I’ve arrived a full 35 minutes early for my Citizenship Test – and not just because a new Australia Institute report has provoked rumblings that too many people are coming in to the country too quickly.
The truth is I’m excited. It’s the last hurdle of several; if I make this leap it’s a sprint finish to the ceremony that will allow me to proclaim, as the official literature has it: “I am Australian.”
The test, initiated by the Howard government in 2007 and revamped in 2009 after a too-high failure rate of 20%, is designed to gauge whether those of us who have been here for four years or more have what it takes to pledge loyalty to the country and its people.
The benefits are several: the right to live freely in Australia, the right, and obligation, to vote in state and federal elections, the right to apply to work in the Australian public service and defence force.
The only obvious downside I can see is agreeing to some future – and hopefully hypothetical – military conscription “to defend the nation and its way of life” should the need arise.
Don’t get me wrong. In the right context, I’d take up arms, but it’s not something you have to actively sign up for in your country of birth.
Sadly, my 11am appointment is an appointment with a ticket machine. I sit, stand, sit, look at my notes. According to the Australia Institute, the population increased by 400,000 people last year. Since 2000, the migrant populace has swollen by nearly 3 million, more than the total number of newbies between 1950 and 1980.
I’ve been told by several well-wishers I’ll be asked who Don Bradman was, but I know I won’t be. Sporty questions were dumped under the Rudd government’s attempts to make the test fairer and more relevant to migrants of all backgrounds. The current exam is based entirely on the testable section of the Our Common Bond booklet and comprises 20 multiple-choice questions, drawn from a pool of 200, of which 15 need to be answered correctly.
Australia’s rights and liberties feature heavily, as do snippets on the government and law. They’re precisely the type of questions that might seem fair and relevant if you were a civil servant charged with devising a test.
Where to get the best long black in Fitzroy, how to get off a tram without a fine when the fare inspector grabs you, why you shouldn’t use inner-city Melbourne as your blinkered microcosm for an incredibly large and diverse nation – there’s no mention of these more pressing issues.
Sitting with my numbered ticket, next to a black woman who tells me in slow, hard-found words she is nervous, makes it difficult to block out how easy my journey has been.
As a prosperous Judeo-Christian whitey immigrant from the country that established Australia’s colonies at the expense of those who had been here for 60,000 years I have a distinct advantage. My English proficiency – a key concern of the test – is fine. The culture has never felt alien to me. I am not – thank Christ – on Nauru or Christmas Island.
I’ve faced transitional poverty, professional uncertainty, the odd barb, as one person put it when I first started working here, that I’m “not even fucking Australian”. But the stakes, on the whole, have been low.
When I think about detention centres, then refocus my attention on Our Common Bond, the cynic in me starts to grumble and I feel slightly queasy. But only slightly.
None of the Australians I know works in executive government, nobody I know socially, maritally or professionally supports the mistreatment of refugees. In my experience, Australians have been friendly, stressed, annoyed, helpful, weird, nice, proud, funny and mortified … which is to say, they’re people.
At federation there were 4 million souls – a number not including, embarrassingly, the Indigenous populace; by year’s end it’s estimated there will be 24 million, a quarter of whom started life overseas, and more than 40% of whom have at least one parent from elsewhere. “In this regard,” says Our Common Bond, “we are still a young nation”. And there is hope – surely – in that. It’s a commodity that should be celebrated, and one that’s clearly attractive to a growing number of people.
When I’m finally sat in front of a computer I’m informed I’ll have 45 minutes to complete the test. I’ve already warned myself to not be cocky, to read every question at least twice.
After submitting the test 3 minutes and 22 seconds later I get the result: Congratulations. You got 100% right. Even though that’s more a reflection on the test than me I can’t help grunting like Lleyton Hewitt, standing with the swagger of Nick Kyrgios.
Barring something unforeseen, my next stop will be the citizenship ceremony, at which – yes – I’ll pledge my loyalty to the country and its people. After which, excitedly, I’ll proclaim: I am Australian.