An outdated citizenship rule is bringing down Australia’s parliament

History matters.
History matters.
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A dual-citizenship fiasco is bringing down some of Australia’s most powerful citizens.

Over the past several months, one Australian parliamentarian after another has been declared ineligible for office because of dual citizenship. Under Section 44 of Australia’s 100-year-old constitution, anyone deemed to have an allegiance to a “foreign power” is disqualified from holding office in federal parliament. The clause was last used in 1999 to disqualify far-right senator Heather Hill.

Dubbed the “world’s most ridiculous constitutional crisis” by one local observer, the escalating saga strikes an especially bizarre note today, in a country where one in four Australians was born overseas.

Acting on a hunch, a Perth-based lawyer set off the slow-motion political crisis in July, when his inquiries into the status of senator Scott Ludlum revealed him to be a national of both Australia and New Zealand. The obscure clause has since become the engine of a witch hunt, forcing the resignation of seven more members of parliament and senators; these include one MP who had automatically acquired New Zealand citizenship through his father, and lower house MP John Alexander, who had acquired dual nationality through his British-born father. Several other parliamentarians with immigrant family backgrounds could be next—a once unthinkable course of events in multicultural Australia.

The imbroglio has striped the center-right government of its ruling majority, forcing a new series of elections to fill those empty seats. In an effort to bring the crisis to a head, the government and opposition this week agreed that all members will have to state their citizenship status and family history before parliament by Dec. 1.

Australia’s constitution dates back to 1901, and was never intended to prohibit the public service of dual nationals from such culturally and economically intertwined countries as New Zealand. At the time of country’s federation, Australia, like much of the world at the time, was part of the British Empire and its citizens British subjects, points out Adrienne Stone, a constitutional law expert at the University of Melbourne.

“We were all subjects of the Queen, a status we held jointly with people from New Zealand and Canada and Britain and many, many other places. And so most people caught under Section 44 actually have citizenship from places that on [the constitution’s] original application would not have fallen foul of it,” says Stone. “So the reason this is coming up now is that it really now operates in a way that was never really envisaged.”

In the 1980s, Australia began to develop a greater sense of national sovereignty, and legally began to treat Britain and other Commonwealth nations as foreign powers. With that shift, the High Court of Australia ruled in 1992 that prospective members of parliament should take all “reasonable” steps to renounce foreign citizenship before standing for office.

As it stands, a large proportion of Australian citizens have no right to run for federal office unless they first renounce their foreign citizenship. About half of all Australians have at least one foreign-born parent. And with countries such as the UK bestowing citizenship on people born overseas automatically through descent, many Australians are likely to be unaware they even have dual citizenship. Most of the politicians caught up in the scandal so far have claimed ignorance about ever having been a dual national.

Although unique among its Anglophone peers such as the United States, Canada, and the UK, Australia-style restrictions on dual nationals in politics exist in some fashion in counties including Israel, Egypt, India and Malaysia. Nevertheless, the Australian fiasco is unlikely to happen elsewhere, according to University of Queensland law professor James Allan, given the country’s specific circumstances, including a written constitution, literal-minded judges, and high levels of immigration.

“It is an embarrassment,” said Allan. “There’s no two ways about it.”

Yet, despite all the chaos it is continuing to cause, Section 44 is unlikely to be changed anytime soon. Reform would require a referendum, a notoriously high bar in a country that has proved highly resistant to constitutional change. Out of 44 referendums held throughout Australia’s history, just eight have been successful. For many Australians, the idea of changing the constitution to help politicians who failed to do their due diligence is likely to be a non-starter—no matter how poorly a parliament bereft of immigrants reflects the larger population.