Malcolm Turnbull

Why 'Australian values' have a long, racist history

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (left) and Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton speak during a press conference Source: AAP

A prominent Australian anthropologist says debates about Australian values have always been inevitably racist.

University of Melbourne anthropology and social theory Professor Ghassan Hage told SBS News debates about Australian values have followed a very familiar pattern throughout history.

“This exercise of talking about values in Australia has a long history,” he said.

“And it is always a racist history: that is, talking about values is always an attempt first, at comforting some white minority who is feeling down and gets a bit high on thinking that they have something special called ‘values’ and second, at hurting a non-white minority by making it feel to be lacking something.”

Professor Hage’s comments come as Australia is once again discussing the nature of supposed “Australian values” as the federal government moves to rework the citizenship test.

There has been some criticism of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s insistence the new test will ensure new migrants embrace “Australian values” - such as obeying the law, respecting women and integrating with the community.

In a Facebook post, Professor Hage described the most recent debate as “yet another wave of racist attack on third world-looking immigrants under yet another state-sanctioned drive for promoting 'Australian Values' and 'Citizenship Tests'”.

Watch: PM Malcolm Turnbull announces new citizenship rules


In the post he criticised some of the suggested questions for the new citizenship test, including when it was ok for someone to beat their spouse at home.

“The likelihood of someone answering yes to a question 'do you support striking your wife' is close to nil and is clearly aimed at stating 'Muslims support striking their wives',” he said.

Professor Hage said the values Mr Turnbull mentioned were more universal than distinctively Australian.

“I think that Australians value many things,” he said.

“Most of what they value however is actually what most people value.

“But it is the case that every nation likes to think that they ‘do values’ in a unique way.

“Like for instance, I don’t know many modern nations that do not have some ideal of male camaraderie and deep friendship. But they all think it is done in a unique way that only they can do, in much the same way we think mateship is unique to us.”

Professor Hage said all countries had a notion of values that had their inception in the birth of each nation.

But he said the concept of values could be very different to how values were observed within a society.

“There are two ways of thinking of Australian values,” he said.

“One is that values are things that Australians have and others don’t. The other is that values are things that Australians ought to aspire for.

“The first is the way conservatives do politics with values. The second is the way progressive people do politics with value.”

Watch: Immigration Minister Peter Dutton on citizenship changes 


Professor Hage said the “love of democracy” was one such stated value that was viewed in very different ways by different groups of people.

“Conservatives will use it to say that ‘we are a nation of people that love democracy, some people are coming and do not love democracy’,” he said.

“Progressives will say we aspire for democracy [and] many times we fail, but as long as we can maintain loving democracy as a value we can continue to work harder on becoming more and more democratic.

“Values in the conservative sense are used usually for putting people down, ‘the ones who don’t have our values’, and produce an exaggerated and even false sense of possession of values.”

He said, while some notions of values were designed to exclude some groups, aspirational values “encompassed most people”.

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