Non-citizens become a factor

The Financial Review, Tuesday, August 31, 1993.

The various opinion polls now routinely tracking our evolving attitude towards Australia becoming a republic may do well to add one crucial factor to their analysis. While it is interesting to know how Labor and Liberal voters might differ on the republican question, or how age or gender might be discriminating factors, we haven't yet seen an assessment of how opinion might be divided between citizens and non-citizens.

It is sometimes suggested that a republican referendum proposal has little chance of success until the present over 50s die off, or until the present Queen's reign ends. However, it might be more realistic to predict that the republic will have an uphill battle as long as it has to contend with the votes of the vast number of British migrants who have not chosen to become Australian citizens.

A spot of history, to elucidate: the status "Australian citizen" was only created in 1949 and, in that year, most British subjects who fulfilled the requirements of residency automatically became Australian citizens. Since 1949, however, British immigrants – like all other immigrants – have been free to choose whether they will become Australian citizens or not.

The sting in all this is that, from 1949-1984 (when the rules changed), British immigrants who elected not to become Australian citizens were nevertheless entitled to vote in Australian elections and referenda. The Electoral Commission has no record of the number of British subjects on our electoral rolls who have chosen not to become Australian citizens, but it is estimated the figure is close to one million.

This large body of non citizen voters attracted the attention of the Race Discrimination Commissioner some years ago. In 1989, Commissioner Moss wrote to the then Attorney-General, Lionel Bowen, pointing out that the special treatment of British subjects by the Electoral Commission was probably inconsistent with the provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act of 1975.

In Irene Moss' opinion at that time, if a non-British migrant had challenged the preference given to British migrants in being able to vote without holding Australian citizenship, the result could have been that all non citizens, of whatever nationality, would have become eligible to vote. Since 1984, all migrants – including British – have had to become Australian citizens before being eligible to vote, but we carry that army of still-British voters who, it may turn out, have their own special reasons for wanting to resist any move away from the British monarchy.

There is a Gilbertian irony in the fact that the process of constitutional change could be influenced by such a large group of people who continue to resist the step of becoming Australian citizens: we want to vote on questions which affect your body politic, they seem to be saying, but we don't want to become part of that body. The question of citizenship in Australia has probably received too little attention in the past and one welcome feature of the gathering debate about republicanism is that it will bring the concept of citizenship into sharper focus.

The Constitutional Centenary Foundation, for example, is taking a big step in the right direction with its move to encourage citizenship ceremonies in schools. Aimed at senior students who are about to turn 18, the ceremonies envisaged by the foundation will help educate young Australians about their status as citizens but will also enhance that status by making it the focus of pride and celebration. Australians have been notoriously ignorant of matters constitutional and signs of patriotism have often been more evident abroad than at home. At a time when we are beginning to acknowledge the fact that our society is characterised by its diversity, the concept of citizenship may, if we made more of it, turn out to be a useful symbol of the unity in our diversity.

We have left homogeneity well and truly behind – if we ever had it. We are ethnically, culturally and religiously diverse; we are becoming less and less egalitarian as new socio-economic strata emerge; and we are coming to terms with a radical redefinition of many of our institutions and conventions. For the present, we are a bit short of signs and symbols which prove that, beneath all this complexity, we are Australians. Citizenship, properly understood, could well become such a symbol.

Perhaps this is the very thing we need, to give a focus to our urge to celebrate something at the winter solstice. Citizens Day might be more fun than the bizarre re-runs of Christmas which are springing up in all kinds of unlikely places. Why not? Citizens Day could be a time for naturalisation ceremonies, for celebrations focusing on young Australians turning 18, for feasting with fellow citizens and even for the exchange of gifts symbolic of citizenship.

If nothing else, it might encourage a few more of those reluctant Brits to take the plunge.