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Research Guides


Citizenship in Australia: A Guide to Commonwealth Government Records


Appendix 1: Key government agencies

Attorney-General's Department, 1901– (CA 5)

The Attorney-General's Department was one of the seven departments established at Federation, and was charged with responsibility for providing legal advice to all parts of the Commonwealth government and for drafting legislation. The legal opinions of the Attorney-General's Department often had significant implications for civic matters. The department also took a considerable interest in internal security matters, and supervised the activities of the Commonwealth Investigation Branch, ASIO, and other security agencies at various times. The department's files are located in Canberra.

Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO), 1949– (CA 1297)

ASIO was established by prime ministerial directive in 1949 to take charge of civil security in Australia and the protection of the Australian government from internal and external threats not related to the criminal law. ASIO undertook a range of vetting and surveillance activities in the 1950s and 1960s relevant to citizenship, and was involved in the registration of aliens and plans for internment in the event of war. Some of these activities were taken over from the Commonwealth Investigation Service, along with many of its records. Due to the sensitivity of ASIO's activities its records are often subject to exemptions under the Archives Act which limit public access, however many significant records have been released. All files available for public access are located in Canberra.

Cabinet Secretariat (I) / Secretary to Cabinet, 1906–68 (CA 3)

Prior to the Second World War systematic recording of Cabinet agenda, deliberations and decisions did not occur, and accordingly poor Cabinet records remain from this period. However, during the war a new system improved the records kept by Cabinet, and in 1949 Prime Minister Ben Chifley established a full cabinet secretariat. Comprehensive and well-organised Cabinet records have been maintained since that time. In 1968 the Cabinet Secretariat became the Department of the Cabinet Office, but this lasted only until 1971 when it was amalgamated with the Prime Minister's Department.

Chief Electoral Office, 1901–73 (CA 558)

The Chief Electoral Office was responsible for Commonwealth electoral matters from Federation until 1973. Its records include a general correspondence series which spans the period (A406), and electoral maps and rolls.

Commonwealth Investigation Branch, 1919–46 (CA 747)
Commonwealth Investigation Service, 1946–60 (CA 650)

The Investigation Branch was formed in 1919 from the remnants of several wartime civil security organisations, and it inherited many wartime Military Intelligence and censorship records. The Branch conducted a range of investigatory duties connected with civil security, including the vetting of applicants for naturalisation and passports, and some immigration applicants. It maintained a very active interest in the conduct of aliens in Australia, and was responsible for the registration of aliens in the 1920s, and ongoing investigations into aliens resident in Australia during the inter-war period. During the Second World War it was displaced from some security functions by the establishment of the Security Service. Following the war the two were merged in the Commonwealth Investigation Service which lost most of its security functions, and some of its staff, to the Australian Security Intelligence Organization in 1949 and 1950. The remainder of the Service was absorbed into the Australian Federal Police in 1960. The Investigation Branch maintained offices in each state capital except Hobart. The small number of staff during the inter-war years corresponded regularly over the Branch's activities, and accordingly in addition to the central files located in Canberra, good records are available on many topics in the state offices of the NAA.

Department of the Army, 1939–73 (CA 36)

The Department of the Army was created in 1939 and took over the administration of the Australian Army from the Department of Defence (II). It continued to exercise this function until 1973 when the Whitlam government reorganised military administration.

Department of Defence (I), 1901–21 (CA 6)
Department of Defence (II), 1921–39 (CA 19)
Department of Defence Co-ordination, 1939–42 (CA 37)
Department of Defence (III), 1942– (CA 46)

One of the Commonwealth's original departments, the Department of Defence (I) assumed control of all military and naval matters from the states on 1 January 1901. In 1905 Military and Naval Boards were established within the department, and in 1915 a separate Department of the Navy (I) was created from the Naval Office in the department. The two departments were amalgamated again in 1921, thereby creating the Department of Defence (II). During 1938 and 1939 various functions of the department were stripped and allocated to new departments such as the Department of Civil Aviation, and the remainder was divided into separate departments of Air, Army, Navy and Defence Co-ordination. The latter continued for three years with responsibility for military policy and administration, the War Book, and coordination of the constituent parts of the military, although some administrative functions were passed to other departments. In 1942 the department was renamed the Department of Defence (III) to more properly reflect its role. The department remained largely unaltered until the 1970s. The records of these departments are located in Melbourne and Canberra.

