Constitutional crises are generally very rare in global politics. While some produce outcomes that are staples of any High School history course (see: the American Civil War), most are fairly mundane, largely consisting of no more conflict than sparring across the floor of a courtroom.
Perhaps it is no surprise then, that most people in the UK would be unaware that for the last three months Australia has been mired in their very own constitutional crisis.
To understand this, we’ll have to jump back to July 14th of this year. On what looked to be a fairly innocuous Perth morning, Greens Deputy Leader, Senator Scott Ludlam, held a press conference at which he announced his immediate resignation from parliament. This was required because Palmerston-born Ludlam had discovered he was still a dual citizen of Australia and New Zealand, having failed to revoke his New Zealand citizenship when he attained the Australian equivalent.
Ludlam’s resignation was in line with Section 44 of the Australian constitution, which stipulates that no person holding allegiance to a foreign power shall be allowed to be elected to the Australian parliament. Ludlam’s resignation prompted some shock, but mostly ridicule at the fact Ludlam appeared, in essence, to have forgotten he was a Kiwi. What followed, however, set in motion a proper crisis.
First, it emerged that Ludlam’s fellow Greens Senator Larissa Waters had been born in Canada and, after some quick legal investigations, it was established she too had never revoked that citizenship, was therefore also ineligible, and so also resigned. This was followed by some more laughing at the Green Party, until it was also revealed that National’s Senator and Government Minister Matt Canavan was potentially in breach of Section 44 via a dual Italian citizenship which he alleged his mother had acquired for him without his knowledge. One Nation Senator Malcolm Roberts was then dragged into the furore as it emerged that he had previously travelled as a British citizen having been born to a Welsh father living in India. Canavan resigned as a Minister, but neither he nor Roberts gave up their Senate seats.
This was merely the entrée in the burgeoning citizenship scandal, however. Around the same time as Roberts and Canavan were being outed, it emerged that a member of the New Zealand Labour Party had enquired as to whether Nationals MP and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce had renounced the New Zealand citizenship he had acquired via his father. It emerged he’d in fact not done this and was still technically a dual national (despite having been born in Australia) and therefore, was also referred to the High Court. However, he too chose not to resign. In some side beef, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop accused the New Zealand Labour Party of trying to undermine Australian democracy which was silly at the time, but in hindsight looks even more silly as New Zealand Labour are now the governing party. The first Cross-Ditch (meetings between representatives of Australia and New Zealand are called this, based on the Tasman Ditch stretch of water which separates the two countries) summit dinner may be somewhat awkward as a result.
In addition to these prior five, two more cases were added to the docket. Nationals Deputy leader Fiona Nash (Scottish father) and leader of the Nick Xenophon Team, Nick Xenophon (British citizenship obtained via father born in Cyprus). In September, all of them traipsed off to the High Court for hearings to decide who had and hadn’t been in breach of Section 44.
For the sake of brevity, we’ll jump straight to the outcome of the hearing, released yesterday. Of the seven, five were found to have breached Section 44: Ludlam (no great shock), Waters (again, not surprising), Roberts (despite the inspired argument that sending an email inquiring as to whether he was still British after being elected did not prove he thought he might be a British citizen when he was elected), Nash and, most importantly, Joyce. Nash and Joyce were informed that given they were both aware of their family ties to foreign states they should have been more thorough in ensuring they were not dual-nationals when they stood for election.
Xenophon was let off after arguing the status he had inherited from his father was not actually such to allow him free entry to Britain, thus did not constitute citizenship. Canavan actually changed his original argument (exonerating his mother) and argued he had been a dual national up until a 1983 change to Italian law that annulled his Italian citizenship, which was upheld by the court.
Joyce looks favourite to win the by-election, as his predecessor in the seat, the popular independent Tony Windsor, has ruled himself out of standing. However, given the scandal that has surrounded Joyce’s departure from parliament, Labor will look to pull an upset. If they were to succeed, it could have very severe political ramifications for the current Australian government, headed by Malcolm Turnbull (above).