Australian Commonwealth Coat of Arms

Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, The Hon Stephen Smith MP
- 10 November 2008 - Speech, Canberra
- Every Assistance and Protection: A History of the Australian Passport

Excellencies, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

It gives me great pleasure to welcome you to the R.G. Casey Building this morning for the launch of this exhibition, and the book on which it is based, Every Assistance and Protection: a History of the Australian Passport.

Although the word ‘passport' did not come into use until about the 15th century, travel documents can be traced back to antiquity. Such documents were issued in ancient India and Persia; and there are references to ‘letters of passage' in the Old Testament.

One such in the Book of Nehemiah reads: ‘And I said to the King, if it pleases the King, let letters be given to the governors of the province beyond the river, that they may let me pass through to Judah' (Nehemiah 2.7).

The quotation sums up the essence of our modern passport: It is a request from one sovereign to another to allow his or her subjects to pass unhindered through foreign territory. In modern times it has become effectively impossible to travel to foreign countries without such a document.

Australia's passport system has its roots in the British system. It dates back to Magna Carta in the year 1215 that contained a guarantee of freedom of movement for British subjects.

In the 1400s, the word ‘passport' started to make sporadic appearances in English statutes, most likely derived from the French word ‘passer' (to pass or go) and port (gate or port).

When Britain settled eastern Australia from the late eighteenth century, the colonial authorities here issued what were called ‘ticket of leave passports' to permit convicts to travel around the colony subject to specified restrictions.

The experience in the early nineteenth century of the famous navigator and explorer of Australia, Matthew Flinders, provides a salutary warning to us of the need to carry a valid travel document.

The French Republic gave Flinders a safe conduct, or early passport, to pass through enemy waters. But the document was written for the vessel Investigator and not for the Cumberlandon which he made his way home to England. Unfortunately for him, the Frenchauthorities on Mauritius were able to imprison him for six years because of an invalid travel document!

At the time of Federation, passports were not necessary for British subjects to travel within the British Empire, but they were necessary for entry into some foreign countries.

In 1901, the Department of External Affairs, the predecessor of the Department of Foreign Affairs, issued what is believed to be the first passport of the Commonwealth of Australia. It was issued to John Edward Briscoe and his sister Helen. They had applied for travel documents so they could travel to Europe ‘via Vladivostock and the trans-Siberian railway'.

The safe passage request on our passport reads: ‘The Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia … requests all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer … to pass freely without let or hindrance and to afford him or her every assistance and protection of which he or she may stand in need'.

During the First World War one of my Western Australian predecessors, Hugh Mahon, was involved in the Commonwealth persuading the States to abandon their concurrent passport-issuing powers as a war measure. From the First World War, it was only the Commonwealth, or the Australian national Government, that would issue passports.

The passports which Australia issued until 1948 were British Passports for British subjects domiciled in Australia. Australian citizenship was only established with the Chifley Labor government's Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948, although Australian citizens would continue concurrently to be British subjects until 1984.

The book and the exhibition which I am pleased to be launching today trace the fascinating story of the relationship of the passport to Australian identity. During our first half century as a nation, our passport was a badge of British nationality for a population that was solidly Anglo-Celtic.

This situation produced perplexing anomalies. During the First World War, for example, thousands of British subjects who had identified themselves as Australians, were liable to be conscripted into the New Zealand armed forces as British subjects if they had resided in New Zealand for more than three months.

But over the course of the half-century from 1948, our passport was transformed into a document attesting to the bearer's membership of an Australian citizenry that had steadily become one of the most multicultural in the world.

This was the result of the post World War II mass immigration to Australia, first of European, and later, Asian and Pacific peoples, who settled in Australia in increasing numbers after 1945.

Many Australian citizens have more than one passport and since 1986 Australian governments have positively encouraged dual citizenships.

In 1967, the word ‘British' was removed from our passports, and from 1984, only Australian citizens could be issued with them.

One consequence of the changing composition of the Australian population after the Second World War was that we as a people started to pay more attention to the issue of our ‘rights', including to a passport as the necessary pre-requisite for foreign travel.

Our earliest passport legislation, the Passport Acts of 1920 and 1938, gave the Minister responsible for the passport a broad discretion not to issue them or cancel them in specific circumstances. The broad nature of this discretion and the dissatisfaction of individuals with their lack of an opportunity to question such decisions led to change of approach in the 1970s.

