Why does citizenship matter?

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At first glance, the citizenship debacle has become so farcical it is like a game of last-one-standing. Who will be outed this time? Who will be left defending the fort?

Barnaby JoyceWhat began with two Greens senators affirming their unintentional possession of dual citizenship has ended with a flurry of sheepish admissions by MPs and senators of all political hues — and, most astounding of all, the eviction of Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce from parliament thanks to his unbeknownst citizenship of New Zealand.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull must surely rue the day back in August when he asserted that the oversight by the original citizenship 'offenders', Greens senators Scott Ludlum and Larissa Waters, showed 'incredible sloppiness on their part'. For their admissions prised open a veritable hornets' nest in which no political party has emerged blame-free.

But at second glance — once we've looked beyond the chaos as MPs double-check their status and Turnbull and opposition leader Bill Shorten try to reach agreement on when and how to audit them — a question arises: why is citizenship so important anyway? Not least in a country filled with migrants and their children who, through them, often retain strong ties with other countries. Would the parliamentary process have continued as normal had all these chinks in our parliamentarians' citizenry armour not been discovered? Would the politicians in question have remained loyal to Australia, as their very commitment to a political career suggests they already are?

The constitutional requirement for parliamentarians to not be 'under any acknowledgement of allegiance, obedience, or adherence to a foreign power, or ... subject or a citizen or entitled to the rights or privileges of a subject or citizen of a foreign power' is persuasive — on paper, at least. Section 44 was written when Australia became a federation in 1901, at a time when the world was infinitely more heterogeneous than it is today, and in an era when nations — especially new nations like Australia — felt compelled to protect themselves from foreign influence and to nurture a sense of patriotism.

But Australia circa 1901 is a foreign country when compared to the Australia of today: back then it was a fledgling nation populated by its original Aboriginal inhabitants along with a growing number of former British subjects. Section 44 was not only an important clause in invoking loyalty, but was also a way in which the new government was able to liberate itself from its imperial overseer.

Today, Australia is a cultural mishmash. According to the 2016 census, more than one quarter of its population was born overseas (a number that is growing), and nearly half of its population was either born overseas or had one or two parents who had been born overseas.

 

"Having spent the first 33 years of my life in the country of my birth, South Africa, I can no more stop loving that place and its people than I can my own children."

 

Our parliament reflects this multicultural make-up, with 25 federal MPs born overseas, and many more of them born to immigrant parents. Section 44 is entirely incongruous, then, with a rich and varied demographic that is tied through birth, family and culture to countries other than Australia. So fluid is the notion of citizenship, some of the MPs in question received theirs without asking for it or knowing about it. Citizenship for many is quite simply a birthright.

But even if citizenship is rescinded, the conflict of loyalties that the clause seeks to prevent will surely remain. For loyalty to, or love for, the country of one's birth (or one's parents' birth) is not derived from a certificate of citizenship, but comes instead from a sense of belonging and connection.

Having spent the first 33 years of my life in the country of my birth, South Africa, I can no more stop loving that place and its people than I can my own children. Moreover, this connection cannot possibly be extinguished through the relinquishment of my citizenship. And my children, brought up largely in Australia by South African parents, cannot erase the cultural heritage that has infused their upbringing.

The mistake the antiquated clause makes is in assuming that migrants who enter parliament cannot love and be loyal to Australia — the country they have chosen to live in and to serve — while simultaneously celebrating their connection to the country that birthed them. Though supporters of the clause have pointed out that people with allegiance to other countries might be compromised when making important policy decisions relating to those countries, this is not self-evident, despite the multicultural composition of our parliament. Indeed, Australian parliamentarians tend to lavishly declare their devotion to this country.

The question of citizenship cannot be avoided, since it is constitutionally enshrined. But instead of assuming that dual citizens risk becoming traitors unless they rescind their citizenship, we should rather ask questions about the other third parties to whom MPs are beholden: donors (including those from foreign countries), lobbyists, consultants, businesspeople and others keen to influence the political process. It's these people, far more than foreign states, to whom many of our parliamentarians are selling their souls, and so radically undermining our democracy.

 

 

Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist and travel writer.

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, citizenship, Scott Ludlam, Barnaby Joyce


 

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Existing comments

The past is another country. Actually the constitution's reference to "adherence to a foreign power" etc is even further away from us than this article suggests. When the constitution was written there was no Australian citizenship. 'Foreign' referred to people who were not British. 'Not British' was the euphemism used at that time to specifically exclude non-white people (and the fact that it allowed them to exclude even white people if they spoke another language was just a bonus to federation Australians). This phrasing is actually one of the elements of the white Australia policy still left in our laws. I know changing the constitution is hard but as a nation we really have to discuss this.
Beth Wright | 09 November 2017


This is spot on, Catherine, the whole debate is ludicrous and people can of course be perfectly effective in one nation while retaining strong connections to another. It all stinks of the retrogressive 'Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oy, oy, oy' brigade and doesn't make sense. Where does it end? Is anybody who has any sphere of influence in this country - television commentators, film makers, actors, musicians - or any role in its administration - the police, civil service, local government representatives etc etc - have to renounce their citizenship as well? People are doing service and that's the main thing, unless of course they are profiting illegally from their position. Great piece, anyhow. Dan
Dan Scott | 09 November 2017


Quite, Catherine. In marriage we forsake all others. I haven't consulted Mr Google to find out whether these words are still used. But it's an old-fashioned word I like. In saying that, it doesn't mean that we no longer have feelings for other people, just that our loyalty is a given. We are used to our members of Parliament making faux pas (plural) and this fiasco needs to be sorted but there are other, very important things to be worrying about.
Pam | 10 November 2017


So true, Catherine. When I became an Australian citizen in the 1950s, we were required to renounce our Dutch citizenship and all allegiance to our country of birth. But though I am Australian, I am also Dutch and treasure my Dutch roots. No renunciation can erase that.
Corrie van den Bosch | 10 November 2017


The current citizenship crisis centres around a very legalistic ('Black Letter') reading of the relevant section of the Constitution by the High Court. The implications of this High Court decision could result in political chaos. That is not a good thing.
Edward Fido | 10 November 2017


Citizenship isn’t everything. Abbott’s almost pathological attachment to England, Howard’s subservience to Washington, Kim Beasley’s connection with the US military, are all more dangerous than a few dual nationals in parliament. Surely what matters most is the parliamentarians’ oath of office.
Ginger Meggs | 10 November 2017


Catherine, neither Luke nor Matthew would agree with you. In my immediate family only I am solely Australian: the rest are Swiss as well as Australian. Having a Swiss passport has many advantages for Australians one of which is disowning the barbarity of its people when Nauru and Manus Island are raised in conversation. Ask Chinese Australians which internment camp they hope to be in when the South China Sea starts to simmer. Australians who have turned on innocent boat people are just as likely to turn on any group that is seen as a threat. like the Romans, citizenship is conferred but it comes at a price. History tells us that being different is not an advantage when citizens feel threatened.
Kimball Chen | 21 November 2017


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