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A deeper look at revoking citizenship

By Xavier Symons - posted Wednesday, 17 June 2015

The Australian government is currently considering revoking the citizenship of dual-nationals involved in terrorism overseas. Originally it appears that Tony Abbott intended the measure to be for single-nationals too, but a cabinet revolt meant the PM had to take a less radical approach.

The context of these laws is supposedly a new, volatile geo-political situation in which it's necessary to revoke citizenship of would-be terrorists returning from overseas. After a tactics document was leaked yesterday outlining suggested Question Time talking points for Liberal backbenchers, Abbott remarked in a press conference, "I want to give every single Australian this assurance: This Government will do what is necessary to keep you safe".

I want to emphasise that, like any significant policy debate, there is a broader context to the proposed legislation. Our particular post 9-11 socio-historical milieu has made it feasible for politicians to radically deconstruct the established liberal democratic understanding of citizenship. Contra Peter Dutton, this is more than just a "pack" movement responding to a localised threat.


Denationalisation as a security measure has been extremely rare in modern Western political history – at least, until the last five years – and moves to make it more common represent a new understanding of the importance of citizenship and basic political rights. Citizenship is no longer viewed as a bare necessity but rather as a privilege. The significance of this paradigm shift is clear from a cursory survey of the evolution of Western concept of citizenship.

The notion of citizenship in modern Western democracies arose with the foundation of the modern nation state. On 26 August 1789, for example, the newly founded National Assembly of France adopted the Déclaration universelle des droits de l'homme et du citoyen, a document that ushered in a novel understanding of citizenship as membership of a nation state and protection under the law of that state. In crude social contactarian terms, this was a statement of the tacit contract between the individual and the state – the individual submits to the rules of the state in exchange for certain protections.

But the Western concept of citizenship acquired another dimension in post-WII democracies. Following the sudden displacement and, in some cases, grievous neglect, of millions of people in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa, intellectuals began to perceive a vital link between citizenship and the attribution of basic human rights. Political theorists like Hannah Arendt and Primo Levi recognized that citizenship – equivalent to membership of a political community – is the means by which we are able to appear in the political sphere and actually exist as potential rights-bearers. As Arendt stated in here magnum Opus the Origins of Totalitarianism,

"the moment human beings lacked their own government and had to fall back upon their minimum rights, no authority was left to protect them and no institution was willing to guarantee them … Loss of national rights was identical with loss of human rights."

All of which is to say, in the Post-WII political world, citizenship was seen in one sense as precondition to very possession of basic human rights.

For a post-WWII audience, this idea had a certain visceral force and it quickly gained traction in both national and international law making bodies.


What I want to claim is that this idea lost traction, and the current laws being proposed are an indication of this.

The Abbott government will introduce the new proposed legislation under the aegisof 'national security', likely claiming that denationalisation of terrorists is necessary if we are to protect ourselves from radicalised individuals returning from overseas, and furthermore so as to deter those considering travelling to regions in which terrorist groups are active. Abbott himself claims that the former is the main motivation: "The reason we are so determined to strip citizenship from terrorists who are dual nationals is we don't want them coming back", he remarked in yesterday's press conference.

In the mire of foreign policy and anti-terrorism politicking, true motivations are hard to divine. But here's one suggestion: The real reason behind the proposed laws is that our government no longer sees citizenship as a crucial means by which to ensure respect for basic human rights; pragmatically, citizenship for the current cabinet is a privilege that those involved in terrorist activity no longer deserve. This seems to be reflected in one of the proposed talking points outlined in the leaked coalition tactics document: "none of us should give succour to those who would take up arms against our soldiers or do the Australian people harm." To paraphrase – these fighters are so far-gone and inimical to general society that they do not deserve the privilege of citizenship.

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Xavier Symons is deputy editor of

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