Settlement Guide

Settlement Guide: what does Australian citizenship mean?

Mawut Mawut (centre) looks up at his mother Achol Adhol Majit Dieng during a citizenship ceremony at the Opera House in Sydney on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2009. Source: AAP

Last year over 163 thousand people from 190 countries became Australian citizens. You may recently have become an Australian citizen or you might be considering it. But did you know there are responsibilities and privileges that come with citizenship?

In 1949 the Nationality and Citizenship Act first implemented the legal concept of Australian citizenship. With the act, people who were born in Australia changed from being British subjects to Australian citizens.

What does Australian citizenship mean? ANU's Director at Centre for International and Public Law at Professor Kim Rubenstein explains.

"Citizenship is a legal status, so as a matter of law to be a citizen of a country the country sets up a framework for determining who is or isn't a citizen. But broadly I describe citizenship as the legal reflection of membership, full membership of the nation state."

New Australian citizen Florencia Melgar says becoming a citizen was an emotional experience.

"Actually to be 100 honest when I thought about it before it was not a big deal because I can keep my Uruguayan citizenship it wasn't a big decision in terms having to drop one to have the other one. But actually the day of the ceremony that apart from it was really kind of a fun event it was really memorable. We will all remember it.  Apart from that I got I was moved at some stages and I was quite surprised that I was moved. Yeah it was nice."

When you become a citizen there are certain responsibilities and privileges that you have to live by. But these rules may not immediately come to mind.

Professor Rubenstein says the citizenship act only outlines who can become a citizen.

"There isn't actually nothing in the act that tells what it means or what the consequences of being a citizen are. The one thing that is within the act is the capacity of an Australian citizen to pass in their citizenship to their children.  But beyond that there really isn't anything else in the act that tells you what it means and what the rights and responsibilities of citizenship are. And In fact there isn't anything in the constitution that spells out what the consequences of being a citizen are. So in some ways identifying what are the legal rights and responsibilities of citizenship is not a straight forward process cause you actually have to look at other pieces of legislation to determine when is being a citizen is a central discriminator for the purposes of the rights or responsibilities of flowed."

Other legislation like The Australian Electoral Act, the passport act and the immigration act contains the rules and rights of citizenship. Australian citizen get to vote in elections. This privilege is often seen as the quintessential trait of citizenship.

Florencia Melgar says this was the main reason why she chose to become an Australian.

"If you live in a country you have to do your part, part of it is voting and I think I have the right to complain if I vote, basically. But yes having a say is really part of belonging to the community, being a part it. I couldn't wait to have to actually having the citizenship just to be able to vote."

In Australia voting is not only a privilege but also a duty.

Professor Rubenstein says every citizen of Australia is required by law to be registered to vote.

"The central crucial areas where citizenship in a democratic society count you not only have the right to vote at elections but you also have the responsibility. Once you become an Australian citizen the Australian electoral act, which is the act that governs who votes in Australia at elections, it mandates that a Australian citizens must put themselves on the electoral role and therefore be responsible for voting. But it is also is what we think about in democratic terms a right Australian citizens have the right to vote and the responsibility to vote in elections."

Kim Rubenstein says some non-citizens can vote in Australia. British subjects who were on the electoral roll before 1984 can still vote. Others can vote at the local government level.

"So we talk about you need to be a citizen to vote, that is in Commonwealth and state elections, but there are many local elections as in your municipal elections where all you need to be is a tax payer so non-citizen can actually exercise a democratic voice locally if their local council, and in many local councils of the basis of voting is being a rate payer as opposed to being a citizen."


On the other side - Australian citizens can run for Parliament. But as Professor Rubenstein explains, you can only be a citizen of this country.

"In fact some people will say that that is the highest form of citizenship in that you are able to represent others. And indeed you do have to be an Australian citizen in order to be elected to parliament and this is where the dual citizenship issue often comes in because there is also a section within the constitution section 44.1 which says that a dual national is not eligible, or someone who owns a allegiance to another country or is a citizen of another country is not eligible to be elected to Parliament."

You cannot run for parliament if you are working for the government and must, in that case, resign before you run for a seat.

