The Citizenship Dog-Whistle

Video of Australian Citizenship Test advertisementAnother week, another big-spending government TV “information campaign”. This one’s for the new Citizenship Test — and gosh, that just happens to be a Coalition-specific policy and it just happens to be running when we’re not in an election campaign, honestly.

And last night immigration minister Kevin Andrews was seen on TV with a bunch of potential citizens — all of whom, by some happy coincidence, had reasonable English and were not particularly unphotogenic. But he was still defending the test.

This TV advert is little more than dog whistle political propaganda. That’s clear for two reasons. First, look closely at the script (below). And second, if you wanted to reach the people most directly affected, mass TV advertising is far from cost-effective.

I’ve written about the pointlessness of a multiple choice Citizenship Test before. But even if the alien implant in your back teeth tells you that a glorified pub trivia questionnaire will produce better-integrated citizens — as opposed to just creating a black market in the test answers — this TV advert is clearly about something other than bringing that test to the attention of the people who might be sitting it any time soon.

Here’s the script:

Australia’s introducing a Citizenship Test.

It’s a way of making sure that people becoming citizens know about Australia, and understand the responsibilities and privileges of committing to our way of life — things many of us take for granted like democracy, mutual respect, and equality of opportunity, and the values we share like free speech and a fair go.

Preparing for the test will also introduce people to our history, traditions and some of our national customs and symbols.

The test questions are based on this book, which also explains a citizen’s responsibilities and privileges.

Understanding our values will help people take part in Australian life, make a contribution, and become part of our diverse community.

You can find out more about the new Australian Citizenship Test at

Citizenship — your commitment to Australia.

Authorised by the Australian Government, Canberra.

Note how the emphasis is on “responsibilities” and “commitment”. Sure, it mentions “privileges” too, although by implication privileges still have to be earned. Those words are all about conforming to rules, written or unwritten.

Note, too, that it isn’t addressed to potential citizens. It’s talking about them, not to them. Not “Understanding our values will help you take part in Australian life,” but will help people. Some people other than you watching the TV. Them. The scary ones.

And that, of course, is the message the Coalition wants to send.

“We’re protecting you from the scary foreigners. They’ll have to change their evil ways now. They know that Federation started in 1914 and Phar Lap’s heart is in Bennelong. Our Way Of Life is safe.”

Yes, as Senator Lyn Allison point out, hard-working, good-hearted, committed people will be denied the right to vote because they don’t know that the golden wattle is our national floral emblem.

Now the ad spend…

Potential citizens are already Australian Permanent Residents, and have been for years. The Department of Immigration already knows where they live, their nationality and presumably what languages they speak. So if you wanted to tell them about the new test, just send them a letter. It’d be a lot, lot cheaper.

18 Replies to “The Citizenship Dog-Whistle”

  1. Gosh, a Government advertisement relating to the current governing body.

    You’re really going overboard with all this.

  2. @jason: If the advertising were (a) addressed to the people who are affected by the procedural change, i.e. permanent residents thinking of applying for citizenship, and (b) communicated to them in the most cost-effective way (which I contend would be by direct, written communication), then I’d have no objection to the campaign whatsoever.

    I’d still object to the procedure, though, because I still contend that there’s no evidence or logical argument that multiple-choice trivia questionnaires do anything useful — whereas there’s both of those things to suggest that it’s a complete waste of time and money.

    All I’m asking for is that the government set up sensible processes that work, and spend our money effectively. There’s no evidence of this here — whereas a linguistic analysis suggests, here and throughout the lead-up, that there’s a different agenda at work.

    Hang on…

    “… that the government set up sensible processes that work, and spend our money effectively.” Yeah I see my mistake now, sorry.

  3. Yes, the Australian government should spend money on advertising in foreign countries, to inform people wanting to come here.

    Actually, the ads do relate to the average Australian. If you think the average Australian is not interested, or does not have the right to be made aware for of this new system (and make their own judgements, either way), then think again.

    Really, the anti-Howard tribe is missing the boat. They’re so busy loathing everything the current government is doing to realise that the next government is going to be limp wristed and twice as pathetic.

    Let’s ask Rudd some real questions. Like tax brackets. Or whether he is going to bring the troops home. No, really.

  4. @jason: You can only apply to be a citizen if you’ve been a permanent resident, apart from spouses etc. This “foreign country” stuff is a furphy. Most potential citizens have already been absorbing “Australian culture” for years.

    Yes, we have a right to know what our government is going. Expensive TV advertising isn’t necessarily the most cost-effective way of doing that. The mainstream news media has already told us the Citizenship Test is coming into force. Parliament has a comprehensive website, as does every government department. The TV ads are unnecessary.

    Love your use of “anti-Howard tribe”. I’m soon going to be writing a brief essay about political language every day, and the subject of the first one is “Howard-haters”. You will enjoy it (or I’ll hurt you).

