Testing Citizenship, Regulating History: The Fatal Impact





Australian citizenship test, Australian history, impact

How to Cite

Chisari, M. (2011). Testing Citizenship, Regulating History: The Fatal Impact. M/C Journal, 14(6). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.409
Vol. 14 No. 6 (2011): impact
Published 2011-11-15


In October 2007, the federal Coalition government legislated that all eligible migrants and refugees who want to become Australian citizens must sit and pass the newly designed Australian citizenship test. Prime Minister John Howard stated that by studying the essential knowledge on Australian culture, history and values that his government had defined in official citizenship test resources, migrants seeking the conferral of Australian citizenship would become "integrated" into the broader, "mainstream" community and attain a sense of belonging as new Australian citizens (qtd. in "Howard Defends Citizenship Test").

In this paper, I conduct a genealogical analysis of Becoming an Australian Citizen, the resource booklet that contains all of the information needed to prepare for the test. Focusing specifically on the section in the booklet entitled A Story of Australia which details Australian history and framing my research through a Foucauldian perspective on governmentality that focuses on the interrelationship with truth, power and knowledge in the production of subjectivities, I suggest that the inclusion of the subject of history in the test was constituted as a new order of knowledge that aimed to shape new citizens' understanding of what constituted the "correct" version of Australian identity. History was hence promoted as a form of knowledge that relied on objectivity in order to excavate the truths of Australia's past. These truths, it was claimed, had shaped the very values that the Australian people lived by and that now prospective citizens were expected to embrace.

My objective is to problematise this claim that the discipline of history consists of objective truths and to move beyond recent debates in politics and historiography known as the history wars. I suggest that history instead should be viewed as a "curative science" (Foucault 90), that is, a transformative form of knowledge that focuses on the discontinuities as well as the continuities in Australia's past and which has the potential to "delimit truths" (Weeks) and thus heal the fatal impact of an official history dominated by notions of progress and achievements. This kind of cultural research not only has the capacity to influence policy-making in the field of civic education for migrant citizens, but it also has the potential to broaden understanding of Australia's past by drawing on alternative stories of Australia including the ruptures and counter stories that come together to form the multiplicity that is Australian identity.

Values Eclipsing History

The test was introduced at a time when the impact of globalisation was shifting conceptions of the conferral of citizenship in many Western nations from a notion of new citizens gaining legal and political rights to a concept through which becoming a naturalized citizen meant adopting a nation's particular way of life and embracing a set of core national values (Allison; Grattan; Johnson). In Australia, these values were defined as a set of principles based around liberal-democratic notions of freedom, equality, the rule of law and tolerance and promoted as "central to Australia remaining a stable, prosperous and peaceful community" (DIC 5).

The Howard government believed that social cohesion was threatened by the differences emanating from recent arrivals, particularly non-Christian and non-white arrivals who did not share Australian values. These threats were contextualized through such incidents as asylum seekers allegedly throwing children overboard, the Cronulla Beach riots in 2005 and terrorist attacks close to home in Bali. Adopting Australian values was promoted as the solution to this crisis of difference. In this way, the Australian values promoted through the Australian citizenship test were allotted "a reforming role" whilst migrants and their differences were targeted as "objects of reform" (Bennett 105). Reform would be achieved by prospective citizens engaging freely in the ethical conduct of self-study of the history and values contained in the citizenship resource booklet.

With some notable exceptions (see e.g. Lake and Tavan), inclusion of historical content in the test received less public scrutiny than Australian values. This is despite the fact that 37 per cent of the booklet's content was dedicated to Australian history compared to only 7 per cent dedicated to Australian values. This is also remarkable since previously, media and scholarly attention over the preceding two decades had agonised over how British colonisation and indigenous dispossession were to be represented in Australian public institutions. Popularly known as the history wars, these debates now seemed irrelevant for regulating the conduct of new citizens.

The Year of the Apology: The End of the History Wars?

There was also a burgeoning feeling among the broader community that a truce was in sight in the history wars (cf. Riley; Throsby). This view was supported by the outcome of the November 2007 federal election when the Howard government was defeated after eleven years in office. John Howard had been a key player in the history wars, intervening in decisions as wide ranging as the management of national museums and the preparation of high school history curricula.

