By ALEX NELSON
On October 13, 2001 the CLP’s number one Senate candidate Nigel Scullion dashed to London to revoke his British citizenship.
Nominations for the November 10 federal election campaign were due to close on October 18, and Scullion sought to leave nothing to chance in order to comply with eligibility requirements for his candidacy.
It was an embarrassing oversight for the CLP that topped a disastrous year of political intrigue and its first defeat at the Territory polls on August 18.
It was symptomatic of a sloppiness that inevitably arises in circumstances when political parties engage in self-indulgent power games that divert attention from the provision of good government.
Only two years earlier – in 1999 – the High Court ruled that Queensland One Nation senator-elect Heather Hill was ineligible for office because she held dual Australian-British citizenship. Obviously that lesson had failed to make an impression in the CLP, the party’s attention clearly distracted by its internal wranglings at the time.
Nigel Scullion’s predicament was born (literally) of the fact of his birth in England where he lived for the first six weeks of his life.
It’s exactly reminiscent of recent Queensland Greens senator Larissa Waters who held dual Australian-Canadian citizenship because of her birth in Canada where she lived for the first 11 months of her life; but in an extraordinary twist she was born only one week before Canadian law was changed revoking automatic conferral of citizenship to babies born to foreigners in that country.
But for seven days Larissa Waters would have been perfectly entitled to remain as a senator.
Waters’ resignation from the Australian Senate in July was just days after her colleague Scott Ludlam’s abrupt departure due to his New Zealand citizenship that triggered the crisis which now embroils federal politics.
It’s a peculiarly Australian problem – dual citizenship doesn’t preclude citizens from holding political office in Britain, the US Congress, Canada or New Zealand.
How has it come to this absurd situation?
Briefly, when the Australian Constitution came into force in 1901, Australian citizenship didn’t exist – all Australian residents were described as British subjects along with other countries that comprised the British Commonwealth (there was, however, legislation specifically excluding people of colour from Africa, Asia and the Pacific, the forerunner of the infamous “White Australia” policy).
Australian citizenship came into existence on Australia Day, January 26, 1949; but even then Australian citizens were still regarded as British subjects (arguably all Australians became dual citizens!)
It wasn’t until 1984 that the Hawke Government repealed the status of being a British subject in an amendment to Australian citizenship laws. This is why the difficulties over dual citizenship now afflicting Federal politics has arisen comparatively recently – it appears to be a “sleeper” issue that has caught us unaware.
The timing is exquisite given the fine balance of power situation existing not just in the Senate (which is normal) but also in the Lower House – this crisis threatens to topple the Turnbull Government.
Is this crisis as intractable as it seems? Dual citizenship is commonplace in Australia – as it is around the world – and a vast number of people with dual nationality have and continue to contribute enormously to society with no suggestion arising over disloyalty to the country.
This includes politicians – dual citizenship isn’t an issue for state governments.
However, that may not apply to Territory governments which derive their powers directly from Commonwealth legislation that in turn is subject to the Australian Constitution. Conceivably the citizenship status of some Territory politicians (ACT and the NT) may also come into question, too.
The problems that have arisen now are a direct consequence of changes to citizenship laws, which have been altered more than 30 times since Federation.
Which begs the question: cannot the relevant legislation be amended to avert the crisis over dual citizenship now underway?
For example, is it possible to provide for a suspension of foreign citizenship for Federal politicians with dual citizenship during their time in office, deeming those members as exclusively Australian citizens for the duration of their time in service to the Parliament, and in such manner as to satisfy Section 44(i) of the Constitution?
Perhaps this provision could be especially applicable to those members whose citizenship difficulties arise from circumstances outside their control or knowledge in their family backgrounds?
Because if this suggestion does provide a solution it will help to reduce this constitutional mountain to the molehill it deserves to be.
By ALEX NELSON