Australian Citizenship 2017: There are Lessons to be learnt from History

Posted on July 13, 2017 by Emily

Australian citizenship was only introduced in 1949, with the introduction of the Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948 (Cth) (herein known as the ‘Nationality and Citizenship Act’) on Australia Day 1949. Prior to this, Australian residents were deemed ‘British subjects’. Indeed the sense of nationalism to Australia’s British heritage was so strong that there was a political drive for the Australian population to be derived primarily from Britain. This was the beginning of what was termed a “White Australia”.

The White Australia policy was an ideal presented by the politicians at the time of Federation. Responsible for creating the legislation and policy was Attorney General Alfred Deakin. The law as enacted consisted of a collection of policies which were designed to exclude people from Asia. The legislation that implemented the ideals of the White Australia policy was the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 (Cth) (herein known as ‘Immigration Restriction Act’), designed specifically to limit migration that was not British and allow for the deportation of what were termed ‘undesirable’ people, that is, non-Caucasians.

The task of formulating the Immigration Restriction Act was put to the Attorney General of the time, Alfred Deakin. In the words of Attorney-General Alfred Deakin on the 12th September 1901:[1]

That end, put in plain and unequivocal terms … means the prohibition of all alien coloured immigration, and more, it means at the earliest time, by reasonable and just means, the deportation or reduction of the number of aliens now in our midst. The two things go hand in hand, and are the necessary complement of a single policy – the policy of securing a ‘white Australia’.

Prior to this time, the Australian colonies had experienced a large growth in non-white migration, particularly in light of the massive gold rush of the 1860s. In particular the Chinese population in Australia expanded up until Federation, sustaining a population of approximately 50,000.[2] However, this increase in non-British migrants spurred a huge uproar amongst British subjects, leading to a huge push towards keeping Australia “white” and deporting those who did not fit that mould. In particular, there was unrest surrounding the fact that these ‘undesirables’ were moving towards the major cities in Australia and taking the labour offered for cheaper prices.

As such, the Federal parliament derived their motivation from the perceived threat that these ‘alien’ labourers could provide. Deakin justified the policy by saying that the Japanese and Chinese migrant workers might be a threat to the economy and the newly formed federation.

Support for the White Australia policy continued well into the 1900s, evidence of this is demonstrated in Australian Prime Minister Stanley Bruce’s campaign for the 1925 Australian Federal election:

It is necessary that we should determine what are the ideals towards which every Australian would desire to strive. I think those ideals might well be stated as being to secure our national safety, and to ensure the maintenance of our White Australia Policy to continue as an integral portion of the British Empire. We intend to keep this country white and not allow its people to be faced with the problems that at present are practically insoluble in many parts of the world.[3]

It was only after the end of the Second World War that the White Australia policy was abolished. This occurred following a relaxing of the harsh restrictions of the Immigration Restriction Act, particularly embodied by the act of Immigration Minister, Harold Holt in 1949 of allowing 800 non-European refugees to remain in Australia, as well as allowing a number of Japanese War brides to be admitted into Australia.

It was around this time that the Nationality and Citizenship Act was introduced, creating the first idea of Australian citizenship, as well as the requirements for becoming an Australian citizen, including the oath of allegiance to be taken as part of the citizenship ceremony by new citizens. At this time, an Australian citizen was still deemed to be a British subject.

The Nationality and Citizenship Act was amended in 1955 to remove difficulties faced by those attempting to acquire citizenship. As such, the new requirements meant that a person seeking to naturalise into Australia could apply six months prior to the end of their five year permanent residency to become an Australian citizen. From this point, the number of naturalisations increased from 4770 in 1940, to 49 087 in 1959.[4]

1966 brought about the end of the White Australia policy with the introduction of the Migration Act 1966 (Cth) by Harold Holt’s Liberal Government. At the same time, Immigration Minister, Hubert Opperman announced that highly qualified people would be allowed to migrate into Australia on the basis of a number of factors including their suitability as settlers, their ability to integrate into the Australia society, and the qualifications that they possess that could be beneficial to Australian society.

The final step in the abolition of the White Australia policy was implemented by the Whitlam Labor government. In 1973, a series of amendments were introduced, which enforced the racial aspects of the law of immigration. These amendments were to:[5]

  • Legislate that all migrants, of whatever origin, be eligible to obtain citizenship after three years of permanent residence
  • Issue policy instructions to overseas posts to totally disregard race as a factor in the selection of migrants
  • Ratify all international agreements relating to immigration and race.

The current Migration program in Australia allows the migration of people from any country regardless of culture, ethnicity, language or religion, provided they meet certain criteria dictated by the Migration Act 1966 and its surrounding policies. Additionally, citizenship in Australia is prescribed by the Australian Citizenship Act 2007 (Cth) (herein known as ‘Australian Citizenship Act’), which restructured the 1948 Act according to the recommendations of the Joint Standing Committee on Migration, Australians all: enhancing Australia Citizenship, 1994 and the Australian Citizenship Council’s report, Australian Citizenship for a New Century in 2000.[6]

In 2007 the Australian Citizenship test was introduced by the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Citizenship Testing) Act 2007. This Act requires that all applicants for citizenship undertake the test which ensures that they understand Australia’s laws, values and community.[7]  The requirements for citizenship at the time that this Act was introduced included that the person:[8]

  • Is 18 years or over at the time of application
  • Is a permanent resident for one year up until the date of application
  • Is present in Australia for the 4 years leading up to the date of application
  • Understands the nature of the application
  • Possesses a basic knowledge of the English language
  • Has an adequate knowledge of Australia and the responsibilities and privileges of Australian citizenship
  • Is likely to reside, or to continue to reside, in Australia or to maintain a close and continuing association with Australian if the application were to be approved
  • Is of good character at the time of the Minister’s decision on the application
  • Has completed the Australian citizenship test.

