It’s just over a year since Brendan Nelson proposed that those who migrate to Australia should have to “accept and embrace” certain values that are “essentially Australian”: “Understanding, tolerance, inclusion and responsibility”; also “care, compassion, reaching out to others, doing your best, pursuing and protecting the common good, treating all people fairly, enterprise, respectfulness, fidelity, comradeship and endurance.”

Now Kim Beazley has gone one better with a bizarre plan to extract a loyalty pledge on Australian values from everyone who comes here: not just immigrants, but tourists as well. John Howard has promised to consider the idea.

According to The Age, Beazley said that “respect for each other, mateship, fairness, freedom and respect for our laws are the front line in the struggle against extremists and terrorists”. Well, yes, in a sense they are. But the notion that “extremists and terrorists” will baulk at ticking a box on their visa form that mentions those things is so silly is to be beyond parody.

Just as Nelson equivocated on the notion of “acceptance”, so Beazley is equivocating on “respect”. Of course visitors – and the native-born – must “respect” Australian values, in the sense of abiding by the laws that embody them. But that’s a matter of actions, not beliefs. At the same time, they’re fully entitled to disagree with those values or laws, and to argue for changes in them, as long as they do so by peaceful means.

To say that people’s beliefs alone can disqualify them from citizenship is a very big step toward totalitarianism. In Cromwell’s famous words, “the State, in choosing men to serve them” – or even just to live there! – “takes no notice of their opinions”.

Beazley’s move is also politically weird. If the big thing in people’s voting decision is anti-Muslim bigotry, they’re going to vote for the government. No contest. Participating in that sort of auction, Beazley is always going to lose – he should have learned that lesson five years ago with Tampa. But learning lessons is not the Opposition Leader’s strong point.