Malcolm Turnbull is correct. Greens senators Scott Ludlam and Larissa Waters were careless in not checking their citizenship status before nominating for election to the Senate. Moreover, as the Prime Minister said on Radio 5AA in Adelaide on Wednesday, Australians are “entitled to expect that, as the Constitution says, their parliamentary representatives have allegiance to one nation and to one nation only and that nation is our nation”.
New Zealand-born Ludlam and Canadian-born Waters were elected to the Senate in 2007 and 2010 respectively. As experienced parliamentarians, they should have known before now how section 44(i) has been interpreted by the High Court. After all, there were precedents where parliamentarians had lost their positions on account of dual citizenship — namely, the Nuclear Disarmament Party’s Bob Wood (born in New Zealand) in 1988 and One Nation’s Heather Hill (born in Britain) in 1998.
In a speech to the Senate on October 5, 2010, the Liberal Party’s Eric Abetz documented the actions he took to ensure that he had renounced his German citizenship. In a document released this week, former prime minister Tony Abbott demonstrated that he had sought advice from the British High Commissioner in Australia to confirm that he was no longer a British citizen.
Along with some other MPs, Abetz and Abbott renounced their dual citizenship before nominating for parliament. Ludlam and Waters could have done the same.
Writing in the Inside Story blog last Wednesday, Graeme Orr (a professor of law at the University of Queensland) declared there was “a bias in the system”. His point was “the major parties have the resources and professional advice to vet candidates against such laws; the minor parties are less blessed”. Nonsense. The Greens are a well-resourced political party with numerous taxpayer-funded political staff members on hand to do quite simple checks with respect to citizenship status.
Orr criticised unnamed commentators who in “some conservative outlets took to blaming the senators for ‘forgetting’ their nationality”. But the fact is that all who nominate for parliament are required to describe their citizenship status. What’s more, Ludlam’s resignation tweet, in which he depicted his error as “a thing”, was completely insouciant.
Orr’s essential point was to bag Australia’s citizenship laws. Interviewed on ABC TV’s News Breakfast on Wednesday, he declared “it’s an undemocratic provision of the Constitution to say that electors cannot elect a fellow elector”. This is mere hyperbole. On this analysis the US is undemocratic since only an American-born citizen can become US president. Yet Australia and the US are among the most democratic societies in the world.
In his Inside Story article, Orr wrote: “The idea that Australians who acquire dual citizenship by default — at birth, say, or via their parentage — are too conflicted to run for or serve in parliament is not so much arcane as absurd.” But is it? If Australians choose to stand for parliament in the hope of being elected and take part in making laws, it is reasonable to expect that they are citizens of just one nation: Australia.
Writing in The Conversation this week, Murdoch University law lecturer Lorraine Finlay acknowledged the significance of “the principles that underpin section 44(i)”.
She commented that “the integrity of parliament and the loyalty of MPs are vitally important”, adding: “this issue has been highlighted only recently with claims about the influence of foreign donations in Australian politics”. In any event, the critics of section 44(i) underestimate the difficulty in removing or even changing this provision.
Orr, who according to his CV has never worked in national politics, told News Breakfast that Australian politicians “seem to be scared of putting referendums to the people”. It’s not a matter of fear. It’s just that Coalition and Labor politicians alike understand that there is little point of going to the effort and cost of running referendum proposals that are not likely to succeed. In the present political climate it’s difficult to see any proposal that could be seen as beneficial to politicians prevailing in a referendum.
It’s not as if section 44(i) is a reform priority. It’s relatively easy for existing or aspiring politicians to check their citizenship status before nominating for election, especially if they were born in countries such as Britain, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand and the US.
It was not long before the Ludlam “thing” brought up the issue of who should be Australia’s head of state.
On July 14, Fairfax Media columnist and Australian Republic Movement chairman Peter FitzSimons tweeted: “Senator has dual citizenship? Resign immediately. Head of State is 100 per cent English? No problem.” ABC presenter Emma Alberici endorsed FitzSimons’ analysis, tweeting: “Sums up the lunacy of it really.” Yet no lunacy is involved here.
I voted yes at the 1999 referendum and favour Australia having an Australian head of state. But the issue of whether Australia becomes a republic is not related to the matter of dual citizenship. Moreover, the monarch, currently Elizabeth II, does not vote on and has no stake in determining legislation passed by the Australian parliament, unlike Australia’s elected parliamentarians.