Australia's Medieval Turn
Australian Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Peter Dutton.

Australia's Medieval Turn


There is room to ask whether Australian national security policy has taken a medieval turn. There have been more than a few manifestations: draconian laws on freedom of speech and widespread surveillance; entrenched disbelief in science and lack of investment in it; an anti-terrorism policy premised on mantras about the ‘death cult’ and crude references to Islam; mandatory detention of asylum seekers; uncritical repetition of doctrines of strategic faith from the spiritual capital (Washington DC); vengeful attacks on critics; and now the plan to create “civil outlaws” of Australian citizens (allegedly) fighting for the death cult.

The plan to strip alleged terrorists of their citizenship through ministerial fiat instead of seeking to rely on normal legal processes of the criminal law or recognition of their rights as a citizen is a move that I personally find objectionable, unprincipled, and dictatorial. Regardless of my personal instinct, it does seem at the very least to evoke the image of old-fashioned law and populist appeal (a retooling of the typical conservative “law and order” campaign). But there is room to be chilled to the bone when one makes a brief review of the mixed historical use of the concept of “outlaw” from Roman times to the French Revolution, including at its core an appeal to rule of the mob, as opposed to recourse to the law.

At least one of the close political advisers of the government, Cory Bernardi, and several Cabinet Ministers agree that this move is not that of a civilized country. Bernardi, one of the country’s most conservative senators, has been unambiguous. He described the plan to strip citizenship from alleged terrorists as “dangerous overcreep” of governmental power. While supporting the withdrawal of citizenship for dual nationals alleged to be terrorists, he said, “As a matter of principle, I think it’s absolutely wrong for us to take away citizenship from an individual whose sole citizenship is Australian.” He attacked it on principle with this argument:  to “be able to do it without any reference to a court of law, at the arbitrary whim of the [immigration] minister, I think the principle is entirely wrong”.

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The move has to be seen as part of the bigger trend to “followership” by Australia in national security policy. On the one hand, this move has been promoted by the immigration minister, Peter Dutton, partly on the grounds that the United Kingdom has introduced such a measure.

On the other hand, Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his government seem to be in the grip of the policy lines emanating from Washington on most matters of strategic policy, especially China, as faithfully and as loyally as medeaval priests once observed the propaganda of the faith from the Vatican. It is as if the age of reason or freedom of conscience have been set aside in Tony Abbott’s rush to create some Australian version of the “national security state.”

We should not lose sight of the consideration that Abbott sees his political standing with the electorate as strongest on national security. It is no coincidence that those known to oppose him in Cabinet on the “no citizenship for terrorists” gambit are those suspected of opposing his leadership across the board. Are Abbott’s followership in national security policy and his medieval instincts on it evidence of his determination to hold on to the leadership by this last available straw? Is he using wide backbench and popular support on this issue just as French revolutionaries used “rule of the mob” and the principle of “outside the law” to terrorize their own country in the name of a threat to civilized values?

Is a new dark age descending on Australia? No. The country is about to recognize equality in marriage rights regardless of sexual orientation. But the current government appears to be able to do something every few weeks in national security policy that sends shivers down the spine of all people committed to political liberalism. This suggest to me that the National Security Committee of the Cabinet, backed by howling mobs, and a largely uncritical media, is creating a distinctly Australian version of the security state that has a decidedly medieval, evangelical, and dark caste to it.

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