I can’t recall with certainty how these things unfold, but the evening I became an Australian, there was an enormous portrait of Queen Elizabeth II at the front, the mayor was in full velvet regalia, and there were mini flags.
They played a shiny video that was a hybrid of tourist-patriotic propaganda. We made the pledge; we sang the national anthem. I sang it with gusto, perhaps even defiantly. I received a certificate that carried Chris Bowen’s signature. I signed onto the electoral roll, ceding the luxury of being able to say ‘That’s not my prime minister.’
We were given a native plant as some kind of token. I thought it was very sweet but also alarming. Is it supposed to stand for something? What if this shrub failed to thrive under my care, what would that portend? Would I get away with replacing it? I planted it in our courtyard in the middle of a drought and hoped for the best.
It had taken six years for me to get to that ceremony, long after I became eligible to apply for citizenship. I had moved to Melbourne in my early twenties, that period when we make the mistake of thinking we know who we are. It turns out that much of our sense of reality is attached to particular places, histories and relationships. There were times when I would wake, forgetting that I had moved, the outlines of my bedroom made strange in early morning shadow. It was as if, in those first few seconds of consciousness, another life asserted itself. The one before.
Green came in different shades, eucalypts pale against the tropical hues of memory. The heat was arid rather than humid. I would walk down suburban streets, wondering where all the people were. It took a while for me to get used to the vast, empty spaces that flanked the freeway.
But there were other disorientations. In my first year in Australia, a Pakistani refugee lit himself on fire in Canberra after his application for family reunion was rejected. A Norwegian freighter that had rescued hundreds of Afghans in international waters was not allowed to dock. In a separate incident, politicians declared that children had been thrown into the sea. It was also the year when two planes slammed into the World Trade Centre in New York; on an inner-city street in Melbourne, a scarf was ripped off a woman’s head. A few years later, violence erupted on a sun-drenched beach in Cronulla.
I am not Muslim, but the skin I’m in is brown. I have an Arabic name. I absorbed the stories of people being abused on trams and trains, people who look Indian or Chinese or African. I heard the way people with microphones talked about us. At Melbourne Central, in a room designated for parents with young children, a woman hurled the words ‘bloody foreign mongrels’. I was glad that my baby was not yet verbal. It does not take long for migrants in Australia to realise that no certificate of citizenship will protect them from anyone who believes that they belong elsewhere. I will always be someone who arrived, ever arriving. I had left.
When I visited my family in the Philippines a few years after moving to Melbourne, a different president was in office. A cousin had given birth to a child who was not her first. One of my uncles, my favourite, was not as tall as I thought he was. The streets looked the same, as were the iconic structures that filled the hub: plaza, cathedral, university, town hall. But there were other things. More traffic, another shopping centre, a new hotel, the bustle of a provincial town on the verge of an economic boom. My mum and sister insisted on taking me to the latest restaurants.
It is an odd sensation, the realisation that the past moves on without you. I had counted on certain parts of my life being preserved—ballast against the precariousness of being in another country. It is a conceit. The lives of my family and friends go on, the country of my birth goes on, and things happen despite my absence. It took some time for this no longer to hurt. I come now from elsewhere when I am there, a tourist in the places where I was a child, which must also be home. Yet when I do go home, to where I now live, I come from elsewhere, too.
The novelist Salman Rushdie captured something of this simultaneity in the phrase ‘imaginary homelands’. I remember reading the collection of essays bound under this title, and finally exhaling, relieved from the naming of an affliction. The homeland of my birth is an imagined one, cobbled from memories. But where I live is also an imagined homeland; I will never be native to it, nor will the years compensate.
Migrants inhabit spaces that can only be approximated by language. They represent ‘here’ and ‘there’ at once. The acts of departure and arrival are internalised processes, seldom resolved. Rushdie refers to the migrant experience as a ‘triple disruption’: loss of a sense of place, language and social norms; the very things that shape human beings. ‘The migrant, denied all three, is obliged to find new ways of describing himself, new ways of being human.’
I received this as wisdom, liberating and empowering. But it was complicated by the sense that my presence, the presence of people from elsewhere, causes anxieties that must be mollified. They never are mollified.
