Does the Government have the power to name a baby?

It’s not uncommon for parents to take some time to settle on a name for a new baby, but if they take too long, does the government have the power to step in?

A conversation around the water cooler sparked Sam Robinson’s curiosity in the topic.

“I was in the office and I was chatting to someone I work with who has a young daughter,” he said.

Sam wondered whether that was truly the case, and if so, whether there was some kind of naming officer within the government with a list of baby names ready to go.

He wasn’t sure how he could find an answer to his question, so he asked Curious Canberra to investigate.

Canberra’s six-month rule

In Australia, all births have to be registered under the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act.

Access Canberra is the government body responsible for recording the momentous occasions in the ACT

The answer to Sam’s question, was contained within the government’s Births, Deaths and Marriages Practice Manual.

I asked Ben Green, deputy director for licensing and registration, if he could explain the relevant sections.

He told me that parents had six months to name their baby – a timeframe that’s only recently been extended from just 60 days.

Here’s why:

It’s thought that the six-month period between the birth of a child and its registration allows parents to list the correct gender for their child and for that gender to be reflected on their birth certificate.

But Ben said, in cases where gender was not immediately clear, amendments could still be made later, with supporting documents from a doctor. This could be done by the parents of a child or the individual themselves once they reach 18 – as long as they were born in the ACT.

Reviewing – and rejecting – names

As part of the registration process, Access Canberra reviews names selected by parents.

For the most part parents have free reign to choose a name, guided by a few simple rules, but it’s not the same all over the world.

Quite a few countries, including Iceland and Hungary, have lists of baby names for new parents to choose from.

Some countries, like Denmark, are especially strict about the spelling of names to keep with what is customary – so you’d be unlikely to see a Jackson spelt with an ‘x’ there.

Other countries, including Saudi Arabia, have a list of banned names. In 2014 the country prohibited 50 names because they were against religious or social traditions.

Ben told me that only two names have been rejected by the ACT Government to date – one because it contained symbols without phonetic significance, and another because it contained a title or a rank. In that instance, the name was ‘Prince’.

I asked whether some of the more creative baby names chosen by US celebrities like Sir, Saint or Reign would pass the test of Access Canberra.

“But primarily the prohibited name is about making sure there’s nothing obscene or offensive, so who knows maybe we’ll see a few more Saint names out there.”

What happens when the six months are up?

Canberra baby names

Most popular baby names in Canberra:

Girls:

  • Charlotte
  • Amelia
  • Olivia
  • Ava
  • Isla

Boys:

  • William
  • Oliver
  • Jack
  • Leo
  • Liam

So, what happens when the six-month registration period is up?

Ben explained that parents would be strongly urged to find a suitable name for their child and complete the registration paperwork.

And, while it has never happened, the ACT Government even has the power to take parents to court to force them to register, and name, their child.

Bringing it back to Sam’s question, I asked whether the government could name a child, if parents didn’t meet the deadline.

“Put simply no, not really,” Ben said.

“The government does have two circumstances in which they can name your child, the first circumstance is if it’s a prohibited name and the second is if the parents can’t agree on a name.”

Ben said that this had never happened in the ACT and there was no pre-approved list of spare baby names sitting on a desk at Access Canberra just in case.

Our questioner Sam was happy to learn the answer to his question, even though it wasn’t quite what he’d imagined.

“I’d gone down this rabbit hole in my mind where I thought, well ‘If there is a shortlist of names, how do they justify it?” he said.

Who asked the question?

Sam Robinson came to Canberra in 2008 to join a government department and sign up for a Masters at ANU.

He lives in Hughes, where he’s sure the soil conditions guarantee a good tomato crop.

Sam’s moved house three times but has never left the suburb, and loves its proximity to Red Hill.