Just in Time? Malcolm Roberts’ 1974 Application for Citizenship by Notification

The documents behind the Buzzfeed story on how Senator Malcolm Roberts, indicating he was a British subject in his 1974 application for Australian citizenship, suggests a “just in time” application regarding his citizenship status. Roberts, and his father, were among the last to be recognised by a streamlined process intended to provide long standing British subjects with fast, simple recognition of citizenship.

In 1973, the Whitlam Government amended the then Nationality and Citizenship Act to put the last nails in the coffin of formal discrimination in Australia’s immigration and citizenship regime. Among the changes was a repeal of Section 11C of the Act, which allowed for recognition of Australian citizenship for British and Commonwealth residents by “notification”. The application forms for Ieuan and Malcolm Roberts, published by Buzzfeed, indicate the application was made pursuant to section 11C of the Act.

Citizenship by notification had been introduced in 1969 to create a streamlined process for “recognising” citizenship where a British subject or a citizen of a listed Commonwealth country, who had been resident in Australia for at least five years, could receive evidence of citizenship by “notifying” the Department of Immigration rather than applying or registering.

The justification for its introduction was that many British subjects with long residence in Australia – already holding the right to vote and Public Service employment rights – were however not eligible for such rights as an Australian passport.

On discovering this, usually immediately before plans to travel, they were faced with having to apply for a British passport, or go through registration or naturalisation to become an Australian citizen. Citizenship by notification was intended to speed up the acquisition of citizenship in such urgent circumstances.

Citizenship by notification meant that there was no discretion in the decision. Once the form and documents were provided to establish the necessary particulars, citizenship was recognised, with immediate effect. Proof of citizenship was conferred by an evidentiary certificate. It also meant that there was no need to participate in a citizenship ceremony, and no requirement or opportunity to take the oath of allegiance, which at the time contained a renunciation of all other allegiances.

Of course, this domestic renunciation was later held in Sykes v Cleary to be insufficient of itself to address any question of dual citizenship, but citizens recognised by the notification process did not even take this basic step.

Under the 1973 changes, citizenship by notification would be abolished and all aspirants for citizenship – whether British subjects, Commonwealth citizens or from elsewhere – would now have to undertake the same non-discriminatory application process, requiring at least three years residency and satisfactory compliance with other tests.

The bulk of the amending Act was commenced on 1 December 1973. But the abolition of citizenship by notification was held off for six months to allow those British subjects who thought they had become Australian citizens simply by long residence to use the less cumbersome method. Citizenship by notification would expire on 30 May 1974.

(Explanatory Memorandum, Australian Citizenship Bill, 1973)

An advertising and education campaign was mounted to alert people to the changes.

(Advertisement, Sun Herald, 2 December 1973)


The campaign saw 68,791 applicants for citizenship in the first five months of 1974 – compared to 25,985 applicants in the first five months of 1973.

In May 1974 alone, with the cut off only weeks away, 37,332 people sought Australian citizenship, of which 88% were British subjects. On the evidence of the records obtained by Buzzfeed, among these last minute applicants were Ieuan and Malcom Roberts.

Another interesting aspect of the Buzzfeed records is the form indicating Ieuan Roberts gave consent for his 19 year old son, Malcolm, to take up Australian citizenship. The 1973 amendments reduced the age of majority from 21 to 18, for consistency with the recent reduction in voting age. This was given effect as part of the 1 December, 1973 commencement. There should have been no need for Ieuan Roberts to give consent for his son’s “application”.

However, as law and practice had stood until the age amendment took effect, there was a grey area for people taking out citizenship between 16 and 21. Under the age of 16, a child had to be included as part of the parent’s application. But between 16 and 21, a degree of limited autonomy was recognised, and applicants between those ages could apply with a parent’s consent.

In 1969, in the debate on the legislation that also established the citizenship by notification regime, the Government noted that this created a situation where some nations failed to recognise the independent acquisition of citizenship before the age of majority. The Immigration Minister at the time, Billy Snedden, told the House:

I personally believe that the best international course is to have singularity of citizenship in adulthood. Of course, up to the age of 21 there is good reason for duality of citizenship so that the person concerned can decide which citizenship he prefers after attaining the age of 21. This is as the law stands, and will continue to stand under this legislation.

Snedden went on to advise the House that affected young people would be advised on this dual status and the consequences:

Administratively it will be arranged that the young people in question, when applying for our citizenship between the ages of 16 and 21 years, are carefully told that their acquisition of Australian citizenship will not, as my Department understands the position, result in their losing their former citizenship, but that the procedure of renunciation and re-acquisition will be available to correct this situation. This procedure should be made as simple as possible. I foresee that a young man will make an application for renunciation of Australian citizenship and at the same time make a fresh application for Australian citizenship.

As a matter of law, this should not have affected Malcolm Roberts’ May 1974 notification, but with evidence of his having been given consent by his father, and the changes to the Act having only recent effect, it may be that as a matter of practice, he was still advised that retention of dual citizenship was a possible consequence of his notification.

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