The weird history of Australian passports and how they got so expensive

Now that the borders are open, Australians are applying for and renewing passports en masse. Wait times have doubled.

The cost of the Australian biometric passport and the rigor involved in obtaining it can be traced to Australia’s participation in an international passport system that has evolved over the past century.

An old lineage

The passport has an ancient pedigree and is mentioned in the Bible.

A ‘leave’ passport was issued to an Australian convict in the 19th century. Photo: Collections WA

Derived from the French passer en port, the wearer can pass through a harbor or enter or leave an area. The document asks a foreign ruler to let the bearer pass through their country unimpeded.

But in the 19th century, passports were generally not required to cross the border.

The weird history of Australian passports and how they got so expensive

They were certainly not obliged to move within the British Empire. In Australia, the passport first appeared as a “leave certificate” document allowing parolees to move internally within colonies.

Wartime Changes

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the colonies (later the states) and the federal government issued passports to the relatively few Australians who traveled abroad and might need one to enter a non-British country. To enter.

The outbreak of World War I made it critical to control who entered and left the country.

The British government soon made passports mandatory for people entering or leaving the British Isles. The Australian government followed suit, making passports compulsory and monopolizing the issuance of visas under the War Precautions Act.

The Australian government, led by Billy Hughes, wanted to introduce conscription for overseas service. By mandating passports for Australian travelers, the government was given a tool to ensure older men couldn’t evade military service by going abroad.

Some vilified Boxer Les Darcy for not participating in World War I and not being given a passport to go to the US to fight for the official world title.

During the war, passport application interviews for Australian men became equivalent to an interrogation. One man who was sure he would not get a passport was middleweight champion boxer, Les Darcy. To evade military service and travel to America to earn money for his family, he hid on a ship and entered the US without a passport.

The passport system introduced in World War I continued as a permanent system under the auspices of the League of Nations.

Australia gave its passport a legal basis with the Passport Act 1920, revised in 1938 and again in 2005.

The Passport System after the Second World War

In the first half of the 20th century, passports were issued to British subjects or naturalized British subjects residing in Australia.

This “British” passport indicated that the bearer was a British subject who had the diplomatic and consular network of the United Kingdom Government.

After World War II, the Chifley Labor government ensured that the Nationality and Citizenship Act was passed, creating the Australian citizen category for the first time.

From 1948, passports confirmed the bearer’s identity and that he or she was an Australian citizen (or British subject until the 1980s).

Australian citizens who applied for a passport – now a requirement for international travel – usually received one. Abroad wouldn’t let you in without one.

But there was no absolute right to an Australian passport. Australian law, as in most other countries, gave the government the right not to issue or revoke visas under certain circumstances.

The communist war correspondent Wilfred Burchett was denied an Australian passport for years.

During the Cold War, many communists were not given passports. A celebrated example was the communist war correspondent Wilfred Burchett.

During the Korean War, Burchett’s support of China and North Korea led some to accuse him of treason. The Australian government refused him a passport, and he was forced to travel with a special document issued by the Cambodian and North Vietnamese governments (the laissez-passer).

The document was so large that Burchett bound it in Moroccan leather. Despite not having a passport, the Australian government could not stop Burchett from entering Australia. He eventually chartered a plane from Noumea, New Caledonia, to Brisbane and entered the country that way.

The modern passport system

The growth of international air traffic increased Australian passport problems towards the end of the 1980s. By 2019-20, the Australian government issued 1,745,340 passports – more than 7,000 per working day.

With increasing, travel came identity problems. In the 1970s and 1980s, drug smugglers used the Australian passport system to obtain passports under aliases. A drug lord, Terrence John Clark, was arrested in 1978 with passports under five names.

In 1983, the Stewart Royal Commission into Drug Trafficking made sweeping recommendations for the passport system to curtail drug trafficking.

Fraser’s administration did not accept Stewart’s recommendation for a national fingerprint-based system to verify identity. But it took other offers.

From the 1980s, it was no longer acceptable for travel agents to purchase travelers’ passports. It became mandatory for applicants to attend a job interview at post offices. Photocopied birth certificates and citizenship documents could not be used in an application.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, brought about a greater change. The United States has indicated that the issuance of visas depends on foreign countries developing biometric means to identify people.

Australia has been at the forefront of this change. Since 2005, the Australian government has kept a digitized photograph of an applicant’s face in a national database and on a computer chip built into the passport.

These extra security measures make the Australian passport costly to produce; it is now one of the most expensive in the world.

David Lee, Associate Professor of History, UNSW Sydney

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