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[David Fickling] The world’s most ridiculous constitutional crisis

Aug. 20, 2017 - 18:11 By Bloomberg
Australia’s parliament is in the grip of the world’s most ridiculous constitutional crisis. The situation threatens the country’s democratic process, which is reason enough for politicians and courts to work to unpick it. More importantly, though, it raises questions the rest of the world would do well to ponder.

Over the past month, five members of Australia‘s 226-member parliament have admitted that they may have unwittingly held dual citizenship -- a condition that, under Australia’s 1900 constitution, disqualifies them from political office in Canberra.

The latest blow on Monday ensnared Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, putting into jeopardy the government’s one-seat majority in the governing House of Representatives. Joyce’s father was born in New Zealand in 1924. As a result, Kiwis officially consider him one of their own.

Journalists and political staffers have launched a hunt to see who will fall next. The country’s justice minister Michael Keenan took to social media Thursday to confirm he renounced his British citizenship 13 years ago, after the Sydney Morning Herald reported that he may have been a dual citizen. In total, 13 senators and 11 House members were born overseas, equivalent to about 17 percent and 7.3 percent of the respective chambers. More may be caught, like Joyce, as a result of their parentage. With both chambers finely-balanced between parties -- and renouncing foreign citizenship, in many cases, a long and complex process -- the crisis could hamstring the government’s ability to pass legislation.

Australia has one of highest proportions of foreign-born residents among democratic countries. Nearly half of permanent residents are first- or second-generation migrants, with about 28 percent born overseas and 21 percent having at least one foreign-born parent. About 4.6 percent were, like me, born in the UK; another 2.6 percent in China, Hong Kong and Macau, plus 2.2 percent from New Zealand and 1.9 percent from India. More than 27 percent of the population speaks a language other than English at home.

That’s a vast population whose ability to serve in parliament is potentially restricted. There are so many different regulations around the world that it’s not always obvious to individuals which countries might claim them as citizens.

Larissa Waters, a Greens senator who was born in Winnipeg but has lived in Australia since infancy, quit last month after discovering that a Canadian law that entered into force when she was seven days old meant Canada still considered her a citizen. A week later, Australia’s then-Resources Minister Matthew Canavan was caught out after discovering his mother had once sought Italian citizenship for herself and for him. “Until last week I had no suspicion I could be an Italian citizen,” he wrote on Twitter. “I was not born in Italy and have never been to Italy.”

Even those who know the details can face problems. Senator Sam Dastyari is one of the 58,000 Australians who were born in Iran, a country which makes renouncing citizenship notoriously hard. The process of doing so cost him AU$25,000 ($20,000) in legal and other fees and was “difficult, expensive, lengthy and precarious for my family still living in Iran,” he wrote on Facebook last month.

The absurdity of the rule, almost since its inception, can be grasped by the fact that it has historically been honored more in the breach than the observance. Between 1903 and 1923, just one prime minister was born in the country: Alfred Deakin, an architect of the racist White Australia migration policy who still lends his name to a university and the suburb of the capital where the country’s leaders have their official residence. Since that time, Prime Ministers John Gorton -- who led the country from 1968 to 1971 -- as well as Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott have all been born overseas.

The problem extends beyond Australia. While few other major democracies include such restrictive citizenship limits on their elected politicians, the topic frequently dogs legislators in countries with large migrant populations. Canada’s former Foreign Minister Stephane Dion and New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair have both faced pressure to give up their French citizenship.

Former Minnesota Republican Representative Michele Bachmann renounced her Swiss citizenship in 2012 after acquiring it via her husband, a son of Swiss immigrants. And the provision of the US constitution requiring presidents to be “natural-born citizens” -- a vague term that’s not clearly defined in the founding document -- has prompted non-frivolous questions about at least two potential US presidential candidates over the past decade: Panama-born John McCain, and Ted Cruz, who was born in Canada.

These laws were written in an age when nations were more likely to fight and conspire against each other than to exchange migrant populations. The challenge they face today is the opposite: How can they attract the immigrants needed to avert demographic decline? And equally importantly, how can they integrate those newcomers into the fabric of national life without either creating underprivileged banlieues or inflaming local xenophobia? Countries should be looking for ways to ease this transition, rather than making it more difficult.

Legislatures worldwide would thus do well to abandon their allegiance to the old citizenship principles of jus sanguinis and jus soli -- the right of blood and the right of soil. Candidates’ fitness for office ought to be measured by their actions, rather than the details of their birth. Voters, not bureaucrats in other countries, should be the ones to decide whether those candidates’ loyalty to their country is sufficient to elect them to office.

By David Fickling

David Fickling is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist. -- Ed.