The debate on the Abbott government’s latest plans to remove citizenship from Australians who are found to have taken part in terrorist activities is a window on the sense of fear and paranoia gripping the country. But it has also shone a light on a certain naivete in the community about what this country can and would do in a circumstance when citizenship is taken away from an Australian. Furthermore, it raises questions about whether it would ever be wise to give politicians the sole right to banish citizens.
The Prime Minister proposed legislation to strip both dual nationals and citizens of their citizenship. Tony Abbott subsequently deferred a decision on the sole citizenship policy while the dual national legislation has been referred to a parliamentary committee and is not expected to pass the parliament until at least August.
Britain has already enacted such legislation. The British law permits the Home Secretary to deprive “naturalised” British citizens of their citizenship, even if doing so would render the individuals stateless. So, it applies only to immigrants who have become British citizens – not to those born in Britain – and depends on the Home Secretary having “reasonable grounds to believe that they could acquire another nationality”.
This legislation was enacted only last year when it was looking increasingly likely that the Conservatives would lose power. The extreme right-wing UKIP party had raised the political temperature on race, immigration and multiculturalism.
In Australia, the government evidently is not waiting for a One Nation or UKIP-style party to compel them into action. Mr Abbott is raising the temperature all by himself. The PM knows tough “border protection” is a winning issue for his side of politics. The problem is that one man’s border protection is another man’s xenophobic zeal.
A remarkable poll last week evidently demonstrated the level of support for stripping Australians of their citizenship, if they have been “involved in terrorist activities”. More than 75 per cent of respondents agreed that it was OK for the government to remove citizenship from a person involved in terrorist activity “as long as the person can become a citizen of another country and will not become stateless”. The poll question made no differentiation between Australian-born citizens and those who are “naturalised”.
But the second country qualification is essentially a moot point as there would be little compulsion on any other nation to grant such a person citizenship no more than there would be on Australia to accept a dual national whose British citizenship was removed under the UK government legislation.
Irish Catholics in this country have a cultural memory of being the ethnicity most suspected of disloyalty, even terrorism.
The so-called father of federation, Henry Parkes, in the late 19th century, accused Irish Catholics of not assimilating. During and after the First World War, the then Prime Minister Billy Hughes accused Irish Catholics of disloyalty. So, had Hughes succeeded in enacting legislation similar to the laws Mr Abbott is now proposing, would Irish Australians have found their Australian citizenship under threat?
It is ironic in the extreme that Australia, founded as a penal colony for undesirables from Britain and Ireland, is now contemplating banishment as a way of dealing with its own errant citizens.
Australia has certainly to deal with the terrorism threat. Successive governments have spent billions beefing up this country’s anti-terrorism, police, spy and security resources to keep Australians safe. Yet, despite all the extra money and supportive legislation, someone like Man Haron Monis – who wrote to the Attorney General asking how to get in touch with Islamic State – was able to plan and execute his dark deeds.
A more mature approach would be for Australia to deal with terrorism suspects through the rule of law; to accept that if Australians commit horrible terrorist acts that this country cannot wash its hands of them, and to work as hard as possible at making sure that no one section of the community feels so isolated as to see such radicalisation as a path to follow.