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Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the naming of the Western Sydney International Airport (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

With a great flourish, Prime Minster Scott Morrison has announced on Monday morning the new $5.3 billion western Sydney airport will be named after aviation pioneer and “angel of the outback” Nancy-Bird Walton. Morrison said she was the “natural choice”.

It is fitting that having recognised Charles Kingsford Smith at Sydney Airport that we now recognise Australia’s greatest female aviation pioneer, Nancy-Bird Walton in the naming of Western Sydney Airport.

High praise indeed for a national treasure like Walton, who died in 2009. But while Walton’s granddaughter Anna Holman said the family was honoured, the praise and pomp might ring a little hollow to others who share the name. 

Walton’s nieces — the daughters of an Australian second world war veteran and a Papua New Guinean woman — have been rendered temporarily stateless due to an “administrative error” and the government’s refusal to recognise their citizenship.

Prior to Papua New Guinea’s independence from Australia in 1975, people born in Papua were entitled to a level of Australian citizenship. After 1975, those with at least two Papuan grandparents automatically acquired PNG citizenship. Walton’s nieces Vitoula, Cathy and Mary Anne where among the group born prior to 1975, granted Australian citizenship and were led to believe that continued to believe it was still valid post-independence. However, in their most recent attempts to renew their Australian passports, they were told they were not citizens of Australia

In Novemeber, Cathy, fearing deportation, went into hiding. Mary-Anne, who has served in the Australian Army Reserve for 29 years, was issued a bridging visa that will expire early this year.

And as the Guardian reported over the weekend, in February, Vitoula Bird was unable to visit her 81-year-old uncle, who was on his deathbed having been felled by a stroke. She had received confirmation that she was an Australian citizen in 1985, which the Home Affairs department then told her was “incorrectly issued”. She was then offered the option of either getting a bridging visa that would not allow her to travel or an expensive and time consuming application for a permanent residence return visa. While this was being worked out, Vitoula’s uncle died. 

At the same time, the PNG government has informed Vitoula that, as far as they are concerned, she is an Australian citizen and therefore not a citizen of PNG. One wonders what they would make of today’s announcement, having struggled with a monumental bungle that has robbed them of a home country.

Peter Fray

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