Good Theatre, Bad Policy: Another Day In the Life Of National Security Tony


On Tuesday, Prime Minister Tony Abbott held a media conference. As is normal these days, the Prime Minister was flanked by senior ministers; he stood in front a serried row of Australian flags.

The topic, yet again, was terrorism. This time, however, the terror rhetoric had a new slant: the “rights as well as the duties of citizenship.”

Abbott announced that the government will amend the law “so dual nationals who engage in terrorism can lose their citizenship.”

“The new powers will apply to dual citizens who fight with or support groups such as ISIL, or Daesh, as well as so-called ‘lone wolves’, whether in Australia or on foreign soil,” Abbott explained.

“The changes will be consistent with our international legal obligation not to leave a person stateless,” he continued. “There will also be safeguards, including judicial review, to balance these powers.”

In the way of these things, it all sounded very strong and tough. Perhaps that’s what the Prime Minister was really aiming at. The Murdoch tabloids ran a handsome splash on the measures, although the much more important news of a football coach’s sacking soon pushed the story well down the web servers.

But it didn’t take long for informed observers to start to pick apart the new proposal. Our current law is quite protective of Australians’ citizenship: it can only be revoked if someone is convicted of a serious offence before becoming a citizen. Once you are a citizen, you are dealt with by the criminal justice system.

This makes sense. The way that our criminal code deals with people suspected of heinous crimes is by arresting, trying and incarcerating them. There are complex legal protections enshrined in the process, including, crucially, the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty in a trial.

There have been Australians who have carried out murderous and despicable acts, like Julian Knight and Martin Bryant. They were convicted and jailed. But they were not stripped of their citizenship.

The government’s proposal would change that.

We haven’t seen the draft of the new bill, of course, but the government seems to be proposing an amendment that would strip away the right of citizenship on exceedingly slim evidence. The decision could be made by a minister, not a court (although there would be judicial review) and the evidence for doing could be kept secret.

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has told journalists that the definition of terrorism would be a “tight” one. He wasn’t every convincing. Terror laws in Australia are in fact extremely broad, and include definitions of “preparatory acts” that don’t require any specific evidence of a terror plot or conspiracy.

Observers have also wondered how stripping nationals of their citizenship would be consistent with the legal obligation not to leave a person stateless.

Australia is a signatory to the 1961 United Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. Article 8 of the convention prohibits the deprivation of citizenship where it would render an individual stateless. The current proposal might contravene the convention, if, for example, the other nation that dual-nationals are citizens of also revoked the individual’s citizenship. In that case, Australia might even have to take back a stateless terror suspect.

As Peter Hughes, a former senior bureaucrat in the Immigration Department, pointed out in 2014, the idea has been tried before, and found wanting.

“Some years ago there were calls to revoke the Australian citizenship of suspected World War II war criminals in the hope that this would get them out of the country,” he wrote.

“We 'knew' they were guilty but couldn't actually prove it through a criminal justice process, so it was argued that an administrative decision under the Australian Citizenship Act would function as a work-around.” The idea was abandoned, Hughes adds, “because there was no guarantee that anyone who lost their Australian citizenship in that way would actually be allowed to return to another country.”

Citizenship is a fundamental aspect of contemporary society. As Hannah Arendt argued in the middle of the 20th century, citizenship can be thought of as the “right to have rights”. Stateless citizens in the 1930s were routinely denied basic liberties and protections; similar problems face modern asylum seekers (even if they are nationals of a foreign country) who enjoy few of the protections accorded Australian citizens under Australian law.

Like the rest of the metastasizing terror apparatus in our country, anti-citizenship measures have been slowly creeping up on us in recent years. The Abbott government has fought hard to prevent babies of asylum seekers born in this country from claiming citizenship, as the high-profile case of baby Ferouz highlighted.

The trend to revoke citizenship has been spreading world-wide. The United Kingdom has been particularly keen on the idea, despite little evidence that it has helped in the UK’s efforts against domestic terrorism. Israeli legal scholar Shai Lavi has argued that the new paradigm of citizenship is not really one of rights at all.

In our increasingly anxious contemporary atmosphere, citizenship has instead become infected by the creeping virus of border protection, so that the justification for revoking citizenship is the security risk to the country. In this paradigm, allegiance is no longer the issue: suspicion alone is enough. As Tony Abbott argued on Tuesday: “the first duty of Government is to keep our community safe.”

But will revoking the citizenship of terror suspects really ‘keep our community safe’? Few informed analysts believe that. It could be just as likely to alienate and radicalise. Most analysts think it will have little or no effect beyond the already-broad suite of powers available to the Australian security agencies.

The irony of the appointment of Phillip Ruddock as the grandly-titled “Special Envoy for Citizenship and Community Engagement” should not be lost. As Aaron Connolly quipped in the Lowy Interpreter, “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.”

But that’s government under Tony Abbott in 2015, where the image is always more important than the reality (see also: National Ice Taskforce). Measures like revoking citizenship from terror suspects are not really about security at all. They’re about the appearance of security, in the hope of making the government look tougher.

In 2009, well-known security analyst Bruce Schneier wrote an essay entitled “Beyond Security Theatre.”

“Security theatre,” Schneier explained, “refers to security measures that make people feel more secure without doing anything to actually improve their security.” Examples include photo ID checks for ordinary office buildings, and airport security measures like body scans and bans on liquids. Security theatre can even make us less secure, because it diverts attention and resources from measures that do work, like old-fashioned police investigations. 

The Abbott government has a growing love for security theatre. It allows our macho prime minister to act tough and (almost literally) wrap himself in the national flag. But it does nothing to make Australians any safer.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.