At last, this morning, we saw the government’s much-discussed bill to strip citizenship from people engaged in terrorism. Naturally, it doesn’t merely stop at engaging in terrorism — there is a long list of things that will result in you being stripped of your citizenship in the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Allegiance to Australia) Bill 2015. They include providing or receiving terrorist training “directing the activities of a terrorist organisation”, or recruiting for or financing a terrorist organisation. Those ASIS agents who bribed people smugglers and thus, according to their portfolio minister, helped fund terrorism, might want to start checking overseas property markets.

The legal fiction used in the bill to spare the blushes of constitution-minded lawyers in cabinet is that the immigration minister won’t be stripping anyone of their citizenship — it will be people themselves who do that by their conduct (as Senator David Leyonhjelm might put it, ministers don’t strip citizenship, people do). All the minister needs to do is, having becoming aware of a citizen’s conduct, issue a notice that someone has ceased to be a citizen.

How that differs from the original proposal that the minister have an unfettered, unreviewable power to strip people of their citizenship is one that Crikey‘s legal readers are welcome to discuss. Oh, and yesterday Abbott foreshadowed that he might yet legislate to apply the bill both retrospectively and to people without dual citizenship.

The bill, of course, is ostensibly about deterring terrorists. One imagines people radical, angry or mentally ill enough to be a suicide bomber will quake in fear at the words of the Explanatory Memorandum that:

“… removing a person’s formal membership of the Australian community is appropriate to reduce the possibility of a person engaging in acts or further acts that harm Australians or Australian interests. The automatic cessation of Australian citizenship may also have a deterrent effect by putting radicalised persons on notice that their citizenship is in jeopardy.”

That’s some fine counter-radicalisation right there.

The actual purpose, of course, is to enable the government to portray itself as tough on terror, in contrast to the opposition. What has been unusual about this process is the staggering incompetence with which Tony Abbott and his Immigration Minister Peter Dutton — a man of remarkable, almost Clouseauian ineptitude — have gone about it.

First, Abbott leaked the original proposal to one of his media mouthpieces before the matter went to cabinet, then it went to cabinet without a submission — a remarkable breach of process — where a number of ministers objected to it. Then the cabinet split leaked. Then a question time brief from within Prime Minister and Cabinet was leaked, revealing how hell-bent Abbott was on using the issue against Labor. Then the government began citing the former Independent National Security Legislation Monitor Bret Walker to support its case and when he said they were misrepresenting him, Abbott and Dutton verballed him. By yesterday, Abbott was insinuating that Walker had “changed his mind” for reasons he didn’t want to discuss publicly. Along the way, of course, Abbott had used shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus’ strange desire for Australian terrorists to be prosecuted and jailed to say Labor was “rolling out the red carpet on terrorism”.

That disgraceful remark, by the way, was just hours after Labor’s Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security deputy chair Anthony Byrne — in whose electorate the Endeavour Hills shooting had occurred — had gone out of his way in Parliament to defend Abbott and Peta Credlin in relation to media coverage of Abbott’s visit to the Endeavour Hills police station (the only coverage of which was about Credlin asking not to be photographed) and emphasise Abbott’s bipartisanship on national security.

Grubby, grubby stuff from the man who is purportedly the nation’s leader.

But apart from the rank incompetence with which it has been carried out, in fact there is nothing particularly unusual about what the Abbott government is doing — it is entirely consistent with what the Howard, Rudd and Gillard governments did in using terrorism to endlessly extend the powers of the state at our expense, and curb the powers of other branches of government to scrutinise them. The Howard government established imprisonment without trial and powers of secret interrogation for our least-scrutinised agencies, an abrogation of some of our most basic freedoms. The Rudd and Gillard governments repeatedly expanded the powers of ASIO as part of an endless “updating” process, particularly regarding surveillance laws. The Abbott government already has merely continued that process.

Some of these powers — preventive detention, data preservation notices — remained unused or little used, undermining the argument that Australia’s counter-terrorism framework at the time of 9/11 was inadequate in some significant way. Instead, there have been 14 years of expanding powers for the sake of looking tough. Remember those “foreign fighter” laws rushed through Parliament at great speed last year, with the government yelling about the terrorist threat? How many prosecutions have resulted, given Islamic State has enjoyed a massive surge in recruitment this year? Indeed, wasn’t the whole point of the foreign fighters bill to stop people from going to join IS? The whole point of today’s bill is to stop the people whom we were supposedly stopping from going there from coming back.

Just as with the Howard government — which could at least implement a draconian, liberty-erasing law with some basic competence — the real purpose is political, to attack Labor, whose normal posture on national security is to cower in fear the thought of someone accusing it of being soft, and other Coalition enemies. The current government/News Corp attack on the ABC for allowing the expression of a single statement at variance with the government’s preferred narrative on terrorism isn’t new, either. Anyone with a decent memory will recall the remorseless attacks by the Coalition, led by John Howard and his communications minister Richard Alston and News Corp on the ABC’s Iraq War coverage, in which presenters’ tone of voice and other such matters of moment formed the basis of scores of complaints. Malcolm Turnbull, as in so many other ways, is merely following in the footsteps of Richard Alston in that portfolio.

The Coalition now wants us to forget about the Iraq War — “we don’t want to dwell on the past,” Tony Abbott told independent MP Andrew Wilkie last week when asked about an inquiry into why we participated in such a debacle — and, of course, about any sceptical journalism about it. Instead, it’s on to the next assault on the ABC, for again failing to stay in lockstep with the government’s national security narrative.

But as Labor’s experience has shown, even staying in lockstep with the Coalition, even parroting the Coalition’s own rhetoric, still gets you accused of “rolling out the red carpet” for terrorism. So it has been for 14 years, and will continue to be.

Peter Fray

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