Big Birther

As this article notes, Australian political scandals are like our bushfires: they blow up out of nowhere, and burn fast and hard. Developments in this one are coming hard and fast. I’ll post some updates as I can.

 New article for the Connor Post

Way back when he actually used to be occasionally funny rather than a hectoring prat barking jejune liberal talking points, John Oliver once remarked on Australia’s sometimes brutally swift politics.

As he observed, rather than the interminable, year-long soap opera of American campaigns, Australian elections pack all the same drama, scandal and farce into one high-octane month. The longest Australian election in living memory ran for six weeks.

Australian political scandals are often little different. The Obama “Birther” scandal dragged on for eight anticlimactic years. In Australia, a very real “birther” scandal has, in just weeks, erupted from a diverting sideshow to a full-blown Constitutional crisis. Yet, while the Turnbull government is reeling, the Labor opposition should perhaps reconsider the dangerous game it is playing.

The origin of the crisis lies in Section 44 of the Australian Constitution, which lays the grounds for disqualification for election to Parliament. Section 44 has generally been interpreted as meaning that dual citizens are ineligible.

In July, it emerged that Greens senator Scott Ludlam had never renounced his New Zealand citizenship after moving to Australia as a child. Ludlam had been in breach of Section 44 for his entire ten years in the Senate. Consequently, he resigned. It all seemed just another Canberra three days’ wonder, with perhaps an added dash of schadenfreude at seeing the self-righteous Greens taken down a peg.

But political sharks smelt blood, and were sniffing where the traces lead. A week later, deputy Greens leader Larissa Waters, a Canadian child immigrant, also resigned. Next victim was Turnbull Cabinet Minister, Matthew Canavan. Then Buzzfeed outed One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts. Then came Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce (he who once threatened to euthanise Johnny Depp’s dogs), and then fellow National Fiona Nash, and lastly (for now) independent senator Nick Xenophon.

All have been referred to the High Court, which will try and resolve this Constitutional mess in months to come.

Yet, if anyone had been paying attention, alarm bells should perhaps have rung from the outset. On resigning, Waters said, “Canadian law … required me to have actively renounced Canadian citizenship”. That ominous fact: nations conferring automatic birthright citizenship on the descendants of emigrants, is what soon turned a sideshow into a Constitutional crisis.

Matt Canavan is a third-generation descendant of Italian migrants: he was born in Australia, and has never visited Italy. Neither has his mother. Yet, in 2006, she applied for Italian citizenship. It’s not uncommon for Australia descendants of European migrants to take advantage of dual citizenship to study in the EU, or make the modern Grand Tour. Unfortunately for Canavan, his mother also obtained citizenship for him — he claims, without his knowledge.

Barnaby Joyce may have inherited New Zealand citizenship automatically, simply by virtue of his father having been born a Kiwi, with neither his knowledge nor consent. In an even more Byzantine twist, Australian-born Nick Xenophon, not only unwittingly has British citizenship from his Greek Cypriot father, but may also have inherited Greek citizenship from his mother.

But while taking down a Deputy Prime Minister, and maybe the Turnbull government, was obviously irresistible, Labor may have overreached themselves with their crack at Joyce. Beyond the Constitutional crisis at home, Labor’s methods sparked an international scandal involving Australia’s closest ally.

The dirt on Joyce came via New Zealand Labour politician, Chris Hipkins. Hipkins submitted a written question in parliament, asking whether children “born in Australia to a New Zealand father automatically have New Zealand citizenship”. This naturally set up the Joyce “revelation”. It was later confirmed that an Australian Labor staffer had prompted Hipkins.

A political storm erupted. Politicians interfering in the internal affairs of other nations, especially allies, is very bad form indeed. Especially when it may bring down a government. New Zealand is also in the middle of an election: a would-be minister acting so badly is not a good look. New Zealand Labour’s Jacinda Adern quickly went into damage control mode.

The sense, though, is that this crisis is far from over. The government is in an ugly mood, and there are of plenty foreign-born or descended parliamentarians in the Labor party, should they seek revenge, from Scots-born firebrand Doug Cameron, right up to leader Bill Shorten, son of a Tyneside tradesman. Labor should recall the 1997 “Travel Rorts” scandal. Back then, Labor were cock-a-whoop as the newly-elected Howard government lost three ministers in rapid succession. But the parliamentary blowback was brutal. By the time all parties had come to their senses, a Labor politician had attempted suicide.

Labor should beware, lest the fire they’re holding to the government’s feet doesn’t end up burning their own fingers.

And, just as predicted, the blowtorch has been turned on Bill Shorten, in no uncertain terms. Even the Labor-friendly QandA program was going in hard, repeatedly asking Shorten for proof that he had renounced his British citizenship – proof Shorten declined to provide. Watching Shorten squirm is particularly ironic, given how Labor hounded former PM Tony Abbott on exactly the same issue, just two years ago.

At least Abbott ponied up the proof.

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