Australian Citizenship

A follow up to the CCF paper “What does it mean to be Australian under the Constitution” on 20 March.

What does it mean to be an Australian citizen?

CEFA asked a group of people what being an Australian citizen means to them. Overall, those not born in Australia felt that Australian citizenship was a huge privilege, while others born in Australia were more apathetic about it. Those naturalised Australians did not feel the same level of privilege for the citizenship of their original country. What does Australian citizenship mean to you? We would love you to contribute your thoughts in our comments section below.

Removal of citizenship for terrorist activity in Australia and/or overseas is under public and federal Parliamentary discussion at the moment and debate is certainly hotting up in the media.

As we approach the celebration of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta we should take a look at one section that specifically mentions being banished:

No free man shall be taken or imprisoned or dispossessed, or outlawed, or banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him, nor send upon him, except by the legal judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.

Australians and the Parliament are discussing four fundamental issues/rights under the Australian Constitution and as a part of the citizenship revocation debate:

  1. Whether dual or sole Australian citizenship can be removed by a minister rather than the courts (separation of powers issue)
  2. Whether Australia should revoke citizenship for action in Australian and overseas deemed acts of treason.
  3. Should we treat citizens with dual nationality differently from those who just have Australian citizenship?
  4. How are children with Australian citizenship affected where their parents or grandparents have dual citizenship?

While Australian citizenship is not mentioned in the Constitution, there are several mentions of being a “subject of the Queen”. At federation the people of Australia were either: ‘natural-born British subjects’ and ‘naturalised persons’ (who enjoyed substantive community membership including permanent residence), ‘British subjects’ (who had various substantive rights, including full political rights, but lacked permanent residence) and aliens.

It wasn’t until 1948 that the first Nationality and Citizenship Act was assented into law. This Act was substantially updated in 1987 and then replaced by the Australian Citizenship Act in 2007.

The preamble of the Australian Citizenship Act 2007 describes the meaning of citizenship:

The Parliament recognises that Australian citizenship represents full and 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.

The Parliament recognises that persons conferred Australian citizenship enjoy these rights and undertake to accept these obligations:

                     (a)  by pledging loyalty to Australia and its people; and

                     (b)  by sharing their democratic beliefs; and

                     (c)  by respecting their rights and liberties; and

                     (d)  by upholding and obeying the laws of Australia.

Justice Margaret A McMurdo described citizenship at a speech in Brisbane in 2009:

Citizenship is the common bond which unites us all as Australians…..and enables you to be part of the inclusiveness of Australian society and to fully realise your aspirations and potential, irrespective of race, gender, religion, language or place of birth.

And in a speech in Sydney in 2004, former Labor leader Mark Latham stated:

Citizenship is about legal rights. But it is also about social responsibility. Australia is a nation of migrants, but it is also a nation of obligations.

What are the rights associated with being a citizen?

In a 2014 paper in the Melbourne University Law review Sangeetha Pillai writes that the rights that flow from citizenship include status protection rights, rights to entry and abode, rights to protection, and political rights.

The Government citizenship discussion paper - Australian Citizenship – your right, your responsibility - does not list any rights, but does highlight ‘privileges’. These include being able to:

  • apply for an Australian passport and re-enter Australia freely;
  • receive help from an Australian official while overseas;
  • access Medicare and Centrelink payments where applicable.

Those born in Australia may expect that citizenship itself is a right. Perhaps every Australian should view it as a privilege.

Are there any responsibilities associated with being a citizen?

The citizenship discussion paper, states:

All Australians are responsible for respecting and protecting our country and ensuring that our commitment to a decent society embraces all Australians.

It also a list of ‘obligations’ for Australian citizens, these include commitments to:

  • Obey the law
  • Defend Australia should the need arise; and
  • Vote in federal and state or territory elections, and in referenda.

Australia has a very strong judicial system and those not obeying the law are dealt with by the court system. There are already very serious penalties for people found guilty of terrorism crimes.

In the discussion paper on citizenship the Government states:

Arguably, Australians who engage in a serious act of terrorism do not deserve to remain Australian citizens.

In the case of terrorist activities in Australia and overseas should there be a judicial process proving that a crime has been committed? Or should the Minister be conferred with special powers? 

Are there provisions in the current legislation to revoke citizenship?

The current Australian Citizenship Act makes provision for those fighting for a country at war with Australia to cease being an Australian citizen.


Service in armed forces of enemy country

(1)  A person ceases to be an Australian citizen if the person:

(a)  is a national or citizen of a foreign country; and

(b)  serves in the armed forces of a country at war with Australia.

(2)  The person ceases to be an Australian citizen at the time the person commences to so serve.

Islamic State (IS) are claiming to be a sovereign entity, even though they are not seen as such by world Governments. David Kilcullen, one of the world's foremost experts on IS has stated:

In international relations we normally say that a state needs to have four characteristics. It needs to control the territory, it needs to control the population, it has to have a government that exercises some form of control and it has to be capable of entering into relations with other states. So if we look at all four of those, right now, ISIS controls an area about the size of the Netherlands or Switzerland, slightly larger, about a third of both Iraq and Syria…. It has a population under its control about the size of Israel or Norway or Singapore. It has a government that is not just military people; it has a taxation system and a court system, police, it runs electrical power, water - all those kinds of things in the cities that it controls. And then finally, it sells electricity to the Syrian Government, it trades oil and antiquities on the international market, it has an international spokesman and an international support network. So it doesn't - it's not a requirement in our understanding of what a state is that it should actually be recognised by other states and of course Islamic State is not recognised by any other state.

Where is this debate at today?

The Opposition leader Bill Shorten has offered in-principle bipartisan support to revoke citizenship of dual citizens fighting for IS. The Prime Minister is expected to table the new legislation when Parliament reconvenes the week of 15 June.   

What do you think?

We all have an opinion about what it means to be Australian. It can however be difficult to articulate. The Government has called for us to have a discussion about citizenship. We encourage you to make your comments below or you can submit them to the immigration department here.


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