I have come to the conclusion that if one lives long enough, one will experience every form of stupidity and incompetence which the bureaucratic mind is capable of inventing. And so it came to pass that an anguished phone call from my daughter exposed the startling fact that the Department of Home Affairs has declared her a stateless person, also revealing in the process the existence of an hitherto secret section – the “Citizenship-PNG Unit”, based in Brisbane.
I have to back-pedal more than sixty years to explain this latest example of Australia’s inability to come to grips with its colonial history in post-war Papua New Guinea. In 1957 my wife and I, newly married, landed in Pt. Moresby on my first overseas assignment as the ABC’s Journalist in Charge. In a freshly amalgamated territory, forged from the former Australian colony of Papua and the former German colony of New Guinea under a United Nations Trusteeship, still staggering from a devastating war, it was a reporter’s dream job.
Not though, an easy life. Our home was a condemned army hut with no windows, only openings with arc-mesh and flywire. Similarly my “office”, which leaked so badly I had to climb on the roof and patch a hundred holes in the fibro. Most food arrived frozen in the monthly Burns Philp ships; fruit and vegetables were just starting to dribble in from the fertile highlands by air, at great expense. Ela Beach, at the foot of the town’s main street, still had its sign: “European swimming only.”
The following year we welcomed into our world a darling daughter. We subsequently took her back to Australia, to Pt Moresby again for a second term, this time to train the first Papuan and New Guinea journalists, to London, and back again to Sydney. As she peeled off from her parents’ passports to fly her own life, she had no difficulty in obtaining her own, and renewing it at least four times.
Suddenly, an unexpected and unnecessary crisis. Six months before its expiry, she applied for the renewal of her passport. What she got from the Passport Office in Melbourne was a pro forma reply saying her Australian passport application (sic) cannot proceed at this stage as the evidence produced (her current passport, now defaced by clipped pages) is not sufficient to confirm Australian citizenship. It required her to obtain evidence of Australian citizenship. Why? Because Sophie in the Passport Office had ticked a box saying: “Other – born in Papua New Guinea”.
Attempts to reason with senior officials in Home Affairs and DFAT produced the same response – despite already being the holder of an Australian passport, several times renewed, she had to prove her citizenship simply because she was born in PNG before 1975. Hence my daughter’s cry for help. She needed her birth certificate, the birth certificates for her father and mother (me and my wife) and the places and dates of birth of our parents, to complete Form 119. Fortunately we keep a good family file of such important documents, she was able to submit copies, together with the extortionate fee of $198.
Until a certificate of citizenship was issued, she was sternly advised, she was a stateless person. Meanwhile she has had her valid passport cancelled, prevented from travelling overseas and subjected to self-evident irrelevant hassle.
Now my daughter is a lawyer, in a legal position associated with the New South Wales Supreme Court. This issue will not stop bouncing until someone well above the low-level bureaucratic loop in which it is trapped takes hold. Her situation is not unlike many dozens, probably hundreds of children born to parents serving during the 1945-1975 Australian trusteeship of PNG.
The real question is why it has arisen just now. Is it somehow a consequence of the dual-citizenship fandango in federal parliament, or perhaps a renewed attempt to clamp down on PNG immigration? Why is a valid passport together with other identity documents, not acceptable proof of citizenship?
Those are the questions. Now we want answers. Over to you, Foreign Minister Bishop, as it is your department which issues passports.
Geoffrey Luck was an ABC journalist for 26 years
editor’s note: this story was first and briefly published under the headline “Dutton’s Dills”, but the immigration minister’s parliamentary office has pointed out the that issuance of passports is the bailiwick of Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. The headline and final paragraph have been changed accordingly.