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US tinge to our history

By George Williams - posted Friday, 29 December 2006

Are you fit to be an Australian citizen? Is it time that you thought about moving to another country?

The Howard Government says that people wanting to be an Australian citizen should sit a test. It would cover topics like our history, symbols, values and system of government.

But, how would Australians go at the same test? Do you know our national floral emblem (golden wattle) or our national gemstone (the opal)?


Can you do more than mutter our national anthem? Most of us remember that “We’ve golden soil and wealth for toil” and that “Our home is girt by sea”, but what about the mysterious second verse. I’ll give a hint, it begins “Beneath our radiant Southern Cross, We’ll toil with hearts and hands”.

Then we get to the hard stuff. See how you go with these questions.

  1. Does Australia have a written Constitution?
  2. What is Australia’s top court?
  3. Does Australia have a bill of rights?
  4. When did Aboriginal people get the vote?

The answers later.

Many if not most Australians would fail a test on our history, law and government. In fact, even when we think we know much about them, the information may come from the United States. Our knowledge all too often comes from their TV shows like Law and Order rather than from our time at school.

I see this first hand in the classroom through teaching Australia’s best and brightest law students. They may get over 99 in their final school exams, but they can fail to answer some of the most basic questions.


To the answers. Yes, we do have a written Constitution. This is despite a survey taken in 1987 for the Constitutional Commission that found that 47 per cent of Australians were unaware of this.

Australia’s top court is the High Court. Unfortunately, a 1994 report on citizenship by the Civics Expert Group found that more than a quarter of those surveyed nominated the Supreme Court instead. This is of course the name of the top court in the United States.

Australia certainly does not have a bill of rights, yet most of us think that we do. A Roy Morgan poll taken for Amnesty International in July this year found that 61 per cent of us mistakenly believe that Australia has a bill of rights. If the United States has one, it seems that people think so do we. This survey revealed even higher levels of error than earlier surveys. If anything, levels of knowledge have got worse.

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First published in the Herald Sun on December 15, 2006.

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About the Author

George Williams is the Anthony Mason Professor of law and Foundation Director of the Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law at the University of New South Wales.

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