Public debate has raged in recent weeks about the revocation of Australian citizenship for individuals involved in terrorist activities or supporting terrorist groups, including the Islamic State (IS). There has been concern regarding the number of Australian citizens travelling overseas to join such groups, and the risk of attacks on Australian soil from individuals acting in the name of IS.
As a policy matter, the government has introduced legislation that would allow the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection to strip dual nationals of their Australian citizenship if that individual “fights for, or is in the service of, a declared terrorist organisation”. The legislation bestows upon the Minister the power to revoke citizenship, without application of the “rules of natural justice”. This means that those suspected of terrorist acts can be stripped of citizenship without trial or conviction. The decision of the Minister can, however, be challenged by judicial review.
The government is looking to act tough on terrorism and to reduce the risk of a terrorist attack within its borders. It has stressed that no one will be rendered stateless as a result of the legislation. Cabinet Ministers have defended the power granted to the Minister, arguing that the law would be “toothless” without such a provision.
There have been a wide variety of responses to the proposed legislation in the media, in politics, and across society more broadly.
A Fairfax-Ipsos poll conducted in early July found 75% of voters would support the proposal to strip sole Australian nationals of citizenship, provided they were eligible to claim citizenship with another state. There is clearly a high level of support for the proposal within the community.
However, a major criticism has been the incessant focus of the government on issues of national security in its public displays. Professor Hugh White of ANU is one high-profile figure to articulate this viewpoint, expressing his views in a recent op-ed published in the Age. He argues that national security has come to dominate Tony Abbott’s leadership. “To keep national security on the front pages, he has become locked into a spiral of ever-rising risk assessments and increasingly draconian policy responses”. White stresses the need to keep the IS threat in proportion.
Malcolm Turnbull – Coalition frontbencher and Minister for Communications – has similarly identified the risks of overstating the threat, in a not-so-subtle dig at his party’s leadership. He calls for counter-terrorism efforts that are effective, not just ‘tough’, and warns that the restriction of individual freedoms in the name of national security simply plays into the hands of terrorists.
The government response has been heavily focused on the security aspect of the problem, looking to hard policies such as the revocation of citizenship. However, many commentators have put forward the view that softer, community-based policies have been largely overlooked.
Abdul-Rehman Malik, of Radical Middle Way, last month told Lateline that citizenship should not be revoked. He argues that young people, returning from conflict and disillusioned with the reality of the situation on the ground, would be allies and leaders in preventing others from leaving Australia to join such groups.
Australia has done little to explore deradicalisation programs and community-based initiatives. Analyst Elliot Brennan notes that we need to look at issues of social inclusion as a central factor driving young people to leave Australia and join jihadist groups. He argues that “community engagement and empowerment” is the answer.
These sentiments are well summarised by Andrew Goldsmith in his statement that “soft power isn’t the same as going soft”. Individuals from these communities must be enabled to contribute to public debate and “counter extremist narratives” as Brennan eloquently suggests.
Where to from here?
In his excellent contribution to the Quarterly Essay this year, (‘Blood Year: Terror and the Islamic State’), David Kilcullen warned against the political overreach and restriction of civil liberties that would come from an entirely “defensive” approach to the threat of IS. “A truly effective domestic defensive strategy”, he argues, “would turn (indeed, has already gone a long way to transforming) our societies into police states”. Imposing the wide range of security measures necessary to fully protect a country against the “atomised, self-radicalised terror threat of tomorrow would amount to destroying society in order to save it”.
This is the crux of the issue, and why such heated debate has occurred at all levels of Australian society. Care must be taken to protect the population from external and internal threats, but not at the expense of those values central to a liberal democratic state.
The power granted to the Minister through this bill is concerning because it eats away at the separation of powers. It is concerning because it assumes that, for this specific crime, there can be no redemption or reform. Perpetrators, whether proven guilty or merely considered so by a government minister, may be exiled from their community.
While we do not yet see the “police state” that Kilcullen describes, this society-wide public debate must continue to ensure that kneejerk reactions to terrorist threats do not little by little erode citizens’ individual freedoms.
At the time of writing, the bill is before the House of Representatives, awaiting a report from the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.
Sebastian McLellan is the former Australian Foreign Policy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.