The dual citizenship furore in the Australian parliament: What is at stake for the working class?


Matthew Canavan (right) was a key minister in PM Malcolm Turnbull’s cabinet PHOTO/BBC

A nationalist witch-hunt against members of the Australian parliament, who hold, or are simply entitled to hold, dual citizenship of another country, has plunged Canberra into its greatest constitutional crisis in over 40 years. In true McCarthyite fashion, seven politicians already face High Court hearings on the extraordinary grounds that they have “allegiance to a foreign power.”

The High Court, a reactionary institution with a history of endorsing the stripping away of fundamental democratic rights, will decide whether the seven are eligible to sit in parliament. The most prominent figure referred to the court so far is Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, upon whose fate the Liberal-National Coalition government’s one-seat majority in the lower house depends.

The referrals to the High Court have been justified by Australia’s arcane 1901 constitution. Section 44 (i) proscribes anyone from standing for parliament who has “allegiance, obedience, or adherence to a foreign power” or is “entitled” to the “rights and privileges of a foreign power.” In 1992, the court set a precedent. It ruled that dual citizenship amounted to “allegiance” and that two candidates in an election were ineligible to stand for parliament because they had failed to take “reasonable steps” to renounce their foreign citizenship.

Twenty-five years later, that precedent has been seized upon to investigate the backgrounds of federal politicians. It was virtually inevitable that some would fall foul of scrutiny. Due to large-scale migration since World War II, an estimated 50 percent of the Australian population holds or is entitled to hold dual citizenship—often without being conscious of it—because they were born overseas or a parent, grandparent or even great-grandparent was born overseas. As many as a dozen more politicians could be referred to the court, before the witch-hunt has finished working through its potential victims.

The vendetta over dual citizenship has been labelled a “farce” in the establishment media, and the outcome of the “incompetence” of politicians who have failed to ascertain their status. There is certainly an element of the absurd in the campaign, given that the politicians involved have lived all or most of their lives in Australia. But, if it were simply a farce, why is it being pursued with such vigour by the media and political establishment, even though it is further destabilising an already unstable parliamentary system? And why have none of the major parties even suggested that the constitution be amended or that fundamental democratic rights are at stake?

As the events have unfolded, the underlying reasons for this deeply anti-democratic witch-hunt, and its serious implications for the working class, have come into sharper focus. Under conditions of immense war tensions internationally, tremendous economic uncertainty and rising class antagonisms, it is being used to amplify a decades-long effort to divert and disorientate the population through nationalism and xenophobia.

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