How covert Kiwis could topple the Australian government

In Depth: The growing furore about New Zealand's role in a dual-citizenship debacle

Barnaby Joyce
Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce
(Image credit: Stefan Postles/Stringer)

It is a scandal that has touched on the comedic and the absurd but now it threatens to take down the Australian government.

When Scott Ludlam, a senator for Western Australia, hit the tweet button two weeks ago he "triggered a scandal that has enveloped Australian politics for two weeks and counting, and ensnared more politicians than anyone might have imagined," says Buzzfeed News.

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The issue stems from Section 44 of the nation's 116-year-old constitution, which forbids anyone from running for parliament if they hold citizenship of another country.

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The rule is "especially inconvenient in a country where nearly half the population was either born overseas or had at least one parent born abroad, according to the latest census," says the Wall Street Journal.

There has been enough talk of subterfuge and collusion to rival a cold war spy novel. Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop claims opposition leader Bill Shorten "sought to use the New Zealand parliament to undermine the Australian government", a move that Bishop called "treacherous behaviour".

How did the trouble begin?

It started simply enough in mid-July. Ludlam and Larissa Waters of the Green Party resigned from the Australian Senate on learning they held citizenships in New Zealand and Canada.

A third politician, Matt Canavan, then stood down from his cabinet post after discovering that although he'd never even been there he was a citizen of Italy. Crucially though, Canavan said that as he had no knowledge of his Italian citizenship he would not be resigning from the Senate, a position that has been referred to the country's High Court for a ruling.

Things escalated when Australian deputy PM Barnaby Joyce was made aware of his New Zealand citizenship through his father, following an inquiry into his status by the New Zealand government.

Bishop accused the Australian Labor Party of contacting the New Zealand Labour Party – both are left-leaning opposition parties – to suggest an inquiry into Joyce's citizenship, a charge both parties deny.

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In all, six politicians are caught up in the scandal but there may be many more with citizenships they are unaware of.

What does the constitution say?

Under Section 44 (i) of the constitution, any person who is "under any acknowledgment 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 a citizen of a foreign power... shall be incapable of being chosen or of sitting as a senator or a member of the House of Representatives".

This is interpreted by the High Court to mean anyone with dual citizenship is not permitted to run for office.

Though the clause has so far affected several seemingly innocent victims, it's "unlikely to be changed because of the difficulty of altering the Australian constitution," says the BBC.

Will the government fall?

Joyce's case is particularly pertinent as the government holds a single seat majority in the House of Representatives and there is considerable pressure on the Deputy PM to give up his seat.

Joyce said he would not resign or temporarily step down after being told by Australian Solicitor-General Stephen Donaghue that he was likely to be cleared by the High Court, reports Channel News Asia.

If the High Court rules Joyce was ineligible to sit in parliament because he was a dual citizen when elected, the Prime Minister might be forced to prorogue parliament until a by-election is held.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull says he's confident his government's slim majority is safe, "despite mounting calls for Joyce to resign," says the New York Times.

He added that he welcomed the court's clarification, saying that "possibly millions" of Australians might not know they had dual citizenship with other countries.

The High Court will begin hearings into Joyce's eligibility on 24 August. Should he be ruled ineligible, Turnbull would be forced to rely on independents to pass legislation.

Could it happen in the UK?

UK rules are slightly different, with anyone who is a citizen of Britain, a Commonwealth nation or Ireland eligible to stand for parliament.

Only 13 per cent of people in the UK were born outside the country, compared to 25 per cent in Australia, so the likelihood of someone in parliament finding out they were a dual citizen without their knowledge is decreased.

Questions have arisen over the principle behind the clause, however.

"If the Australian parliament is presented with a bill which affects another nation, the clause is designed to ensure that MPs will be putting Australia's interests first," Dr Paul Kildea, senior law lecturer at the University of New South Wales, told the BBC.

But even in places with stipulations on citizenship, foreign powers can still affect lawmakers.

"Just because an MP is not a citizen of a certain country doesn't mean they won't favour that country, as things like political donations from foreign countries have shown," Kildea added.

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