In his final year as prime minister, Howard became involved with overseeing what historical content was to be included in Becoming an Australian Citizen (cf. Andrews; Hirst). This had a lasting impact as even after Howard's electoral defeat, the Australian citizenship test and its accompanying resource booklet still remained in use for another two years as the essential guide that was to inform test candidates on how to be model Australian citizens.

Whilst Howard's test was retained Kevin Rudd made the official Apology to the Stolen Generation as one of his first acts as prime minister in February 2008. His electoral victory was heralded as the coming of "a new intellectual culture" with "deep thinking and balanced analysis" (Nile). The Apology was also celebrated in both media and academic circles as the beginning of the process of reconciliation for both relations with indigenous and non-indigenous Australians as well as "reconciling" the controversies in history that had plagued Howard's prime ministership.

In popular culture, too, the end of the history wars seemed imminent. In film, the Apology was celebrated with the release of Australia in November of that same year. Luhrmann's film became a box office hit that was later taken up by Tourism Australia to promote the nation as a desirable destination for international tourists. Langton praised it as an "eccentrically postmodern account of a recent frontier" that "has leaped over the ruins of the 'history wars' and given Australians a new past" and concluded that the film presented "an alternative history from the one John Howard and his followers constructed" (12).

Similar appraisals had been made of the Australian citizenship test as the author of the historical content in the resource booklet, John Hirst, revealed that the final version of A Story of Australia "was not John Howard's and was organised contrary to his declared preference for narrative" (35). Hirst is a conservative historian who was employed by the Howard government to write "the official history of Australia" (28) for migrants and who had previously worked on other projects initiated by the Howard government, including the high school history curriculum review known as the History Summit in 2006.

In an article entitled Australia: The Official History and published in The Monthly of that very same year as the Apology, Hirst divulged how in writing A Story of Australia for the citizenship resource booklet, his aim was to be "fair-minded and balanced" (31). He claimed to do this by detailing what he understood as the "two sides" in Australia's historical and political controversies relating to "Aboriginal affairs" (31), known more commonly as the history wars. Hirst's resolve was to "report the position of the two sides" (31), choosing to briefly focus on the views of historian Henry Reynolds and the political scientist Robert Manne on the one side, as well as presenting the conservative views of journalists Keith Windshuttle and Andrew Bolt on the other side (31-32).

Hirst was undoubtedly referring to the two sides in the history wars that are characterised by on the one hand, commentators who believe that the brutal impact of British colonisation on indigenous peoples should be acknowledged whilst those on the other who believe that Australians should focus on celebrating their nation's relatively "peaceful past". Popularly characterised as the black armband view against the white blindfold view of Australian history, this definition does not capture the complexities, ruptures and messiness of Australia's contested past or of the debates that surround it. Hirst's categorisation, is rather problematic; while Windshuttle and Bolt's association is somewhat understandable considering their shared support in denying the existence of the Stolen Generation and massacres of indigenous communities, the association of Reynolds with Manne is certainly contestable and can be viewed as a simplistic grouping together of the "bleeding hearts" in discourses surrounding Australian history.

As with the film Australia, Hirst wanted to be "the recorder of myth and memory and not simply the critical historian" (32). Unlike the film Australia, Hirst remained committed to a particular view of the discipline of history that was committed to notions of objectivity and authenticity, stating that he "was not writing this history to embody (his) own views" (31) but rather, his purpose was to introduce to new citizens what he thought captured "what Australians of today knew and valued and celebrated in their history" (32).

The textual analysis that follows will illustrate that despite the declaration of a "balanced" view of Australian history being produced for migrant consumption and the call for a truce in the history wars, A Story of Australia still reflected the values and principles of a celebratory white narrative that was not concerned with recognising any side of history that dealt with the fatal impact of colonialism in stories of Australia.

Disrupting the Two Sides of History

The success of Australia was built on lands taken from Aboriginal people after European settlement in 1788 (DIC 32). [...]

The Aboriginal people were not without friends […]. Governor Macquarie (1810-1821) took a special interest in them, running a school for their children and offering them land for farming. But very few Aboriginal people were willing to move into European society; they were not very interested in what the Europeans had to offer. (DIC 32)

Despite its author's protestations against a narrative format, A Story of Australia is written as a thematic narrative that is mainly concerned with describing a nation's trajectory towards progress. It includes the usual primary school project heroes of European explorers and settlers, all of them men: Captain James Cook, Arthur Phillip and Lachlan Macquarie (17-18). It privileges a British heritage and ignores the multicultural make-up of the Australian population. In this Australian story, the convict settlers are an important factor in nation building as they found "new opportunities in this strange colony" (18) and "the ordinary soldier, the digger is a national hero" (21). Indigenous peoples, on the other hand, are described in the past tense as part of pre-history having "hunter-gatherer traditions" (32), whose culture exists today only in spectacle and who have only themselves to blame for their marginalisation by refusing the help of the white settlers.

