NICK O’MALLEY | Sydney Morning Herald
SYDNEY - Nancy-Bird Walton's younger brother John was just 15 when the merchant ship he served on in World War II was torpedoed by Japanese submarine I-180 off the New South Wales coast.
He was one of 19 survivors rescued by the USS Patterson and is the last of them still alive.
Ms Walton went on to become one of Australia's most celebrated pilots, an Officer of the Order of Australia, and her name would one day appear upon Qantas's flagship A380 aircraft.
By war’s end John Bird had been awarded honours by both Australia and the United States, having served in the merchant navies of both nations.
He moved for a time to the Australian protectorate that is now Papua New Guinea, where he married his Papuan wife and had five children before returning to Australia.
Each of the children was immediately registered and granted Australian citizenship, and when they turned six they were packed off to boarding school in Sydney.
There they spent their weekends and holidays with their aunt, Nancy-Bird. One of John’s daughters is Mary-Anne, who at 64 remains an active member of the Australian Army Reserve, which she has now served for 29 years.
So it has been a shock to the whole family that the Department of Home Affairs is now challenging the citizenship of all the children. Mary-Anne has been forced onto a bridging visa which will expire in the new year.
Another daughter, Cathy, went on the run after a Border Force officer told her she might be arrested and detained at any time pending her deportation to Port Moresby. Donald Bird is currently teaching English in Thailand and may have trouble returning should his passport expire.
John Bird, now 91, is worried for his children and furious at the family’s treatment.
“I was bloody devastated. They are Australian. I am Australian. I have been a member of the RSL for 50 years and I get a veteran’s pension. The immigration department positively hounded them,” he said.
Cathy first discovered that her citizenship was being questioned by the Department in 2016 when she went to renew her passport.
A couple of days after submitting her fee and the appropriate forms she received a call from the department saying that it did not consider her to be a citizen and demanding she apply for a Returning Resident visa.
“I told them, ‘I can’t, I haven’t returned from anywhere, I’m here, I’ve always been here,” she says. "It is just being told you that you don’t belong that hurts the most."
Later she was informed that according to the Department she had been issued a visa in 1994 that expired in 2006 and she needed to sort out her status.
She says she has no idea what the Department is talking about, that during that period she lived in Australia, holding an Australian passport, and that the Department has refused to show her the visa it is referring to.
Finally in September she was contacted by a case officer in Cairns and instructed to apply for a bridging visa. She claims her case officer bullied and intimidated her in a meeting, telling her that he could - and would - remove her from her flat at any time.
“He said he could break down my door and he would be happy to do it,” says Cathy. “It is common knowledge up here [in far North Queensland], people are scared of Border Force.”
She was granted a one-month bridging visa which expired on 31 October. Last week she locked up her Cairns apartment, had Mary-Anne drive her to the airport and went into hiding in rural NSW.
Fairfax Media understands that since media made enquiries to the Department on Thursday morning, the bridging visa was extended.
Mary-Anne’s battle with the department began later when she sought to have her own passport renewed. Like Cathy, she does not know why her citizenship is being questioned. “I am serving in the Australian Army. I have had my security check. You can’t serve in the Army if you are not a citizen,” she says.
Like Cathy, she has been forced onto a bridging visa, though she was given three months rather than one.
In recent days Cathy confessed to a friend that she had for a time considered suicide. "It was just so disheartening. I thought, 'How can I keep this fight up? How can I live like this?'"
Dan O’Brien, the secretary of US Army Small Ships Association, a group founded to assist Australian veterans, said over recent days members of the group, along with the Maritime Union of Australia, the Merchant Navy Association of NSW and the American Legion had raised money to help the Birds pay for legal assistance.
He said it was his understanding that when the Department of Immigration combined with other Australian government arms, including Border Force, to become the Department of Home Affairs, regulations - or the interpretation of regulations - about the citizenship of Australians born to mixed marriages in Papua New Guinea changed.
If this was the case, he says, those affected by the changes should have been notified and assisted rather than threatened with deportation.
“This is not how you treat a family that has given so much to this country,” he said.
Asked why the Birds’ citizenship had been challenged and how many people might be affected by changes to regulations, a spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs declined to comment on individual cases due to privacy concerns.
After hearing Cathy's bridging visa was extended, Mr O’Brien, called on the government to apologise to the Bird family and settle the question of their citizenship conclusively.