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A group of new migrants aboard a ship arriving in Australia.
The 50,000th Dutch migrant arrives in Australia aboard the MS Sibajak in 1954

The passage of the Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948 marked the first time the term ‘Australian citizen’ had been used in any legislation, including the Constitution.

While the Act had symbolic importance, it was driven more by pragmatism than a desire to enshrine a distinct national identity. The Act, though much amended, still provides the legislative framework for how a person becomes an Australian citizen.

Immigration Minister Arthur Calwell, 1948:

It will symbolise not only our own pride in Australia, but also our willingness to offer a share in our future to the new Australians we are seeking in such vast numbers … They will no longer need to strive towards an intangible goal, but can aspire to the honour of Australian citizenship ... We shall try to teach the children that they are fortunate to be British, and even more fortunate to be Australian

Citizenship before 1949

Until 1949 there was no such thing as an Australian citizen. Before that, anyone born or naturalised (made a citizen) in Australia was a British subject. People travelling overseas were issued with British passports.

Unlike the United States Constitution, the Australian Constitution has little to say on citizenship beyond stating that to stand for parliament you cannot have dual nationality. There is no mention of ‘Australian citizenship’.

This is because at the time of Federation, and until at least the Second World War, most Australians identified themselves as British.

However, from the 1940s onwards, the disintegration of the British Empire and the increase of non-British migration to Australia led the federal government to develop the concept of Australian citizenship.

Young men arrive in Australia aboard a ship.
Italian canecutters arrive in Cairns aboard the Aurelia, 1956

International precedents

The Canadian government in 1946 was the first in the British Commonwealth to implement its own citizenship act. This undermined the uniformity of British subject status across the Commonwealth and led to the British Commonwealth Conference on Nationality and Citizenship in London from 3 February 1947.

At the conference it was agreed by the self-governing nations of the Commonwealth that each nation would be free to define its own citizenship.

This led to the passing of the British Nationality Act 1948, the British Nationality and New Zealand Citizenship Act 1948, the South African Citizenship Act 1949, and in Australia, the Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948.

Nationality and Citizenship Act

The citizenship legislation was introduced to the House of Representatives by Arthur Calwell, Australia’s first immigration minister. Calwell was at pains to point out that Australians would remain British subjects while also becoming Australian citizens.

Calwell was the architect of the Chifley Government’s postwar immigration drive which actively sought migrants from non-British backgrounds. The principle underpinning the Act was ‘assimilation’. Immigrants were expected to assimilate into Australian society as much as possible, and Australian citizenship was offered as an incentive to do so.

There were those who felt the Act didn’t go far enough. Cross-bencher and former Labor Premier of New South Wales Jack Lang asserted that the Act did not explain what being an Australian citizen meant in terms of rights and privileges.

Meanwhile, the Liberal-Country Party coalition was outraged by the legislation, calling it ‘a sinister plot to liquidate the Empire’.

Nonetheless, the Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948 was passed and came into effect on Australia Day, 26 January 1949.

What the Act did

The Act created Australian citizenship and the conditions by which it could be acquired. The main provisions of the Act were that:

  • All Australian-born and other British subjects resident in Australia for the five years prior to 26 January 1949 were automatically Australian citizens
  • Anyone born in Australia on or after that date was automatically an Australian citizen
  • Anyone defined as an Australian citizen also became or retained the status of British subject.

However, under the Act, British subjects who wished to become Australian citizens could do so quickly and easily, whereas ‘aliens’, that is foreigners resident in Australia who were not British subjects, found it a lot harder.

Effects of the Act

The Department of Immigration saw the take up of Australian citizenship and the success of its migration policies as interlinked, and monitored naturalisation rates.

Relatively few migrants applied for citizenship, partly because it conferred too few benefits, such as increased employment opportunities or government benefits, and partly because it was a long and complicated process if you weren’t already a British subject.

From 1950 the government organised Australian citizenship conventions and the Good Neighbour Movement to help promote citizenship and encourage new citizens to assimilate by providing formal language and culture classes, written resources and advice bureaus.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people gained little from the Act. They were not specifically excluded from the legislation and so were, technically, Australian citizens. However, they were still unable to vote – one of the key privileges of citizenship.

It wasn’t until 1962 that the Menzies government amended the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 to enable all Indigenous Australians to enrol to vote in federal elections.

Since it was passed, the Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948 has been amended more than 30 times as attitudes towards immigration have changed. It was renamed the Australian Citizenship Act in 1973.

From 1973 federal governments have gradually removed the favoured status accorded to British subjects and extended Australian citizenship to people on a non-discriminatory basis.

In 1984 the law was altered so that Australian citizens would no longer be considered British subjects, and British citizens arriving in Australia would no longer be able to vote in elections until they had become Australian citizens.

Changes to the legislation in 2007 introduced a citizenship test and increased the residence requirement from two to four years. These changes represented a departure from, and possibly an end to, the trend of making citizenship easier to acquire.

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In our collection

Song of Australia card issued to Mr Capelluti after his naturalisation from the Good Neighbour Council, 1962Card issued to Mr Capelluti after his naturalisation from the Good Neighbour Council in 1962. The card reads "Ilarione Cappeluti. The Good Neighbour Council of S.A. extends congratualtions and good wishes to you upon the occasion of your Naturalization and welcomes you to full citizenship in the national life of Australia". The ...

Further reading

Australian citizenship: A Chronology of Major Developments in Policy and Law, Australian Parliament

Australian citizenship, Department of Home Affairs

John Chesterman and Brian Galligan (eds), Defining Australian Citizenship: Selected Documents, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1999.

John Goldlust, Understanding Citizenship in Australia, Bureau of Immigration, Australian Government Publisher, Canberra, 1996.

Updated: 16 May 2023
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