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On becoming Australian

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Nunukul Yuggera Aboriginal Dancers performing at a citizenship ceremony in Queensland (image supplied)

There are many privileges and responsibilities that come with being an MP, but the best part of my job is helping more people belong here.

Early in November I was fortunate enough to be presiding officer at a citizenship ceremony organised by the Federation of Indian Communities Queensland (FICQ). According to the Australian Citizenship Act 2007 once FICQ and I had carried out certain tasks, I was then authorised to receive a pledge of commitment from all the folk there desirous of grasping the wattle.

It is not easy for people born elsewhere to become Australian citizens. Nevertheless, on this late day in spring the chairs were filled with people of good character who had an adequate knowledge of the responsibilities and privileges that come with becoming a citizen. Moreover, they’d all passed the Commonwealth government test pertaining to Australian society, values and history. This quiz was conducted in English, irrespective of an applicant’s first language or level of literacy and schooling.

Citizenship ceremonies must be conducted according to rules laid out in great detail in the Australian Citizenship Ceremonies Code. Such events are apolitical and secular and must not promote any commercial enterprises (the Bunnings fiasco from the Howard years is far behind us). Every service must prominently display the monarch and the national coat of arms. The kangaroo and emu hold up an escutcheon containing our six states’ symbols.

The well organised FICQ volunteers had procured both and dutifully placed the Queen’s portrait on the stage in a 'prominent position at the same level and to the left of the Commonwealth Coat of Arms'. Thus, at the Indian diaspora’s event, Elizabeth II was on the same level as the shield being held up by the national animals that "symbolically" can’t take a backwards step and belong here.

Most new Australians are welcomed via either a bureaucratic process (overseen by the federal department) or an authorised local government representative. Queensland is the only state or territory that permits community groups to conduct such citizenship ceremonies.

These events are a way for successful diaspora (like Indians) to welcome the next wave of arrivals. Consequently, in the Sunshine State, ceremonies often take on the "flavours" of the hosts. At this FICQ ceremony in the middle of Brisbane on a windy day in November there were lots of saris, achkans, salwar kameez, ritual dances and Bollywood music. Indian-Australians welcoming new Australians. And I was very happy to play my small part in the official process.

The Department of Home Affairs encourages all organisations conducting citizenship ceremonies to incorporate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander elements wherever possible.

The instruction brochure states that to do so:

'... enhances awareness and understanding by new citizens, as well as the wider community, of their histories and cultures and their status as the First Australians and traditional custodians of the land.' 

Accordingly, FICQ had invited the Nunukul Yuggera Aboriginal Dancers to perform. It would have to be a very strong wind to stop a young dancer performing but unfortunately, the gusts were strong enough to blow over the pull up banner of the Queen.

Even though the young dancers were probably not au fait with the Australian Citizenship Ceremonies Code, the young dancers understood symbolism enough to know it wasn’t a good look to have this nation’s monarch flat on her face. One of the youngest First Nations dancers did his best to restore the monarchy.

Symbolism is important. The lives of First Nations people changed forever after Lieutenant James Cook symbolically placed a flag on Bedanug Island in the Torres Strait. In the name of King George III, Cook called the place “Possession Island” and thus commenced the journey to the surrounding land mass being called Australia. If we fast forward through the First Fleet and subsequent Frontier Wars, we come to an important piece of legislation passing through the House of Commons on 25 June 1900.

The fact is that British politicians "symbolically" created our country by ensuring the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Bill passed through Westminster on Monday 25 June 1900.

Sadly, the legislation designed to form a nation only attracted ten speakers during its second reading debate. The original document from the colonies borrowed heavily from the federal system of government implemented in the United States of America, another former British satellite.

Nevertheless, the Poms didn’t want to tinker too much with the document as there were no divisions in the Commons, so far as the records show. Nobody spoke against the new country and Australia's birthing document was then sent off to the House of Lords.

On 9 July 1900, also a Monday, Queen Victoria put pen to paper and thus created a new country in the British Empire. She gave royal assent, despite the "Sandgropers" not conducting their referendum into signing up to Australia a full 22 days later on the 31 July. Only 69% of the Western Australians who cast their vote said "yes" to joining our new country. Conversely, the percentage earlier in “the Queen’s land” who preferred the status quo of remaining a British Colony was as high as 45%.

Many Banana-benders felt their allegiance "belonged" more to a capital in London than a makeshift one in Melbourne (the Canberra site wasn’t selected until 1908). Irrespective of their colony of origin most people on the electoral roll felt British. And I make this claim with the greatest respect for my Irish ancestors. They belonged here, but their roots were mostly tangled up somewhere back in the United Kingdom.

In 1901, approximately 77% of people counted in the census were born in Australia. A further 18% were born in Britain. Thus, only one in twenty of the people who stepped off a ship weren’t Australian, English, Irish, Scottish or Welsh.

By 1947, the percentage of overseas born Australians had dropped even further down to 9.8%. Following the post-war settlement drive it has trended upwards ever since. By June last year, the percentage of Australians who initially "belonged" somewhere else was nudging 30%.

It is important to point out that First Nations people who’d been walking this land for around 100,000 years weren’t on the roll at all. They weren’t symbolically registered until late in the 20th Century but obviously that doesn’t mean they didn’t belong here.

The first Chinese person arrived in 1818 and the first Indian convict labourers were transported here between 1800 and 1816. It is highly unlikely that their descendants made it to the electoral roll by the time of Federation. Whether or not your name is on the list of citizens doesn’t determine if one belongs here or not. The White Australia test is long gone. Now, the Australian Citizenship Ceremonies Code sets out the rules but the belonging part is more about something that occurs in a person’s heart and mind and soul.

First Nations People can teach this nation much about belonging. “Dadirri” is a term from around Daly River in the Northern Territory. It means a deep listening of soul. Something connected with the Indigenous practice of deep listening, an almost spiritual skill, based on respect. Deep listening is inner, quiet, a still awareness, waiting – and it is available to everyone – not just the six in 20 who weren’t born onshore or the 21% of the population who had one or both parents born overseas. I love this word. It helps me better understand my own country.

The oldest words on earth are Indigenous words. The oldest art in the world was created by First Nations people. How many other words like “dadirri” will help me better belong here? I’ve almost mastered English, so now what local languages can I learn?

I will never forget that proud young First Nations dancer kindly holding up our monarch. I don’t know his name but I know his troupe came from Inala. Perhaps he was born somewhere around there which is just down the road from where I live. I know much more about the monarch. Elizabeth Alexandra Mary II was born in Mayfair, that’s the blue part of the Monopoly board.

Nowadays, she belongs in Buckingham Palace. I’ve been there and it is a pretty flash place. It is a long way from Inala and where I live.

Australians were officially British citizens until the passage of the Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948. We also used to sing “God Save the Queen” as our anthem until Prime Minister Gough Whitlam decided to forge a new nationalism separate from the United Kingdom. How things have changed since the 1970s.

At the end of formalities hosted by the Federation of Indian Communities Queensland we all sang the National Anthem.

The Citizenship Ceremonies Code says that is “at the discretion of organisers whether only the first verse or both verses” of “Advance Australia Fair” are played. However, “verse two is appropriate to new citizens”:

'For those who've come across the seas.

We've boundless plains to share.'

After all, it is important for this nation to be successful that we all belong. On that day in November, there were people in saris and suits and ochred warriors and some wearing achkans and salwar kameez all singing along together. Like we all belonged.

Graham Perrett is the Federal Labor Member for Moreton and worked as a schoolteacher, solicitor, author and political staffer before entering parliament. You can follow Graham on Twitter @GrahamPerrettMP.

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