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Why does citizenship matter?

  • 09 November 2017


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?

What 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