The shifting sands of citizenship

6 December 2018
The concepts, duties and responsibilities of citizenship
Diversity, dual nationality and national security measures are changing ideas about citizenship. We spoke to Professor Helen Irving about the controversies and challenges for Australian citizenship law in a new millennium.

As a leading expert in constitutional citizenship, Professor Helen Irving has spent decades researching the legal and political realities that impact citizens around the world.

She is now working on a timely new Australian Research Council (ARC) project about citizenship and allegiance. The project asks key questions about citizens’ duties and allegiance to the state – and what national loyalty means when you hold two passports.

“Citizenship theory talks about ‘the good citizen’ and the civic duties of citizenship,” she says. “But in law there’s an important distinction between the actual legal status of being a citizen and not being one.”

It’s true. You can’t vote, stand for parliament, work in parts of the public sector or get certain social benefits, unless you are an Australian citizen. And as long as you are one, you can never be deported.

Importantly, citizenship can be revoked. In 2017, Khaled Sharrouf became the first Australian dual citizen to be stripped of his citizenship under federal anti-terror laws. Without Australian citizenship, Islamic State fighters like Sharrouf can never return legally to Australia.

Citizenship law has made its impact known in Canberra, too. For more than two years, a previously dormant section of the constitution has interrupted the careers of MPs and senators who unknowingly held dual citizenship. Bloomberg dubbed this the “world’s most ridiculous constitutional crisis”.

For Professor Irving, it’s an issue that highlights the continuing significance of allegiance in the law. “It got people talking about the concepts, ideas, duties and responsibility of citizenship,” she says. “Yet that [public debate] is not being reflected in how the law has adapted to these shifting conceptions.”

The issue also showed how difficult it can be to fact-check potential citizenships. “There’s a widespread misapprehension that it’s easy to determine if you’re a citizen of another country. It’s actually not. It can be costly and time-consuming.

You need expertise most people don’t have, such as identifying, reading and understanding law. The relevant law might not even be in English,” she says. How lawmakers and courts deal with the dual citizenship question could play a major role in supporting – or preventing – a greater diversity of voices in federal politics. Professor Irving points to “important consequences” for those entitled and willing to nominate as MPs.

It’s one reason why her ARC project could be so important. It could provide a much-needed yardstick to help lawmakers measure new legislation about citizenship and allegiance. From the White Australia policy that barred non-European immigration, to the ‘Allegiance to Australia’ Act that claimed Sharrouf’s passport, this legal area has long been contentious.

For example, younger Australians might be surprised to learn it was the 1980s before Australian citizens were no longer defined as British subjects. Or that until 2002 you could not be naturalised abroad without losing Australian citizenship. It’s often overlooked, too, that between the 1870s and late 1940s Australian women who married foreign men were immediately stripped of their citizenship. This practice was widespread globally. Times are continuing to change, says Professor Irving.

“Broadly, Australian law today doesn’t make gendered, ethnic, racial or religious distinctions around citizenship,” she says.

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