Citizenship is one of the central ideas of political philosophy. But not one most people spend a lot of time thinking about.
The Abbott Government proposes to strip Australian citizenship from dual nationals who fight for Islamic State. (This would only apply to dual citizens as there is a strong presumption in international relations against making anybody stateless.)
And there is legislation before Parliament that would make it harder for children who have lived in Australia for 10 years to automatically qualify for citizenship.
Announcing the citizenship amendments, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Communications Paul Fletcher told Parliament that, “Australian citizenship involves a commitment to this country and its people. It is a privilege which should not be taken lightly.”
Yet beyond fuzzy little nostrums about “membership” and “belonging” it’s not obvious what citizenship actually means.
What principles would allow us to judge whether such legislative changes are good or bad? Is citizenship a right or a privilege? Who should be a citizen? But most importantly, why?
Some countries give citizenship automatically to anybody born on their soil. Australia doesn’t. Here you need an Australian parent too.
The word “citizenship” is absent from the Australian constitution, save an incidental, negative mention in the prohibition on foreign citizens from serving in parliament.
Legally, citizenship is an odd beast. Citizenship is neither necessary nor sufficient for many of the most important Australian rights and privileges.
Citizenship doesn’t give you an absolute right to vote. Underage citizens can’t vote, and neither can citizens who are serving a prison sentence of three or more years.
Citizenship isn’t the criteria for enjoying welfare and publicly funded health. They are protected by our laws. Non-citizens pay taxes and have access to our courts. Permanent residents can buy property.
Non-citizens enjoy our version of free speech – the right to political communication – and the freedom to lobby and protest.
A Senate committee roundtable last week batted around the pros and cons of putting citizenship in the Australian Constitution. (I was one of the participants.)
The idea is that this would offer the High Court some clarity when deciding cases that concern questions of who is and isn’t a citizen for legal purposes.
But if we’re not clear what citizenship is, then why trust the High Court to decide?
At Federation, Australian “citizenship” was based on whether you were a British subject. However, this worldly and cosmopolitan idea co-existed clumsily with the other, racist idea of Australianness that was manifest in the White Australia Policy.
Putting anything that reflected that idea of citizenship in the constitution would have been a disaster.
While there exists a thing called citizenship in Australian law, citizenship is really a philosophical concept not a legal one. And it is a fuzzy concept because the idea of group membership is a fuzzy concept.
Yet, for all that fuzziness, it is central to our notions of identity and politics.
The whole point of citizenship is that it is exclusionary – it is a unique national identity, one that confers specific rights and privileges.
To adopt a nationality is not to join just any old community. At citizenship ceremonies, new citizens transfer their identity and allegiance from the old country to their new one.
Dual citizenship sits awkwardly with even the most modern ideas of citizenship.
One argument for dual citizenship is that formally offering it is something we sell to potential migrants, making Australia an attractive destination for foreigners.
A more powerful argument is that dual citizenship is simply inevitable. Children born to parents with different nationalities automatically receive the citizenship of both. And we have no way of forcing other countries to strip the nationalities of those who become Australians. We live in a complex, globalised world, etc.
Dual nationals who go to fight for the Islamic State are effectively renouncing their Australian citizenship. Many dispose of their passports when they get to Iraq and Syria. It would be hard to imagine a more thorough rejection of democratic values – the values that citizenship is supposed to represent – than going to wage war for a theocratic slave state.
Surely, if we were willing to deny people citizenship because they failed a trivia quiz about Don Bradman, then fighting for Islamic State is also a reasonable disqualification.
Some experts say that giving the government the power to revoke citizenship status from dual citizens makes the very idea of citizenship less valuable. Citizenship is meaningless if it can be taken away.
But this argument confuses the legal concept of citizenship – a contingent and not particularly coherent bundle of privileges and rights – with the deeper philosophical one.
At a philosophical level, dual citizenship is a lesser form of citizenship, as it represents a less than absolute allegiance and national identity.
And just as importantly, if citizenship is most valuable as a bond between members of a political community, then treating the citizenship of those who reject the community as inviolate undermines that bond.
Fuzzy nostrums sometimes matter. And if citizenship is to matter it has to mean something.