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Australian citizenship: removing the welcome mat?

By Peter van Vliet - posted Tuesday, 5 December 2006

Few things can be as important to an individual as their citizenship. Along with a person’s name, sex and age one’s citizenship (or nationality) is a key defining individual characteristic. The Australian Citizenship Act 1948 describes Australian citizenship as representing “formal membership of the community of the Commonwealth of Australia; and Australian citizenship is a common bond, involving reciprocal rights and obligations, uniting all Australians, while respecting their diversity …”

Australian citizenship rights include: the right to vote; the right to seek election to public office; the right to an Australian passport; access to employment in the Australian Public Service and Australian Defence Forces; the right to consular assistance overseas; the right to protection against deportation on character grounds; and the right to register any children as citizens by descent.

Australian citizenship responsibilities include: the responsibility to enrol and vote in elections; the responsibility to defend Australia should the need arise; and the responsibility to serve on a jury if required.


To properly consider the issue of citizenship in Australia today we need to look at where we have come from. After Federation in 1901, Australia entered the first half of the 20th century as a predominantly white Anglo-Celtic society, along with small numbers of other ancestries and a small Indigenous population.

The Immigration Restriction Act 1901, one of the first acts of the Australian Federal Parliament placed exclusionary barriers around Australian immigration and ensured a predominantly British migration pattern for the first half of the 20th century, with about 97 per cent of Australians being of Anglo-Celtic origin. The “White Australia” policy was well and truly entrenched.

World War II forced a rethink of Australia’s immigration and citizenship policies. The collapse of the British Empire and a growing realisation that a population of seven million people was insufficient to defend Australia’s vast land mass saw the emergence of new policies aimed at expanding Australia’s population.

The initial focus of the Australian post-war migration program was on British immigration. However, Northern and Western European migrants soon became part of the immigration stream. Over time so to did Southern European migrants, particularly from Italy and Greece, then came Asian and middle-Eastern migrants and now African migrants have become commonplace.

Since 1945 about 6.5 million migrants have come to Australia, which equates to around one million migrants per decade. Also since that time over 3.5 million Australians have become citizens. These post war migrants have helped build Australia’s social, cultural and economic miracle.

Our post-war migration program has seen the face of Australia completely transformed. Australia had gone from being a mostly homogenous Anglo-Celtic society with a small Indigenous population to a truly multicultural society, where more than one quarter of the population, or over five million people, have a non Anglo-Celtic background which is predominantly continental European or Asian.


In September 2006, the Federal Government released the discussion paper, Australian Citizenship: Much more than a ceremony. The paper considers the merits of introducing a more formal Australian citizenship test, with stricter English language and “Aussie values” requirements.

In November 2006 the Howard Government also introduced reworked legislation to extend the waiting period for eligibility to Australian citizenship from two to four years, plans which are currently in the Federal Parliament. The Federal Opposition had previously supported an extension to three years but is now opposing the four-year extension.

The proposed changes to Australia’s citizenship laws and the floating of the idea of a stricter citizenship test are consistent with the Howard Government’s gradual withdrawal of support for multiculturalism. The Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration, Andrew Robb, states that Australian citizenship is not a right, it is a privilege. This represents a shift in emphasis away from a welcoming or inclusive citizenship process towards a more selective or exclusive process.

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Based on a speech delivered to the Transformations Conference 2006 at the Australian National University, Canberra. An edited version was first published in The Age on November 29, 2006.

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Peter van Vliet is a senior public servant.

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