It is hard to know how to be a citizen under such circumstances. It does not seem enough to obey the law, pay taxes, vote and work. I’ve crossed the border and exist within, but there seem to be barriers less permeable. My place here feels borrowed, lent, in which case what does being an Australian mean?
The answer is more arbitrary than people realise. A person born in Australia before 25 January 1949 was a British subject regardless of the status of their parents, and even if their family were here as tourists at the time of their birth. Persons born in Australia thereafter, up to 19 August 1986, were automatically Australian citizens. The principle of jus soli was abolished after this date, and persons could only be citizens by birth if at least one parent was an Australian citizen at the time they were born.
In December 2014 the Australian Parliament passed amendments to the Migration Act 1958 so that children born in Australia to an ‘unauthorised maritime arrival’ would find it extremely difficult ever to become Australian citizens. Babies born to ‘unlawful non-citizens’ within the migration zone and at offshore facilities were retrospectively given the same legal status as their parents, and as ‘transitory’ persons were subject to removal.
In June 2015 the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Allegiance to Australia) Bill was introduced. It seeks to strip dual citizens of their Australian citizenship automatically if they are found, even without a court conviction, to have engaged in a broad scope of terrorism-related activities or become involved in conflicts outside Australia. The proposal applies to Australian citizens by birth, as well as their children, and covers conduct prior to the legislation being in force. They can never be Australian citizens again.
In brief, the matter of who gets to be a citizen and remain one is a function of political sentiment. We have seen this overseas, in the way that citizenship has been wielded as a weapon. Barack Obama contended for quite some time with insinuations that he was not really American, and could not legitimately be president. Grace Poe, a Philippine senator and candidate for the 2016 presidential elections, has been similarly accused of not being Filipino, having been a foundling as well as a dual citizen (although she had renounced her US citizenship).
Whether in immigration policies or political campaigns, a contest over citizenship often comes to reflect insecurities rather than clarifying the principles. In Australia, public discourse has engendered the singular perception that citizenship is bestowed. It is encapsulated in the ‘love it or leave’ dictum that meets all sorts of infractions, such as suggesting that Australia Day is an occasion of hurt for Indigenous Australians and should be dropped from the national calendar. ‘Love it or leave’ frames citizenship as compliance with white colonial narratives.
This is a shrunken mindset, but it does reflect the underside of citizenship. In ancient Greece, slavery propped up citizenship. The difference between citizens and non-citizens was designed so that citizens could fulfil their democratic obligations, including those of military necessity, without going into debt. Citizenship was a means of being free, unless you were a woman, a minor, a slave or a foreigner. It became a mechanism for the spread of the Roman Empire. The Romans created graduated levels of citizenship that had specific legal rights, legitimising their rule and cultivating loyalty across highly diverse populations by giving them a stake in the empire. This also widened the tax base and increased state revenue.
Reciprocal bonds morphed along with structures of power, as feudal estates gave way to cities and then nation-states. The rights that accrued to citizenship, such as being able to vote and hold public office, still reflected the economic and social architecture of the time. After the French Revolution, only men who owned property had political rights. In the United States, long after the abolition of slavery, black Americans had to struggle for the vote—and in some states still do.
Citizenship has been a dynamic process. Its contemporary form, based on voluntary allegiance, the rule of law and equality before the law, is a product of human civilisation. Two prevailing views give it shape.
The liberal view organises citizenship around individual entitlements and protection: the architecture of the state in service of the citizen. It is inextricable in this regard from social justice. It is rendered meaningless wherever the state, or some version of it, delivers nothing but violence, corruption, poverty and enslavement. The varied reasons for the current mobilisation of human beings towards the north and west can thus be distilled as a search for citizenship—the right to have rights. No such right exists for persecuted minorities such as Hazara, Rohingya and Yazidi. It is extinguished in Syria.
The republican view, on the other hand, frames citizenship as a set of responsibilities. It emphasises active participation, with citizens as contributors rather than recipients. Certain narratives around ‘the model citizen’ and national identity lend themselves to this view.
