The fatal flaws in Tony Abbott's counter-terrorism citizenship plan


There are serious questions about the government's counter-terrorism citizenship proposals that have nothing to do with being soft on terrorists and everything to do with being a responsible global citizen.

Tony Abbott says that in the modern age many of Australia's enemies are fighting with non-state groups such as Islamic State rather than the armed forces of a recognised nation.

He's quite right, just as he is quite right that since 1949 dual nationals who fight with the armed forces of a country with which Australia is at war could be stripped of their citizenship.

But Mr Abbott goes on to say "there should be no difference in how we treat Australians who join a hostile army and those engaged in terrorism".

On that he is wrong. There is a crucial difference, and that is the effect it has on the other country whose problem these people become.

Australia could have revoked, say, the citizenship of a dual Iraqi national who fought for Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War. Good riddance – Saddam can have him.

But a dual Iraqi national who fights for Islamic State – either in Iraq or by carrying out terrorist activities here in Australia – is as much an enemy of the government in Baghdad as he is our enemy.

By foisting him back on Iraq, we make him the problem of a country that hardly needs more problems.

This is the fundamental flaw in this plan. We can't send the Islamic State fighter back to Islamic State and say good riddance, because there is no such thing. Mr Abbott refuses even to use the name.

It's just one of the complexities in what is a superficially appealing idea.

Another is whether to prosecute, or revoke the citizenship of, a dual national suspected of terrorism. Or both? Deciding which way to go based on the weight of the evidence will be a fraught business.

True, Britain and several other countries already have the law now being proposed. Britain has mostly used it to prevent the return of terrorists who are already fighting in Syria. But still, the new law would apply to suspected extremists here, meaning Australia could be accused of exporting terrorism.

Mr Abbott has also left the door open to an even more controversial variant: stripping the citizenship of sole Australian nationals who are eligible for – but do not currently hold – another citizenship. This will be considered during community consultation on a discussion paper released on Monday.

Australia is obliged by international convention not to make a person stateless. That is what would happen unless another country, in a gesture of heroic charity, embraced a known terrorist.

That invites one question: If the citizen of another country had their citizenship revoked on the grounds they were a terrorist, and that person was eligible to take out Australian citizenship, would Mr Abbott support granting it? Would anyone in their right mind?



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