The Abbott government is instituting measures to strip Australians of their citizenship if they undertake certain acts, such as fighting for IS. It seems as if the only ones liable to have their citizenship stripped are those who have dual nationality, although the application of the measure to any Australian appears of have had the support of the Prime Minister and the Minister for Immigration, among others. One is tempted to simply dismiss this as yet another politically-motivated ruse, which will make matters worse, not better, but it does raise some interesting questions, such as, what does it mean to be a citizen of a country (like Australia) and, can the government take this away? There is an extensive body of writing about such issues, no doubt, but here I shall simply speculate a little and put forward some thoughts without delving into the literature. (As always, you, my reader, may comment and contribute.) To begin with, we could ask whether someone who holds two nationalities or citizenships (terms used interchangeably here), one being Australian, is in some way different from someone who is an Aussie, pure and simple and fair dinkum. The relevant difference here will have to do with rights, because being a citizen is all about having rights. So we need to ask next, what is it to have a right, which is the key question.
A distinction is normally drawn between two kinds of right: liberty or freedom rights and claim rights. The difference between them can be explained as follows: Suppose person A had a right to R, then if R is a freedom right, no one is allowed to prevent A from doing or having whatever it is that R is about. For instance, having the right to free speech is (evidently) a liberty right: A is allowed to say whatever she likes (with a qualification to be noted in a moment). If A has a claim right R, on the other hand, then A can make a claim on others to provide her with whatever it is that R is about. For instance, having the right to a minimum wage means that A should be paid a certain minimum amount for the work she does. Claims rights are more controversial than liberty rights because it is more difficult to determine who has the obligation to provide what is claimed. A minimum wage is perhaps not too controversial, and in the end it should be the government that forces employers to pay a certain basic wage; but while it is fairly clear in this example who has the obligation, it is less easy in other cases. Liberty rights however are such that no one should interfere with A’s freedom to do whatever it is that the right is about. But, as noted, there is a qualification: A is not at liberty to speak or act freely in ways that infringe the rights of others. A cannot, for example, publicly vilify minorities, commit slander, etc, although again where rights come into conflict, there is room for disagreement about who is allowed to do what. What rights to citizens of a country like Australiahave?
They have certain claim rights, such as having a minimum wage, as above, and access to health care through Medicare and certain other claim rights via Centrelink. These are contingent in the sense that they do not, I think, pick out what is really fundamental about citizenship – Medicare for instance is of fairly recent origin. Australians have the right to vote for the government, which is a very important liberty right and is fundamental for a democracy, as is the right not to be imprisoned without being charged of a crime. All of the hard-won liberty rights that protect citizens from the power of the state are of the utmost importance. But what Australians have, in particular, - what is distinctive about them as Australians - is the right to live in Australia: they cannot be deported nor refused entry into the country. This is what the present government seeks to remove. Can they do it? In one sense, yes of course they can, because they can stop people entering the country, or cancel their passports and deport them. Where are these people going to go? Back to their ‘other country’ one assumes, if they have dual nationality. If that country also strips them of citizenship, then it is not clear where they would go, just as it is not clear what would happen to those stripped of their citizen’s rights who had only Australian citizenship if Abbott and Dutton had got their way. Wander the airports of the world perhaps.
The interesting question, for me at any rate, is whether it is possible to actually cancel someone’s citizenship rights, and citizenship itself, as opposed to deny them what the right entitles them to. It makes perfect sense to say that A has a right to R but that this right is denied to them for some reason. There was no a minimum wage in England during the Industrial Revolution and no free speech today in North Korea, but do we want to say that it was acceptable for English working people in the late eighteenth century to be paid subsistence wages (not all were) or that ordinary North Koreans have no right to speak freely? Surely not. These rights were denied. I am tempted to say that these are basic human rights, that all people have them in virtue of their humanity, and when they are denied these rights, wrongs are committed. Human rights cannot be taken away but they can be denied. Is the same true for citizenship rights? For someone born here, is not citizenship a birthright, as they say? (I am also tempted, though not strongly, to say that that the naturalisation ceremony is akin to a rebirth.) Now it might then seem that is someone is granted citizenship via some ceremony, then that grant can be withdrawn – perhaps the minister says the words backwards? But it is not possible for someone born in Australiato be born elsewhere as well, so there seems not corresponding basis for de-naturalising such an Aussie. Does this mean that naturalised Australians are in this sense second-class? Because their rights can be waived? But surely this is not how things are supposed to be. Naturalised Australians are the same in all respects to do with the rights as born-here Aussies. If the latter cannot have their citizenship removed from them, surely the same is true for the former.
One might think that the above reflections are so much philosophical hot air, but one should not do so. Even if governments and other authorities have the power to do certain things, and even if these things are not only popular but seem to be the correct thing to do, it does not follow that they are correct. When it comes to the rights of individuals, these are of such importance for the protection of the individual against government and other forces that they should be defended at all costs, even for those who do wicked things. This government has a poor record when it comes to defending the rights of its own citizens, seeking to erode their privacy by hoarding metadata, giving more powers to our own ‘secret police’, etc., not to mention the rights of refugees. Believing that it can expunge its own citizens is a further example of a worrying extremism.