Authoritarian Revocations: Australia, Terrorism and Citizenship

Contrary to any popular perceptions of Australia’s legal system, a dislike of rights reigns with pious conviction on both sides of the political aisle.  Rights are the stuff of nonsense, and revocable. The Australian constitution is silent on many important liberties, the common law, heavily relied upon to fill in gaps. Parliament, mystically wise, is meant to be the grand guardian of rights.

In terms of citizenship, Australia’s parliament took another tack, exploiting the absence of any specific reference to citizenship in that arid document known as the constitution.  While citizenship can be lost in certain instances common to other countries, revocation of citizenship via executive fiat is possible.

That particular body did stop short of rendering citizens stateless, making the provisions apply to dual nationals.  But it yielded two outcomes: that the relevant minister would be effectively governed by the fact that the Australian citizen might have citizenship of another country, and that any powers to deprive that person of Australian citizenship could be exercised without review.

This curiously venal formulation was always problematic; for one, such laws are not, specifically, “with respect to aliens” or with respect to immigration, terminology that is to be found in the constitution.

Khaled Sharrouf was the first debutant to lose his Australian citizenship under the anti-terror legislation.

Five Islamic State supporters can now deem themselves former Australian citizens.  All it took was a decision by the Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton.  “We have taken a decision that these people have been involved in serious terrorist-related activity.”  No guidelines are disclosed behind the decision, no testing criteria by which we could even say that these supporters should be deprived of their bit of paperwork.

Dutton admits that there was something akin to a process, but openly admits that rigour and variation can take place when poking around conflict zones.  “Obviously when you are talking about a war zone, it is a very different circumstance than a crime zone in Australia in terms of gathering evidence.”

Not that this evidentiary hurdle should trouble him.  Intelligence assessments and briefings do not necessarily stand the test of a withering legal examination, but for Dutton they constitute the legal basis for stripping citizenship.

The issues of belonging and involvement in civic life are troubling propositions. Stripping citizenship is an announcement that the time for belonging is over.  But it is also an assertion that there is no redemption and challenge. Like the tyrant’s favour, Dutton can designate individuals terrorists, a situation that does not broker appeal. That very repellent, illiberal fact runs against the concept of holding an overly zealous executive to account.

“The determination of the Government is to try and keep Australia as safe as possible and we do that by keeping these people far from our shores so if we can deal with foreign fighters away from our shores we do that.”

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: