High stakes for Turnbull government as High Court hears MPs’ citizenship cases


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Barnaby Joyce is on tenterhooks. Despite Malcolm Turnbull’s confidence that the High Court will find for him, Joyce’s parliamentary eligibility is a key to how the government finishes the year.

From Tuesday to Thursday, the court will consider what is surely one of the most extraordinary set of cases to come before it – the constitutional position of seven current and former MPs who were dual citizens.

All but Joyce are or were senators, which means that the only potential byelection that could be caused is for Joyce’s seat of New England. Three are Nationals: Joyce, Fiona Nash and Matt Canavan. Canavan quit the ministry (but not the parliament) when his issue arose; Joyce and Nash remain on the frontbench.

The two Greens, Scott Ludlam and Larissa Waters, resigned from parliament when they discovered their dual nationality. It was Ludlam’s departure that started the dominoes falling, as others checked their positions. Both Greens argue they were ineligible to sit – although the Commonwealth is actually saying Waters was eligible.

The remaining two are One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts, and Nick Xenophon.

Roberts, Ludlam and Waters were born overseas. The rest had foreign citizenship by descent. Joyce and Ludlam were New Zealanders; Nash, Xenophon and Roberts had British citizenship; Waters found herself a Canadian because she was born there during her parents’ brief stay; Canavan was Italian.

There have been some bizarre twists. Canavan said initially his mother had signed him up to Italian citizenship without his knowledge; later it was found she hadn’t had to – he already had it.

This latter fact is important for the Commonwealth’s legal argument. It is contending the constitutional provision about citizenship was only intended to exclude those who acted positively to obtain foreign citizenship or knowingly kept it. If Canavan’s Italian citizenship was gained by positive action, he wouldn’t be protected by that argument, as he would be if he were Italian by descent.

Xenophon had a very weak form of British citizenship, via his father, who had emigrated from Cyprus, which was a British territory.

The court has already declared that Roberts, who sent questions about his status to defunct email addresses, was a British citizen when elected, although it has not yet ruled on his eligibility.

Section 44 (i) of the Constitution reads clearly enough, on the face of it.

A person cannot be chosen for or sit in federal parliament if he or she:

… is under any acknowledgement of allegiance, obedience, or adherence to a foreign power, or is a subject or a citizen or entitled to the rights or privileges of a subject or citizen of a foreign power.

To clear themselves of this potential problem, an aspiring parliamentarian has to take proper steps to renounce a foreign citizenship.

It’s notable the major parties, which have good vetting, aren’t caught up in this case, although there have been allegations against some of their MPs.

The government is arguing that if the MP was Australian at birth (whether born here, or abroad to Australian parents) and wasn’t aware of their dual citizenship, they should not be found ineligible – in other words, that ignorance is a defence.

But if the MP was born overseas and later naturalised, the government argues, they were on notice about potentially being a foreign citizen, regardless of what they thought was the case. In this instance, according to the government’s argument, ignorance is not a defence.

If the court clears most of the MPs, it would be an effective rewrite, through interpretation, of the literal wording of this section.

The potential implications of the court’s decisions are wide and varied.

With Ludlam and Waters already out of parliament, the issue is just how they are replaced. If the court agrees with their own assessments that they were ineligible, their replacements will be the next candidates on the Greens 2016 tickets in Western Australia and Queensland, respectively Jordon Steele-John and Andrew Bartlett (a one-time Australian Democrats senator and leader).

If the court upheld the eligibility of one or both, the replacement or replacements would be chosen by the party. Ludlam has indicated he would not seek nomination; Waters, anxious to return to parliament, would be expected to do so.

It’s always possible, incidentally, for someone elected via a countback to then resign, leaving the way for the party to choose the replacement.

If Roberts is knocked out, the next on the One Nation ticket is Fraser Anning, who recently avoided another constitutional impediment: bankruptcy.

Disqualification of Xenophon would see Tim Storer of the Nick Xenophon Team (NXT) installed. But if Xenophon’s eligibility is upheld, he will leave the Senate anyway, to contest the South Australian election. In that circumstance, his party would choose who followed him.

The disqualification of Nash and Canavan would lead to candidates down their respective 2016 New South Wales and Queensland tickets replacing them. That would create some internal complications regarding the numbers between the Coalition parties.

Professor Anne Twomey, from the University of Sydney Law School, noted that if Nash were disqualified and a recount held, she would most likely by replaced by the Liberal who was next on the joint ticket. She said:

Even if that Liberal then resigned in an effort to pass the seat back to the Nationals, the constitution requires that the person who fills the seat is a member of the same party as the senator who was ‘chosen by the people’.

This would not have been Nash, as she was disqualified, and therefore never validly chosen. It would be the Liberal who won the seat on the recount. This would mean that she would have to be replaced by a Liberal, upsetting the balance in the Coalition.

The loss of one or both National senators would also mean a reshuffle of portfolios. This would fit with Turnbull’s desire for an end-of-year reshuffle, but test the Nationals’ talent pool. (Canavan is out of the ministry but Joyce is acting in his roles.)