The key point of difference between liberal and republican views is whether citizenship, as an obligation, rests on the state or the individual. Mutuality comes closer to how it should be, the very basis of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s social contract. It then bears pondering why in recent times citizenship has become a test for citizens alone, particularly non-white citizens who must always prove themselves. Law-abiding Muslim Australians, for instance, may well ask of authoritarian governments: What of your allegiance to me? What about your part in the contract?
Indigenous Australians have long known the response to such appeals. When award-winning actress Miranda Tapsell was asked on a television show whether she identifies as an Australian, she immediately said no. Deborah Cheetham, an associate dean at the University of Melbourne, declined an invitation to sing the national anthem at the 2015 AFL Grand Final, saying that she could not faithfully do so, given that the verses reflect nothing of Indigenous realities.
Veteran journalist Stan Grant echoed both these sentiments in a powerful piece for the Guardian: ‘The Australian Law Reform Commission records 67 different definitions of Australian Indigenous people—you told us who we were, but you never called us Australians’. He struggles with a deeper allegiance, saying that ‘there are so many reasons this country has told us we don’t belong’. If a person whose lineage on the continent goes back tens of thousands of years feels this way, where does that leave the rest of us? Do we dare call ourselves citizens?
Nothing in the application for citizenship matches the public discourse around Australian identity and culture. It is a prosaic process. Though certain parts are recalibrated over and over, the basic requirements remain the same. Immigration officers receiving citizenship applications consider four main things: the length of residency, a character test (usually involving police checks and references), an indication that the individual understands their rights and responsibilities, and some facility with the English language. Older applicants can be exempt from the last criterion, and provided an interpreter. Applicants have to pass a citizenship test and pay a $260 fee.
There is no judgement inherent in the process about how patriotic or assimilative a person is, nor are there conditions regarding their religion, ethnicity, politics or mannerisms. When applications are rejected, it can come with an invitation to apply again at a later time, with the view that one or more aspects may be resolved.
The citizenship test is sometimes derided for its superficiality, but the test preparation does include essential content such as electoral and legislative processes, and social values such as non-discrimination. One would hope that Australian citizens by birth also undertake the same education in civics. In any case, such things are likely absorbed as a matter of course, test or not.
The xenophobic slur ‘I was born here, you flew here’ does not speak to the legitimacy of Australian citizens. The democratic structures and processes that anti-immigrant Australians hold up as exceptional confer that legitimacy. In any case, as a friend who once worked at the immigration department points out, citizenship applicants develop a more significant understanding of citizenship than those who didn’t have to earn it.
‘You could see it and feel it,’ she says. In one instance, an African family turned up at the department in their best outfits, suit and all. She considers such applications the most satisfying part of her job, and found it particularly moving to be part of a refugee’s journey. The approval of a citizenship application from a person who came on a humanitarian visa brings profound relief, pride and excitement at being able to vote and officially be part of the community. The rush of feeling, my friend says, can be summed up as: ‘I can start my life here now.’ It is this sense of permanence that is the basis for mutuality—the reciprocity that captures the fullness of citizenship. Anything that erodes it diminishes the meaning of citizenship itself.
There were many reasons why I eventually decided to take up citizenship. On some level, becoming an Australian was a formality. I already felt a sense of ownership; once I started saying ‘our Olympic team’, ‘our Cate’, ‘our government’, I knew that I was far gone. I could no longer pretend that the distress I felt over egregious policies against asylum seekers and Indigenous Australians was the distress of an onlooker. Outsiders don’t feel shame, and I did.
I decided to become an Australian when I became a mother. My child has British genes. I think he is gorgeous. I also know that his face gives something away. I could not bear the thought of anyone thinking that he did not belong, or that his mum had less purchase on this country than other mums. Perhaps a citizenship certificate is a flimsy defence, but it is something real. I have a right to be here, and so does he.
The native shrub that I was given at the end of the citizenship ceremony struggled for a while. A couple of plants next to it did not survive. But the drought turned, and its branches stretched out green. It grew tall and leafy over the years, leaving me thinking that it was not the flowering kind. Last spring it finally sprouted blossoms. They are white.