Department of External Affairs (I), 1901–16 (CA 7)

The Department of External Affairs (I) was one of the seven departments established at Federation in 1901. Its main responsibilities were for migration, naturalisation, passports, territories, and external (meaning predominantly imperial) relations. The department initially acted as the Prime Minister's Office, until in 1904 a separate office was established within the department to conduct prime ministerial correspondence. That office was constituted as a full department in 1911, and the department's 'external' role quickly diminished. In 1916, the department was reconstituted as the Department of Home and Territories. While the department was located in Melbourne, the majority of its surviving records are now preserved in Canberra. The department had no branch offices, and its records are organised principally into several large series, the most important of which is series A1.

Department of External Affairs (II), 1921–70 (CA 18)

The Department of External Affairs (II) was established as a small office within the Prime Minister's Department for the conduct of external relations. In 1935 it separated from the Prime Minster's Department, and by the 1940s was quickly expanding as Australia moved to establish diplomatic missions around the world. During the postwar period the department's responsibilities took in the conduct of Australia's relations with foreign states and multilateral organisations, and the protection of Australian interests and citizens abroad. In 1970 the department was renamed the Department of Foreign Affairs. The Department's records are located in Canberra, and are mainly organised in successive multiple number series.

Department of External Territories (I), 1941–51 (CA 42)
Department of Territories (I), 1951–68 (CA 60)
Department of External Territories (II), 1968–73 (CA 1284)

The Territories Branch of the Prime Minister's Department was constituted as the Department of External Territories (I) in 1941, and charged with the administration of Australia's external territories. In 1951 responsibility for the Northern Territory was added to the department, and it was renamed the Department of Territories. The department continued with responsibility for most Australian territories, until 1968 when the administration of the Northern Territory was returned to the Department of the Interior (III), and the department was again renamed the Department of External Territories (II). There are two aspects to the records of these departments which are relevant to the guide: the administration of the Northern Territory where the Commonwealth was responsible for the whole civic relationship in the absence of a state tier of government, and the citizenship status of the people living in Australia's external territories.

Department of Home Affairs (I), 1901–16 (CA 8)

The first Department of Home Affairs was established in 1901 and took responsibility for electoral and franchise matters, along with astronomy, census and statistics, and public works. The department was abolished in 1916 and its functions passed largely intact to a new Department of Home and Territories.

Department of Home Affairs (II), 1928–32 (CA 24)

The Department of Home and Territories was effectively renamed the Department of Home Affairs in 1928, all its functions continuing intact with the exception of administration of the territories of New Guinea, Papua and Norfolk Island. The department lasted only a short time before again being reconstituted, this time as the Department of the Interior (I).

Department of Home and Territories, 1916–28 (CA 15)

The Department of Home and Territories was formed from the amalgamation of the Department of Home Affairs (I) and the Department of External Affairs (I). It continued to hold most functions exercised by its predecessors, including immigration restriction, electoral and franchise matters, passports, naturalisation, and territories. The department's most important record series, A1, continued from the Department of External Affairs (I), and was continued by the Department of Home Affairs (II) when that department replaced Home and Territories in 1928.

Department of Immigration, 1945–74 (CA 51)

The Department of Immigration assumed control of most immigration, naturalisation and passports matters from the Department of the Interior (II) in 1945, and the staff and records of Interior dealing with these matters were also transferred. Immigration also took control of the tasks of interviewing applicants for immigration, naturalisation and passports from the Commonwealth Investigation Service in 1949. Immigration was integral to the establishment of Australian citizenship by the Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948, and the department conducted citizenship policy in the form of migrant settlement, assimilation, and naturalisation policies. The department maintained large offices in each of the state capitals, and the records of these offices are now located in state offices of the NAA. While policy files are concentrated in Canberra, large numbers of case files and records on the specific activities of state branches in areas such as assimilation are available in the states.

Department of Information, 1939–50 (CA 34)

The Department of Information was established in September 1939 to mobilise support for Australia's war effort, and it held responsibility for propaganda and censorship. The department also took over the government's shortwave capabilities, and film and photographic resources for publicity purposes.

