Flat White

What are Australian values anyway?

21 April 2017

3:27 PM

21 April 2017

3:27 PM

On everyone’s favourite Buzzfeed lite, News.com.au, Malcolm Farr has a go at the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull for his stumbling answer to the question during the press conference about the newly tightened citizenship test, “Could you give a summary of those things you believe all Australians should sign up to?”:

There was a telling pause in the Government’s Australian values drumbeat today when Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull struggled to say what they were.

For close to a minute, punctuated by self-interruptions, Mr Turnbull essentially made clear this will be decided by public discussion…“What we will … the answer is yes but the discussion paper that (Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s) department has released is going to engage public discussion on this. “As indeed Phil Ruddock and Concetta Fierravanti-Wells did a little while ago and that’s been a valuable part of it too. I think we understand, you know … Australians …“Australians have an enormous reservoir of good sense, and we know that our values of mutual respect, democracy, freedom, rule of law, those values, a fair go — these they are fundamental Australian values. “They’re not shared in every part of the world. That’s true. But they’re shared by us. And we are entitled to say if you want to be a citizen of Australia, there are a few things that we want you to demonstrate that you share. “Commitment to our values, allegiance to our country, competent English, being here for four years, integration, demonstrating that you have made that commitment, that this is not just an administrative process of achieving some, you know, particular qualification.

This being a guaranteed question in the context, Turnbull should have been better prepared to answer it succinctly and more convincingly. But contrary to the title of Farr’s piece, “Turnbull wants guidelines for being an Aussie but struggled to list them” (to be fair, that’s probably a subeditor’s rather than Farr’s title), the PM did list many of them: “mutual respect, democracy, freedom, rule of law… a fair go”. It’s not an exhaustive list, but it’s a good start.

Multiculturalist and other assorted cultural relativists, in particular, treat similar questions about values as gotcha opportunities. If all cultures are equal and equally deserving of respect, there is no justification of privileging one set of cultural values over another. This position is especially appealing to those mired in cultural and civilisational self-doubt and self-loathing, for whom “our values” are in reality the expressions of hegemony, patriarchy, sexism, racism, bigotry, imperialism and oppression. We should be apologising to the rest of the world for our past history of trying to inflict these upon them, not aiming to force new generations of migrants into the white/male/hetero/Christian/capitalist cultural straitjacket. “The Other”, that recycled Noble Savage of cultural Marxism, has more to teach us than we have to teach them.

The regular readers of The Daily Chrenk will know that I consider all such arguments to be – to use the exact scientific term – bullshit, but here is neither the time nor the place to yet again debate cultural (as well as political and moral) relativism. What I want to do is to clarify Malcolm’s thoughts for him.

For starters, I don’t believe that there is such thing as “Australian values”.

By that I mean that what I would consider to be Australian values, while (sadly) far from universal, are also far from unique to our country. They are Australian only in the shorthand sense that we want all Australians to subscribe to this one particular set of values.


So let us not try to think of some quintessentially and stereotypically Australian traits – mateship, larrikinism, cutting tall poppies, informality, disdain of authority – and confuse them with values. They’re not, and even if they were we wouldn’t want to make them compulsory for the new Australians. They are an important part of our cultural history and folklore but they’re not what made Australia one of the best places in the world to live in – one of the most peaceful, most prosperous, and yes, dare I say it, one of the best-governed countries in history.

What I think Malcolm and the government mean by “Australian values” – I know I and many others do – could alternatively and more correctly be called liberal democratic values. To borrow from Niall Ferguson, these are aspects of the “software” that accounts for the relative success of countries which subscribe to them. These values are the distillation of centuries’ worth of political development and progress throughout the Western world, but particularly in the common law, English-speaking countries, and include:

  • democracy
  • the rule of law
  • constitutionalism
  • supremacy of domestic law
  • freedom and liberty
  • human rights
  • tolerance and respect
  • political and legal equality
  • social contract of rights and obligation
  • separation of church and state

These are the Australian values, but they are also the British values and the American values and to a large extent the French and the Dutch values. They are not, however, for better or worse, the Saudi values, or the Guatemalan values, the Chinese values, or the Angolan values. Very importantly, they are a genuine foundation of our society and its institutions and are observed in practice as opposed to being used, Potemkin-like, as a pious, useful facade. The Soviet Constitution, after all, was one of the most enlightened and liberal political documents ever produced, and many if not most governments of all stripes pay varying degrees of lip service to “liberal democratic” values, while trampling on them in real life. Unlike with gifts, it’s not the thought that counts here.

And so it’s only fair that anyone who wants to make a new home in Australia, irrespective of their ethnic, religious or cultural background, honestly commits themselves to respecting and living by these values. You shouldn’t come to Australia if your desire is to merely recreate your home but with a better welfare system, or bring your history and conflicts with you to be fought on in a more pleasant climate. These values have made Australia the attractive place that you want to migrate to today. Citizenship – being an Australian – is not a smorgasbord from which you can pick and choose what you like; it’s a complete package. You’re either in or out.

If you disagree with or don’t like some of these values, the odds are there are many other societies around the world, which are better attuned to your beliefs. No one is forcing you to come here; we’re not dragging you kicking and screaming across our watery border and locking you up under bread and water until you sign on to the Australian compact with your blood.

But if you do want to live in Australia and decide to come here and start the next phase of your life, these are the conditions. Explicit and implicit conditions of entry and stay exist everywhere – in private homes, in shops, restaurants, cinemas, even public spaces; they also exist in every other country and society around the world.

Australia is not unique in that, and there is nothing oppressive, fascistic or intolerant in expecting everyone to follow the rules. Contrary to Lennonesque dreams of the left, nation-states and borders are a continuing reality, and with that reality comes responsibility.

So there it is – the “Australian values”: take it or leave it. But if you take it, you take it honestly and you take it seriously.

Arthur Chrenkoff blogs at The Daily Chrenk where this piece also appears.

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