Indigenous Australian Citizenship

From a different angle

Citizenship has been proven to be a constructed social concept with potential negative effects on minority groups within populations. T.H. Marshall developed a seminal theory of citizenship in 1981 that linked this status with social class and social rights, such as the right to welfare. Case studies we’ve researched have explored citizenship from three perspectives named by Turner: the access to economic, cultural and political resources. All share the view that citizenship goes far beyond a legal status and affects the economic and cultural identity of these groups (see Ong, Schild, and McCargo,).

As an extension, groups that have not been explored in our discussion are those whose citizenship has changed due to invaders of their homeland. Aboriginal-Australian citizenship differs from the debates surrounding marginalisation of immigrants and flexible citizens, as this group were the original inhabitants of the land. Any claim or rights to the land were accordingly denied and ignored. This group was forced to conform to an invading society. This history shows that the status of citizenship not only determined who had access to economic and political rights, but also the mere right to exist, which demands alternatives to a flawed system.

The road to (sub-par) citizenship

From the time British settlers took over the land as a penal colony, Indigenous Australians were persecuted and denied standard legal rights: for example, the right to own a passport or to move between or within states, autonomy to make decisions for themselves, full participation in the economy and unions or receipt of welfare entitlements. At this point in time, they were not even citizens in a legal sense: as Beckett posits, “Membership of the new nation was reserved for white, preferably of British descent.” 47 years after Federation, The Commonwealth’s 1948 Nationality and Citizenship Act was finally expanded to “make it clear that all who were born in Australia – regardless of colour – were legally citizens.” However, Mercer ascertains that the legal establishment of political rights by British settlers from the late 1940s did not necessarily mean that Aboriginal Australians could exercise their rights as citizens, being often intimidated out of voting or as a result of the manipulation of election results.

As Schild writes in her article on the ‘civilising’ social programmes in Chile, citizenship centrally concerns who has the “appropriate qualities” to be a member of a national community, entailing notions of “deservedness”. The main reason, therefore, for the exclusion of Indigenous Australians from full citizenship, was based on the perception that the indigenous population did not share the new nation’s social and cultural values (see Povinelli, pp.583-4 and Mercer, p.428). Despite the new legal status of Indigenous Australians, “it was necessary for them to be subjected to a raft of restrictive and enabling laws and regulations until they had developed the ‘capacity’ to be fully-fledged active citizens, like their European counterparts.” These laws and regulations included a focus on assimilation, which was intended to completely breed out the race, with devastating effects. This path to citizenship, then, resulted not only in cultural ostracism, as in the example of Muslim Malaysians, or economic disadvantage, as in Silicon Valley, or even a mere effort to ‘civilise’ the population as per Schild, but in a real attempt to eradicate the indigenous population of a nation.


With such sinister consequences of these policies, it becomes necessary to rethink the whole approach. Two questions come to mind: firstly, how necessary are shared values to a sense of citizenship? Secondly, is it feasible that two groups live on the same land without being citizens of each other’s culture?

On one hand, the above discussion brings into question the need for shared core values within a society. For example, how necessary was it for Aboriginal Australians to have an equivalent social organisation or cultural beliefs, as Povinelli states, or an equivalent perceived capacity to make laws, as Mercer posits, as British settlers? Many societies call for a sense of multiculturalism and tolerance within their nations. However, Ong describes cultural citizenship as specifically “the right to be differentwithout compromising one’s right to belong, in the sense of participating in the nation states democratic processes.” This allows for, then, a difference within a culture, as long as it does not interfere with “democratic processes”, or the nation’s core values. We have seen that the Australian government perceived Indigenous Australians as having conflicting core values, and needing to be re-educated before becoming a member of society. A sense of multiculturalism is often restricted by the precedence of liberal democratic core institutions, which may be adjusted but not overhauled. The line is hard to determine between tolerance and national views, but in this case the situation is further complicated by the indigenous populations’ claim to being the first inhabitants, and these new values imposed on them as a matter of course. This makes cultural citizenship in this case a problematic situation.

Some researchers bring into question whether citizenship is an appropriate or successful answer to unjustified marginalization. The Australian case is a clear example of citizenship being used as a manipulative tool to control the indigenous population; first through denying them their culture, and subsequently by dictating who belonged to that culture, as seen in the Mabo native title case and ever since. Almost as an extension to this discussion, the query as to how necessary it was at all to impose citizenship onto Indigenous Australians comes to light. The Federal government had, throughout the 1930s, been advised to leave clans in the Northern Territory alone, but instead enforced policies of segregation with a future view of assimilation. National interests aside, would it have been possible to establish a type of dual nation, in which white and Indigenous cultures lived autonomously?

Further research therefore would be into the possibility of having the right of participating in a nation’s processes while still subscribing to their own way of life or group identity, especially in cases of original inhabitation and subsequent occupation. These alternatives, although too late to save the fate of Australia’s indigenous population, may bring us closer to reconciling the gap between existing citizens, as in this case history has disproved Marshall’s argument on the equalizing effect of citizenship.


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