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Australian Citizenship Day with an edge


Australian Citizenship Day Teaching ResourceThis Thursday 17 September is Australian Citizenship Day. It is traditionally a soft day, recalling for me all the ceremonies I've attended with friends who had just become Australian citizens.

People from many nations gather, welcomed by the local mayor and perhaps given a little tree to be planted as a symbol of their own grafting on to the Australian vine.

This year the day has a sharper edge. As a response to terrorism, the Government has introduced legislation to strip people with dual nationality of citizenship if they have behaved in a way that assists terrorism.

Despite concerns about the imprecision of the legislation, the power given to the executive and the limited access to judicial review, it will probably pass with the support of both major parties.

This legislation is yet another clipping by executive power of the meaning and security of citizenship. It makes it natural to see citizenship, not as an indispensable part of our human dignity, but as a privilege bestowed on us by Government and taken away from us at will.

When we become citizens we enter a contract by which we commit ourselves to obey Australian laws and to respect other Australians. In return we enjoy the rights and benefits of citizens. But at a deeper human level, citizenship is not created by this promise nor removed by its breach.

Citizenship responds to our desire to call Australia home. A home is a place that we own, and which we try to make a happy place. It is built over time and becomes part of us. So citizenship is like a marriage — we make this country our own for better and worse, richer and poorer, till death do us part. We own the nation with all its faults, and the nation owns us with all our faults.

As in marriage, we recognise that Australia is the place we want to make our home before we become citizens. It is not simply a legal contract that is defined and concluded at the moment we sign it, but a living relationship. It gives us a place in the world, with the privileges and responsibilities that this involves.

All this is to say that citizenship, once sought and granted, is a gift and not simply a loan. It involves a network of relationships with place, people, extended family and workmates, language and customs. All these relationships deepen over time and become part of us. So citizenship of a nation, and indeed permanent residence without citizenship, is the correlative of our humanity. To be deprived of it is to be torn apart.

For this reason it is very disturbing to hear governments of all stripes represent citizenship as something that they give us as privilege, with the corollary that they can deprive us of it if they judge us undeserving.

This view has been insinuated in long-standing legislation by which permanent residents who have not become citizens will be deported from Australia if they have committed serious offences can be deported from Australia. This is acceptable in the case of visitors to Australia who have committed crimes. The network that binds them to Australia is thin, and they can call other nations home.

But in many cases people who have been in Australia for thirty years or more, have formed a family here, who neither speak the language of their country of birth nor have any connections there, are deported because of the accident of not having applied for citizenship. The destructive effects that this has on partners and children can easily be imagined, as well as the difficulty for them to begin a new life.

Over recent years, people have been made liable to deportation for less serious crimes, both by legislative design and by legislative inflation. As jail sentences are made heavier and mandatory, more people are caught in the legal net. After they serve their jail sentence, they endure incarceration in an immigration detention centre until they are deported or win an appeal. This can last some years.

Against this background recently proposed legislation to allow the Government poorly defined powers to cancel Australian citizenship is deeply concerning. It seems designed to alienate further the people whom it purports to deter from making terrorist connections.

But at a deeper level it is concerning because it further shapes the view that Australia is defined by the contractual relationship of government to individual citizens. In this view the deeper relationships between people and the groups they belong to, as well as their relationships to place, language and history are incidental to who they are and to their rights as Australians. This represents a tawdry understanding of humanity, a thin understanding of citizenship and a brutal understanding of the role of government.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.



Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, citizenship, terrorism, politics, legislation



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Existing comments

For those of us born and bred in Australia, there's an invisible rope tying us to this wide brown land. And new citizens to this country may always feel a pull to their original homeland. That doesn't discount a deep attachment to, and love of, their new country. I agree with your argument, Andy. Those who become citizens of Australia have the right to feel secure. We all have the responsibility to obey the laws of our land but those laws need to respect the bond that exists between citizen and State. It's a siege mentality that gave rise to the anti-terrorism legislation.