But it is the finding on Joyce that has the big implications. If he were forced to a byelection, it would rock the government – even though he would almost certainly retain his seat.

The first issue would be whether he stood down from the ministry.

Twomey noted that while the constitution allows a person to be a minister for three months without holding a seat, the problem would be that Joyce had not validly held a seat since July last year – “which suggests that his three-month grace period is well and truly over. On that basis he would have to stop acting as a minister immediately.”

With Joyce out of parliament, the government would lose its majority on the floor of the House of Representatives. The result of particular votes would depend on the issue, the crossbenchers and – if it came to that – the Speaker’s casting vote.

Fighting a byelection would be distracting and disruptive for a government struggling in the polls.

The former independent member for New England, Tony Windsor, who is maintaining in the High Court that Joyce should be disqualified, has not ruled out running in a byelection. One Nation could be in the field, as could the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party, whose support will be tested in the NSW byelections this weekend.

The Newspoll quarterly breakdown, published this week, has found the government under pressure in regional areas. But a ReachTEL poll done last month for the Australia Institute found the Nationals polling 44.6% in New England, Windsor 26.5% and One Nation 9.8%, Labor 8.4%, and the Greens 2.4%.

The Queensland election, expected to be announced very soon, would be another dynamic in a byelection situation.

If, on the other hand, Joyce’s eligibility is upheld, Turnbull’s end-of-year reshuffle becomes much easier, especially with a strong win for the “yes” case now expected in the marriage ballot.

That still leaves the challenge of energy policy. Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg on Monday signalled the government was turning its back on a clean energy target, a reflection of the strength of the conservative voices within Coalition ranks – a combination of right-wing Liberals and the Nationals.

On the present timetable, the government is likely to take the broad outlines of its energy policy to the Coalition partyroom when parliament resumes next week.

The ConversationBut the situation is fluid, with the outcome in the High Court the known unknown. While the timing isn’t precise, the court is expected to be quick with its decision. It is obviously not driven by politics, but it is alert to the need to provide political certainly as soon as possible.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Greens senator Larissa Waters forced out of parliament



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Larissa Waters is the second Greens senator to resign in less than a week.
Dan Peled/AAP

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The Greens have lost a second senator in less than a week for having dual citizenship, with Larissa Waters forced to resign on Tuesday after she discovered she was still a citizen of Canada.

Like Scott Ludlam, who quit last week when he found out he had dual New Zealand citizenship, the Queensland senator had been co-deputy leader of the Greens.

She said she had left Canada as an 11-month old baby; she’d been born to Australian parents studying and working briefly in Canada.

She had all her life thought that “as a baby I was naturalised to be Australian and only Australian, and my parents told me that I had until age 21 to actively seek Canadian citizenship. At 21, I chose not to seek dual citizenship, and I have never even visited Canada since leaving.”

After Ludlam’s discovery, she sought legal advice, and was “devastated to learn that because of 70-year-old Canadian laws I had been a dual citizen from birth, and that Canadian law changed a week after I was born and required me to have actively renounced Canadian citizenship”, she said.

“I had not renounced since I was unaware that I was a dual citizen. Obviously this is something that I should have sought advice on when I first nominated for the Senate in 2007, and I take full responsibility for this grave mistake and oversight. I am deeply sorry for the impact that it will have,” she said.

Greens leader Richard Di Natale, heaping praise on Waters, said he was “gutted” by her announcement, coming just a few days after Ludlam’s.

He was initiating an overhaul of the party’s processes.

“I have immediately spoken to our two national co-conveners and we are committed to a thorough root-and-branch review so that we strengthen our governance, improve our internal processes and we make sure that this never happens again,” he said.

“I won’t sugarcoat it, we need to make sure that our internal party processes are up to the challenge,” he said. He did not believe there were any other Greens senators in breach of Section 44 of the Constitution, which prohibits a person with dual citizenship being eligible for election to parliament.

The resignation of Waters opens the way for the possible return to the Senate of Andrew Bartlett, who represented the Australian Democrats from 1997 and 2008. He led the Democrats from 2002 to 2004, and was deputy from 2004 and 2008.

On earlier precedents, the High Court would order a countback which would see Bartlett elected.

It is not clear whether he would then remain in the seat or resign so the Greens could fill it again with Waters.

Bartlett said on Facebook that the party’s membership “will be having many conversations over the next few days as we process what has happened and determine what is the best way forward to ensure we remain a strong voice for the essential values the Greens promote”.

Other foreign-born Greens senators hit Twitter to declare their citizenship credentials were in order. Tasmanian senator Nick McKim said he renounced his UK citizenship in 2015, before being nominated by the Tasmanian parliament to the Senate. Fellow Tasmanian Peter Whish-Wilson, born in Singapore, said he did not have dual citizenship.

The ConversationFor good measure, One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts, born in India, and Labor’s Sam Dastyari, born an Iranian citizen, also tweeted they were in compliance with constitutional requirements. Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, who migrated from Belgium, said in a statement that he automatically lost his Belgian citizenship when he became an Australian citizen in 2000.

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/b9kr9-6cf745?from=site&skin=1&share=1&fonts=Helvetica&auto=0&download=0

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.