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The nature of Australian citizenship

By Patricia Jenkings - posted Monday, 18 December 2006

Current political debate over some Australians of non-English speaking backgrounds rejecting traditional values and beliefs raises important questions concerning the nature of Australian citizenship.

In the aftermath of World War II, the unprecedented influx of non-British settlers to Australian shores saw a dramatic change to the essential qualities of Australian citizenship. Australia’s first Minister for Immigration, Labor’s Arthur Calwell, initiated a change in citizenship status, which was realised in the Nationality and Citizenship Act (1948).

The Act came into force on Australia Day, January 26, 1949. Immigration Minister Calwell said, when presenting the Bill to Parliament, that the introduction of the Act marked an historic occasion in Australian life by creating the status of Australian citizen. Calwell believed that Australia and other Dominions should recognise officially and legally their maturity of membership of the British Commonwealth by the passage of separate citizenship laws.


The Act came under criticism from conservatives including Eric Harrison, Acting Leader of the Liberal Party, who said the Act, “was part of a plan - a sinister plan - to liquidate the Empire”. Sir Josiah Francis said that the Act was pulling down the Union Jack and, Sir John McEwan reiterated that when the British people took steps to separate into different nationalities that it was a black day in their history.

Over the years the Act has been amended. In 1973 the legislation was renamed the Australian Citizenship Act 1948. In 1984, major changes to the legislation included the removal of British subject status from the Citizenship Act. Australians were no longer considered British subjects. This change clearly represented a fragmenting of Australia’s traditional bond with Britain.

This was further evident on Australia Day, January 26, 1999, the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the status of Australian citizenship, which was celebrated with affirmation ceremonies in which it was stated: “As an Australian citizen, I affirm my loyalty to Australia and its people whose democratic beliefs I share, whose rights and liberties I respect, and whose laws I uphold and obey.”

The nature of this Affirmation was distinctively different from the swearing of allegiance to the Queen in the 1950s. The practice declares an affirmation more relevant to a culturally diverse society and evidences Australia’s maturity from British dominance.

In fact, the monarchy has largely been replaced by Australian institutions and practices, for example, the Australia Day honours lists and the replacement of the national anthem “God Save the Queen” with one more linked with Australia’s own identity, “Advance Australia Fair”.

It should be remembered, particularly during times of racial unrest, that an important feature of the Nationality and Citizenship Act (1948) was that it provided the means for new arrivals to join native-born as Australians citizens, thereby also encouraging their acceptance by native Australians.


Through the legislation the notion of Australian citizen allowed all Australians, whether of British or non-British background, to officially have membership of Australian society, including all the legal and political responsibilities and privileges accompanying such status.

Although citizenship education has been emphasised and taught in schools, it would be more appropriate if the government of the day tries to investigate what the current consensus on Australian citizenship is and invites the Australian community to participate in a national forum to come to grips with a new world order like the Australian government of the post World War II era.

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About the Author

Patricia Jenkings is a former political advisor. She has a PhD from the University of Sydney in social policy studies and education.

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