The Home Affairs department has added to its lengthy list of debacles with a train wreck appearance before the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) on the government’s citizenship-stripping laws that appeared to signal a dramatic change in the way the government views citizenship.
Appearing before the PJCIS on Friday afternoon, officials from the Home Affairs portfolio — the centre of a number of major bungles in recent years and currently the subject of significant national security concerns over its links with gambling giant Crown — inflicted significant damage on the government’s case for ever-greater powers to strip Australians of citizenship. It was during 2015 hearings into the citizenship-stripping legislation, then in its draft form, that officials of the then-immigration portfolio admitted to major failings around the bill, prepared by the Abbott government to demonstrate its national security credentials.
Friday’s hearing, part of a scheduled review of the laws, went even worse, with officials being forced to admit the power to prevent people returning to Australia did not stop terrorists, and that they didn’t even know how many people were affected by the laws. They also failed to explain why the power to strip dual citizens of Australian citizenship was needed given the government had since given itself the power to exclude people from returning to Australia, and whether Australians were safer with Australian terrorists at liberty overseas or in jail here.
But Home Affairs assistant secretary Derek Bopping alarmed the committee when he flagged that Home Affairs now regards Australian citizenship for all citizens, regardless of place of birth, as a “privilege”, suggesting it could be withdrawn by the government at any time. “Australian citizenship is a privilege,” Bopping told the committee in his prepared opening statement:
With that privilege comes responsibilities, including to obey the law and uphold Australian values … Conduct such as acts in preparation for a terrorist act, or intentionally associating with a terrorist organisation, is contrary to Australia’s democratic values and beliefs. It is a repudiation of a person’s allegiance to Australia, and it would be contrary to the public interest for such a person to remain an Australian citizen.
The claim that citizenship is a privilege, rather than a right, represents an alarming change in language from a portfolio that has seen a dramatic shift toward national security over immigration since 2015. Liberal MP Tim Wilson seized on Bopping’s change of language: “Is that the position of the Department of Home Affairs — that it’s a privilege rather than people who are born in this country have a right to be Australian citizens?”
Bopping tried to row back, saying he meant “a small-p privilege, I think most Australians would regard citizenship as a privilege”. Labor’s Mark Dreyfus joined in. “Is that a serious submission that you’re making to this committee — that Australians, to pick up Mr Wilson’s point, don’t see their citizenship as a right but as a privilege? Are you serious, Dr Bopping?” he said.
Wilson went further. “I find that, frankly, incredibly disturbing to hear … the idea that Australian citizens don’t have a natural right to their citizenship … if the department is now taking the view that Australian citizenship is a privilege, it says something, frankly, quite concerning about how the department sees this legislation and its purpose. Can I just get clarity: is the position of the Department of Home Affairs to think that Australian citizenship is a privilege?”
Bopping floundered. He was using “privilege”, he said, “in the sense that the common person would use ‘it’s a privilege to be Australian'”.
“Go back and reflect on your evidence,” Wilson countered, “because I don’t believe that’s true.”
Labor’s Kristina Keneally also wanted to know if it was only people like her who had acquired Australian citizenship, rather than obtaining it through birth, for whom it was a “privilege”. Bopping was by now rowing back at motorboat speed: “I don’t think that my opening statement portrays that dual citizenship is less than anything at all.”
A sign that the government wants to withdraw the right to citizenship from Australians? Or a smart-arse bureaucrat who thought it’d be cute to echo the government’s rhetoric on immigration, and got caught out? Either way, it seems the PJCIS hasn’t let Peter Dutton’s partisan abuse of it get in the way of grilling bureaucrats.