Last month, I wrote about former Australian Greens Senator Scott Ludlam’s resignation from the Parliament, following the revelation that he held dual citizenship of Australia and New Zealand. Since that time, Section 44 of the Constitution of Australia has received unprecedented attention, as the eligibility of a string of additional Australian Senators and Cabinet ministers has been called into question.
Ludlam’s resignation was closely followed by that of Senator Larissa Waters, who had emigrated to Australia from Canada when she was an infant. She was deemed ineligible owing to her dual citizenship of Australia and Canada.
Both claimed to have been previously unaware of their latent citizenship, having emigrated to Australia as children. They also agreed that Section 44 of the Constitution of Australia was unambiguous with respect to citizenship and promptly resigned.
Typically, citizenship is bestowed in two ways. “Jus solis” or the “right of soil” refers to citizenship associated with a person’s place of birth. “Jus sanguinis” or “right of blood” instead bestows citizenship through one’s parentage.
Unlike Ludlam and Waters, the other parliamentarians who have had their eligibility questioned owing to dual citizenship have chosen to dig in. They now await decisions from the High Court of Australia, acting as the Court of Disputed Returns.
A queue forms at the Court of Disputed Returns
- National party MP Matt Canavan currently holds Italian citizenship, which he claims was arranged by his mother in 2006 without his knowledge. He resigned from his Cabinet position as Minister for Resources and Northern Australia, but has not resigned from the Parliament.
- One Nation Senator Malcolm Roberts gave conflicting accounts of his citizenship, before eventually admitting that he had been both an Australian and British citizen. Roberts was born in India to an Australian father and British mother. He has not resigned from the Parliament.
- Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce was confirmed to be a New Zealand citizen by descent through his father’s side. Joyce claimed ignorance of this. He is continuing in his roles as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources until the court has ruled on his case.
- National party deputy Fiona Nash was confirmed to be a British citizen by descent through her father, who was born in Scotland. Her parents divorced when she was eight, and she was raised by her Australian born mother. She will continue to serve in Cabinet as the Minister for Regional Development and Minister for Local Government and Territories.
What about the Liberal and Labor parties?
Following the Ludlam resignation, I contacted all Australian parliamentarians born outside of Australia, asking about their citizenship statuses. Those with possible citizenship by parentage were harder to trace, so were not contacted. Some members of both major parties were forthcoming, while others were not, and my list was updated as responses were received.
The Acting National Secretary of the ALP, Paul Erickson, provided me with the following blanket statement:
“The Labor Party works closely with all our candidates to ensure that their nomination is sound and compliant with the constitution. This is a critical part of our nomination processes. We are confident that every member of the Labor caucus has been properly elected.”
No similar statement was received from the Liberal party. Replies containing details of citizenships renounced were received from the offices of MPs Sussan Ley and Ian Goodenough only.
And what of Nick Xenophon?
On 14 July 2017 I wrote to the office of Senator Nick Xenophon, in the hopes that he might champion a whole-of-parliament citizenship audit. I wrote:
“I believe it would be pertinent for a fellow Senator such as yourself to suggest that an audit of citizenship status be conducted as soon as practicable for all members of the Commonwealth Parliament… It would be good to give this issue a good air and treat all parliamentarians fairly, given that one senator has taken a principled stand and resigned over the matter.”
Over a month later, Xenophon has finally called for such an audit- but he wasn’t the first. That title belongs to Australian Greens leader Richard Di Natale. Regrettably for Nick, his own eligibility has also been called into question. Xenophon has told the ABC that he has contacted the UK Home Office, seeking to clarify whether or not he is a British citizen by descent through his father.
So what happens next?
So two senators have resigned and four (potentially five) cases are currently awaiting hearings at the Court of Disputed Returns. The Turnbull government has expressed its view that the court is likely to rule in favour of deeming the three National party members who claim to have recently discovered their dual citizenship statuses eligible to remain. The matter has been very disruptive for the parliament and many political parties and no doubt personally distressing for those directly embroiled.
Should MPs be disqualified pending the court’s decision, the resulting by-elections could shift the balance of power with implications for the government as it is currently formed.
In a piece written on July 27, commentator John Quiggin suggested that some good could yet come from this farcical scene, but only if the Constitution is upheld in full and without bias. I’m inclined to agree with him. He wrote:
“While the framers (of the Constitution) guarded against the sources of corruption evident to them, they never anticipated the problems we have now. It’s OK for political parties to be in hock to foreign donors, for someone who has renounced his Australian citizenship to control most of our media, and for careerist politicians to start out as hack staffers, give out favors in office, and cash them out afterwards. But if you don’t do the paperwork to cancel potential citizenship in a country you’ve never seen, you’re out on your ear.
At this point, the situation is so bad that “worse is better”. The best outcome would be for another dozen or two members of Parliament, from all parties, to be thrown out. Then we might get the unanimous support we would need to fix the absurdities of Section 44. Of course, that wouldn’t do anything about the real problems, but at least we would be free of this anti-democratic nonsense.”