Dual loyalties


The federal politics in Australia is fast degenerating into (another) farce, with more and more parliamentarians potentially holding dual citizenships, thus making them ineligible to sit in parliament (for the American readers: imagine if Obama really was born in Kenya), most recently with the chief government whip Nola Marino in doubt as potentially having become an Italian citizen by marriage. And, as I suspected all along, the Labor Party also appears to be sitting on a house of cards, with several reps under clout. So much for the supposedly thorough Labor vetting; no wonder Bill Shorten refused to audit his party room.

When the questions are starting to be asked about the constitutionality of all the laws passed by the parliament in recent memory, and early elections mooted to clean the slate and make sure only the eligible candidates standing, where do we go from here?

The rationale for the original constitutional provision was of course the fear that dual citizenships mean dual loyalties, and those who hold allegiance to other nations in addition to Australia might choose the interests of the other country over Australia when exercising their duties in parliament.

There is a three-fold irony flowing from this:

1.Most of the parliamentarians holding dual citizenships are citizens of our staunchest allies and our fellow English-speaking democracies like New Zealand, Great Britain and Canada (and not, for example, Syria, North Korea and Cuba). While the Anglosphere countries of course don’t always have the same interests, the possibility of a real conflict that would potentially divide “the duals”‘ loyalties are in practice pretty remote.

2. Citizenship is merely a formality, in a sense that the absence of another citizenship does not imply or guarantee the absence of loyalty to another country. One could easily imagine a case of a parliamentarian who remains deeply (even treasonously) loyal to a country of his or her ancestors while never having been a citizen of that country or having previously renounced that citizenship in order to run for the Australian parliament. Since neither the constitution nor any of us can peer into somebody’s mind, such situation is impossible to prevent.

3. The bad laws enacted over the past decades by the parliament, the laws that proved not to be in our nation’s best interest, got enacted not because of some parliamentarians’ loyalty to other countries but their loyalty to bad ideas and ideologies. Again, nothing that the constitution can fix.

Does the presence of so many people in our parliament who are not eligible to be there in the first place invalidate the parliament’s actions? I’m not a constitutional law expert so I can’t answer that question. I can only caution this: some of the current “duals” have been there for some time, not just the most recent parliament, but never mind the current ones – what about the past members and senators? I am aware of at least one such dual citizen but I have little doubt that that the parliamentary history is littered with other dual citizens who were never found out, because the spotlight was never shone on the issue to such an extent as today. This potentially makes the past few decades of Australian parliament tainted, which would be an absurd outcome.

How do we prevent this situation from happening again? Clearly, a lot of our politicians were pretty sloppy. Signing a statutory declaration confirming your eligibility to stand for parliament is an important thing. I don’t doubt the sincerity of most of those caught in the current scandal when they say they were not aware of their other citizenship, but this is arguably a result of complacency (“well, I was born in Australia and I never applied for another citizenship, so…”). We know now that in order to be sure a potential candidate needs to check not just their own background, but also the citizenship laws of any country that either of their parents might have been associated with (and, if the Merino case is true, also their spouses).

Are we going to change the laws? Some argue that in our multicultural age, where so many Australians are either foreign born or have at least one parent born overseas, it is silly to require mono-citizenship of our politicians. I have no strong views on the issue, but in terms of practicality changing this rule would require a constitutional amendment and I can’t see a government of any stripe going to the Australian people with a referendum on such a narrow policy question, which only concerns and benefits the politicians themselves.

I don’t think we’re quite yet at the beginning of the end, but I sincerely hope we’re at least at the end of the beginning of the current sorry saga. Just about the only certain thing is that things will get even more “interesting” in the coming weeks. The circus is very much still in town.