New Zealand, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Especially the United Kingdom. These are the countries that define the dual citizenship crisis that claimed five more of our politicians this week.
Nothing more exotic seems to have turned up, and even when this rolling mess tried to incorporate Italy via Matt Canavan, it failed on the grounds that Canavan probably wasn’t an Italian citizen anyway. It’s not Penny Wong under a cloud. Even Sam Dastyari had to find another way to eject himself from the Senate. I’m far from the first to observe it is those of Anglo-Celtic or Anglo-Saxon stock who are caught in this mess. And it’s worth considering why.
Perhaps there’s a clue in the fact that, by and large, few Australians seem to care about this. It certainly didn’t harm Barnaby Joyce or John Alexander in their bids for re-election.
Truth is we’re generally more inclined to see this as an annoying technicality than any genuine crisis of divided loyalties in our Parliament. But what if instead of being kicked off by Scott Ludlam’s New Zealand citizenship, we’d discovered Dastyari was Iranian?
Would the underlying principle of section 44 of the constitution – that dual citizenship implies divided loyalties inconsistent with the job of sitting in the Australian Parliament – have seem quite so quaint? What if instead of New Zealand, Canada and the United Kingdom, we were talking about, say, China, Indonesia and Afghanistan? Is it possible we’d be more disposed to seeing section 44 as a wise and important protection against foreign infiltration?
I suppose it’s a hypothetical and there’s no real way to know for sure. But for what it’s worth, my hunch is that there’d be a section or two of the electorate in a modest panic about it.
In the space of a few hours, the Australian parliament lost five MPs after the High Court ruled Labor’s Katy Gallagher ineligible to sit as a Senator.
I can easily imagine the odd talkback caller (and host) intoning about the importance of putting Australia first, demanding these people be thrown emphatically out of our Parliament and maybe being sceptical of how much they could be trusted even after they’d renounced their other nationality. I suspect the reason we regard our current situation as a technicality is at least partly that we still think of New Zealand or Britain as places that are only technically foreign countries.
When we think of our migrant communities, we’re not imagining Kiwis and Brits, which is why while it is common for Australian politicians to insist that migrants assimilate and pledge their loyalty to Australia in citizenship ceremonies, no one seems to notice that Brits in Australia adopt Australian citizenship at a remarkably low rate. No one seriously thinks of Tony Abbott or Julia Gillard as migrants who rose to the highest office in the land. For all the banging on about Australian multiculturalism, their backgrounds are ones of continuity rather than conversion. And to be fair, that’s the way the law saw it for a long time.
Australian citizenship didn’t even exist before 1948, and when it did, Australians were still legally considered British subjects until that was finally undone in 1987. But while the law moved on, and while Australian society has changed dramatically, it’s clear our most deeply received notions of Australian-ness haven’t quite.
The giveaway is that so many of the politicians ensnared in this are genuinely surprised to learn they hold these other citizenships. Sure, some of this is down to the legal quirks of citizenship that exist between nations of the British Empire. But it’s bigger than that.
Put simply, there is barely any cultural reason for these people to have thought about it. If you’re white, from an Anglophonic background and an Australian citizen, then you face no questions. Your Australian-ness is presumed and uncomplicated. It never needs to be proven and never needs to be justified. Why should anybody be surprised that when it comes time for them to nominate for Parliament, they overlook their foreignness when they have never been scrutinised in that way in their lives? Their national loyalty is, well, written all over their faces.
That’s not a luxury Penny Wong enjoys. For that matter, it’s probably not one Mathias Cormann enjoys either. If you’re from a non-English speaking background – and especially if you’re not white – you experience Australian-ness in a much more conspicuous way.
If you’re from a non-English speaking background – and especially if you’re not white – you experience Australian-ness in a much more conspicuous way.
You cannot simply claim it, you must proclaim it. Every day seems to require a declaration – even a demonstration – of loyalty. Your life becomes one of constant renunciation because that is the shortest route to countering suspicion and establishing your Australian credentials. You carry something with you that must always be either abandoned or explained. Either way you will be reminded, again and again. And after all that, if for some reason you decide to try your hand at federal politics – and as one glance at our Parliament reveals, most people in this category don’t – what are the chances you’ll simply overlook the possibility you’re a dual citizen? How likely is it that this thing for which you’ve been held to account your entire life, will catch you by surprise?
We’ve heard much in the past 10 months about how section 44 is anachronistic in our multicultural age, how it doesn’t capture the reality of modern Australia. But the truth is it is not multicultural Australia that has been caught out by it. It is those who see themselves as free of other cultural attachments altogether. Sure, you could amend section 44 to bring it into line with Australian society. But this saga shows it’s our unspoken, daily-experienced notion of Australian-ness that needs amendment, too.
Waleed Aly is a Fairfax columnist and a presenter on The Project.