    Rudd’s tax brackets mistake is, again, government by trivia. The role of a leader is not to memorise tables of numbers — that’s why we invented writing, paper and the public service. This is not saying that Kevin Rudd is a good leader or that the ALP’s tax policies are good — just that hitting him over the head with that particular mistake isn’t relevant.

    Yes, the troops thing. Had we an answer on that? From anyone?

  5. Jason.
    If only you could bring yourself to actually address the specific points this thread raises instead of blurring the issues, pointing to irrelevant diversions when challenged, and generally dumbing down the argument to ‘Howard versus the Haters’, you’d go a long way to being persuasive and covering your tracks as some meat-headed government mouthpiece.

    This isn’t the first time you’ve barked at anyone with a perfectly valid criticism of the Citizenship Test and other government policies. Indeed your sole objective seems to be to sneer and stamp out spotfires of dissent the minute they arise. And I’d like to ask the panel if anyone else is left wondering whether you’re really one of those ham-fisted hacks wasting the rest of their waking hours dutifully editing unfavourable Coalition entries on Wikipedia.

  6. Stephen, Stephen, Stephen,   Please stop giving the troll the attention that he craves.

    Well actually, on a more serious note, the take-aways that I got from the campaign are:

    This election doesn’t have a tampa, Nauru or Pacific “Solution” to give the voting public a good case of borders fear
    This election doesn’t have a war to win (or lose as the case may be) to give the voters a good case of WMD fear, and finally,
    The terrorism card is becoming less useful, especially after the Haneef farce.

    This means that the Howard government (and not necessarily the man himself) appear to be attempting to play a couple of the voter hot-button cards that have worked for them in the past. In this particular case, immigration and border control are hot buttons that can be pressed rming accuracy by “concerned” pundits.

    There are a couple of things specifically about the advertising itself that worry me:

    Talking to the general public about how the government is protecting them
    None of this is directed to potential citizens – and in fact leaves the feeling even more isolated. (This is very common when you talk about someone in the third-person in their presence. It is even more isolating when you can mention Jason by his first name without ever directing a comment at him.)
    Potential Citizens are already quite well aware of the new citizen test, as every time that they have talked to DIMIA in the last 2 months the new test has been prominently discussed in the on-hold musaac.
    With this in mind, there has been an enormous rush on people applying for citizenship before 1/Oct/07. So much so that the interview backlog has grown from 2 weeks in early June, to “Not before Christmas” earlier today!(*)

    NOTE *: These are two actual experiences from people in my office. One got his application in in early June, and had his interview later that same month, and the other got his application in on Saturday (guess why), and was told this morning that “there are no interview appointments available in October or November, and the first likely slot was in Late December.”
    We even had a chuckle about it while prairie-dogging in the partition farm.

  7. Hey I’m no troll. I’ve answered points in the past, and have had points unanswered. It’s just the way it goes.

  8. And, Crispin, take all your concerns and reconsider them after Rudd is in power and you will see that they still exist. That’s the problem with modern politics (and that’s what I’m tolling about). It’s not really political debate or constructive discussion, it’s more just look-omg-the-government-is-evil-and-we-must-elect-the-opposition. I don’t really see anything ever getting done in this country if politics is going to be scared reactionary shit. The new national animal poll is probably a great reflection on things, but not in the obvious Howard specific way.

  9. Oh wow, this Citizenship issue always riles people up, eh? 😉

    No, jason’s not a troll. He’s got strong views, sure, some of which are different from mine. But usually he plays the ball and not the man. I enjoy the “robust debate” because it helps me refine my own thinking.

    When he says…

    I’ve answered points in the past, and have had points unanswered. It’s just the way it goes.

    … he’s right. If we all expanded on every point raised, and added our own, comments would expand exponentially. Fun for a while, but impossible to manage.

    @jason: I reckon you’re spot on when you say this:

    It’s not really political debate or constructive discussion, it’s more just look-omg-the-government-is-evil-and-we-must-elect-the-opposition. I don’t really see anything ever getting done in this country if politics is going to be scared reactionary shit.

    Fear is the great motivator. Fear operates from those reptilian circuits deep in the back of our brains, and fear over-rides rational thought. This is handy if we’re escaping from a tiger — forget about Cartesian Philosophy just for the moment and let the motor circuits getting on with Running Very Fast. But when we’re shaping Society, something which I’d like to think has been shaped more by Reason than Fear — at least since the Enlightenment — then I’d prefer to have those fear circuits turned down and have rational thought in charge.

    But political campaigns use fear precisely because it over-rides rational thought. And advertising uses fear too — fear of being fat, of going bald, of being seen as a loser because your mobile phone is so last year.

    The questions I have, then, are:

    1. How do we stop ourselves from being drawn into the fear trap?
    2. How do we help our friends and colleagues do the same?
    3. How do we ensure our enemies don’t?
  10. @jason: fair enough, and position noted/accepted regarding both “Troll” and “reactionary shit”.

