Australia’s latest scandal involves politicians not knowing they were citizens of another country

Identity crisis.
Identity crisis.
Image: EPA/Rashida Yosufzai
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Imagine if Canadians kept infiltrating the United States congress by stealth.

Now swap America with Australia, and Canada with New Zealand, and you have the biggest political scandal currently engulfing Canberra: Australia’s deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, is also a Kiwi.

And he’s not alone. Three Australian lawmakers, who unknowingly flouted laws against dual citizens becoming lawmakers, have resigned since last month, and a handful of others have had their citizenship status called into question. One politician from Queensland, Larissa Waters, turned out to also be Canadian (paywall). And Western Australia senator Scott Ludlam resigned last month after it emerged he also had New Zealand citizenship.

But Joyce, better known as the politician who took on Johnny Depp and his dogs, is the highest-ranking politician to be caught in the scandal. Australian media reported yesterday (Aug. 14) that New Zealand’s government confirmed Joyce’s dual citizenship, after the New Zealand High Commission told Joyce last week that he was a citizen of the country. Joyce was born in Australia, but, according to New Zealand law, is a citizen by descent because his father emigrated to Australia from New Zealand. Joyce said he won’t step down and will refer his case to the High Court instead.

It’s more than just neighborly banter: New Zealand could seriously shake things up in Canberra if the ruling coalition loses its one-seat majority as a result of Joyce being stripped of his seat.

While Australia and New Zealand, both being former British colonies, have a close relationship historically, the scandal highlights the complexities of citizenship in a country that is arguably one of the most multicultural in the world: Australia is the country with the second-highest percentage of the population born overseas, after Saudi Arabia.

Matt Canavan, Australia’s resources minister, resigned his senate seat after it emerged he also had Italian citizenship. In Australia, home to a large Italian immigrant population, Italian is the third-most common language spoken in households after English and Chinese. Another member of parliament, Julia Banks, was cleared of having Greek citizenship descended from her father after an investigation by her party. Greek is similarly one of the most common languages spoken in Australian homes. Overall, according to the BBC, 25 federal members of parliament who were born overseas have had to confirm whether they might have broken Australian law.

Canavan, whose case is currently being reviewed by the High Court in Australia, said his mother—who herself was not born in Italy—signed him up for Italian citizenship when he was 25 without him knowing. For any current or aspiring politicians in Australia looking to clarify their citizenship status, checking with mom first might be a good place to start.