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Rebecca Lowe Coulson was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.

From the vintage Italian coffee machines of Carlton to the old Greek gyro-makers amidst the increasingly expensive homes of Northcote, Melbourne’s ethnic diversity is patent. Of course, Australia is famous — or, to some, infamous, as shown by recent attacks on the Captain Cook statue in Sydney’s Hyde Park over its plaque’s claim that he “discovered this territory” — for being a settler nation.

Representing a huge country with a relatively small population (currently just under 25 million), successive Australian governments have embraced immigration. Approaches have not been without controversy — most notorious were the various “white Australia” policies, which precluded immigrants on the grounds of race — but from the 1950s onwards, many Southern Europeans and migrants from diverse other countries added to Australia’s growing “Anglo-Celtic” population. Today, 49 per cent of Australians were either born overseas or had one or both parents who were.

This is the context for the country’s hottest political dilemma: the dual citizenship scandal. (Though the upcoming equal marriage postal survey is a contender, too.) In October, five MPs — or maybe more — will appear before the High Court to see whether their dual citizenships will be judged to prevent them continuing in office. Under section 44 (1) of the Australian constitution, people holding citizenship of any country aside from Australia are not allowed to run for election to become federal politicians. MPs have been forced to stand down over this before, but the complexities of the cases of some of those currently under assessment mean it is thought the previous ruling could be amended or overturned.

There’s no time here to discuss the subject in detail, but it’s striking that whilst citizenship is very much an international issue de jour, the renouncement of it is rarely a focus. (Even refugees fleeing their home do so to escape a certain regime, rather than to renounce their country itself.) More often, people seek to take up new citizenships in countries they have moved to, in order to extend their rights, and/or gain the feeling of official belonging and acceptance.

In an increasingly globalised world, however — in which the Westphalian order of nation states is regularly criticised as inward-looking — citizenship is repeatedly denounced as an outdated representation of division and exclusion. It hardly seems necessary to comment that such denouncements typically come from the privileged, within the most economically and politically secure nations. And that, like those Britons angered at the imminent loss of their EU citizenship after Brexit, few “global citizens” seem keen to give up the privileges of their current national citizenships.

Of course, what many of those citizenship-snubbers truly want (like most of the rest of us) is for their own privileges to be extended to those living in less secure places. It is undeniable that great global imbalances remain, even though living standards continue to rise across the world. But then, the question should not be whether the concept of citizenship precludes opportunities in the sense that being a member of one state can be highly preferable to being a member of another, but whether it is still the case that one’s rights and opportunities are best protected and afforded through membership of an individuated state. In a world in which secure states increasingly offer extensive rights to non-citizen inhabitants, and less secure states need more substantial upheaval and help than an improved understanding of the intricacies of membership rules, is the concept of citizenship relevant?

We all remember how, in her 2016 Conservative Party conference speech, Theresa May said that “citizens of the world” were “citizens of nowhere”. The comment has become symbolic of an approach for which she has been widely criticised: an approach seen both as arrogant, and as attempting to appeal to those on the further right of her party.

At the time, I felt her tone mistaken, in that I would have preferred a use of language implying greater keenness to heal, or at least address pressing divisions within the country. General criticisms of the comment often overlook the argument May was setting out, however. The words came within a section about the “spirit of citizenship”, and read, in full: “But if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizen’ means”. Surely, it is that forgotten second sentence that is key, here. And that the point May was in the midst of making was about the importance of “respecting the bonds and obligations that make our society work”.

The state, and the society that exists within it, still matters profoundly to those people who aren’t happy with the countries they call home. As Australian MPs are becoming aware, official membership of such societies is conferred in different ways: from the automatic rights of familial lineage to the successful passing of a test. But the standard way of gaining the citizenship of a state is by being born and growing up in it. For those of us fortunate to count somewhere like Britain or Australia as that place, it can be easy to take for granted the relative privileges this affords us.

Yet most of us see that the uncertainties and risks of life make it expedient for us to live together in societies, and that, as social creatures, it is natural for us to want to do so, over and above that expediency. The advancements of the past centuries — in communication, travel, science, military capabilities, commerce, and on — have made it impractical for societies to remain limited to the family groups, villages, or cities they once were. The continuation of that advancement does not mean that our embrace of the nation state must also become outdated, however. For simple reasons of functionality — not to mention the more complex, such as those related to culture or national identity — it is hard to see how bigger blocs or idealist internationalist approaches could work.

The political and economic frailty of the EU shows this. The inability of non-state actors, like the UN, to solve the humanitarian disasters of our world shows this, too. As long as we believe in the rights of the individual — and believe that those rights should be upheld by the powers to which the individual cedes some freedom in order to gain security and representation — it is difficult not to believe in the state: an entity small enough to allow us an individual political voice and a gradually developed group identity, yet big enough to protect us in a global world. And it is difficult not to believe in citizenship as part of that — as the official tie between us and our state, not only representing the benefits of membership, but also the obligations.

Sure, many questions remain: not least those about the rights of non-citizens within a state, those about the obligations we have towards citizens of other states, those about our capacity for allegiance to more than one state, and those about non-state actors. First, however, we need to decide where we should begin. Australian MPs may be keen to renounce their citizenships, but let us not renounce the concept as a starting point for debate.

52 comments for: Rebecca Lowe Coulson: Unfashionable and derided it may be, but the concept of citizenship still matters

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