Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Reform constitution to give a voice to all

  • 21 November 2017


Amid the moral turpitude of the Australian government's treatment of refugees on Manus Island, the reactionary manoeuvrings of anti-marriage-equality parliamentarians, and the patronising response of the Prime Minister to the Uluru Statement, the big political story over recent weeks has been the wash up of the operation of section 44 of the Constitution.

Section 44 provides that to be eligible to nominate for the Australian Parliament, the candidate must not hold allegiance to a foreign power. This has been interpreted very narrowly by the High Court and as a consequence, those who are found to have dual citizenship — even where they were not aware — will be found ineligible to sit. So far, section 44 has forced eight resignations, prompted two by-elections, and will see more MPs appear before the High Court to determine their status.

Many have called for a referendum to change section 44 on the basis that it inevitably excludes so many Australians. In a multicultural society, a significant proportion of the population will have 'foreign' ancestry sufficiently recent to qualify for dual citizenship. Others do not wish to 'waste' a referendum on what they see as a procedural matter. If those nominating simply took care of their paperwork, so the argument goes, then they would not get into trouble.

The issue is, however, a deeper one that goes to the heart of the Constitution itself. In affecting white Australians of British ancestry — Barnaby Joyce, Jacqui Lambie, John Alexander — the racist presumptions of our Constitution have finally been exposed.

Beyond section 44 though, and beyond other identifiably racist provisions of the Constitution, the political landscape in Australia at the moment reveals a more profound battle over who has a voice in this country. The positioning of dominant groups at the centre of this struggle, to shore up their own power, is simply brought into sharp relief through the section 44 debate.

In the face of the shock realisation that the dominant members of Australian society might be affected by attempts to exclude 'foreigners' from the Parliament, there are immediate calls for constitutional reform. The effect of this reform would be, presumably, to guarantee a voice in Parliament of those with dual nationality. But there are other examples of the deployment of power in favour of the powerful.

Thus, a voice for some — dual nationals — would not equate to a voice for others. Indigenous Australians will remain outside our