What’s the deal with Dual Citizenship

With the Government having floundered through the same sex marriage debate –  the last thing Malcolm Turnbull needed was the legitimacy of his Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce being questioned under section 44(i) of the Constitution.

The current political debate regarding the dual citizenship of a number of MPs has taken off like a bush fire on a hot dry summers day. Just as the Opposition questions the legitimacy of the Government, the Government is now questioning Bill Shortens citizenship.

What seems to be forgotten in the current debate is that this issue is not without precedent.

When Paul Keating was Prime Minister in the early 90’s, several MPs and Senators also faced the question of their eligibility to sit in the Parliament, with the focus back then being on foreign born members. It’s fascinating to see how differently the issue is playing out in the current political environment.

Back then the community didn’t witness the outrage we are seeing today. The MP’s and Senators impacted simply renounced their dual citizenship and got on with their careers unchallenged.

In the current chaotic political environment, the Parliament has already lost two Green Senators and others led by the Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce are about to have their eligibility to sit in the Parliament tested in the High Court.

The biggest concern for the Government is that of Barnaby Joyce.  If he is found to be ineligible, then the Government will technically be a minority Government until a by-election can be held in his seat of New England.

So why has this become such a hot political potato?

Today’s political climate is vastly different for the following reasons;

  • The stakes are higher due to the Government’s one seat majority;
  • Keating was a strong leader, leading a united Government, whereas Turnbull has been constantly undermined from within – projecting a perception of disharmony to the community.
  • The current Opposition has ruthlessly exploited this issue, whereas the Hewson Opposition, in the 90’s didn’t see the matter as a political weapon.
  • It was an era of political stability, whereas today we see an inherently unstable political environment with the influence of the minor parties.
  • The 24/7 media feeding frenzy didn’t exist back then

What Happened in the 90s?

At the time, several MPs faced similar questions to their right to sit in the Parliament.The focus was on those MPs who were foreign born, unlike the current focus on those having an eligibility to foreign citizenship due to the place of birth of their parents or grandparents.

The catalyst in 1992 was the famous Cleary case. In this case Phil Cleary (who won Bob Hawke’s) old seat in a by-election was ruled to be ineligible by the High Court under the office of profit under the crown provisions in section 44 because he was a school teacher.

Two other candidates in the by-election were Mr Kardamitsis and Mr Delacretaz. In the course of the challenge it was found they were also ineligible to have been candidates for election, under the dual citizenship provision section 44(i) because they had not taken all reasonable steps to renounce their other citizenship, which they both failed to do.

At the time I was working as a senior staffer to the then Tasmanian Senator Nick Sherry. It is instructive to see what former Senator Sherry had to say on the matter in a speech he gave to the Senate in 1998.

“It is fair to say that at the end of 1992 this did cause some major concerns for members of parliament. I was one of them. I do not recall the exact number, but there were certainly double figures of members of the House of Representatives and the Senate for whom there was an arguable case over whether they had failed to renounce the country of their home of birth.”  (emphasis added)

From memory, there were between 10 and 15 members and senators who could have been challenged under section 44(i).  At the time, no challenges were made and no referrals from the Parliament to the High Court eventuated.  How times have changed.

MPs simply paid a fee to renounce their citizenship and got on with their parliamentary careers and the Government with governing.

In the words of former Senator Sherry:

“If there was a formal procedure, even if they had Australian citizenship, as a consequence of the High Court decision they were open to challenge—let us put it that way. I was one of those who, in a flurry of activity, dashed down to the British High Commission, sought out the details for renunciation of citizenship from Britain, paid the appropriate fee—which at that time was $50, I think—and lodged renunciation forms. There were quite a number of members of parliament at that time who had to go through that procedure.” (emphasis added).

The significant difference is there has been seismic shift from 25 years ago where both major parties had a fundamental commitment to strong and stable government.

What difference a mere 25 years makes!

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