Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton MP is well known for throwing out subjective opinion as fact. His flippant assertions are plastered across mainstream news, regardless of how incorrect, offensive or harmful to Australia’s diverse communities. However it’s one thing to pander to the ideological sensitivities of the conservative fan-base with misinformed declarations, and another thing entirely to take serious action with significant legal consequences based on nothing more than supposition and conjecture.
In the case of Australian-born terrorist Neil Prakash, the latter applies. In what can only be described as an embarrassing botching of a matter which should have been a public relations winner, it appears that Dutton has stripped citizenship from a sole Australian citizen, rendering Prakash stateless. The government has made the ill-advised assumption that Prakash is a national or citizen of a country other than Australia, namely Fiji, because his father is Fijian. Accordingly, Dutton gave written notice to Prakash, as required by law, advising that he had ceased to be an Australian citizen by virtue of his overseas terrorist/foreign fighting activities.
Clearly Dutton, or his advisors, or the senior bureaucrats responsible for briefing Dutton, didn’t actually read the Australian Citizenship Act 2007, legislation which Dutton so fervently advocated for. Or they read it, and didn’t understand it. And yet, in the face of senior Fijian officials contradicting the Australian government, and legal experts throwing doubt on the veracity of Dutton’s claims and the legality of the administrative action in affirming the cessation of Prakash’s citizenship, Dutton is holding strong.
To see just how ludicrous it is for Dutton to maintain that Prakash is a citizen of Fiji, the same creative logic can be applied to another definitive statement.
“Peter Dutton is a potato”.
In order to analyse this seemingly erroneous, or at best metaphorical statement, it’s necessary to step through the logic which should have been applied when determining if section 35 of the Australian Citizenship Act actually applied to Prakash.
The elements required to be satisfied for section 35 to apply are unambiguous:
(1) A person aged 14 or older ceases to be an Australian citizen if:
(a) the person is a national or citizen of a country other than Australia; and
(b) the person:
(i) serves in the armed forces of a country at war with Australia; or
(ii) fights for, or is in the service of, a declared terrorist organisation; and
(c) the person’s service or fighting occurs outside Australia.
Clearly Prakash is over the age of 14 being now 27 years old, and Australia-born, is at least capable of losing his Australian citizenship if the remaining elements are satisfied.
Section 35(1)(a) requires that a person “is a national or citizen of a country other than Australia”. This element is particularly relevant to determining the correctness or otherwise of the statement “Peter Dutton is a potato”.
There are no two ways to interpret the requirement in section 35(1)(a). However breaking it down for ease of understanding the operative word is “is” followed by the nouns “national” or “citizen”. The ordinary definition of “is” is the present tense third-person singular of “be” which means to equal, have identity with, or to have an objective existence. There is no “maybe” or “possibly” or “subjectively could be” or “Dutton really wants it to be the case because political convenience”.
For section 35 to apply, and for Prakash to have ceased to be an Australian citizen, he must have objectively existed as a national or citizen of a country other than Australia at the time he fought in a declared terrorist organisation, Islamic State, while overseas. That doesn’t mean “entitled to” or “eligible for” Fijian citizenship; the statement “Prakash is a national or citizen of Fiji” must have been definitively true at the applicable time.
This is where it gets awkward for the government.
Whether or not someone is a national or citizen of a country is a question of fact. Nationality and citizenship are distinct legal concepts, which are defined in a constitution or legislation or codified in the relevant country. The status of someone as a national or citizen is not simply a matter of opinion. And Fijian officials have stated quite unequivocally that Prakash is not a citizen of Fiji.
So back to the contemporaneous assertion that Peter Dutton is a potato.
Once again, there is no ambiguity in the interpretation of “is”. Peter Dutton either is, or is not, a potato. He doesn’t act like a potato or look like a potato, or want to be a potato. The statement doesn’t inquire whether he is entitled or eligible to be a potato. It states that Peter Dutton objectively exists as a potato.
From an ordinary reading, this statement is clearly nonsensical, as Dutton is a homo sapien and not a starchy plant tuber. However using the same creative interpretive logic as the government, there is a stronger argument that Dutton is in fact a potato compared with the assertion that Prakash is a Fijian citizen.
As the definition of “national” or “citizen” is a distinct legal concept, it’s a question of fact whether a person is or is not a national or citizen, and a narrow or broad interpretation of such will result in the same conclusion. It may be difficult to navigate the complex citizenship laws of foreign countries and it may be necessary to consult legal experts from the relevant jurisdiction. But regardless, the citizenship status of a person will usually be definitive.
However because there is no legislative definition of “potato”, it’s necessary to adopt an ordinary meaning as defined in a dictionary. A narrow interpretation of “potato” results in the claim that Dutton is a starchy plant tuber. However a broad interpretation could include definitions found in a standard dictionary or an urban dictionary. This provides a far more imaginative use of the word. Dutton could be an object of poor quality, or a confusing word at the end of a sentence, or the sad forever alone single, a not-so-confident girl, or a person who is brainless and not aware of anything.
It appears on the available information that Prakash does not, and has not at any time, objectively existed as a Fijian citizen. As such, it is likely that section 35 of the Australian Citizenship Act does not apply to Prakash. His alleged involvement in overseas terrorist activities did not cause automatic cessation of his Australian citizenship, and Dutton erred in providing him with written notice that his Australian citizenship had ceased.
However it is evidently open to interpretation that Dutton is in fact a potato. While this goes some way to explaining how such a monumental and internationally embarrassing error could have occured, it is no consolation to Australians currently subject to Dutton’s continued reign of nincompoopery.
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