Australian citizenship, ceremony and ritual

A friend invited me along to his citizenship ceremony the other Citizen-Mark copyday. He’s terribly excited about becoming an Aussie after living here for a number of years.

We went to the newly refurbished Sydney Town Hall and the Lord Mayor, wearing her Lord Mayoral bling, gave a lovely speech. Several hundred people from all over the world gathered to receive and to celebrate receiving Australian citizenship. They took the oath or affirmation and were given their citizenship certificates and we all sang the national anthem. Afterward we were treated to afternoon tea with Anzac biscuits, lamingtons and Pavolva; and the Australian Electoral Commission was there to sign them up as registered voters.

Citizenshipification-1 copyIt was a touching ceremony and then, it being a hot Sydney summer day, we decamped to a pub for a proper celebration with cold beer and other icy beverages. Many of Mark‘s friends attended, bringing with them essential gifts such as Vegemite, and shouts of Australian beers in celebration.

This all got me thinking about my own experience, and that of any Australian citizens who are born here. Our citizenship dribbles past us, uncelebrated, unthought, unremarked. As we sat out in the beer garden at the pub discussing the various citizenships held by people around the table it dawned on me that I’d never really noticed I was an Australian citizen.

Sure I tick the box on official forms but had never really actively noticed that I’m an Australian citizen. There was no ceremony or ritual that marked my acquisition of Australian citizenship because it happened at birth.

I started nosing around the rules about Australian citizenship, the nuts and bolts are in the Australian Citizenship Act 2007 (with other details via Australian Citizenship Instructions).

“The Parliament recognises that Australian citizenship represents full and formal membership of the community of the Commonwealth of Australia, and Australian citizenship is a common bond, involving reciprocal rights and obligations, uniting all Australians, while respecting their diversity.

The Parliament recognises that persons conferred Australian citizenship enjoy these rights and undertake to accept these obligations:
(a) by pledging loyalty to Australia and its people; and
(b) by sharing their democratic beliefs; and
(c) by respecting their rights and liberties; and
(d) by upholding and obeying the laws of Australia.”
Source: Australian Citizenship Act 2007

But what I also discovered is that the various Commonwealth governments have never really articulated a clear statement of obligations and rights in relation to Australian citizenship. In this regard it is quite enlightening to read Citizenship in Australia: A Guide to Commonwealth Government Records.

In particular Chapter 4 outlines historical records on civic rights and obligations, movement and passports, and international instruments on human rights which have affected citizenship in Australia.

I never learned any of this in school. There was never a moment where we enacted any ceremony or ritual that brought citizenship to our consciousness. It makes me wonder if this might be a good kind of ritual to invent for our civil society?

Perhaps a ceremony similar to that which I attended with Mark and all the other new Australians the other day would be a fitting ceremony for eighteen-year-olds who are just coming into their right to exercise political power?

5 thoughts on “Australian citizenship, ceremony and ritual

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  2. I’m not sure if I’m actually addressing your point but….

    As you know I’m a Pom who got citizenship back in 2006. Marilyn got her British citizenship in 1990. Hers arrived in the post after we had completed a few forms and waited. No pomp, no ceremony.

    I found the AU citizenship ceremony a little bit self-self-congratulatory, insular and, to my Anglo Saxon sensibilities, a little over the top.

    However, given the current “culture battle” between pre and post enlightenment ideas on ideas such as personal liberty and democracy, it’s interesting to consider if such ceremonies should be a bare minimum for ALL citizens. Hopefully to make them think about their civic responsibilities and commitments.

    I think I’d be a vocal supported of such symbolic ceremonies if they focused on more universal concepts without limiting it do a purely AU context. And of course it takes more that just ceremonies, my kids do study civics at school to help them understand government structures etc. Is that enough?

    The thing that’s motivated to post here is David Cameron’s recent speech (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-12371994) — I think you are both talking about the individuals relationship with the society and how they identify their underpinning civic values that underpin this. It’s an important discussion given what’s happing over the last twenty years.

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  3. There seems to be little public awareness of what is available for a ceremony or ritual as you describe. There is no in depth education in ritual and ceremony, particularly surrounding citizenship. If you are Australian born, or if you have taken up Australian citizenship you can attend and partake in an Australian Citizen Affirmation Ceremony. This would normally take place or should be available for those who request on National days , as part of citizenship ceremonies, Australia Day celebrations or can be conducted as a seperate event. Affirmation ceremonies have been offered since 1999. In fact it can be said at any event or occasion that an Australian citizen wishes to declare their commitment to the nation. Its really up to individuals to request , or councils, citizenship ceremony organisers to advise and promote that this opportunity is available to every Australian. My post grad. is from Monash Uni where I specialised in Civil Ceremonies and this is an area of frustration. There are Govt. guidelines for conducting citizenship ceremonies, and in some cases budgets, and I find it curious that even with some affluent areas the day’s program (keepsake /memento) has been a photocopy, communities with high ethnic diversity attending the after festivities (celebration) are still only being being offered lamingtons, pavlova (1920s – 1950s) and similiar Anglo Celtic influences . This year I attended an Australia Day funded celebration in a regional community. There were no citizenship pledges nor in lieu of noone taking up citizenship, a group affirmation. The Australia Day Ambassador spoke about what it was like when he came to Australia 40 years ago. There were 6 market stalls selling wares, a sack race for the children, 4 food stalls, the local fire truck and ambulance first aid van. At 6 p.m. there was planned a community bbq. The days activities were scheduled to take place at the same time as a day’s race meet which split the 2500 community.
    Another Australia Day I attended a few years ago was in a highly populated affluent suburb with a large number of people taking up citizenship. The program followed the Dept. Immigration guidelines – literally. It has no passion or emotion, the local school children sang primary school songs (for too long). There was little interaction between the officials (council members and definitely I felt they were waiting for everything to finish and get away) and the guests and the celebration after was as described above. The particular community has a high level of non European background and those of European background certainly would not eat the ham sandwiches.
    Any ceremony must be meaningful for the participants and I sometimes wonder if our national ceremonial days fall into the category of failed ritual and just another event when they are ‘pulled together’ without any ritual/ceremonial expertise and templated within local council offices who do not appreciate or cannot relate to the importance that those taking up citizenship place on the fact and the ceremony. Having the symbols is not enough.

    For those interested in the Affirmation pledge it can be found -http://www.australiaday.org.au/experience/page104.asp

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  4. Interesting that you should write this Kate as just yesterday I sent Mark this tweet:

    @mpesce Funny, I sort of envy you have a citizenship certificate, I only have a birth certificate :/

    As an Australian by birth right I can’t say that I’ve had the good fortune to decide my citizenship as Mark has and I think he, in some ways could also be more Australian than I am because he made the conscious decision to become Australian where as for us, it just is.

    I quite like you idea of a coming of age citizenship ceremony but unfortunately I’m concerned these days that it could possibly be taken over by the ever increasing flag waving “American style” patriotism that we’re seeing on Australia day. I would suggest that maybe we all encourage all naturally born Australians to go to citizenship ceremonies as you have done for Mark and appreciate how lucky we are. I think that would have a similar affect and would show support and welcome our new Australians.

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