Here’s a fine mess

The great citizenship debacle rolls on, and it’s hard to see anyone coming out of it looking good.

The primary blame goes to the High Court which decided to use an absurdly literal interpretation of the Constitution to knock out a couple of independent candidates back in the 1990s (they’d been naturalised but hadn’t properly revoked their previous citizenship). If the first person to fall afoul of this interpretation had been a senior government minister, I have no doubt the Court would have decided differently. But literalism and precedent are a disastrous combination.

Apart from Scott Ludlam and Larissa Waters (and the Greens more generally), the politicians haven’t covered themselves in glory either. Those who think themselves safe have mocked those who’ve been caught, sometimes ending up with egg on their faces. And the actions of senior government figures who concealed the problematic status of Senate President Parry (apparently keeping it from the increasingly pointless PM and A-G) have made matters worse.

Then there’s the great Australian public, who will almost certainly reject any attempt to fix the problem, because they don’t like politicians. I’ve run across heaps of people saying it’s just a matter of “due diligence”, an odd phrase to use of hoop-jumping that can take months and cost tens of thousands of dollars Yet if these restrictions (unique to Australia) had not existed and were proposed today, they’d be laughed out of court.

The logic of all this takes us to a position where the majority of Australians are potentially ineligible to run for Parliament (dual citizens, anyone who has a foreign-born parent, anyone with a government job, potentially anyone receiving a pension, anyone who has business dealings with the government). How anyone can see this as other than a major problem for a democracy is beyond me.

Worse still, these absurd rules do nothing to protect us from actual corruption. Political parties can take money from foreign companies which may be acting on behalf of forigen governments. They can sell assets on the cheap and then get cushy jobs in banks. They can even be paid by lobby groups while in office then go to work for those very same groups.

The one group who can’t really be blamed for this are the framers of the Constitution. In 1901, when virtually all Australians were British subjects, and when an “office of profit under the Crown” was a rarity, they could scarcely have foreseen the mess that would ensue a century later when their words were applied to a totally different world.

61 thoughts on “Here’s a fine mess

  1. I think Jacinta Arden summed it up nicely when she offered to make any Australian who stands for election automatically a citizen of NZ. The constitution would presumably catch fire shortly afterwards.

    Forget the political grandstanding, this is a gift to any country who gets annoyed at Australia. As I said before, just wait until Timor-Leste or PNG wake up to the possibilities. it doesn’t have to be an actual grant of citizenship, the threat is enough “Oh Great Australian Foreign Minister, please be nice to us or we might have to make you a citizen of our country”. I can’t imagine Russia or Indonesia being so crass, but then I can’t imagine our current Forn Munster picking up subtle hints either.

  2. Assume that we are now a democracy, and not an implied one, should not the Constitution decribe and detail the role of citizenship. It is surely absurd to be an Australian Citizen and not be able to be candidate for Federal Parliament. The principle of equality ought to apply. I think the problem need is the perceived inability to amend the Constitution. I think an absolute majority of electors plus the Parliament should be sufficient together with a process of initative. Inspired by the Uluru Statement from the Heart, the authentic note of democracy, I would propose a process by which citizens meet to propose solutions and learn about matters, such as indigenous culture and history, especially since settlement, and put there case as in the Uluru Statement in a one page statement, which would then be presented to Parliament. These statements might suggest Constitutional amendments. In practice this would be messy, but that is democracy for you.

  3. The meetings, for this proposal, would be conducted in Local Government Areas, which would give Local Government constitutional recognition. I know democracy is far-fetched.

  4. I think a good starting point is, “if you can vote you can stand”. As much as one may disagree with the likes of Joyce, you can’t argue that his loyalties are divided. He is a part of his community and its clear that he represents them, and not some “foreign power”. The shame is that Turnbull is gutless in not contemplating a referendum for s.44. It’s a mess and if our political leadership can’t propose such a sensible change to the constitution why are they there?

  5. Ralph, I thought the major reason for elected parliamentary representatives was that the time and expertise involved in managing and determining the wheels of government precluded involvement by each and every voter in the process. If potential representatives cannot fill out a form correctly why should we trust them to run the country?

  6. @ralph

    A s44 referendum would be portrayed as asking the Australian people whether they are OK with having foreigners in the federal parliament. Good luck getting a majority of people in a majority of states to approve in the current climate where trust in politicians is at historical lows.

  7. @Lesley de Voil

    1. First you have to know which form(s) you have to fill out. Can you list every country or former country in your ancestry, and describe their citizenship laws? if not, how do you know you’re not a potential dual citizen? And that’s without worrying about the rest of s44. Have you ever done business with, or worked for, any public sector organization. If so, have you informed yourself about the implications for eligibility?

    2. The latest claims involve people who filled out the forms but didn’t get them back from the foreign country in time for the election. So, it’s not your own diligence you need to worry about but that of people on the other side of the planet.

    On the plus side, your comment and many others here, indicate that the OP is absolutely right about the likelihood of fixing this. We are stuck with this absurdity thanks to our own collective stupidity, as well as that of the countries allegedly finest legal minds.

  8. John, it’s fairly obvious that at least some MP’s had not undertaken any research into the question of their potential for dual citizenship before signing the Stat. Dec. upon nominating for election. Considering that they are well compensated, one would like to assume that their capacity to undertake due diligence is appropriate to the needs of the nation.
    As an aside, my husband was required to obtain evidence of Australian citizenship before his employment by Dept of Defence, so, yes, I am acquainted with the process.
    My argument is the general one that MP’s should not just be rubber stamps on legislation.
    Re 2) The form already stipulates “reasonable efforts”. Reliable evidence of an application and any ensuing correspondence should be sufficient evidence of intent.

  9. @John Quiggin

    If there is a requirement to wait for the very foreign power 44i is there to reduce the influence of, that creates a greater potential for change.

    The Constitution is quite clear on foreign citizenship and it would take severe contortions to have more than minimal exceptions to that.

  10. @Lesley de Voil

    Proving a citizenship you know about is usually easier than finding a citizenship you do not know about. With citizenship by indefinite descent, citizenship by birth and citizenship by marriage applying in some jurisdictions, often with combined effect, there is a lot to be checked.

  11. I disagree with blaming the High Court for this mess. The court simply provided its interpretation of the law – a law that has been proudly ignored for decades!

    The main problem in this affair is that it involves politicians, and we got to see their values and principles in open display. The result? The two Greens can stand proud; they discovered a problem, investigated it, and did The Right Thing.

    Every other member of our houses of parliament who has been touched by this possibly anachronistic but nevertheless very real law showed us what they think of the Australian Constitution. The major parties showed their contempt for the rule of law, and did their utmost to ignore it while making it somehow ‘the other party’s problem’. This is the lesson of the exercise – that all must obey the laws of the land, but some of us will try damned hard to escape their consequences.

    I think it is unlikely that we will see any attempt to change this part of the Constitution any time soon – and any attempt is doomed to failure. Why? Because we have seen into the hearts of our ‘leaders’, and been shown that there is one law for me and one for thee. We do not, and clearly cannot, trust any person that is nominated to be sent into Parliament by our major parties. That is the real lesson here.

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