Acquiring an Australian passport is a symbolic part of belonging to the country and having a citizenship. The main practical benefit of a passport is the ability to travel in and out of the country. You have to be an Australian citizen to be eligible for one, but this is not always enough.

"Having citizenship gives you the right to apply for a passport; it doesn't guarantee you a passport because this all happens under the passport act. But under the Passports Act an Australian citizen can apply for a passport in order to facilitate travelling out of the country and travelling internationally and as a consequence of that being able to call upon the Australian government to request diplomatic protection if you are out of the country on an Australian passport. But for coming back in to the country of course is the rights of travelling in and out of Australia is actually governed by the Migration Act."

To request on the Australian government for consular assistance may sometimes be crucial for your safety and protection overseas. For dual citizens this may not be as straightforward, particularly if you are in the country of your other citizenship.

It may also prove hard to determine which of the countries you belong to should you need consular assistance in a third country.

Most people are required to make the Australian Citizenship Pledge at a citizenship ceremony. The pledge includes the commitment to uphold and obey Australia's laws.

It's not only citizens that must obey Australian law. Kim Rubenstein says it's a responsibility of any person present in Australia.

"That is something I also pointed out also about some of the ambiguity of the act and the pledge. So when you make a pledge and one of the statements that being a citizen means you have to obey the law. But the reality is that's not conditional upon being a citizen indeed anyone being present in Australia whatever their status is obliged to obey the law, and if they break the law they are subject to criminal sanctions as is an Australian citizen and breaking the law doesn't mean you will lose your Australian citizenship it just mean you are subject to criminal sanctions."

Defending the country may be something that you are expected to do as a citizen. Professor Kim Rubenstein explains that you do not have to be a citizen to be called to war.

"The law about that is not entirely clear in that you don't only have to be an Australian citizen the defence act and the legislation to do with conscription is still on the book it's just that no government has relied on it in recent times. But the provision in the act in relation to conscription ask for any person who has resided for six months or more in Australia and in fact there was a high court constitutional law case during the second world war between a Greek national who had been conscripted even though he was not an Australian citizen and he challenged the lawfulness of that conscription and the high court held that it was constitutional valid."

She says no non-citizen has been called to serve for Australia in modern times. The law states that Australian citizens who to go to war against Australia will lose their citizenship. Although this trigger has never been used, as Australia has never in a legal sense, been at war with another country.

"There is a provision currently in the act which says that if you are a dual national and you fight in a war against Australia then you automatically lose your Australian citizenship. So the principal is right there is a conflict if you are actually doing something to undermine the nation-state that you are a member of. What is interesting is that historically and to this day no one has lost their citizenship under that provision because as a matter of law and the law to do with entering into war Australia has not formally entered into war with another country so no one has ever actually lost their citizenship based upon that section."

The recent Federal Government action against I-S militants in Iraq and Syria has sparked debate about revoking the citizenship for people engaged in military activities on foreign soil.

Professor Rubenstein says international law and treaties only allow dual citizens to be stripped of citizenship.

"It's not consistent with international law for a person to be stripped of their citizenship if they only have one citizenship because there is a convention against statelessness and Australia is a signatory to that convention. And so as a matter of international law a piece of legislation would be going against that principle of international law if you could strip a single or a sole citizen of their citizenship but it is open for any government to take away a citizenship if the person is not going to be stateless i.e. if they hold one or more other citizenships."

Every country has their view on whether they allow dual citizenship or not, and some may only in certain circumstances. Australia is one of the countries that do allow dual citizenship. Professor Kim Rubenstein explains that it hasn't always been straightforward.

"Between 1948 and 2002 if you were an Australian citizen and  you took up a new citizenship you automatically lost your Australian citizenship, and that was one of the reasons that there was a change in 2002 together with the fact that many Australians now live and work abroad yet still maintain a strong relationship to Australia and don't want to have to give up their Australian citizenship in order to become a citizen of another country that there were changes to the citizenship act which repealed that section that meant that meant that from 2002 onwards Australian citizens can actually take up a new citizenship without losing their Australian citizenship"

Florencia Melgar has kept her Uruguayan citizenship in addition to her newly acquired Australian citizenship. She says this right was very important to her in choosing Australian citizenship.

"Yes that's important so even though it was a very moving moment if I had had to choose between the two I don't know what I would have done."


Source SBS