To try your hand at the current Australian citizenship practice test, see the DIBP website.


Proposed Changes

The most recent amendment to Australia citizenship legislation comes in the form of the Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Requirements of Australian Citizenship and Other Measures) Bill 2017 (the ‘Bill’), currently before the House of Representatives in Parliament. The purpose of this bill to strengthen the requirements for individuals applying for citizenship within Australia. The idea behind this is that Australian citizenship is a privilege that needs to be guarded and therefore, to be eligible, individuals must show their commitment to Australian values.[9]

There are a number of key requirements that the Bill seeks to strengthen, including:[10]

  • increasing the general residence requirement from one year as a Permanent Resident to at least four years before they are eligible to apply for citizenship;
  • requiring applicants to provide evidence of competent English language proficiencybefore they can make a valid application for citizenship;
  • requiring applicants to sign an Australian Values Statement in order to make a valid application for citizenship;
  • requiring applicants to demonstrate their integration into the Australian community, including by behaving in a manner consistent with the Australian values that applicants commit to when they sign the Australian Values Statement;
  • affirming the good character requirements (among other requirements).

Acceptance, understanding and integration are essential aspects of successful migration policies around the world, and can help mitigate segregation, intolerance and misunderstanding. When integrating into any culture, it is important to learn and understand the native language of that country. This is particularly relevant if the purpose of integrating is to become a citizen.

As such, the proposed English language requirement for citizenship applicants is a score of Band 6 on all of the components of the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) test. This includes:[11]

  • 40 question comprehension test to be completed in 60 minutes
  • 2 essays to be completed in 60 minutes
  • 30 minute listening test
  • 15 minute speaking exam

One example of an excerpt from the comprehension section of the test is:[12]

“The direction of the sun is represented by the top of the hive wall. If she runs straight up, this means that the feeding place is in the same direction as the sun. However, if, for example, the feeding place is 40 degrees to the left of the sun, then the dancer would run 40 degrees to the left of the vertical line.”


Historical Context

The imposition of a strict citizenship and English test, requiring excellent knowledge of the English language, may be likened to the dictation test, created by the Immigration Restriction Act. In that test, migrants were required upon entering Australia, at the discretion of immigration officers, to undertake a 50 word dictation, in any European language. A certificate of Exemption from the Dictation Test (CEDT) was only allowed for immigrants who were of good character, who had resided in Australia for five years or more, who were leaving temporarily and who were required to return within a specified time. An example of such a dictation test is:

“The swagman wrapped his gnarled and desiccated digits round his miniscule ukulele and with prodigious and egregious deficiency of musicology essayed a resounding, cacophonous rendition of ‘Waltzing Matilda’ that caused a phobic frog to hurl itself suicidally into a brackish billabong.”[13]

While this test may seem unreasonable in historical perspective, it is not so different from the above proposed test in the IELTS exam. Additionally, what is important to take from this is that the test was formulated with ulterior motives, particularly to exclude non-English speakers and non-Caucasian people from entry into Australia.

The current proposed changes are not as unreasonable or unrealistic as the dictation test of the last century, however, we must not forget the lessons of the past as we move forward into the future. Indeed, one of the driving forces behind the “White Australia Policy” was to get rid of cheap labour provided by Islander and Asiatic people, and make the labour market fair for the “whites” – very similar to the current motivation of ensuring that Australians have access to jobs in all aspects of the labour market. Australia has developed from a nation of the “White Australia Policy”, to a land of great multi-culturalism, and this is not something that we should strive to move away from.

Our current commercial and social climate is what it is today because of the introduction of multi-national immigrants who have brought their culture and expertise into our society, allowing for great economic and cultural growth. Indeed, the most recent census indicated that almost half of the people living in Australia are first or second generation migrants (49%).[14]

In light of the Australian historical context towards citizenship, it should be noted that whilst it is important to ensure that skilled labour is prioritised, the Government should adopt a testing system, which is truly representative of competence in both the English ability and Australian values, which is not too restrictive.  This would acknowledge the importance of English speaking ability as an integral part of citizenship, in the context of what Australian Citizenship means in 2017.

It is important to ensure that migrants who show that they have integrated into the Australian society, who are of good character and who have a commitment to Australia values, are given the opportunity to become Australian citizens.

[1] National Museum of Australia. White Australia policy begins. <>

[2] La Trobe University. Humanities and Social Sciences. <>

[3] James Bowen, Margarita Bowen (2002). The Great Barrier Reef: History, Science, Heritage. Cambridge University Press. P. 301. ISBN 0-521-82430-3.

[4] Parliament of Australia. Australian citizenship: a chronology of major developments in policy and law. <>

[5] DIBP. Fact sheet – Abolition of the ‘White Australia’ policy. <>

[6] Parliament of Australia. Australian citizenship: a chronology of major developments in policy and law. <>

[7] Ibid.

[8] Australian Citizenship Act 2007, s 21(2).

[9] These changes are set to go before parliament in the coming weeks.

[10] Parliament of Australia. Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Requirements of Australian Citizenship and Other Measures) Bill 2017: Explanatory memorandum. <;query=Id%3A%22legislation%2Fems%2Fr5914_ems_93402f76-ce95-4678-928f-9d18e6de4fda%22>

[11] The Conversation. Could you pass the proposed English test for Australian citizenship? <>

[12] Ibid.

[13] Supereste ut Pugnatis (Pugnatis) ut Supereste. <>

[14] The Guardian. Barely half of population born in Australia to Australian-born parents. <>