Australia: Citizenship inquiry to recommend referendum, which Turnbull rejects

Although I believe that s. 44 of the Australian constitution is a historic anachronism, holding a referendum would be  high risk and divisive:

Malcolm Turnbull has given a strong indication that the government will oppose a referendum to fix the citizenship crisis, arguing they are hard to win and that aspiring politicians should “get their act together” and renounce foreign citizenship instead.

The prime minister’s opposition to a referendum puts him at odds with the Liberal senator Linda Reynolds, who has spearheaded a six-month inquiry into section 44 of the constitution. She believes there are “no easy options” to fix the crisis and a referendum is needed to reform or repeal the “profoundly undemocratic” section.

Guardian Australia understands that the joint standing committee on electoral matters will meet to finalise its report on Friday and will lay out a series of options – all of which involve a referendum.

These include options to remove section 44 entirely, to replace the ban on foreign citizens with a requirement for parliamentarians to swear an oath of allegiance, or to allow parliament to set the disqualifications in legislation, not the constitution. The overwhelming weight of evidence to the committee supported constitutional change.

It is understood that the government is keen to make only administrative changes – such as improved disclosure or new Australian Electoral Commission powers to check compliance – but these options are not supported by the electoral committee.

On Thursday the Labor leader in the Senate, Penny Wong, reiterated that a section 44 referendum was not a priority for Labor, citing the need to make other constitutional changes first.

The high court decided to disqualify the Labor senator Katy Gallagher on Wednesday, triggering the resignation of four MPs – including three Labor MPs – over dual-citizenship issues.

Turnbull told ABC’s AM that the high court’s decision meant “you have got to get your act together before you nominate”. He noted that most of the cases had been dual citizens with UK citizenship, which he said was “very straightforward” and “not complex” to renounce.

Pressed on whether Australia should have a referendum on section 44, Turnbull said the government had put forward its preferred interpretation of the disqualification of dual citizens in the “citizenship seven” case last year but the high court had not accepted it.

In that case, the commonwealth argued that parliamentarians who were unaware of their dual citizenship could not have allegiance to a foreign power but the court held that the section barred all foreign citizens.

Turnbull said changing the constitution “is very hard and [it’s] very hard to get support for [a referendum]”.

“So I think the best advice, given that the election will be next year, is for everyone to get their act together and make sure they are not a citizen of anywhere else before they nominate.”

Turnbull played down expectations that the Coalition could win seats in byelections to be held in Fremantle (Western Australia), Braddon (Tasmania), Mayo (South Australia) and Longman (Queensland), arguing that “byelections are always tough for the government”.

He said it would be up to state divisions to decide whether to run candidates in those seats but the Liberal party believed in fighting for government.

Turnbull said the byelections were “a test for Bill Shorten” who had failed to take responsibility for the Labor MPs’ refusal to resign after the Matt Canavan decisionset the test for dual citizens in October.

On Wednesday Shorten refused to apologise for allowing his MPs to sit in parliament while ineligible, citing the fact they had relied in “good faith” on legal advice.

On Thursday the manager of opposition business, Tony Burke, offered that Labor was “sorry it has turned out this way” while Wong told ABC Radio National: “We regret voters are put to the inconvenience and cost of byelections.”

In reference to warnings from academics that, after the Canavan decision, “reasonable steps” to renounce were not sufficient, Wong said “lawyers say a lot of things” and Labor had acted on its advice.

She said the test for dual citizens was strict but Labor would rather have referendums on Indigenous recognition in the constitution and other “more important issues”.

“Parties just now have to apply the high court decision to their processes,” she said.

Before the Gallagher decision, Linda Reynolds, the chair of the joint standing committee on electoral matters, said her view was “the evidence to the committee is the only way these problems will stop is via a referendum”.

The deputy chair of the joint standing committee on electoral matters, the Labor MP Andrew Giles, said the uncertainty about eligibility “can’t continue” as it was “compounding frustrations with the state of politics today”.

“It’s a collective responsibility to resolve this uncertainty, and also to make sure that all Australians can have their say in what restrictions should apply to running for election to our national parliament.”

Source: Citizenship inquiry to recommend referendum, which Turnbull rejects

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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