17 September is the Australian Government’s Australian Citizenship Day
The celebration of Australian Citizenship Day and World Democracy Day occur close to one another in September. Taken together, they invite us to reflect on what it means to be an Australian citizen and on what as citizens we should contribute to and expect from our governments. The recent election and change of Government encourage that thinking.
Our starting point as Catholics, and indeed as human beings, is that each person in the world is precious – not because of their virtues or accomplishments but because of their human dignity. We are also joined in a shared humanity. All human beings in the world are our brothers and sisters upon whom we depend and who depend on us to flourish as human beings. We are shaped by our relationships which become part of us as persons.
This means that our links to our nation and to other groups within it are precious. These include States, shires, churches, schools, unions, sporting clubs. The shared commitments and the mutual affection developed in these groups contribute to the health of the nation. They all show how our relationships with other people and to the groups we form shape our own identity and that of the nation. Citizenship is part of our lives. We are all entitled to a place at the national table and are responsible for making space for others there. It should not be arbitrarily removed from us by government.
We are citizens of a democratic nation. Democracy, too, flows from our human dignity and from our responsibility for shaping our own lives within the community on which we depend. Democracy means more than casting votes every few years for our Federal, State and Local governments. It means taking an intelligent part in conversations about public discussion of the values that our Governments should pursue and the decisions that they must take, and being free to advocate and organise for good policies. In a functional democracy, we can be confident that we are consulted and represented in the making of government decisions, and that the governments look to the good of the nation and its most vulnerable citizens and not to its own partisan good or that of those who have wealth and power.
That is why at Jesuit Social Services, our work in policy and advocacy is so important. It enables the voices of the people whom we accompany, many of whom are disadvantaged in different ways, can be heard by those who make decisions.
The test of our democracy and citizenship is whether they do express our dignity and mutual dependence. When governments act arbitrarily in cancelling people who have lived most of their lives in Australia, they have disrespected people’s dignity. They also do so when they have acted deceitfully and corruptly in favouring their own members and in concealing from citizens information that may embarrass themselves.
Seen from this perspective, citizenship is not a privilege granted us by governments or parliaments, but is a deeper gift that is given to us by living together in a nation that we claim as our own. Governments may place conditions on it, but they have no right to make it depend on language, wealth, religion, intelligence, behaviour or national origin.
In recent years, politicians have used citizenship as an attempt to shape the religious and racial composition of Australia, making it more difficult for elderly immigrants and others to obtain citizenship. They have also expelled from Australia people to nations in which they have never lived and whose language they do not speak.
To treat citizenship as a gift that separates dinky di Aussies from others is to divide Australians and to deny many a place at the table.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.