Demanding loyalty to the state is always reactionary

It is easy to mock the absurd dual citizenship ban that led to the resignations of Greens senators Scott Ludlam and Larissa Waters, and is now knocking down senators and MPs at the rate of about one a week.

The idea that Scott Ludlam was secretly plotting against Australia on behalf of the New Zealand government, or that we need to worry Larissa Waters might have split loyalties in the event of Australia declaring war on Canada, is so patently ridiculous that even the battiest sections of the right didn’t claim this was the problem.

To the extent the Greens senators were criticised, it was for lack of due diligence in renouncing any foreign citizenship before running for office. But this only highlights the farce. The laws they fell foul of were designed, allegedly, to prevent high treason. But all they are really accused of is procedural sloppiness. Not exactly a hanging offence.

As the number of politicians who may be in breach of the ban widens, the situation becomes ever more ridiculous. Some scurry around trying to make sure they don’t have a parent taking out a Greek passport and thereby bestowing on them rights to citizenship outlawed by the Australian constitution.

Others who actually have close links with foreign powers – such as Michael Danby, Israel’s chief lobbyist in the federal parliament, or David Feeney, who WikiLeaks exposed as having briefed the US embassy on government infighting during the Rudd-Gillard years – carry on, unhindered by any constitutional obstacles.

But while the stupidity of the dual citizenship ban is widely acknowledged, the arguments put in favour of repealing it have had problems of their own.

Ian Holland, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, argued, “Citizenship is a useless test of loyalty. The fact this idea persists at all is evidence how little thought goes into the subject. Globally and throughout history, how many spies, agent provocateurs, or revolutionaries are foreign-born traitors? Hardly any”.

True enough, but what should we conclude from this? Most critics of the rule don’t think that loyalty tests per se are a bad thing, just that the requirement to renounce foreign citizenship is an unreliable test of loyalty.

Lorraine Finlay, writing critically of the ban at the Conversation, said that there “is no doubt that the integrity of parliament and the loyalty of MPs are vitally important”.

Rubbish. The demand for politicians to demonstrate loyalty to the state is dangerous and undemocratic. Politicians should be representatives of the people, not servants of the state.

The idea that, once elected, politicians have a “duty” to the state they are now part of has long been a crucial element in reining in politicians elected on radical left wing platforms. A century ago, the European socialist parliamentarians who reversed their anti-war programs and embraced the rush to war did so, at least in part, because they accepted they were part of the German or French or British state, and that the duty they owed to that institution was greater than the one they owed to their working class constituents, who were to be sent headlong into the trenches.

But loyalty-mongering is not just about securing support for foreign wars. Much more fundamentally, it is about binding domestic oppositional currents to the status quo. As part of his argument against the dual citizenship ban, Holland raised the example of the Communist Party of Australia:

“When communist influence spread through the labour movement and trade unions, it was through radical Australian nationals who would have considered themselves patriots. Australian politicians close to the Communist Party, such as Arthur Gietzelt, John Wheeldon or Tom Uren, were Australian-born or, in Gietzelt’s case, born in the United States, but raised in Australia by Australian parents. Nationality was not just irrelevant – it was committed Australians who fostered linkages with the international communist movement.”

Leaving aside the question of how much of a radical force the Communist Party was in the period Holland refers to, the implication is clear: if elected representatives do not bow before the state and accept its legitimacy, they have no right to sit in parliament, regardless of how much support they have from voters.

That sentiment – which refuses to contemplate the possibility that loyalty to the mass of the population can conflict with loyalty to the apparatus that administers the status quo – is fundamentally anti-democratic. It should be banished, not bolstered.