What does it mean to be an Australian citizen?

The Honourable Justice Margaret A McMurdo AC

President, Court of Appeal, Supreme Court of Queensland

Presented at the National Archives of Australia in Brisbane
9 July 2009

What a pleasure to be here this morning. The rain has stopped. The sun is out. Brisbane at its winter best! This is such a significant day, Australia's Constitution Day 2009. I acknowledge Ms Rea, representing the Australian Government as the member for Bonner; Mr Swift and Mr Rahemtula of the National Archives of Australia Advisory Council; and Mr McCabe representing the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship. But the real VIPs here today are you good people who are about to take Australian citizenship: Mrs Baggio, Mr Britton, Mr Carrothers, Ms Christianda, Mr Darby, Mrs Johnson, the Kamara family, Ms Ozkan, Mr Rivera Jaramillo, and the Rocher family, as well as your relatives and supporters.

I am required to state that this citizenship ceremony is being conducted as prescribed in the Australian Citizenship Act 2007 (Cth) and the Australian Citizenship Regulations 2007 (Cth) under the authority of the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship.

I am honoured to have been authorised to receive your pledges of commitment as citizens of the Commonwealth of Australia.

Making such a pledge is your final step in becoming an Australian citizen. Citizenship is the common bond which unites us all as Australians.

What does it mean to be Australian and to hold Australian citizenship?

The great navigator, explorer and human being, Captain James Cook, first visited Australian shores in 1770. Brave Dutch explorers like Willem Jansz and Abel Tasman, and adventurous Spanish explorers like Luis de Torres, preceded him. Chinese and Muslim traders almost certainly made even earlier contact with Indigenous communities on Australian shores. The colony of New South Wales came into being in 1788 when Britain's Governor Arthur Phillip landed in Sydney Cove, in an area then occupied by the Eore people.

Since then, Australia has had its history enriched by the migration of people, in many ways much like you, from across the globe. All Australians are descended from either the traditional Indigenous people, or early convicts, or migrants, or a combination of one or more of those.

As far as I can ascertain, my ancestors' first Australian contact was when a Prussian tradesman called Carl Gerler trained as a Lutheran missionary and sailed from Europe to Sydney to convert the natives of the Pacific to Christianity. He took a young English bride, Sarah, in 1842. They moved to Germantown (now Nundah) on the outskirts of the colony of Moreton Bay, then still part of New South Wales, so that Pastor Gerler could commence his missionary work. His attempts, from his mud-brick hut, to turn the local Turrbal people into Christians met with limited success. He was slightly more successful at growing grapes. As Queensland's first winemaker, he had vineyards at what is now Doomben racecourse. From my point of view, it is fortunate that Carl and Sarah, were more successful at having children than as missionaries or vintners. The family oral history is that they had 23 children, 15 of whom survived childhood and one of whom was my great-grandmother. How proud Carl and Sarah would be to know that today an embroidery based on one of Carl's naïve genre sketches of the Germantown settlement, hangs in Canberra's Parliament House. And that one of their great-great-grandchildren is here with you today, receiving your pledges of commitment as Australian citizens.

Last month, Queensland celebrated 150 years of separation from the colony of New South Wales. Today, on the 9th of July, Australia's Constitution Day, we celebrate 109 years since Queen Victoria signed the Royal Commission of Assent to the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act. This was the result of the decision of the people of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland and Tasmania to unite in one indissoluable Federal Commonwealth. The nation of Australia was subsequently formed on 1 January 1901. Constitution Day is therefore a pivotal day for Australians. Some people consider that the unifying, positive and future-focussed aspects of Constitution Day mean that it should be a national public holiday and perhaps even Australia's national day.

Yet this rich post-European contact history is but a pinprick in the story of our ancient island-continent, whose citizenship you are about to embrace. On this side of the Brisbane River, the Jagarra people, and on the north side, the Turrbal people, have for tens of thousands of years before European contact, lived in close affinity with the land which we now know as Brisbane. They held ceremonies, welcoming and embracing strangers from neighbouring clans, not, in essence, so very different to today's ceremony. Their unique culture and heritage remains at the heart and soul of modern, multi-cultural Australia. As Grant Sarra, an Indigenous presenter at a workshop I recently attended with other state and federal judicial officers noted, Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians are united in our caring, sharing and respect for the land, people and environment.

Australia's unique ancient Indigenous culture has been enriched by the fine parliamentary, judicial and executive institutions inherited from our more recent British heritage. This fused heritage has been, and continues to be, refined and renewed by waves of migration of new citizens from Europe, Asia and, more recently, the Americas, Africa and Oceania. It is symbolically significant that today's ceremony includes citizenship conferees from the Americas (Canada in the north and Colombia in the south); Europe (the United Kingdom); Eurasia (Turkey); Asia (Indonesia); Africa (Liberia in the north and South Africa in the south); and Oceania (New Zealand).

Australia and Australians are honoured that each of you has made a significant life decision in becoming an Australian citizen today. It is an affirmation of your confidence in the future of Australia. It is a commitment to Australian common values. It brings great privileges, sadly absent in most parts of today's world. It also involves commitment and responsibility.

Citizenship enables you to be part of the inclusiveness of Australian society and to fully realise your aspirations and potential, irrespective of race, gender, religion, language or place of birth. Australians are proud that many of their leading citizens (politicians, judges, legal professionals, medical specialists, researchers, captains of industry, successful artists of all kinds, and sportsmen and women) come from humble beginnings and diverse backgrounds. Australia is a socially mobile meritocracy. Australians are proud of their public institutions: parliamentary democracy, an independent judiciary and legal profession, and an accountable police force and executive. Australians are also proud that their citizens have equality before the law under the rule of law, individual freedoms such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion, and gender equality, all enshrined in our Constitution, the very document that we are celebrating today.

I said earlier that citizenship brings responsibilities and duties. Citizens must obey the law. But citizens can and should work lawfully to have Australian laws with which they disagree varied or repealed. Australian citizens must register on the Federal and State electoral rolls and vote in elections. They must serve on a jury if called to do so. Australian citizens must defend Australia should the need arise.

An important civil and social right entailed in Australian citizenship is the right to peacefully express our cultural heritage and beliefs. But, again, this right is coupled with the responsibility of accepting the rights of others to peacefully express their cultural heritage and beliefs. This responsibility turns into a privilege, as we are enriched by the cultural heritage and beliefs of others, and by the realisation that our common humanity binds us much more strongly than any differences divide us.

Thank you for joining me and my family as Australian citizens. I know that, like my ancestors, Carl and Sarah and their descendants; like the original Indigenous Australians and their descendants; and like the many migrants to Australia from all over the world and their descendants; you, your children and their descendents will make a unique contribution to the future of our Australia. As Grant Sarra explained, we are all united in our caring, sharing and respect for our land, people and environment.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2017