Australian lawmakers have been urgently checking their family trees, searching for evidence that they may be citizens of other nations -- and thereby disqualified from holding office. The developing crisis has so far embroiled seven members of Parliament, with one by far the most important: Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, who revealed in August that his father’s New Zealand heritage made him a Kiwi, too. With the High Court set to consider Joyce’s fate today, the stakes are high. Should he lose, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s government would face 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 haven’t been doing 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 haven’t fulfilled those obligations -- and more may be revealed. 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. Does Turnbull still feel that way?
Hard to say. 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 on July 25 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. But the spotlight returned to Turnbull when Joyce got snagged.
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 is Joyce’s case so important?
Because unlike the senators caught up by Section 44 questions, Joyce is a lawmaker in the lower house, where the coalition holds the governing majority by just one seat. Should he be ruled ineligible, he’ll have to contest a special "by-election" for a seat that was held by an independent for more than a decade before he won it in 2013. His participation should be allowed, given that he has now renounced his New Zealand citizenship. Were Joyce to lose, the government would be unlikely to fall; at least three independent lawmakers have said they’ll back Turnbull if the opposition seeks a vote of no confidence. Still, the government would face weeks of uncertainty that could further delay efforts to pass company tax cuts.
7. What happens next?
The High Court is scheduled to announce its decision today. Many constitutional lawyers aren’t convinced that the government’s argument -- that Joyce should be cleared because he was ignorant of his Kiwi citizenship -- will fly. 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. It’s unclear when the ruling on the fate of Joyce and the six other lawmakers will come.
The Reference Shelf
- That all-important Section 44.
- Australia’s already in a political mess, as this Q&A explains.
- ABC lists the “Citizenship Seven.”
- Bloomberg Gadfly’s David Flickling argues it’s time to rethink the citizenship rules.
- Why "Do you come from a land down under?" is such an important question now.
- It’s a New Zealand Labour party conspiracy, says the Australian government.