Pam | 16 September 2015  

Very good article

Jim Jones | 17 September 2015  

The civil aspect of the adopted marriage contract (expressed as the legal ordering of a particular society) as opposed to the sacramental marriage covenant (expressed as love or attachment to origin) can be dissolved by divorce in the event of abuse of the civil contract. So why should not this apply to abuse of the civil contract regarding adopted citizenship or marriage to a new country of different origin?

john frawley | 17 September 2015  

I quite agree with you; another Abbott wacky idea reflecting his need to define himself (and us!) in terms of "the other"; the other being "bad" or "illegal" with no rights and open to any abuse. That is not to say that even us immigrant citizens cannot be done for breaking the law, but even that process needs to reflect our dignity.

Eugene | 17 September 2015  

I have the same view here as Andrew and I particularly like the way he states this: "So citizenship is like a marriage — we make this country our own for better and worse, richer and poorer, till death do us part. We own the nation with all its faults, and the nation owns us with all our faults." My view is that if the government has accepted someone as a citizen, they belong to Australia and if they commit crimes, they should face the legal consequences in the same way as native-born Australians under Australian law. Deportation should not happen in such cases, otherwise as far as I am concerned, citizenship is meaningless. The government is stating that citizenship is provisional, that this is not really one's home, so one does not truly have the same rights as a native - born citizen. In my case , if having been here since a small child and for 55 years, I was sent to the native land of my parents, I would effectively be exiled from my home, my Australian born wife and children. Why would anyone bother to become a citizen then in the first place?

Frank S | 17 September 2015  

Good question john frawley, but I don't think your metaphor helps. What if I was to suggest that the act of 'naturalisation', as it was once called (which is an act of the state not of the new citizen, is more akin to the process of adoption by adoptive parents of an adopted child whereby the legal status of the adopted child is no different from the legal status of a 'bnatural-born'child. In other words, some of us attain our citizenship by 'birth', some by 'adoption'. Once done it's done, and neither should be revocable. One can't 'divorce' one's children, natural-born or adopted. In like manner, a state cannot, properly, exile or banish a citizen, natural-born or 'naturalised'. This raises the question of which comes first, the citizen or the state? I would have thought that the Constitution makes it quite clear when it says 'whereas the PEOPLE [my emphasis] ... have agreed to unite in one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth...'. Doesn't that make it clear that the state is the creature of the citizens, not the other way around?

Ginger Meggs | 17 September 2015  

I am proud to reflect your views Andrew. I am a native born Australian, My wife is a naturalised Australian and she gave up her original citizenship on receiving her Australian citizenship . She still loves her native land (and so do I) . She misses her homeland greatly, having come here thirty years ago . She can not understand how a Government can remove the citizenship of anyone and says that they have NO right to do so! I have visited my ancestral home land, Ireland and walked the streets and lanes of the towns my forebears walked before their transportation three generations ago. I keenly felt the pain of separation they must have experienced, when I left on the two occasions I have been back. I have experienced the joy of seeing my homeland each time on the numerous occasions I have returned from overseas .The thought of being expelled from my land of birth terrifies me! How inhuman these politicians are!

Gavin | 17 September 2015  

Andrew, In one respect, citizenship is like a gift in that it should be valued and respected however, bestowing citizenship is more comparable to concluding an agreement between two willing parties: In return for being a good and proper citizen, the nation extends its protection and it privileges upon that person. Akin to terminating an agreement for a breach of contract, if a person is neither willing nor able to meet their civic obligations, then there is no reason why Australia should not revoke said citizenship. Let's not get all Martin Niemöller about this either. The legislation is not aimed at deporting dual citizens for minor infractions such as unpaid parking fines. The type of people the government is talking about are not the kind that you would want in your neighbourhood or your country. If someone has cut all their family, linguistic and cultural ties to their former country, then perhaps they should give additional consideration to what their Australian citizenship is worth.

Jack | 17 September 2015  

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