Most notable in this particular version of history are the absent stories and absent characters; there is little mention of the achievements of women and nation-building is presented as an exclusively masculine enterprise. There is also scarce mention of the contribution of migrants. Also absent is any mention of the colonisation of the Australian continent that dispossessed its Indigenous peoples.

For instance, the implementation of the assimilation policy that required the forcible removal of Aboriginal children from their families is not even named as the Stolen Generation in the resource booklet, and the fight for native land rights encapsulated in the historic Mabo decision of 1992 is referred to as merely a "separatist policy" (33). In this way, it cannot be claimed that this is a balanced portrayal of Australia's past even by Hirst's own standards for it is difficult to locate the side represented by Reynolds and Manne.

Once again, comparisons with the film Australia are useful. Although praised for raising "many thorny issues" relating to "national legitimacy and Aboriginal sovereignty" (Konishi and Nugent), Ashenden concludes that the film is "a mix of muttering, avoidance of touchy topics, and sporadic outbursts". Hogan also argues that the film Australia is "an exercise in national wish fulfillment, staged as a high budget, unabashedly commercial and sporadically ironic spectacle" that "offers symbolic absolution for the violence of colonialism" (63).

Additionally, Hirst's description of a "successful" nation being built on the "uncultivated" indigenous lands suggests that colonisation was necessary and unavoidable if Australia was to progress into a civilised nation. Both Hirst's A Story of Australia and his Australia: The Official History share more than just the audacious appropriation of a proper noun with the film Australia as these cultural texts grant prominence to the values and principles of a celebratory white narrative of Australian history while playing down the unpalatable episodes, making any prospective citizen who does not accept these "balanced" versions of historical truths as deviant and unworthy of becoming an Australian citizen.

Our Australian Story: Reconciling the Fatal Impact

The Australian citizenship test and its accompanying booklet, Becoming an Australian Citizen were replaced in October 2009 with a revised test and a new booklet entitled, Australian Citizenship: Our Common Bond. The Australian Citizenship Test Review Committee deemed the 2007 original test to be "flawed, intimidating to some and discriminatory" (Australian Citizenship Test Review Committee 3). It replaced mandatory knowledge of Australian values with that of the Citizenship Pledge and determined that the subject of Australian history, although "nice-to-know" was not essential for assessing the suitability of the conferral of Australian citizenship. History content is now included in the new booklet in the non-testable section under the more inclusive title of Our Australian Story.

This particular version of history now names the Stolen Generation, includes references to Australia's multicultural make up and even recognises some of the fatal effects of British colonisation. The Apology features prominently over three long paragraphs (71) and Indigenous dispossession is now described under the title of Fatal Impact as follows:

The early governors were told not to harm the Aboriginal people, but the British settlers moved onto Aboriginal land and many Aboriginal people were killed. Settlers were usually not punished for committing these crimes. (58)

So does this change in tone in the official history in the resource booklet for prospective citizens "prove" that the history wars are over? This more conciliatory version of Australia's past is still not the "real proof" that the history wars are over for despite broadening its categories of what constitutes as historical truth, these truths still privilege an exclusive white perspective. For example, in the new resource booklet, detail on the Stolen Generation is included as a relevant historical event in relation to what the office of Prime Minister, the Bringing Them Home Report and the Official Apology have achieved for Indigenous Australians and for the national identity, stating that "the Sorry speech was an important step forward for all Australians" (71).

Perhaps then, we need to discard this way of thinking that frames the past as an ethical struggle between right and wrong and a moral battle between victors and losers. If we cease thinking of our nation's history as a battleground between celebrators and mourners and stop framing our national identity in terms of achievers and those who were not interested in building the nation, then we recognise that these "war" discourses are only the products of "games of truth" invented by governments, expert historians and their institutions.

