Wednesday, March 10, 2010

It Should Go Without Saying

The New South Wales Government has moved to alter the Community Relations and Principles of Multiculturalism Act by requiring people from all ethnic backgrounds to “demonstrate a unified commitment to Australia.” While the original purpose of the Act was to require all Australians to “respect and make provision for the culture, language and religion of others”, the idea that those “others” should offer the same respect to the rest of us simply wasn’t mentioned. Of course, it should go without saying that everyone is expected to observe Australia’s laws, and to respect Australian values. Unfortunately it seems that so often what “goes without saying” should actually be said, just so that everyone is clear.

Chairman of the Community Relations Commission Stepan Kerkyasharian is quoted by the Daily Telegraph as saying that the laws of Australia would now be recognized above people’s cultural backgrounds. That’s the sort of thing that should automatically be the case. It should be self evident that the law applies to everyone. But the change to the Act also refers to “shared values”, something that can be a little less clear cut. Just what exactly are “Australian values”? It’s a question that has been asked before, but is yet to be clearly defined.

When John Howard introduced the citizenship test there was a lot of discussion about this very question. At the time it seemed to amount to knowing who Don Bradman was and being able to recite the National Anthem, something many natural born Australians would have trouble doing. There is always plenty of talk about concepts such as “a fair go” and “looking after your mates”, but really aren’t they just Australian ways of talking about justice and equity? Australia has no mortgage on those qualities. Every decent human being anywhere in the world would aspire to those ideals.

The problem with writing ideals into law is that it becomes necessary to describe and define things which can be abstract concepts. For example, poorly considered anti discrimination laws might be misused to create further discrimination, in the form of what is sometimes called “reverse discrimination”. It shouldn’t be necessary to write a law requiring people to respect the law, but it seems that if something “goes without saying” then we leave ourselves vulnerable to those who would take advantage of our better natures.

Far better to “put it in writing”, so that everyone knows where they stand.

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