    I would say that I only have one core issue with the current Liberal Government (and I am not certain that the heir-presumptive Costello or Rudd governments would address it).

    I don’t trust the personal and professional ethics and honesty of the man in charge.

    To me, the core of personal & professional ethics is described in three points:

    Personal responsibility
    – This means You are responsible for your own actions. Yes you and I do mean YOU
    – You are responsible to the actions of those subordinate to you.ALL of them, and ALL of their actions.
    Accountability & Reporting
    – Your actions are your actions.
    – You own up when you make a mistake, take responsibility and move on to rectification.
    – Tell people early and clearly both when things are running smoothly and if they not running to plan. Good communication is key to good organisations.
    Rectification & Recovery
    – You (personally) will act to make good any mistakes for which you are responsible. (Even if they are ones that you, personally, did not make.)

    I also know for Organisational Behaviour theory that the ethics and approach used by the chief of any organisation is, over time, reflected in the actions of the entire organisation. (Staff members take their cues from the examples given by their immediate and senior management.)

    The current Liberal Government has been in control for 11 years, and there are a number of individuals and organisations within that government who have fundamental problems with systems, processes or outcomes (DIMIA, Biosecurity Australia, Health & Education as examples).

    The current government, irrespective of the presiding minister(s), have been controlling & leading the direction, attitude and policies of these departments for 11 years, and it is not acceptable for them to be trying to shift the responsibility for failures in these areas to others – subordinates, past-ministers, previous governments etc.

    (On a side note, I think that Amanda Vanstone’s changes at DIMIA are actually [much though I dislike the lady] an example of this done WELL. but such examples are regrettably few and far between.)

    A perfect example of personal responsibility for the actions of your subordinates is shown in Brendan Nelson’s handling of the Iraq Casualty wrong-casket affair.

    In this instance, the Chief of Defence Forces (Air-Chief Marshal What’s his Face) did the right thing – Take Responsibility for the actions of his department, while the minister in charge sat back and publicly said “Bad department – you are responsible for this. Don’t do it again”.

    (I will say that this had been a change for Mr Nelson, as he had previously taken responsibility for the actions of his departments. Sadly, I believe that his change in behaviour is now entrenched.)

    This is a reflection on the behaviour and attitudes of his boss, and are not ones that I choose to have my country’s leadership espouse.


    P.S. @jason – I am glad to find that you are not just a reactionary howard-hater-hater

  11. Trying to be succinct.

    My problems with the citizenship test boil down to these:

    1. I don’t believe that it is in anyway possible to test citizenship by using a multiple choice test (or indeed any kind of test).

    2. I don’t believe the government is sufficiently naive to think that you can.

    3. Therefore I think the government’s purpose in running this citizenship test is not to determine what or who makes a good citizen, but to foster a climate in which we draw the distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’, playing on the largely irrational fears of part of the community for the purposes of electoral gain.

    4. I don’t subscribe to many of the explicit values of this test and the accompanying document, and almost none of the implicit values. Does this mean I should not be a citizen? And who decided these were our values as a nation anyway?

    5. The advertising of this campaign is wrong because it is being portrayed as government policy – that is electorally mandated policy – when in reality it is Liberal party electioneering. Despite the fact that we currently have a democratically elected Liberal government with a mandate to govern, it remains against the rules to use government funds to promote a particular political party.

    I guess I’m not very good at being succinct.

  12. To kick off the morning’s rants, before I add my own comments, please consider John Birmingham’s rant on this issue, A dog ate my citizenship test. A taste:

    So, first week of the new Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Rodent regime and the fascist bullyboys in Canberra can’t even get it together to monster a couple of would-be reffos with a full slate of intimidatin’ impenetrable questions for the citizenship test. They’ve only written half of them and I’ll bet you they’re the easy ones too. The questions that are meant to go to Frances O’Blarney and Sir Tarquin Muffintop, rather than Abu ibn Kaboom. I tell you, these guys should hand in their jackboots and billy-clubs. They’re a disgrace to hardworking oppressor overlords everywhere.

    All year they’ve had to get ready for this test. How hard can it have been? We know they’ve got Wikipedia up at Parliament House because they’re constantly editing their own entries to make themselves look cooler. So, what, the Rodent couldn’t dig up a couple of easy ones for the cricket-loving, pork pie eating, sheep-fiddling white folk from the old dart and Enzed? Tony Abbott didn’t have half an hour to dig around for a couple of curlier brainteasers to throw at Mustafa and Ahmed?

    And you think I can be bitter…!

  13. Lol – One People, One Realm, One Rodent – Lol.

    That is one of the funniest comments I have read on this whole debate.

    Especially as it all got muddier last week with Kevin Andrews “slip” that the decrease in African refugee quota is related to “integration” issues.

    I can see that this could be a relevant concern, but not in the ad-hoc “local media” & “popular understanding” statistic-free Dog-Whistle manner in which it has been framed.

    I am quite disappointed with apparent lack of skill in the handling of this issue.

    sadly yours,

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