It is mid 2015. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton is under fire for not only wanting to strip Australian citizenship from dual citizens, but sole nationals too. He declares it is about national security, combating terrorism and the protection of Australian values. The new laws are necessary for the safety of the community.
“It is now appropriate to modernise provisions concerning loss of citizenship to respond to current terrorist threats,” Mr Dutton tells media. “The world has changed so our laws should change accordingly.”
And so the Australian Citizenship Amendment (Allegiance to Australia) Bill was introduced to Parliament.
As usual, the proposed amendments didn’t just apply to the relevant politically expedient bogeymen; it wasn’t just convicted terrorists and foreign fighters who would bear the brunt of Dutton’s power-fueled desire to punish those who did not swear sole allegiance to Australia.
The provisions were so vague and broadly encompassing that any number of dual citizens might find themselves suddenly “UnAustralian”; by inadvertently renouncing their citizenship for protesting against Adani, donating to environmental groups, joining the Sea Shepherd, or for doodling with a pen on a chair in a Centrelink office.
Criticisms came from every quarter (apart from Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and the ALP who backed the Bill in principle), with the Commonwealth Ombudsman pointing out the absurdity of dual citizens just “losing” their Australian citizenship without any authority determining that the criteria for revocation had been met.
The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) reviewed the initial Bill in detail, with 43 submissions made and several days of hearings. The committee report had no less than 27 recommendations for change.
A watered down Australian Citizenship Amendment (Allegiance to Australia) Bill finally passed through Parliament in December 2015.
It ruled that any person over 14 who was a citizen or national of another country could lose their Australian citizenship if they did the following things:
- fight for a foreign country at war with Australia.
- fight for a declared terrorist organisation outside Australia.
- are convicted of certain crimes and sentenced to at least six years in prison (eg, committing a terrorist act, including recruiting, training, funding; treason or espionage against Australia; overthrowing the government or sabotaging military equipment; or being a “foreign fighter”).
- Intentionally engage in certain types of terrorism-related conduct, with no criminal charge or conviction required (automatic revocation).
Through it all, media repeatedly pointed out that over six million Australian citizens were born overseas, and a further five million people were born in Australia but held dual citizenship by descent.
While debate raged, and Dutton dug his heels in, ASIO had sights on Khaled Sharrouf, a notorious Islamic State terrorist, famous for having his then seven year old son pose with the severed head of a Syrian government official.
Sharrouf was an Australian citizen by birth. He had Lebanese citizenship through his parents who emigrated to Australia before he was born. Sharrouf was a dual citizen by descent.
Not two years later and the High Court has declared that five parliamentarians were invalidly elected because they held dual citizenship. Scott Ludlam (Greens), Larissa Waters (Greens), Malcolm Roberts (One Nation), Barnaby Joyce (Nationals) and Fiona Nash (Nationals) were ineligible to stand at the 2016 election.
Seven politicians were initially under the spotlight (Nick Xenophon (NXT) and Matthew Canavan (Nationals) were cleared) and now an eighth, Senate President Stephen Parry has revealed that he too, may be a British citizen by descent.
It is inconceivable that through all the public debate, discussion, reporting, Parliamentary Committee review and media frenzy, that the elected representatives did not consider and contemplate what makes a person a dual citizen.
It is equally unbelievable that each politician, when nominating for election did not understand the requirements for compliance with section 44 of the Constitution which prohibits foreign citizens or nationals or those entitled to the rights and privileges of a foreign citizen or national from sitting in Parliament.
How can it be possible, with all the chest-beating and strong messages and commitment to “national security”, that not one of these politicians thought to investigate their own parentage and ancestry, and none of their parliamentary colleagues suggested that they do?
When former Senator Scott Ludlam resigned after revelations he was still a New Zealander, the ridicule was swift and the condemnations harsh.
“Obviously Senator Ludlam’s oversight is a pretty remarkable one when you think about it — he’s been in the Senate for so long,” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told media. “It is pretty amazing, isn’t it, that you have had two out of nine Greens Senators didn’t realise they were citizens of another country. It shows incredible sloppiness on their part. You know, when you nominate for Parliament, there is actually a question — you have got to address that Section 44 question and you’ve got to tick the box and confirm that you are not a citizen of another country. It is extraordinary negligence on their part.”
Yet as two then three, then five, and now eight step forward, it is more than sloppiness and negligence.
For those politicians who did not immediately step aside or resign on discovering their dual allegiance, it smacks of deliberate deceit, blind recklessness and a show of contempt for all Australian voters; people who trusted their elected representatives to truthfully and honestly tick a box confirming their eligibility on an election nomination form.
And being so obliged to declare their eligibility, those politicians should have had the integrity to stand aside and resign when investigations showed they were surely dual citizens.
Malcolm Turnbull was adamant the High Court would declare that the law did not apply to the ruling elite. “The leader of the National Party, the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia is qualified to sit in this house and the High Court will so hold,” Turnbull said.
He was wrong. The law does apply. Seven members of Parliament were referred to the High Court. Senate President Stephen Parry waited until after his colleagues took a fall to admit his own probable dual allegiance.
How many more are there, waiting quietly, hoping no questions will be asked, frantically checking their backgrounds and filling out forms in the hope they will be clear before the next election is called?
Ignorance of the law is no excuse. Ignorance of one’s own ancestry is not believable in the context of the politicians in question. Ignorance of the importance of the status of dual citizens is laughable given the laws which have been extensively debated and voted on.
This is a government which has breached the trust of the people and made a mockery of democracy. It is a government in which its members cannot comply with its own governing document, and treats the Constitution as a mere guideline to follow on a whim. It is a government which uses citizenship as a weapon and tool of propaganda, but negligible as an issue when it comes to parliamentarians. This is an illegitimate government, which cannot be trusted.