It seems far more appropriate for migrants becoming citizens of Australia to swear allegiance to Australia and its people that to the Queen of Australia who live half way accross the world and whose loyalties are first to Britain and then to the Commonwealth countries. Cabinet’s decision last week to change the Citizenship Act to reflect this is therefore welcome. The new oath will be: “”From thsi time forward, (under God) I pledge my loyalty to Australia and its people, whose democratic beliefs I share, whose rights and liberties I respect, and whose laws I will uphold and obey.” The existing oath is: “”I swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Australia, her heirs and successors according to law, and that I will faithfully observe the laws of Australia and fulfil my duties as an Australian citizen.”
It must seem especially silly for migrants from Commonwealth countries to unswear their allegiance to Queen Elizabeth as the Queen of whatever country they come from and to reswear it as Queen Elizabeth of Australia. Moreover, it seems sensible to allow the words “”under God” to be omitted if the new citizen so chooses. Many people are not theists and the present insistence on an oath might lessen its value among non-theists.
The reaction was predictably mixed and took fairly standard forms. The Leader of the Opposition, John Hewson, said: “”This won’t do much to help the one million unemployed get jobs in the this recession.” Very true, but irrelevant. Getting unemployed Australians to work is important; indeed it is the most important task of government right now. But it is not the only task. Surely, the Australian community is intelligent enough and mature enough to think about more than one issue at a time.
Senator Brownwyn Bishop said it was “”typical of the Prime Minister’s arrogance to ignore the head of state _ the Queen of Australia. This is a tasteless and opportunistic way to dance on the grave of the dead marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales.” Once again, there is some truth in that. Mr Keating is a master of opportunism. His timing in political debate is often impeccable. This occasion was no exception. The marital troubles of the Royal family this year have given him an ideal opportunity for him to push his agenda towards Australia becoming a republic. Moreover, given that Parliament might not sit between now and the election he is making it a minor election issue. Only a Labor victory would lead to changes to the Citizenship Act. It is perhaps more than a minor election issue. Mr Keating has made several announcements and speeches aimed at positioning himself as the Australian nationalist, the one who would be most likely to push Australia towards a republic with a new flag. In doing so he is likely to attract the support of some people who want these things, but given the shape of the economy might otherwise be more inclined to vote for the Coalition. It is good politics. But that doesn’t mean it is not without its own merit.
The new oath was the work of the Minister for Justice, Michael Tate, with some help from poet Les Murray. It more likely encapsulates the aspirations of Australians than the existing oath. The existing oath retains some aspects of Medieval fealty and its emphasis in on obedience and allegiance. The new oath, while retaining loyalty and obedience also contains some recognition of the advantages of Australian citizenship: sharing in democracy and liberty. In doing that, it puts some onus on governments not to attempt to take them away.
Of course, once it is recognised that the new citizenship pledge and oath is a better exposition of Australian values than the former oath, the question arises as to why all pledges and oaths are not in the same form. The answer is a practical one. Section 42 of the Constitution requires those elected to the House of Representatives and the Senate to make an oath or affirmation in accordance with the schedule of the Constitution. That oath/affirmation is as follows: “”I, A. B,. do swear/solemnly and sincerely affirm and declare that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Victoria (or whomever is reigning), Her heirs and successors according to law/ So help me God.”
That constitutional form has been used also for the Governor-General, federal judges and ministers. It seems unlikely to change for them without is also changing for MPs, but as it is prescribed in the Consitution it would require a referendum. Having a referendum for something of only modest symbolic importance would be an extraordinary waste of effort. If it were to be the case, Australia should have a full-scale referendum on the whole republican issue. That, of course, cannot happen without some detail on what form the republic should take.
Small wonder then, Mr Keating has restricted the oath/affirmation issue to the Citizenship Act. That said, the Australian flag is not in the Constitution and legally could be changed by an Act of Parliament. Enticing as that prospect might be for Mr Keating, something as profound in the national psyche as the flag should not be changed without specific approval by the citizens. A mandate to govern does not carry with it a mandate to change the flag. That is not to say the flag should not be change; there is a clear case for doing so. However, the manner of changing it is important. A change can only be accepted as legitimate if a majority have specifically approved it.