The deputy PM can thank the legacy of the British Empire for sparking a political crisis, writes Australian history expert Kate Hunter
Confused about citizenship? You wouldn’t be the only one. Adding to the strange episode of millionaire businessman Peter Thiel being granted citizenship despite having only visiting New Zealand for 12 days, we now have the even stranger case of Barnaby Joyce.
In recent days, Australia’s deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, discovered he was a New Zealand citizen. He has never lived in New Zealand, although probably has visited and is possibly the Australian pollie best placed to have a discussion on the finer points of Corriedales. Joyce at once denied being a New Zealand citizen and applied to renounce the unwanted, unknown status.
Watching this kind of bureaucratic circus, you could be forgiven for wondering whether New Zealand citizenship was not the declaration of allegiance to the land of the long white cloud and the coveted protection of the silver fern embossed passport, but a spot prize doled out at Auckland airport along with “I Heart Aotearoa, Bro” t-shirts.
It seems then that citizenship is both a fragile and skimpy garment and a limpet. As those being stopped at the US borders have discovered, citizenship can be over-ridden by birth or ancestry, and found insufficient to provide adequate protection and respectability. Yet, as Joyce has found, citizenship can remain attached to a person even when they don’t know they have it and don’t want it (we won’t go into metaphors – they are all unpleasant).
Joyce’s predicament is in part a legacy of the British Empire, in which subjects – anyone born “in the King’s dominions”, as it was phrased in the British Nationality Act of 1914 – could move about the empire freely, and indeed migration was positively encouraged.
Britain was a remarkably open society at the end of the 19th century, with London providing a haven for political radicals, anarchists and terrorists of all sorts, as well as the colonies providing an opportunity for a new start for those willing to work hard and take a chance.
Self-governing colonies such as the seven “Australasian” ones had strict rules about who could participate in local democracy and who was eligible for welfare provisions: to enrol to vote, a British subject (by birth or naturalisation) had to have been resident for six months. Australia’s Commonwealth Electoral Act 1902 not only enfranchised white women but stipulated that three years’ residence was the minimum requirement to stand for the Australian parliament. Welfare provisions contained much more stringent residency requirements, with the Old Age Pension Acts in both Australia and New Zealand stipulating 25 years’ residence as the necessary threshold. The entitlements and privileges of what we can loosely call “citizenship” a century ago were decided by birth, residence, race and gender.
World War I threw a further spanner in these bureaucratic works. The French demanded that everyone passing through their territory – and that seemed like half the world by 1915 – carry a passport. Impractical for soldiers, it was deemed that their identity disks and pay-books would be passport enough. By the end of 1915, the British government was insisting that all subjects carry passports. Australians and New Zealanders were British nationals, and British subjects throughout the empire carried the same navy blue passport issued not by their governments but by the monarch’s representative, the governor-general.
So by the end of 1915 some British nationals could vote and claim the old age pension in New Zealand; some British nationals who hadn’t been in New Zealand long enough to vote could join the army and be provided for by the New Zealand government should anything happen to them; some, because they were women, couldn’t join the army but could vote, but if they married a non-Briton (like a Dalmatian) lost their British nationality under the law. And soldiers who left for overseas service lost their rights to vote because of the residency requirement for voting. This last problem was fixed quite quickly in New Zealand, but took longer in Australia.
Possibly the strangest episode in the soap opera that was early 20th-century rights in Australia and New Zealand was in 1916. A group of meat workers had travelled from Queensland, passports in hand as per the new rules, to work in New Zealand for ‘the season’. This was part of the long-established movement of seasonal rural workers – shearers, meat workers, stock workers – between the two countries. But having worked for three months in the latter half of 1916, when these men sent their passports to Wellington to have them endorsed before they left the country, the passports were confiscated. The men were British subjects and, as such, fell under the new Military Service Act and were required to register for the conscription ballot. Under the same law, they were not able to leave the country. Even Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes could not get the New Zealand authorities to release the men. One of the meat workers, Charles Cox, had been born in New Zealand, making him especially vulnerable to this provision. His British subjecthood over-rode his legally non-existent status as an “Australian” and he was subject to conscription for the New Zealand army.
As Joyce has rightly pointed out, British subjecthood hung around until after World War II, when Australia and New Zealand passed their own Citizenship Acts in the late 1940s. For children born outside New Zealand, from 1949 their father’s New Zealand citizenship conferred the same status on them, and from 1977 their mother’s too.
Citizenship and nationality are, and always have been, peculiar categories subject to the slings and arrows of parliamentary and constitutional fortunes. They have little to do with loyalty or sentiment, and certainly not with a sense of belonging, and it might be dangerous to confuse those categories.
In the meantime, Barnaby Joyce could consider himself lucky he wasn’t Queensland meat worker Charles Cox and he isn’t thinking of attending university or claiming unemployment benefits. Although who knows what another week in politics could bring.
Associate Professor Kate Hunter has taught Australian History at Victoria University of Wellington for more than 20 years. She is an Australian citizen and is Director of the Stout Research Centre for New Zealand Studies.
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