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Immigration Minister Peter Dutton believes in being cruel to be "kind" (Image screenshot YouTube)

If Australian Governments feel free to treat citizen minorities as lesser than others, what kind of privilege does Australian citizenship really represent? Barry Hindess comments.

WHILE THE dual citizenship debacle has been playing out in Canberra other, more consequential issues of citizenship slipped by almost under the radar.

First, the Australian Citizenship Legislation Amendment (Strengthening the Requirements for Australian Citizenship and Other Measures) Bill proposed strict new requirements on would-be citizens.

Second, the Government introduced new visa categories: the Bridging E Visa for dealing with asylum seekers who were currently in Australia, having been transferred from off-shore detention for medical treatment; and the 400 visa, designed, in part, to replace the controversial 457 visa while still allowing multinational businesses to cycle  non-Australian executives through regional offices in Australia's capital cities, and unscrupulous employers to bring in foreign labour to get around Australian agreements and regulations on wages and working conditions.

Third, the Government announced a crackdown on welfare recipients, including drug testing and trialling a cashless welfare card that was itself a minor variation on the Basics Card, designed to restrict access to alcohol in Indigenous communities during the NT intervention

At first sight, these developments have little in common, apart from the fact that the responsible ministers – Peter Dutton (twice), Christian Porter and Alan Tudge – are on the Right of the Liberal Party. Yet all three represent significant changes to the role of citizenship in contemporary Australia. To get a handle on this, it is useful to consider the part citizenship plays in the global system of states.

Following the wave of decolonisation in the aftermath of WWII, the world has been one in which almost everyone has a state to which they belong (and in which they have a bundle of rights, usually including the rights to reside and to participate in their government) and most states are inhabited largely by their own citizens. Since states usually offer preferential treatment to their own citizens, most citizens have few incentives to move.

In effect, citizenship, along with an array of visa categories operated by individual states, keeps most people in place while allowing for a limited amount of mobility between states. Citizenship and visas enable states to recognise some people as their responsibility and not to recognise others. Whatever their impact on visa-holders, Australia's two new visas simply add to its armory of instruments for distinguishing people it is prepared to recognise from the rest

What about unusual cases? There are states bordering the Persian Gulf in which their own citizens are a privileged minority in a population consisting largely of workers imported from South Asia and other Arab states. There are also far too many stateless people in the world, most of them refugees.

Responding to the treatment of stateless Europeans by Western states during and after WWII, member states of the U.N., including Australia, agreed to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1951 Refugee Convention. Together, these agreements represent an early attempt to establish what American and Australian officials like to call a "rules-based" international order. In endorsing the Universal Declaration and Refugee Convention, states agreed both that everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law and that no-one should be penalised for seeking asylum. Australia was one of the Declaration and Convention's early signatories and it has since lead the way in trashing their key provisions by pursuing policies that have been praised by right-wing political leaders in Europe and the USA.

In a different kind of response to the condition of wartime and post-WWII European refugees, Hannah Arendt argued that the Declaration of Human Rights focused only on human beings in the abstract since, contrary to  article 6, people possessed rights in practice only if they were recognised by a state as its responsibility. For this reason, few refugees have the “right to have rights”. We might think of the Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, recognised as citizens neither by their native Myanmar (which regards them as Bangladeshi) nor by Bangladesh and treated as undocumented migrants by other states.

In Australia, legal battles over whether asylum seekers have rights are regularly fought out in the courts, with Commonwealth Governments repeatedly seeking to remove their asylum seeker policies from judicial supervision.

Dutton's proposal to introduce tough new citizenship requirements, including an English-language test – which appears to have been proposed by people with limited understanding of the costs, strengths and limitations of tests currently used in Australia – represents a radical change in Australian citizenship. Historically, Australia, like other states, has imposed stricter requirements on non-citizens seeking permanent residence – citizenship-lite – than on permanent residents seeking citizenship. From a state's point of view, it makes little difference whether its people are all citizens or or a mix of citizens and permanent residents — they all pay taxes and make use of health, education and welfare services. Similarly, it matters little to many individuals whether they are citizens or permanent residents. The former have the right – and sometimes the duty – to vote, albeit in a context where their votes are unlikely to make much difference, and a duty to perform jury service and help defend the state when required. Some may feel more secure as citizens than as permanent residents, or that becoming a citizen demonstrates a real commitment to Australia, although, in a practical sense, taking part in the life of the community is commitment enough. Others may have migrated from Britain with the intention of becoming citizens only to find, as I did in the late 1980s, that they would have to swear allegiance to the Queen, which as an unreformed British republican I could never bring myself to do. Fortunately, this absurd requirement has since been removed.

Dutton's proposed citizenship changes make a kind of sense only if one thinks of citizenship as a privilege or in terms of duties and the individual qualities required for their performance. His proposals have been widely criticised, as he almost certainly anticipated. They were referred in June to a Senate committee, which held public hearings in Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane towards the end of August, and reported in early September with a few minor caveats and a recommendation to pass the Bill. You can get a good sense of the limitations of the Bill's proposals – and of the problems for potential citizens likely to result from backdating them – by reading a few of the submissions to the Senate Inquiry on the Inquiry's website. The "name withheld" submissions are particularly harrowing. 

At the time of writing (around midday, 11 September), this website  showed 634 submissions. There must be many more yet to be uploaded. The Guardian (August 31) reported a total of over 10,000 submissions, of which only two – from Dutton's Department and the Australian Monarchist League –  supported the Governments proposals.

Finally, what of the proposal to trial a cashless welfare card in Ceduna, SA, East Kimberley and Logan, Queensland? What is proposed here is a minor variation on the regime imposed on (mostly indigenous) communities by the Northern Territory Intervention: the latter focused on alcohol consumption and the former concerned with drugs.

A Government-commissioned report on the NT program prepared by the widely respected SPRC at UNSW found that the program, 

'... rather than building capacity and independence for many ... [tended to make its victims] ... more dependent on welfare.'

While this result is not exactly surprising, it does suggest that the Intervention's objectives were not entirely as advertised. Perhaps there was also an element of being cruel (yet pretending) to be kind — a ploy once marketed by the American Republicans under the label of “compassionate conservatism”.  Similarly for other programs modelled on the NT Intervention.

What particularly concerns me here are the implications of programs of "compassionate conservatism" for Australian citizenship. If Australian Governments feel free to treat hapless citizen minorities as substantially less equal than other citizens, what kind of privilege does the possession of Australian citizenship represent?

Barry Hindess is an emeritus professor at Australian National University’s School of Politics and International Relations. You can follow him on Twitter @barryhindess.

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