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Convicts and Immigrants

The Australian government is currently facing an unprecedented constitutional crisis which has embroiled and ensnared MP’s from both sides of the political spectrum. The issue of ‘dual nationality’ as defined by s44 of the Constitution has placed a focus squarely on the eligibility of members of Parliament to sit as rightful representatives. It is a focus that an already floundering government paralysed by its own internal ideological tussles can ill afford, and yet it is now knocking almost daily at the doors of Parliament. It has left several MP’s shambling and red-faced and it has confounded and perplexed many others. It is an issue that even the newly erected fence around Parliament house cannot keep out, and it will not go away until the government appropriately addresses it.

But is there a deeper message that our politicians need to be taking away from all of this? At its heart, the dual citizenship crisis points strongly to our nation’s founding roots – to the inalienable truth that we are a nation built by immigrants. Our current cultural make-up is a testament and a legacy of that fact. It suggests that perhaps we should be according those seminal roots more than the scant modicum of respect that we are presently giving them.

Australia began life as a prisoner island, and many of those first immigrants were convicts. In 1822, Robert Peel was appointed to the post of England’s Home Secretary and he received a begging letter which was to become just one of thousands of similar letters sent to him from family members of those sentenced to the punishment of transportation to the Australian colonies. Most took the form of a plea for clemency or alternative punishment so that families may not be torn apart permanently and irreconcilably.

The following is an extract from that letter dated 29 August 1822; written on a convict’s behalf by a town clerk in Carlisle, England. It neatly encapsulates the human trauma voiced in those scores of desperate letters to his Office:

“A poor convict woman has reached London last Tuesday from Carlisle; she is transported for 7 years for receiving stolen goods. She is a poor fool and has been made the dupe of some artful thief. She has undergone 22 weeks severe confinement and has a child at her breast and 2 others with her. If His Majesty’s pardon could be procured, she may be restored to her husband, who is a very honest working man and another child he has there” - (UK National Archives Privy Council Records PC1/70).

The formative years of our nation – an era where the transportation of convicts and the cruel mistreatment of the indigenous people was the accepted cultural norm – is now universally viewed as a period marred by harsh violations of human rights. In two hundred years of ‘cultural progress’, I question whether anything has fundamentally changed. The repeated recriminations of the UN Human Rights Commission condemning Australia’s present treatment of refugees stands testament to this notion.

As much as disaffected MP’s are claiming that they clearly have no explicit allegiance to a country which in many cases they have never lived in, there is another group of individuals who are also fighting their own citizenship issues. In a cruel twist, they claim an allegiance to a country that many have lived in for most of their life, only to find themselves embroiled in a cruel modern-day regime of deportation which is every bit as inhumane as the one which originally gave birth to our nation.

In 2014 under the Abbott government, section 501 of the Migration Act (1958) was amended to allow the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection to cancel the visas of long-term permanent residents on character grounds and deport them. Although this can be easily passed off as the protection of the Australian community from a ‘criminal element’, what is particularly chilling is the set of sweeping discretionary powers this legislation gave to just one man – namely the Immigration Minister. And Minister Dutton is certainly using these broad powers to remove as many people as possible, including first-time offenders and one-off offenders with otherwise lawful backgrounds. Many of whom have been ruled by the judiciary to present little risk to the community. Many who have lived in Australia since childhood and know no other way of life. And many, like the transportees of old find themselves estranged from partners, children and family as a result. The Minister has demonstrated precious little by way of compassion in many of his decisions, and presides over a deportation regime which has effectively created a second stolen generation.

It would be simple to say that these permanent residents should have cemented their loyalty to Australia by taking the oath of allegiance and becoming citizens. The plight of ‘dual citizen’ MP’s does however suggest that you don’t necessarily need to have taken an oath to be accorded rights of citizenship. One can begin to understand why some disaffected parliamentarians claim they didn’t give their birth-right citizenship privileges more than a second thought. In the same way, many permanent residents who have been ensnared by s501 of the Migration Act and are now facing the prospect of permanent deportation similarly gave no second thought to their right of residence in their adopted homeland of Australia. What does the word ‘permanent’ mean after all? Furthermore, in the case of British-born permanent residents, they were accorded all the rights and privileges as an Australian citizen such as the right to vote, the right to work in the public service and the expectation to attend jury duty if so requested.

Convicts and immigrants. Our nation was founded by them, and apart from the First Nation not a single one of us can rightly claim that we have not been connected to the blood of another nation in one way, shape or form. Perhaps the time has come to embrace and respect this, and section 44 of the Constitution is calling upon our leaders to truly recognise this fact.


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