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

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 Turnbull government to try and 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 the government is “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 due to dual citizenship.

The Turnbull 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 “pre-conditions 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.

Cormann welcomed the report, saying the government would give “due consideration” to the recommendations but was “not inclined to pursue a referendum … at this time”.

“We intend to move now to improve the existing candidate nomination process for elections in accordance with the relevant unanimous Jscem recommendations on these matters,” he said.

In November the Turnbull government introduced a new citizenship registerrequiring 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”.

As the citizenship register will now include disclosures before the election, the reform is likely to enlarge the role of the media in testing and revealing candidates’ disqualifications.

The electoral matters committee rejected any proposal for the AEC to actively vet candidates, warning it would expose the body to accusations of bias.

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 are 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.

It concluded the section “is no longer operating to effectively ensure its principal intent of parliamentary integrity and national sovereignty”.

“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.”

Source: The Guardian

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