How a 117-Year-Old Law Cost Australia's PM His Majority: Q&A

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Australia's Joyce to Re-Contest Parliamentary Seat

Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce has been declared ineligible for parliament. His transgression? Having a New Zealand father. That made him a Kiwi, too, thereby disqualifying him from holding office in Australia, thanks to a 117-year-old law. Australian lawmakers have been urgently checking their family trees, searching for evidence that they may be citizens of other nations. The High Court ruled Joyce and four other lawmakers were ineligible on Oct. 27. Now, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s government faces weeks of turmoil -- and the prospect of having to rule by minority.

1. Why the big deal about dual nationality?

Section 44 of Australia’s constitution says people are disqualified from becoming federal lawmakers if they are “a subject or a citizen or entitled to the rights or privileges of a subject or a citizen of a foreign power.” The constitution was written when Australia was a collection of British colonies and became law in 1900. The clause in Section 44 previously cost a female lawmaker her place in the Senate in 1999.

2. Why is this coming up again now?

Some Aussie lawmakers didn’t do their homework. Before becoming a candidate, they’re required to renounce citizenship of any other nation and acknowledge they’re not in breach of Section 44. Seven were referred to the High Court, and they may not be the last. Research by The Australian newspaper shows 49 of the 226 federal lawmakers were either born in a different country or have a parent who was, potentially making them ineligible.

3. How could you not know you’re a citizen of a country?

There are a variety of ways. The first domino to fall, New Zealand-born Senator Scott Ludlam of the minority Greens party, wrongly assumed he had lost his dual citizenship when he was naturalized as an Aussie as a teenager. His Greens colleague, Larissa Waters, knew she was born in Canada (to Australian parents) but didn’t realize that fact automatically made her a Canuck. After both resigned from the upper house in July, Turnbull, who leads the Liberal party, said they were guilty of “extraordinary negligence” and “incredible sloppiness.”

4. When did Turnbull become affected?

Things started getting messy for the prime minister when Matt Canavan, a 36-year-old rising star in the governing coalition, found out his mother had applied for Italian citizenship on his behalf, without his knowledge. He quit Turnbull’s Cabinet in July but stayed in the Senate. The anti-immigration party, One Nation, then got its turn under scrutiny when its India-born senator, Malcolm Roberts, referred himself to the High Court to decide whether he’s actually a British citizen. Canavan was one of two lawmakers ruled eligible to remain in parliament by the High Court on Oct. 27.

5. Who is Joyce?

The whip-cracking, cowboy-hat-wearing deputy prime minister has made a reputation as a blunt-talking straight-shooter, both in Australia and abroad. He leads Turnbull’s junior coalition partner, the rural-based Nationals, and is in charge of ministerial portfolios including resources and agriculture. He grabbed the international spotlight in 2015 for his feud with Johnny Depp and then-wife Amber Heard. The Hollywood star labeled the lawmaker a “sweaty, big-gutted man from Australia” after Joyce threatened to euthanize the couple’s Yorkshire Terriers when they entered the nation without quarantine procedures being completed. When Joyce’s citizenship troubles came to light, Heard tweeted that she had sent a box of New Zealand’s finest kiwifruit “to comfort Mr. Joyce in his hour (of) need.”

6. Why was Joyce’s case so important?

Because unlike the senators caught up by Section 44 questions, Joyce was a lawmaker in the lower house, where the coalition held the governing majority by just one seat. The Oct. 27 High Court ruling has wiped out that majority. Now, Joyce will have to contest a special "by-election," probably by early December, having revoked his New Zealand citizenship. However, the government is unlikely to fall; at least three independent lawmakers have said they’ll back Turnbull if the opposition seeks a vote of no confidence. And Joyce is unlikely to lose the by-election, according to opinion polls. Still, the government faces weeks of uncertainty that could further delay efforts to pass company tax cuts.

7. What happens to the law?

The saga has sparked incredulity in Australia and raised questions whether the law is still relevant. Nearly half of Australians were either born in a different country or have at least one parent hailing from overseas. According to Sky News, the government is considering changes to the Citizenship Act that would prohibit foreign countries from conferring citizenship on lawmakers without their knowledge or consent. Longer term, a change to the constitution would require a mandatory national referendum, an expensive process that would take years to organize and usually fails.

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