Department of the Interior (I), 1932–39 (CA 27)
Department of the Interior (II), 1939–72 (CA 31)

The Department of the Interior (I) was created from an amalgamation of the Departments of Home Affairs (II), Transport (I), and Works and Railways, and continued virtually all of their functions. As such the department was responsible for immigration, naturalisation, passports, elections and franchise, and the registration of aliens. In 1939 the department was reconstituted but was essentially the same as its immediate predecessor, and continued to hold responsibility for all functions relevant to this guide until the establishment of the Department of Immigration in 1945. At that time the administration of immigration, passports, naturalisation and aliens was transferred to the new Department of Immigration.

Department of Labour and National Service, 1940–72 (CA 40)

The Department of Labour and National Service was conceived to bring together all the elements of labour relations and supply so as to ensure effective conduct of the war effort. For several years after the war the department also held responsibility for migrant worker matters and their assimilation in industry. However it lost this function in 1953 to the Department of Immigration, and continued with responsibility for industrial relations and employment matters until its abolition in 1972.

Good Neighbour Council of the ACT, 1950–80 (CA 2980)
Good Neighbour Council of Victoria, 1950–80 (CA 3491)
Good Neighbour Council of Western Australia, 1950–79 (CA 7268)

The Good Neighbour Movement was established by the first Citizenship Convention in 1950, and the Commonwealth provided substantial funding throughout its existence, although it operated as an autonomous body. The state Councils (e.g. ACT, Victoria and Western Australia) and their local committees aimed to assist with the assimilation and settlement of immigrants. Its members were drawn from a wide variety of community and business organisations, and the Councils conceived of themselves as coordinating bodies.

Navy Office (I), Department of Defence (I), 1911–15 (CA 575)
Navy Office (II), Department of Navy (I), 1915–21 (CA 13)
Navy Office (III), Department of Defence (II), 1921–39 (CA 2456)

Before 1911 the Navy Office referred to the office of the Naval Board which had been created in 1905, and its records were integrated with those of the Department of Defence. Then in 1911 the Board was reconstituted, the office moved, and the Navy Office commenced its own records management. In 1915 a separate Department of the Navy was established and the Navy Office became its central administration. After the war that department was abolished and the Navy Office returned to the Department of Defence (II) where it remained until the Second World War.

Prime Minister's Department, 1911–71 (CA 12)

The Prime Minister's Department began as an office within the Department of External Affairs established in 1904. The department held a wide range of responsibilities which expanded substantially during WM Hughes' tenure as Prime Minister with his arrogation of authority. Its functions relating to citizenship included the administration of passports during the First World War, and the department was closely involved in a variety of alien control policies including internment, even though it did not possess sole responsibility. Immigration encouragement and assistance were conducted by the department for much of the 1920s. The department's importance receded following the Second World War, although it remained a central point for the coordination of much government activity until its amalgamation with the Department of the Cabinet Office in 1971. Many of the department's file series are well-organised and records can be easily located.

Security Service, 1941–45 (CA 660)

The Security Service was established during the Second World War to augment civil security, since the military regarded the Commonwealth Investigation Branch as ineffective. The Service was staffed predominantly by military officers, and established roles for itself in conducting a range of security investigations, including ones into applications for immigration, emigration, naturalisation, passports and visas. Its roles overlapped with, and sometimes duplicated, those of the Investigation Branch. Further, the Security Service was well-resourced, and central in matters relating to the control of aliens including internment. The Service was reorganised in 1942 following a change of government, and was placed under the control of the Attorney-General, although it continued to cooperate closely with military security organisations. The Service was amalgamated with the Commonwealth Investigation Branch at the end of the war to form the Commonwealth Investigation Service. The Security Service maintained branch offices in the state capitals, and important records which have not survived in Canberra are preserved in some states.

Special Intelligence Bureau, 1916–19 (CA 746)

The Special Intelligence Bureau was established during the First World War to conduct inquiries into sedition and espionage, and more generally to observe the activities of aliens in Australia. At the end of the war it was merged into a new Commonwealth Investigation Branch in the Attorney-General's Department. Its files and staff were largely taken over by the Branch.


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