Australia Day: The bond of Citizenship

On this day, seventy-two years ago, the Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948 came into effect, for the first time rendering those who lived within the Commonwealth of Australia as legal citizens of this country. Prior, they had only been British subjects, a uniform nationality status across the British Empire; any issued passports were British, not Australian.1 The Act allowed those of good character who resided here to become Australian citizens in addition to their subject status. Citizenship continues to “provided a common bond, involving reciprocal rights and obligations to unite all Australians”.2

The Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948 was not unique piece of legislation at the time. The enactment of new citizenship law in Canada prompted a British Commonwealth Conference which then agreed that each self-governing nation would have the freedom to define its own citizenship. Similar acts were passed in Britain, New Zealand, South Africa and other nations over the next few years.1

The concept of citizenship, of course, first developed outside in the Commonwealth. Like many features of our current society, early forms of citizenship emerged in ancient Greek city-states, where it applied only to those who owned property. They had the right to vote, but had an obligation to pay taxes and serve in the military. This developed further in the Roman Empire, with the Edict of Caracalla in AD 212 expanding citizenship, and the legal privileges that came along with it, to all free male inhabitants of the Empire.3

The modern political idea of citizenship became extremely important upon the expansion of liberal democracy through the 18th century, with the authority of governments being derived from election by the people of a sovereign state, as is evident in the Constitution of the United States, which famously opens with the words “We the people”.4 The association of particular rights and obligations with citizenship has continued to today; the Department of Home Affairs lists privileges such as voting and consular assistance, as well as obligations like obeying laws and serving on a jury if called to do so.5

It would be amiss publishing this article on Australia Day without specific mention of the first Australians, the Indigenous people who inhabited this land long before European colonisation took place. During the 1938 Day of Mourning, a resolution was moved which included an appeal for “a new policy which will raise our people to full citizen status and equality within the community”. 6

The Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948 did give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples citizenship, but the Act failed to provide them key privileges associated with Australian citizenship. They could not vote until in 1962 the Menzies government amended the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918,1 and the Commonwealth of Australia was unable to make laws for Indigenous Australians in the states nor count them in the census until the 1967 referendum that occurred during the Holt government.7

The Australian Citizenship Act 2007, the most recent legislation in Australian Nationality law, states in the preamble, “Australian citizenship is a common bond… uniting all Australians, while respecting their diversity.” Today, in ceremonies nationwide, migrants to this land will celebrate their newly conferred status as Australian citizens, but this should not overshadow commemoration of the many Indigenous people who endured horrors that occurred during European colonisation.

Maia Edge is the Secretary of the Sydney University Conservative Club


2 Australian Citizenship Act 2007





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