After a Passports Policy Review in 1977, the Australian Government left the Minister a broad discretion on passport issuing and cancellation, but restrict it to certain circumstances.

From 1978 the reasons for not issuing or cancelling passports by delegates of the Minister was prescribed in legislation. In 1984 the Hawke Government gave citizens the right to appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal decisions or directions of the Minister for Foreign Affairs or his authorised officers about passports.

Our current passport legislation, the Australian Passports Act 2005, balances a citizen's ‘entitlement' to a passport with the duty of the Australian Government to protect Australia and other countries.  As a result, the Government is empowered to refuse or cancel passports in certain circumstances, such as to criminals, terrorists, people using false identities, or children without parental consent.

Our Australian passport is an attestation by the Australian Government of the bearer's Australian citizenship and also to his or her identity.

In the early 1980s, a Royal Commission into Drug Trafficking headed by Justice Donald Stewart uncovered evidence of widespread abuse of the Australian passport system by criminals.

It was a relatively simple matter for a criminal to go to a cemetery, obtain the name of a similar-aged person who had died, apply to the authorities for the birth certificate of that person, and have a criminal associate certify to the assumed false identity. This is the method vividly described in Frederick Forsythe's Day of the Jackal. Justice Stewart's interim report on the passport system has a famous photograph of the drug trafficker, Terence Clark. When he was arrested by the authorities, he had in his possession five valid passports. They had accurate photographs of Clark, but they had all been issued with alias names to allow him to evade detection.

As a result of Justice Stewart's recommendations, the Australian Government introduced a comprehensive reform of the Australian passport system. The principal changes were to require an applicant for a passport to appear personally before a passport officer, to authorise Post Offices to act as passport officers, and to provide full birth certificates as proof of identity rather than photocopies.

These reforms helped make our system much more robust. Further changes came in the 1990s and continue into the current decade with international efforts, spurred on by the threat of international terrorist attacks, to develop a ‘biometric passport'.

I am pleased that Australia has been at the forefront of the development of the new technology.

In order to ensure that cardinal documents of identity - birth certificates and citizenship certificates - are immutably connected with the rightful owner, the Government introduced an ePassport in 2005.

Holders of Australian ePassports can be confident in the security of the document they hold.

An ePassport has a digitised photograph and the bearer's personal data on a microchip that is embedded in the passport.  Authorities can check that the material on the chip matches the unique biometric characteristics of the bearer using facial recognition technology.

The data that is written on the chip in ePassports can be accessed only when the physical document is presented for examination. ePassports are designed to enhance and complement existing border control processes.

At airports, Australia's "SmartGate" solution compares photographs of the passport holder with the digital image read from the chip.  This enhances passenger-processing and security at our busy borders and beyond.

The Australian ePassport meets the International Civil Aviation Organisation's standards.  Australia is a foundation member of the directorate governing these high-tech processes.

Australians have become inveterate travellers. The increased interest of Australians in international travel, particularly since the development of commercial jet aircraft in the 1960s and 1970s, has had significant consequences for our Passports Office.  For example, during the financial year 2007-2008, there were approximately 6 million short-term resident departures from a population of about 21 million.

In 1951, less than 30,000 passports were issued to an Australian population of about 8 million. By 1984, we were issuing nearly 700,000 to a population of about 15 and a half million. And in the financial year 2007-2008, just concluded, we issued more than 1.5 million.  The proportion of the population with a valid passport is now about 45 per cent, compared with just 36 per cent in the mid 1990s. 

On current projections, the Australian Passport Office will issue about 2.0 million passports in five years' time.  If this projection is realised, it will represent a doubling of the Office's workload in just nine years. 

I am proud of the achievements of our Passport Office in managing this huge increase. We were at the forefront of international efforts to develop machine-readable passports and we have a comprehensive client service charter. Under it, we have kept the average time taken to process passport applications to less than five days, well within our advertised ten working days service level.

To passport officers past and present, some of you here today, I thank you on behalf of the Australian Government for the service you provide to Australians.

I reaffirm the commitment of the Australian Government to providing its citizens with high quality Australian passports to facilitate international travel. The Government continues to work cooperatively with foreign governments to ensure that Australians ‘pass freely without let or hindrance' and receive ‘every assistance and protection' when they travel abroad.

I commend the Department's Historical Publications and Information Section, the authors and Federation Press for publishing this informative book on the history of the passport and the Australian Passport Office for developing this exhibition. I have pleasure in launching them both.