Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced on Tuesday that the Australian Government will introduce legislation giving the immigration minister the authority to strip Australians of their citizenship if secret evidence showed that they had participated 'in serious terrorist-related activities.' Abbott argued that this 'is a necessary and appropriate response to the terrorist threat.'
Yet the available evidence suggests it will make, at most, a marginal contribution to the struggle against violent extremism, and it is in any event inappropriate in a liberal society which values the rights of citizenship. Indeed, it could alienate the Australian Muslim community, including the small number of youths in that community who are susceptible to radicalisation.
Others have taken on the details of the proposal on The Interpreter already. Former senior immigration official Peter Hughes argues persuasively that it would be 'a very limited tool.' As he notes, Australians fighting overseas can already be prevented from returning to Australia through the cancellation of passports, so this new measure can't be about that.
My colleague Rodger Shanahan argues that this is really about sharing intelligence with allies on Australians suspected of terrorism in third countries, so that those allies can then kill them. While that prospect raises serious questions about due process, perhaps it would make a modest contribution to the fight against ISIS and other groups. But the Prime Minister's focus on Tuesday was on the problem of domestic radicalisation, which is of far greater importance to Australian security than enabling one-off drone strikes abroad. And it is a problem his initiatives are likely to aggravate.
In announcing the changes, the Prime Minister said that former Attorney-General Philip Ruddock would lead a 'national consultation' on the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. I would submit that reducing dual nationals to second-class citizens, without the same rights as other citizens, is a poor way to begin that consultation.
Ruddock's later remarks to the press indicated that he is concerned about 'some people' who 'argue that the law ought to be subservient to what they see as religious obligations. We say we have one set of laws for all Australians.' Yet the Government has just announced that some Australians can be deprived of their citizenship based on secret evidence, while others cannot. That suggests there are two sets of laws for Australians: one for true blue Aussies and one for those whose national identities are more complex.
Nor can we ignore the distinct impression left by the Prime Minister that his proposed 'conversation about citizenship', which 'will enable us to consider whether the rights and responsibilities of citizenship are well understood and how we can better promote these, including among young Australians', is really a talking-to directed at Muslim youth. Ruddock has already indicated that he is not interested in taking on complaints of discrimination by Muslim groups in Victoria as part of this conversation.
The risk, as articulated by Waleed Aly in a 2011 lecture at Parliament House, is that the Government is falling into the trap laid by extremists eager to radicalise young Australian Muslims:
...what’s implicit in the global terrorism narrative is that you essentially choose which one identity you want to have. [According to this narrative] You can be Muslim or you can be Dutch, British, Australian or American or whatever it is, but you can’t be both. And the reason you can’t be both is because [Westerners] will never have you.... That means, it seems to me, that the most potent message that could be internalised that would resist that narrative or make it less effective through a series of social experiences and public rhetoric, is one that emphasises the possibility, in fact celebrates the possibility, of what I call dual authenticity.
In elevating citizenship in the national conversation about radicalisation, in depriving dual nationals of rights to due process which other Australians still receive, and in launching a national conversation that seems more likely to alienate than embrace, the Government is making the possibility of 'dual authenticity' less likely.
I should acknowledge here that I come at this question from a somewhat different background. As an American, I assume that rights are inalienable. It is an assumption at the very core of American jurisprudence. For this reason, the US Supreme Court has made it very difficult for the US Government to deprive Americans of their citizenship, and thus their rights.
In fact, the Prime Minister erred yesterday when he said that these new powers bring Australian laws closer to those of the US. Americans found to have joined terrorist organisations can only be stripped of their citizenship by a court, and only if the Government is able to meet a higher burden of proof than is normally required in civil proceedings. After all, if one can be stripped of his or her rights by a single minister based on secret evidence, as the Prime Minister proposes, they aren't really rights at all. But I accept that rights are not at the heart of Australia's constitution, as they are in the US constitution.
There is another difference between Australia and the US that is worth pondering. We are two proud multicultural societies, but while the US has at least ten times the Muslim population of Australia, there are more Australians fighting with terrorist organisations in the Middle East than Americans. It seems clear that communal relations in Australia could be improved. The Government's conversation on citizenship, however well intentioned, is unlikely to do so.