Prime Minister Tony Abbott has confirmed people who fight with terrorist groups will be stripped of citizenship, but has the government ignored the more immediate danger to Australians?
Legislation to strip dual national terror suspects of their Australian citizenship is set to be introduced on Wednesday, in what the Prime Minister has described as a modernisation of current laws.
The proposal will be based on updating Section 35 of the Citizenship Act, which automatically strips citizenship from dual nationals who fight in the army of a country at war with Australia.
It’s been described as a more modest version of the proposal reportedly discussed in cabinet previously, but new concerns have been raised over its implications.
Director of the Global Terrorism Research Centre at Monash University Greg Barton said that although the amended draft legislation corrected potential constitutional issues, the primary concern should lie with perception.
Professor Barton told SBS the real danger was if members of the Muslim community saw the proposed legislation as “somehow demonising or targeting” their friends and family.
He said it could put young Muslims in a precarious position.
“People in the past have been very willing to speak up when they had concerns,” he said.
“But if the perception is, it may no longer be safe to speak up, people who might have picked up the phone and made a call may now hold back. That may cost us in terms of national security.”
Listen: Stephanie Anderson speaks with Professor Greg Barton
Professor Barton said there hadn’t been outright backlash in countries which introduced similar laws, but the damage to confidence and community relationships was unknown.
“We need to look very carefully at the British experience and the Canadian experience to get a sense of how this has played out in community relations,” he said.
“What we do know is our immediate security depends upon those who are in a position to see something odd occurring and speaking up.”
What it means and for how many people
The proposed legislation is not expected to leave people stateless and Prime Minister Tony Abbott has pledged to “not exclude the role of the courts”.
People can appeal a decision on their citizenship and dual nationals that have been convicted of terror-related offences, and therefore lose their citizenship, can be granted an exception by Minister for Immigration.
The laws will also be examined by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, and Mr Dutton's Labor counterpart Richard Marles said his party would "work through the legislation in a bipartisan, constructive way once it is introduced".
Professor Barton said that if passed, it is likely the laws would only impact directly on a small number of people, echoing those introduced in Britain.
He said the Cameron government also took a very firm line on counter terrorism, which included stripping dual nationals of their British citizenship if they got involved with a group like Islamic State.
“Britain has between 600 and 800 of its citizens currently fighting in Iraq and Syria,” he said.
“So far, it’s removed British citizenship from just two dozen.”
How our laws compare to other countries
The Norwegian government announced it was considering stripping citizenship from foreign fighters last year, following the introduction of anti-terror laws in June 2013.
Five Islamic State supporters have since been charged under the two-year-old legislation, the most recent incident involving two men last month.
Canada has also passed amendments to the Citizenship Act.
Aiming to “strengthen security”, the Canadian legislation outlined measures for stripping citizenship – but only if a person had been convicted of a terrorism offence:
“The Minister may revoke a person’s citizenship if the person, before or after the coming into force of this subsection and while the person was a citizen, was convicted of a terrorism offence as defined in section 2 of the Criminal Code — or an offence outside Canada that, if committed in Canada, would constitute a terrorism offence as defined in that section — and sentenced to at least five years of imprisonment”
The UK also passed an amendment in 2014 which allowed the Secretary of State to strip citizenship, but no criminal conviction was required.
The amendment read that citizenship could be revoked if “the Secretary of State is satisfied that the deprivation is conducive to the public good because the person, while having that citizenship status, has conducted him or herself in a manner which is seriously prejudicial to the vital interests of the UK”.
The legislation was moved by Home Secretary Theresa May, who has removed the citizenship of 37 people since entering office – however, all those who have lost their citizenship in relation to terror activities have been charged and convicted of offences.
The situation in the United States is far more complex, with legal database Justia stating that the “constitutionality of congressionally-prescribed expatriation must be taken as unsettled”.
Previous counterterror legislation
If passed, the legislation won’t be the first major counterterror laws introduced by the Abbott government.
Last year, the parliament passed national security laws which imposed heavy sentences on people involving in terror or entering regions linked to extremist groups.
The foreign fighters bill included measures such as:
- Up to 5 years jail for encouraging others to engage in extremist acts
- Up to a decade in jail for entering a ‘declared zone’
- Make it illegal to advocate a terrorist act
- Passports can be suspended for up to a fortnight without notice to the individual in question
- Control orders for engaging in armed hostilities overseas; preventative detention orders of up to 48 hours
- Cancellation of welfare payments for individuals whose passports or visas have been cancelled or refused