Schooled on British subjects

The Australian, Weekend Review, 8-9 October, 1994, p.16.

By Hugh Mackay

With all the talk of republics and flags and Constitutions and heads of state, it is probably time for this column to make its modest contribution to the process of educating ourselves about our civic rights and responsibilities.

Our children are apparently going to start learning a bit more constitutional history at school and – even if it is a government plot to aid the republican cause – we had all better brush up on our knowledge of these things. We don't want civics to become another one of those subjects, like computers and the environment, where our children know more than we do and do not hesitate to make it embarrassingly evident.

So, first question: When did we create the status of Australian citizenship? 1788? 1815? 1901? 1939? 1949? 1972? It is tempting to assume that with the federation of the states into the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901, we all became citizens of the new nation. But no; not so. We might have talked about being Australians, and many people might have felt like Australians. but the legal and constitutional reality was that we remained British subjects until the proclamation of the Nationality and Citizenship Act in 1949.

So that is the answer to the question: we invented the concept of Australian citizenship as recently as 1949. It is not yet 50 years old so it is not surprising many older Australians are still strongly attached to their British heritage – they grew up as British subjects, after all, and had to adjust to the idea of becoming Australian citizens instead.

For those born since 1949, of course the idea that Australians once thought of themselves as British subjects must seem more than a little quaint. We really are very new to this business of Australian citizenship. so perhaps we need to take that into account whenever we find ourselves debating civic issues.

Next question. Who is allowed to vote in Australian elections and referendums? Is it Australian citizens only? Or Australian citizens, plus any British subjects who happen to live here? Or anyone who has immigrated and shown enough interest in politics to get themselves on to the electoral roll? Or any old passer-by who spends a bit of time here, regardless of where he came from?

Bit of a trick question, really. The answer is none of the above, due to a quirk of history that has saddled us with a large group of people who are entitled to vote in our elections without bothering to become Australian citizens. I'll explain who they are in a minute, but first, imagine how you might have answered that question if I had posed it like this: Who should be allowed to vote in Australian elections and referendums?

My guess is that you would unhesitatingly answer that only Australian citizens should be allowed to vote in Australian elections and referendums. Otherwise, you might reasonably think, we would be letting our political process be influenced by people who are not even citizens of our country. In fact, when you stop and think about it, it would be very strange indeed to allow people who have chosen not to become Australian citizens to play any role in our governance, yet that is precisely what we have managed to achieve. And how many such people? Try something in the vicinity of 1 million. Let me explain, so you can stay a jump ahead of your kids on this one at least.

After we passed the Citizenship Act in 1949, most British subjects who were living in Australia at that time became Australian citizens automatically. However, from then until 1984 (when the rules changed again), British immigrants who chose not to become Australian citizens were nevertheless entitled to vote here. The Electoral Commission has no record of the number of British subjects - as opposed to Australian citizens - who are on the electoral roll, but estimates suggest the figure is probably close to 1 million... and there are only 11 million voters in total.

Being alert and well informed, you will have already twigged to another complication in all this. What about all the immigrants from non-British countries who arrived here between 1949 and 1984 but who chose not to become Australian citizens? Can they vote? No way, Jose. So isn't that a tad discriminatory? Mightn't the Racial Discrimination Act have something to say about the fact that we let British subjects vote with out becoming Australian citizens, but no one else?

It might Indeed, but apparently no one is listening. Another bizarre twist: Irish immigrants who arrived during the 1949-84 loophole can also vote, even if they are not Australians, because they have officially been declared British. So there.

Since 1984, of course, all immigrants – including British – have had to become Australian citizens if they want to vote here but, for the foreseeable future, our elections and referendums will continue to be heavily influenced by that large body of Brits who do not wish to become citizens, but who nevertheless wish to have their say in our political and constitutional affairs.

It certainly seems, on the face of it, to be one of those classic cases where we might be entitled to suggest that they cannot have it both ways: if they really do not want to become Australian citizens, perhaps they should not expect to be able to vote either. Unless we are going to urge them to put up or shut up, we will presumably have to live with this anomaly until they all die off.

It makes quite a compelling reason to postpone any voting on things like a republic or a flag, don't you think? It would hardly seem sensible to allow such symbolic questions to be settled by an electorate that contains a huge number of voters who do not even want to become Australians.