In this way, official texts can produce the possibility for a range of players from new directions to participate in what content can be included as historical truths in Australian stories and what is possible in productions of official Australian identities. The Australian Citizenship Review Committee understood this potential impact as it has recommended "the government commit to reviewing the content of the book at regular intervals given the evolving nature of Australian society" (Australian Citizenship Test Review Committee 25).

In disrupting the self-evident notion of a balanced history of facts with its evocation of an equal society and by exposing how governmental institutions have used these texts as instruments of social governance (cf. Bennett), we can come to understand that there are other ways of being Australian and alternative perspectives on Australian history. The production of official histories can work towards producing a "curative science" that heals the fatal impact of the past. The impact of this kind of cultural research should be directed towards the discourse of history wars. In this way, history becomes not a battlefield but "a differential knowledge of energies and failings, heights and degenerations, poisons and antidotes" (Foucault 90) which has the capacity to transform Australian society into a society inclusive of all indigenous, non-indigenous and migrant citizens and which can work towards reconciliation of the nation's history, and perhaps, even of its people.


Allison, Lyn. "Citizenship Test Is the New Aussie Cringe." The Drum. ABC News. 4 Dec. 2011 ‹http://www.abc.net.au/news/2007-09-28/citizenship-test-is-the-new-aussie-cringe/683634›.

Andrews, Kevin. "Citizenship Test Resource Released." MediaNet Press Release Wire 26 Aug. 2007: 1.

Ashenden, Dean. "Luhrmann, Us, and Them." Inside Story 18 Dec. 2008. 4 Dec. 2011 ‹http://inside.org.au/luhrmann-us-and-them/›.

Australian Citizenship Test Review Committee. Moving Forward... Improving Pathways to Citizenship. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia, 2008. 

Australian Government. Australian Citizenship: Our Common Bond. Belconnen: National Communications Branch of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, 2009.

Bennett, Tony. Culture: A Reformer's Science. St Leonards: Allen and Unwin, 1998.

DIC (Department of Immigration and Citizenship). Becoming an Australian Citizen: Citizenship. Your Commitment to Australia. Canberra, 2007.

Foucault, Michel. "Nietzsche, Genealogy, History." The Foucault Reader. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984. 76-100.

Grattan, Michelle. "Accept Australian Values or Get Out." The Age 25 Aug. 2005: 1.

Hirst, John. "Australia: The Official History." The Monthly 6 Feb. 2008: 28-35.

"Howard Defends Citizenship Test." The Age 11 Dec. 2006. 

Howard, John. "A Sense of Balance: The Australian Achievement in 2006 - Address to the National Press Club, 25 January." PM's News Room: Speeches. Canberra: Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

Johnson, Carol. "John Howard's 'Values' and Australian Identity." Australian Journal of Political Science 42.2 (2007): 195-209.

Konishi, Shino, and Maria Nugent. "Reviewing Indigenous History in Baz Luhrmann's Australia." Inside Story 4 Dec. 2009. 4 Dec. 2011 ‹http://inside.org.au/reviewing-indigenous-history-in-baz-luhrmanns-australia/›.

Lake, Marilyn. "Wasn't This a Government Obsessed with Historical 'Truth'?" The Age 29 Oct. 2007: 13.

Langton, Marcia. "Faraway Downs Fantasy Resonates Close to Home." Sunday Age 23 November 2008: 12.

Nile, Richard. "End of the Culture Wars." Richard Nile Blog. The Australian 28 Nov. 2007.

Riley, Mark. "Sorry, But the PM Says the Culture Wars Are Over." Sydney Morning Herald 10 Sep. 2003: 1.

Tavan, Gwenda. "Testing Times: The Problem of 'History' in the Howard Government's Australian Citizenship Test." Does History Matter? Making and Debating Citizenship, Immigration and Refugee Policy in Australia and New Zealand. Eds. Neumann, Klaus and Gwenda Tavan. Canberra: ANU E P, 2009.

Throsby, David. "A Truce in the Culture Wars." Sydney Morning Herald 26 Apr. 2008: 32.

Weeks, Jeffrey. "Foucault for Historians." History Workshop 14 (Autumn 1982): 106-19.

Author Biography

Maria Chisari, University of Technology, Sydney


Maria Chisari is currently completing a PhD that explores how the concept of becoming an Australian citizen is produced in and through the discourses around the Australian citizenship test. Her teaching experience and research interests are interdisciplinary spanning the fields of cultural studies and governmentality, Australian history and TESOL.