Citizenship saga: Australians respond to ‘world’s most ridiculous constitutional crisis’
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Citizenship saga: Australians respond to ‘world’s most ridiculous constitutional crisis’

THE dual citizenship debacle engulfing Australia’s Upper House has continued to grow each week, ensnaring more and more federal parliamentarians in its web.

The most recent scalp has been that of the Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce who discovered he was a dual New Zealand citizen last week. While those in office have made all kinds of public statements, everyday Australians with dual citizenship have labelled the situation a “fiasco” and “utterly ridiculous”.

The latest count of parliamentarians affected, as of this week at least, is seven, with two senators resigning outright when their dual citizenship became apparent, and five being referred to the High Court to assess their eligibility to continue sitting.

SEE ALSO: Australia: Dual citizenship of parliamentarians wreaks havoc in Senate

As incredible as this chain of events has been since July when Greens Senator Scott Ludlam first discovered he had dual citizenship with New Zealand, it may not end there. Other parliamentarians in the 226-member Parliament may yet be referred, potentially leaving the government’s slender one-seat majority in the House of Representatives in question. With that then comes talk of the undermining of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s government and all sorts of other problems.

So first, what is the issue that has ensnared so many in the upper halls of power? Well Section 44 (i) of the Australian Constitution disqualifies any person who:

“(i.) Is under any acknowledgement of allegiance, obedience, or adherence to a foreign power, or is a subject or a citizen or entitled to the rights or privileges of a subject or citizen of a foreign power: or shall be incapable of being chosen or of sitting as a senator or a member of the House of Representatives.”

In other words, Australia’s 1900 constitution disqualifies them from political office using a somewhat archaic definition of foreign allegiance.

Bloomberg dubbed this issue “the world’s most ridiculous constitutional crisis” and went on to assess another 13 senators and 11 House members were born overseas, or 17 and 7.3 percent respectively of the chambers, meaning more heads could roll.

While the loss of parliamentarians to this law may be considered absurd and the Constitution in much need of an update, written as it was at a time when conspiracy and war between nations was more an issue, the reality is it does raise questions for multicultural nations all around the world who could risk disenfranchising part of their population.

Asian Correspondent spoke to a number of dual citizenship holders in Australia to gauge their reaction to the growing headache in a nation where 28 percent are born overseas, and 21 percent have at least one foreign-born parent.

This started at coffee among four friends, of whom only one was eligible to sit in Australia’s Upper House given the others have dual citizenship with Holland, United Kingdom, and Ireland. There may yet be other nations to which we could be entitled foreign citizenship without realising – an ornery issue that has also encased some of the senators.

So at our table alone, there was a significant portion of people with a potentially restricted ability to serve in Parliament unless we renounced or made all reasonable attempts to renounce our other citizenship. While it could be possible to do so in these European nations, it can be a costly and complicated business with other countries.

Senator Sam Dastyari spent $25,000 (sic) on legal fees to renounce his Iranian citizenship and wrote on Facebook last month:

The fact so many parliamentarians have been caught out is an issue has not surprised one Peter Rai. The 71-year-old was born in England, but has lived in Australia for more than 40 years.

He said given his knowledge of human nature, he wasn’t surprised some of the parliamentarians weren’t aware of their dual citizenship. He added, “I didn’t even think about” what other issues dual citizenship may raise at the time of becoming a dual citizen, such as standing for Parliament.

“It should probably be part of the process of informing people at the time of their Australian citizenship, exactly what that entails, and also raise the issue they may be dual citizens and not know it.”

While having a strong allegiance to his homeland in international sports, he felt more akin to and knowledgeable about the Australian way of life, its government and laws. If someone questioned his allegiance to Australia, it would be “ridiculous”, he said.

He said the issue of the senators with citizenship from Canada, New Zealand, Scotland, Italy and the UK was a “fiasco” given all these nations had similar religious, political and cultural situations.

“You probably need to consider the historical background behind those statements of dual citizenship and the time the constitution was written. Are the same circumstances in play today? I suppose it’s possible circumstances could change and one day we would be at war with New Zealand or the UK, but not at the moment,” he said.

“I can’t see what the problem would be for them (the senators) holding dual citizenship, whereas on the other hand, we also have dual citizens in focus that are religious extremists fighting for IS. But in that case, their religious, political and cultural ideologies are totally different and in fact at loggerheads with Western ideology.”

SEE ALSO: Islamic State fighter is first Australian stripped of citizenship – report

Brisbane business owner Emma Saunders, 44, is a dual Australian and Irish citizen. She was born in Australia, but claims Irish citizenship through grandparents. She said the rules needed to be changed and were “utterly ridiculous”.

If the same rules applied in her field, she said, “I would feel disrespected and unsupported as a business owner who employs Australian citizens.”

Australian permanent resident Karen McColm was born in New Zealand, but has lived in Australia since 1981.

“I am actually a permanent resident, having come over here in 1981. A lot of the rules do not apply to me. I am a New Zealand citizen. I can’t however, stand for Parliament, join the defence forces or get a student loan.

“I have known all about the Parliament rules since I arrived. I am able to access Medicare, Centrelink, pension allowances and vote under a reciprocal arrangement, as are Australian residents in New Zealand,” she said.

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A family poses for a photograph in the World Square shopping centre located in central Sydney, June 26, 2017. In Australia, 28 percent are born overseas, and 21 percent have at least one foreign-born parent. Source: Reuters/Steven Saphore

Gavin Maitland, 53, lives on the Gold Coast but grew up in New Zealand.

He holds dual citizenship and admits he was “pretty slap happy” about any implications that presented, although he does not harbour ambitions to be in Parliament. He said the loss of parliamentarians was “a pity”.

“If they have been here a long time and shown loyalty to this country, I can’t see why they can’t continue with their job.”

“If it means they have to make denunciation of citizenship and are willing to do it, then my thought is to give them the option and let them continue with their job. If they truly are attached to this country and invested in this country, I’m sure they would be happy to renounce it,” he said.

SEE ALSO: Australia: Govt announces postal vote on same-sex marriage

Maitland said if his loyalty to Australia was ever questioned, he would respond with evidence of having paid taxes, living here for a long time, having Australian friends and the same inherent national values.

“I think fair enough you need to be loyal to the country you are now residing in, in a position of making decisions for the country and representing citizens of the country.”

But he felt nations like New Zealand were so similar in cultural and other values, that there was little problem in holding dual citizenship, but this may not be the case for all countries.