and should "come out" to Australia after the war, which he did. Arriving in Brisbane on the Cameronia in November 1952, he headed directly out to a cattle property near Winton where the "New Chum's" first job Down Under was as station bookkeeper.

Dad loved Australia so much his nickname for his youngest and only child born here eight years later was "Roo" and, in a letter he subsequently wrote from London to a cousin - the family temporarily back in Blighty - he describes his then toddler daughter as "completely an Aussie in every possible respect with loads of character in her little head".

Tudge’s proposed test leaves a lot to be desired. (Pic: AAP/Mick Tsikas)
Tudge’s proposed test leaves a lot to be desired. (Pic: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Reading that letter, dated February 12, 1962, reinforces my strong sense of Australian identity which, in turn, informs my notions of what constitutes Aussie values and defines the broader Australian character.

Of course my and Dad's combined catalogue of national characteristics is loose-leaf and you may have other values to add which you think are broadly representative of us all.

But if you generally agree this is who we are or like to think we are - or even who we want to be - then surely it's incumbent on all of us to protect these values from all those whose personal, political, social, economic, whatever agendas chip away at them.

It's also important that, in the process of ostensibly protecting them, we guard against accidentally undermining them so that, for example, something as innocent sounding as a "new values assessment" doesn't become a means by which we kill off a fair and equal go for future wannabe Australians if they aren't, say, white and of the Christian faith.

The other thing to be said is that, if we do wish to lay claim to these values and characteristics, then we also likely need to face up to the uncomfortable truth that quite a few of us talk the Aussie values talk but walk the walk selectively.

So that, for example, too many of us have allowed the lived experience of most indigenous peoples over most of the past 250 years to stand in stark contrast to these values, with our Prime Minister's rough dismissal of the conciliatory Uluru Statement from the Heart last year being ugly, recent evidence of this state of affairs.

And then there's the plight of the last of our boat-arriving asylum seekers. It's been five years and the death toll is mounting and I wonder, the boats having long been stopped, for how much longer these poor souls have to be imprisoned.

If we want to be fair dinkum about our values, the bottom line is a fair go is a fair go.

Margaret Wenham is a Courier-Mail columnist.

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