Citizen Reef?

Today LADbible launched a campaign labelled ‘Citizen Reef’ petitioning for the Great Barrier Reef to be granted Australian citizenship. The idea behind the push is to increase the Reef’s protection by ensuring it has the rights to freedom from torture, minimum standards of healthcare and the right to life, as any other citizen. We look at whether this is this merely a publicity stunt, or there is a legal basis for this argument.

The Whanganui and Ganges Rivers

Some commentators are pointing to both the Whanganui River in New Zealand and the Ganges River in India as examples. In early 2017, both rivers were granted legal personhood in their respective jurisdictions. In India, the Ganges’ status as a legal person came through a decision made by the Uttarakhand High Court and the Whanganui River was declared to be a legal person by New Zealand legislation following a lengthy consultation and settlement process involving the local iwi.

Both were significant, but can be distinguished from the Citizen Reef campaign in that the rivers received legal personhood, not citizenship. The idea of being a legal entity is different from being a citizen of a country. For example, a corporation is treated as a person by law, but this doesn’t mean a company that operates in Australian is an Australian citizen. Therefore, Citizen Reef seeks a different recognition to that seen in New Zealand and India.

Australian Citizenship Law

Citizenship law in Australia is governed primarily by the Australian Citizenship Act 2007 (Cth). Broadly, it provides that people become Australian citizens in three ways: 1) by operation of law; 2) by descent; and 3) by conferral. It is difficult to see the Reef being successful in receiving citizenship under any of these mechanisms, primarily because the Act is designed for granting citizenship to natural persons. While the term ‘person’ is not defined, it would be a stretch to argue that its natural ordinary meaning as it appears in the Act extends to a geographical area or natural landmark like the Reef. Even if this hurdle was cleared, it is difficult to conceive how, for example, the Minister could be satisfied that the Reef possesses a basic knowledge of the English language, or is of good character.

Citizenship for the Reef appears next to impossible under the current framework. However, it is likely that the Federal Legislature possesses the power to enact an entirely new law that would grant citizenship to the Reef, provided there is sufficient parliamentary support.

Citizenship and Rights

If the Reef were to be granted citizenship, it is questionable whether it would receive the rights and protections that Citizen Reef seeks. While Australian citizenship does confer certain rights, like the ability to apply for an Australian passport, or stand for Parliament, the Reef wouldn’t automatically receive the right to life, or freedom from torture by virtue of being a citizen.

Australia doesn’t have a bill of rights, so many of these basic protections or human rights only form part of Australian law due to international treaties or conventions.


Citizen Reef appears to be more of an exercise to raise awareness for the Reef’s plight, than a genuine attempt to gain citizenship. Firstly, it is important to recognise the difference between personhood and citizenship – citizenship traditionally being limited to natural persons. Secondly, even if citizenship was conferred on the Reef, it doesn’t automatically follow that it would benefit from basic human rights.

While the idea of citizenship might be a stretch, a declaration that the Reef is a legal person, like the Whanganui River, is a more realistic goal. While this wouldn’t allow it to benefit directly from what are considered human rights, there is no doubt that being considered a person in the eyes of the law would give the Reef greater legal protection.       

Picture of Connor James

Connor James

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