Australia: Citizenship crisis: coalition resists referendum in favour of new rules for candidates

Understandable reluctance giving risks and divisiveness of referendums (and not clear whether winnable) with the unfortunate result that Australian parliaments will continue to be significantly under-representative:

Candidates will have to disclose the birthplace and citizenship of themselves, their parents and grandparents before the next federal election under changes announced by the government to try to put an end to Australia’s citizenship crisis without a referendum.

On Thursday an inquiry examining section 44 of the constitution warned that, without a referendum, elections could be subject to “manipulation” by challenges against candidates with dual citizenship or other disqualifications.

Despite the electoral matters committee’s bipartisan push for a referendum to reform or repeal section 44 of the constitution, the special minister of state, Mathias Cormann, confirmed that the government was “not inclined to pursue a referendum”.

Instead the government will pursue steps “to minimise the risk of a recurrence of the eligibility issues” that have plagued the 45th parliament, in which 14 parliamentarians have resigned or been ruled ineligible since mid-2017 owing to dual citizenship.

The government set up the inquiry into section 44 by the joint standing committee on electoral matters after the high court ruled five senators and MPs ineligible in October.

In a bipartisan report released on Thursday, the committee recommended the government prepare a referendum question to either repeal all the disqualifications for standing for parliament in section 44 or to give parliament the power to set the disqualifications itself.

But the committee acknowledged a referendum “will not be positively received by Australians and the outcome … is uncertain”.

It accepted the “preconditions for a successful referendum on this issue will take time” and cannot be achieved before the “Super Saturday” byelections triggered by the high court’s ruling against Katy Gallagher or before the next federal election.

The committee suggested a series of measures to “mitigate the impact of section 44” including:

  • a requirement that all candidates reveal their family citizenship history at the time of nomination and information relevant to other disqualifications;
  • an “online self-assessment tool” to be developed by the Australian Electoral Commission;
  • improved education for minor parties and independents; and
  • exploring expedited citizenship renunciation processes with foreign governments.

At a press conference in Brisbane Malcolm Turnbull said the government did not have time to deal with a referendum before the next election and the Australian people “expect us to deal with the constitution as it stands”.

Even in the longer term, the prime minister said he “very much doubted” whether Australians would support a change to the constitution.

Cormann said the government would instead “move to improve the existing candidate nomination process for elections”.

In November the government introduced a new citizenship register requiring current and future parliamentarians to reveal their birthplace, that of their parents and grandparents and to produce documents showing renunciation of foreign citizenship 21 days after their election.

Cormann announced those requirements would now be applied to “candidates for election to the Australian parliament” who will provide the information to the AEC “as well as information on other potential disqualifications under section 44 of the constitution”. This is likely to require disclosure of criminal convictions, bankruptcies and interests in contracts with the government.

The committee warned that section 44 opened the electoral system to “the risk of manipulation, where a successful candidate could have their election challenged on the basis of preference flows from an ineligible candidate”.

“This raises the possibility of deliberate manipulation of disqualification rules to overturn an otherwise valid election,” it said.

The committee noted that when all the disqualifications in section 44 are considered – including foreign citizenship, employment in the public service and an “indirect pecuniary interest in an agreement with the commonwealth” – more than 50% of the Australian population is ineligible to run for parliament.

The report argued that the ban on dual citizens caused numerous problems, including uncertainty for parliamentarians who were unsure of the citizenship of their parents or grandparents, and the possibility that foreign governments could manipulate eligibility by not processing renunciation in a timely manner.

“Challenges to sitting members will continue into future elections; disrupting electoral outcomes, causing uncertainty and confusion, and having the potential to undermine the authority of both federal parliament and the constitution itself.”

Despite those dire warnings the chair of the electoral committee, the Liberal senator Linda Reynolds, told Guardian Australia she was “not [so] pessimistic” to suggest it will take further disqualifications to convince Australians of the need for a referendum.

“We need to start a conversation about whether the rules are the right ones for today’s society,” she said.

Reynolds cited the fact that public servants have to give up their jobs to run for parliament, and the citizenship requirements favour “Australians with a long-term unbroken family history” and those who can afford legal advice to remove disqualifications.

via Citizenship crisis: coalition resists referendum in favour of new rules for candidates | Australia news | The Guardian

Further article: Will we actually vote on changing the constitution after the dual citizenship fiasco? – Politics – ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

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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