Citizenship and Claims of Belonging in Australian Law and History

What does it mean legally to ‘be’ an Australian?
Analysing what it means, and has meant, legally, to ‘be’ Australian, through exploration of key constitutional cases in which a person’s claim to ‘belong’ was the central issue.

The issue of belonging is foundational to individual and collective life and is currently in flux. It has never been so frequently and fundamentally legally contested, across disparate areas such as citizens’ mobility rights under COVID-19, the position of Indigenous Australians and the power to unilaterally deprive a person of citizenship.

This project will include original archival research on key constitutional cases in which an individual’s claim to ‘belong’ to Australia was the central issue. It will go behind the decisions and reasoning of the courts, by looking at the court files, other archival records, and records of the contemporary public, parliamentary and governmental reception of the cases. Decisions will be placed historically within associated ideas of each of the case’s eras about Australian society, nationality and nationhood.

Among other themes, the research will reveal the slow, drawn-out loosening in the relationship between what it is to be an Australian ‘belonger’ and Britishness. This historically informed study will explain the background to current developments, including the 2020 case of Love and Thoms which concerned the legal status of Indigenous Australians, and is but one of the latest instances in Australian history in which tensions have arisen between formal legal status and belonging. The project will contribute to legal history more generally, analysing the relationship between legal and broader institutional and social developments.

We will explore how the claim of belonging was advanced in the case law, how this was shaped by the existing legal landscape, and how it changed that landscape and/or informed the self-understanding of the legal actors. In doing so, it will analyse the interaction between legal doctrine on the one hand, and wider institutional and social attitudes on the other.


Our hypotheses


The legal status of citizenship is no mere technicality, but has an emotional or existential core. This is not to deny instrumental or pragmatic considerations on the part of governments and individuals, but to treat citizenship policy and law as overdetermined, with a strong existential aspect.


There is often an imperfect alignment between the formal legal grant and confirmation of citizenship on the one hand and a person’s sense of belonging on the other. Citizenship is a legal status bound up with belonging. Claims to belong have shaped and changed both the law and the ways in which citizenship and the relevant constitutional membership concepts are understood. The changing nature of the legal system’s response to this tension reflects changing notions of Australian nationhood and throws light on what it means to be an Australian today.

The outcomes of this project will include a jointly-authored academic monograph and a jointly-authored book for a wider non-legal, non-academic audience.

This project is funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC) Special Research Initiatives 2020 SR200200550.

Images: iStock

How have legal status and claims of belonging, as these have been litigated since the early twentieth century, informed each other and evolved over Australia’s history?