Foreigners decide who becomes Australian in citizenship chaos

The Australian Government recently tried, and failed, to make it harder to become an Australian citizen. But it is the citizenship of these very lawmakers that is causing political mayhem including the loss of the Deputy Prime Minister.

The High Court has just ruled the election of five parliamentarians to be ineligible because at the time of election these politicians held dual citizenship. To be a Parliamentarian in Australia, it is not enough to be a citizen, you cannot be a citizen of any other country either.

Barnaby Joyce, the then Deputy Prime Minister, was born in Australia and has lived his whole life here. He is an Australian. But he is also a New Zealander because his father was born in New Zealand. Deputy Leader of the Green Party, Scott Ludlum, resigned because he too was a New Zealander despite having left there aged 3. The other Deputy Leader of the Greens, Larissa Waters, had Canadian citizenship because she was born there, to Australian parents who returned with her to Australia when she was still a baby. Fiona Nash is British because her estranged father was born in Scotland, which she didn’t know meant that she was British too.

The fifth parliamentarian whose election was ruled ineligible by the High Court was Malcolm Roberts. He probably should have guessed that he held dual citizenship after after being born in India to Welsh parents and only becoming an Australian citizen when he was 19. The High Court ruled that the election of two others was legal but the drama has only intensified since.



Left to right: Ludlum, Waters, Joyce, Canavan (cleared), Roberts, Nash and Xenophon (cleared)

Immediately after the High Court ruled on these five people, the President of the Senate (Stephen Parry) resigned after admitting that he was a British citizen through his father. The Prime Minister was astonished to hear this but other Cabinet members were not as they knew about Senate President’s dual citizenship but advised Parry to wait until after the High Court ruled to decide whether to reveal his dual citizenship or not.

So far the opposition Labor Party has not lost any Parlimentarians to dual citizenship but the Government had, which meant that it had also lost its majority and relies on independent Members of Parliament for support. Then they lost another MP, with former Australian tennis number 1 (and world no. 8) John Alexander resigning because he was also British. If only the hordes at Wimbledon had known when he was playing in the 1977 doubles final.

A surprising element of this comedy has been that it has often been other people telling Parliamentarians that they are citizens of other countries. It was a British guy living in Australia who investigated Barnaby Joyce’s heritage and broke the story of his dual citizenship, causing Joyce to become outraged. Media organisations began to smell sweet, delicious, politician’s blood and were quickly researching who else may have dual citizenship throwing up a host of names. It was the media that uncovered John Alexander’s dual citizenship.

Facing the loss of Parliamentary control, the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, called for three opposition (Labor) Parliamentarians to refer their eligibility to the High Court due to media speculation of their citizenship. He was less forthright about an independent Parliamentarian supporting the government who may also have been British at the time of election. So far, the Labour MPs are not referring themselves, even though it looks like renunciation of their second citizenship was confirmed too late, and the Government doesn’t have a majority to vote for their referral.

People are beginning to realise there could be many former politicians, maybe even Prime Ministers, who held dual citizenship and should never have been in Parliament. And existing ones continue to resign. Senator  Lambie who is a totem for real, honest, hard working Aussies, turned out to be British through her father.


Jackie Lambie after resigning in Parliament

So far the attention and debate has focussed on whether certain politicians are dual citizens or not, but in time the question of whether dual citizenship should be a barrier has to be addressed. The constitution bans it to avoid undue foreign influence on the Australian government. However, as has become evident for many Australian politicians, you can be a citizen of another country without knowing and renouncing that citizenship is not fully in your control. Australia, of course, is full of first or second generation immigrants.

The gobsmacking thing for many Australians has been to learn how other countries treat citizenship. This is a country that tries to restrict citizenship and make it something that people have to earn through various tests if not conferred through birth. That people can be citizens of other countries so easily seems a little strange to many.

The concept of citizenship is fundamental to the way our world is [meant to be] structured and governed. The world is divided into States that are legally recognised and have geographic boundaries. No State should have a geographic boundary crossing with another and there should be no habited part of the world that is not part of a State (Antartica, a bit different, and there other places a bit disputed). Each person is a citizen of at least one State and thus has a place to live and call home. The right to nationality and citizenship is actually a fundamental human right from which other rights spring. Without it, a person, or group of people, is adrift and at sea.

The concept  of citizenship is meant to bring clarity, certainty and security to a messy world full of different tribes, clans, nations and peoples. The Australian government has tried to assert this authority by saying that it will decide who comes into the country, how and when. They will decide who gets to be in Australia and who does not; they will decide who becomes Australian and who does not. That the people deciding who should become Autralian or not were people who had foreign citizenship themselves only illustrates the need for nuance, and understanding, in a messy world.




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