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Becoming Australians

1949: Nationality and Citizenship Act creates Australian citizenship

National Archives of Australia A12111, 1/1954/4/53
1900 2000

Use the following additional activities and discussion questions to encourage students (in small groups or as a whole class) to think more deeply about this defining moment.

Questions for discussion

1. Today, people who want to become Australian citizens have to pass an Australian citizenship test. Have a go at some questions from past Australian citizenship tests.


Questions from past Australian citizenship tests


Now that you’ve looked at some of the questions, do you think that people who apply for Australian citizenship should have to pass a citizenship test? Explain your answer.

2. Do you agree with the National Museum of Australia that the introduction of the Nationality and Citizenship Act is a defining moment in Australian history? Explain your answer.

Image activities

1. Look carefully at all the images for this defining moment. Tell this story in pictures by placing them in whatever order you think works best. Write a short caption under each image.

2. Which 3 images do you think are the most important for telling this story? Why?

3. If you could pick only one image to represent this story, which one would you choose? Why?

Finding out more

1. What else would you like to know about this defining moment? Write a list of questions and then share these with your classmates. As a group, create a final list of 3 questions and conduct some research to find the answers.

<p>Australian passport issued to Andrew Fabinyi</p>
National Museum of Australia

In a snapshot

On 26 January 1949, the Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948 became law. It was the first time that the term ‘Australian citizen’ had been used in any Australian legislation, including the Australian Constitution. Although the Act has been changed since 1948, it is still the basis for how a person becomes an Australian citizen.

Australian passport issued to Andrew Fabinyi

Findout icon Can you find out?

1. What was the citizenship status of all people born in Australia before 1949?

2. What did the Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948 help to create?

3. Why do you think Australian citizens were still thought of as British subjects after the Act was passed?

How did citizenship work before 1949?

Until 1949 there was no such thing as an Australian citizen. Before that, anyone born in Australia was a British subject. The Australian Constitution didn’t mention ‘Australian citizenship’; and when Australians travelled overseas they were given a British passport.

From the 1940s onwards the official connections between countries that were once part of the British Empire began to weaken. In 1946 the Canadian Government was the first country in the British Commonwealth to bring in its own Citizenship Act. This led to other Commonwealth countries such as New Zealand, South Africa and Australia bringing in Citizenship Acts in 1948 and 1949.

<p>Italian canecutters arrive at Cairns aboard the Aurelia, 1956</p>

National Archives of Australia: A12111, 1/1956/4/12

<p>Italian canecutters arrive at Cairns aboard the Aurelia, 1956</p>

How did the Nationality and Citizenship Act become law?

In 1948 Arthur Calwell, Australia’s first Minister for Immigration, introduced the Nationality and Citizenship Bill in the House of Representatives.

Some politicians argued that the Bill didn’t go far enough, because it didn’t explain what being an Australian citizen meant in terms of rights and privileges. Others believed the Bill was designed to help destroy the British Empire.

Despite these objections, parliament passed the Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948 and it became law on Australia Day, 26 January 1949.

The Act created Australian citizenship and the rules for gaining it. All residents born in Australia automatically became citizens. They also kept their status as British subjects. Under the Act, it was also easy for British subjects from other parts of the Empire to become Australian citizens. But it was much more difficult for migrants from outside the British Commonwealth to do so.

‘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.’

Immigration Minister Arthur Calwell, 1948

How did the Act affect non-British migrants and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people?

The Department of Immigration was in charge of Australia’s postwar immigration drive, which first encouraged migrants from non-British countries in Europe to live in Australia. The Nationality and Citizenship Act was part of the department’s plan to encourage migrants to assimilate into Australian society.

But not many non-British migrants applied for citizenship because it was a difficult process and it didn’t offer many benefits. The main benefit of becoming a citizen was the right to vote in elections.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people didn’t gain much from the Act. They became Australian citizens, but most still didn’t have the right to vote in federal elections.

Research Task


Look closely at this letter. Was Mr Zagora granted Australian citizenship? Why or why not?

Letter sent to Mr Zagora in 1958

How has Australian citizenship changed over time?

Since it became law in 1949, the Nationality and Citizenship Act has been amended more than 30 times. In 1973 it was renamed the Australian Citizenship Act. Over time, amendments removed discrimination against non-British migrants. In 1984 the Act was amended so that Australian citizens would no longer be considered British subjects.


Read a longer version of this Defining Moment on the National Museum of Australia’s website.

Research Task


In 2007 the Australian Citizenship Act was amended again. Can you find out what new measures were brought in as part of that amendment?

Findout icon What did you learn?

1. What was the citizenship status of all people born in Australia before 1949?

2. What did the Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948 help to create?

3. Why do you think Australian citizens were still thought of as British subjects after the Act was passed?