ben.eficium is the blog of Ben Slack, citizen and principal consultant at Systems Xpert.
All posts are Copyright © Ben Slack on the date of publishing.

11 June 2015

The Responsibilities of Citizenship

The idea that a government might have the power to strip citizenship from a dual national on the basis of criminal suspicion alone is probably the most anti-democratic idea proposed by parliamentarians during my (middle-aged) lifetime. The fact the media and some lawmakers are even discussing doing the same to someone with solely Australian citizenship is frightening. I even heard someone on radio say you could do this without making someone stateless. Which is frighteningly ignorant.

These ideas are wrong-headed and self-defeating. And I can't believe no commentator (to my knowledge) has picked up on the most obvious pitfall scenario. What happens when an exiled terror suspect, stripped of Australian citizenship and never tried in Australian court, ends up in a terror training camp and then carries out an attack on a friendly nation's city? How are the good burghers of that city going to feel and think about Australia in that instance? How much co-operation on the “War on Terror” is that ally going to give us after this event?

Citizenship is an exchange of responsibilities. Those naturalised or born to it have a responsibility to act in the interests of their fellow citizens and can expect to be punished when they break the law, are fairly tried and found guilty. The state, accepting the newly naturalised or newborn, has a responsibility to its existing citizens and the international community to try and punish criminals it has previously accepted as its own. A nation shirking that responsibility is cowardly, selfish and acting against the best traditions of democracy.

A similar act of shirking from a petulant 5 year old would have them in the naughty corner for some time. Why do so many seem prepared to accept behaviour from lawmakers that is unacceptable from children?

My example scenario assumes that the law would only be used against terrorists. However, in the past decade we have seen the scope of terrorism creep. To take advantage of powers granted after September 11 the UK and USA have tried to label normal domestic criminal acts like dealing drugs and even acts of journalism as terrorism. We have no reason to think Australia would be any more responsible in applying the label, which is fairly ambiguous to begin with. The power being considered has the potential to allow a government to exile its opponents and critics. This is unlike any law that exists or has ever existed in Australia.

A revocable citizenship threatens all who hold it. A revocable citizenship is not citizenship at all.

Until this proposal to strip citizenship I was indifferent to Australia introducing a bill of rights, whether constitutional or legislative. I found the argument “to define is to limit” convincing – why put boundaries around something unbounded?

I have changed my mind. Australia requires a constitutional bill of rights defining individual rights governments do not have power to infringe. Ideally the definition should codify the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and additionally include the best descriptions of fundamental rights to be found in democratic legislation and constitutions everywhere. It must include irrevocable citizenship and explicitly state that its definition does not express the complete boundary of rights.