A citizenship crisis, whereby five federal MPs have been ruled ineligible to sit in parliament, has created turmoil for the Turnbull government. Matters have only been made worse since the Senate president Stephen Parry has confirmed that he is also a foreign citizen.
Section 44 of the Australian Constitution states that any person with “allegiance, obedience or adherence to a foreign power” is unfit to stand for election. This archaic rule has been interpreted to disallow dual citizens from being public representatives.
The current crisis kicked off when Greens senators Scott Ludlum and Larissa Waters resigned from parliament claiming they were both unaware they were dual citizens. Both were born overseas and moved to Australia as children.
When the news broke, ribbing began from Malcom Turnbull, only to cease soon after when members of his own Coalition were also found to be dual citizens. In total, seven members of parliament were engulfed by the scandal, with the High Court ruling that only two were eligible to remain in their positions.
Barnaby Joyce, the deputy prime minister, was the only member of the government involved from the House of Representatives. His disqualification has triggered a by-election in his electorate of New England. Given he has now renounced his New Zealand citizenship he will be eligible to stand.
With the Turnbull government only clinging onto power by a single seat they are in a very precarious position. Joyce’s absence jeopardises the government’s ability to command a majority in the House of Representatives. While a full-blown constitutional crisis is not the most likely scenario in the coming weeks, the situation does highlight just how weak Turnbull’s grip on power is. Since its election last year, the government has been wracked by crisis after crisis.
While many of us have no sympathy for the fate of Barnaby Joyce or the Coalition, we should be careful to not adopt an opportunist position in relation to citizenship, as the Greens have done.
The Greens have argued that Section 44 should be interpreted in a strict way, ensuring that anyone who is a dual citizen, even if unwittingly getting that status through their parents or grandparents, is barred from standing for federal office. Such a ruling is fundamentally undemocratic.
Figures from 2011 show that 27% of the Australian population was born overseas. A large percentage of those people would be dual citizens. In addition, another 20% of Australians are second generation, leaving them open to being dual citizens through their parents, whether they are aware of it or not.
The Greens opportunist support for the undemocratic Section 44 of the constitution is a dangerous precedent to set. Instead of calling for adherence to this archaic document, we should be demanding that the rules are changed. As it stands the constitution blocks a huge proportion of the population from standing in elections, a fundamental democratic right.
Socialists demand the right for all people to stand for elections regardless of their country of origin or background. Furthermore, we place no faith in a constitution drafted by a rich elite who stole the land of this country in the service of British capitalism. It does not represent the majority of ordinary people.
As well as fighting for democratic rights in the here and now we need to fight for the creation of a society that is built on direct democracy. Being asked to vote for one or another big business party every few years is not genuine democracy.
It is not ruled out that in addition to Stephen Parry more MPs are found to be dual citizens in the coming weeks. This issue has the potential to engulf all of the parliamentary parties and perhaps even threaten the future of the government itself.
By Corey Snoek