4.12 Migrants and Citizens

One of the most important responsibilities of a citizen is to elect those who represent it in government of the country. It can be argued that if the proof of the pudding is in the eating, we have not made the best jobs in choosing our leaders. However, but it is a fundamental dogma in any democracy that an imperfect democratic system is to be preferred to any other system of government, be it a benign dictatorship, an inspired theocracy or a totalitarian regime.

In Australia it has long been assumed that these responsibilities may not be taken seriously. A high voting rate is achieved only through compulsion and legislation, not through conviction. Most Australians, it is felt, would rather stay on the beach than be bothered to vote, were it not for the penalties involved in not doing so.

For some time, there has been a drive to increase the citizenship rate, to encourage people to vote and exercise other rights of citizenship. It has even been hinted that those who do not take citizenship show a lack of commitment to this country. Prime Ministers make special pleas to convince residents that they should take up citizenship. The extent to which the recommendations of reports such as the one entitled "Education for active Citizenship" have been implemented remains unclear. This Report aimed at identifying deficiencies in the knowledge of young people concerning political and parliamentary issues, and to enhancing their attitudes and skills in relation to awareness of their rights and responsibilities as citizens and their participation in the democratic process.

Migrants as a whole have not been slow in obtaining citizenship. The citizenship rates for some ethnic groups are 80 - 90%. It is also well known that those from NESB are much more likely to take up Australian citizenship than those of persons from English-speaking countries such as UK or New Zealand, where the citizenship rate has been sluggish at about 40%

It is therefore all the more perplexing to see that more recently the rights of overseas-born to obtain citizenship has been questioned. Noises have been made relating to limiting citizenship rights. Others have suggested that immigrants are not ready to vote "responsibly" unless they are proficient in English language.

It is heartening to read responses from persons like Maureen Breen, then Mayor of the City of Richmond saying: 'I encounter daily people born overseas who have an enthusiastic interest in Australian politics, from the local level to the federal level. And what's more they vigorously debate those issues among themselves." She continued: "1 know they are more prepared to vote 'responsibly' than many others who, although born in Australia, have a total apathy to public affairs" (The Age 27/10/90)

The commitment to Australia by NESB persons as measured by any criterion, and in particular citizenship rates, is beyond criticism. To create artificial barriers and distinctions between Australia-born and overseas-born is pernicious and not conducive to long-term stability in this country

[From: The Ethnic Voice, Vol 2(10) Nov 1990 p 3]

Source: Maurice N.Cauchi - The Maltese Migrant Experience, Malta 1999

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