Would the last person to be ruled ineligible, please turn out the lights?

The citizenship crisis rolls on. The Griffith Innovation Hub published a piece I wrote, reflecting on some aspects of the issue (see also the piece below on constitutional reform). Within 24 hours the Hub piece was out of date, as yet another Senator resigned on citizenship grounds.

At the same time, the government announced it was cancelling a sitting week for the House of Representatives. This was based on the improbable claim that it was to allow the same-sex marriage bill debate to conclude in the Senate before the bill came to the House. This is a lose-lose argument from the government. Even if they are to be believed, it just suggests they are so incompetent that they are incapable, despite the support of thousands of public servants and parliamentary staff, of doing more than one thing at a time. What is far more likely, as the most experienced commentators immediately concluded, was that they did not want to lose control of parliamentary votes in the period before Barnaby Joyce was returned after his by-election. Which in turn raises questions of judgement. In particular, what are they hiding, that they would go to the extent of cancelling parliament rather than face even the possibility of a Royal Commission on the banks? It appears the exact kind of move that alienates voters from government. Scrutiny of the banks is a rare issue: one that unites factions as diverse as the Greens, One Nation, Labor, and parts of the National Party. Cancelling parliamentary activity to avoid something so widely supported in politics and in the community seems a poor political judgement.

Either way, the sitting weeks of October and November have highlighted the extent to which policy work is being impeded. The Prime Minister, the media, the Cabinet, backbenchers, the Opposition - everyone is distracted by the citizenship crisis and its various ripple effects. As Michelle Grattan has noted, the Queensland State election result just increases the importance of the by-election in Bennelong. After that, MPs will have nearly two months to think about what the new parliamentary year will hold. Politics will continue to detract from policy. It's going to be a long summer.

Constitutional Reform (3 November)

It is hard to believe that more politicians have fallen foul of Section 44 of the Constitution since I wrote about the issue in July. But they have.  Lots of them. In the intevening period there have been many more doubts raised, a High Court case, and as at the start of November, eight members of parliament are now gone: Senators Culleton and Day; then more recently, because of citizenship issues, Senators Ludlam, Waters, Nash, Roberts, Parry, and Member of the House of Representatives and Deputy PM, Barnaby Joyce. The Labor party has so far emerged unscathed, though some may believe it is just a matter of time before that changes. The internal tensions the situation is causing within the government are enormous. The latest subject of debate is a proposal that all members of parliament be scrutinised through some sort of independent citizenship audit. Both the Prime Minister and Labor are generally unsupportive of the idea, but both sides of politics have backbenchers who think it would be the best way to clear the air.

An audit would have advantages, but face all sorts of difficulties. It could never actually give a member of parliament a definitive all-clear: only the court, if asked, can do that. And what happens when an election is called: will candidates expect to be able to ask an auditor to check their documentation? If not, then the exercise could be claimed to just provide cover for incumbents, but the logistics of making it more widely available rule such an option out. 

The real agenda should be constitutional change, as I explained in this longer post for Griffith University's Policy Innovation Hub. It is hard to know whether major parties will be willing to drive the process forward, though, once the immediate crisis is over.

Setting the Bar Too High? More on Section 44 of the Constitution (27 July)

Another week, another Senator in trouble, it seems. Unlike his Greens colleagues who resigned over citizenship problems, Senator Matthew Canavan is preparing to ask the High Court to rule on his eligibility to sit as a member of parliament. Australian born, Canavan  says his mother did the paperwork for him to be recognised as an Italian citizen, and he says he wasn't even aware of it. The citizenship provisions aren't the only problem - all of section 44 of Australia's constitution needs an overhaul, to help ensure that voters are getting to choose and keep the candidates they want. As I wrote on Griffith University's Policy Innovation Hub blog today, now would be a good time for political leaders and the broader community to be having this conversation.

Political Candidates and the Perils of the Australian Constitution (22 July)

On 18 July 2017, Senator Larissa Waters resigned from Parliament, after discovering that she held citizenship of Canada, where she was born to Australian parents, and which she left when just eleven months old. The resignation followed hard on the heels of that of Scott Ludlam, who made a similar discovery about his own citizenship status, having been born in New Zealand. Both Senators had not been sufficiently thorough prior to standing for election, to avoid falling foul of section 44 of the constitution and its ban on dual citizens holding office. As I wrote many years ago, section 44 is a troublesome clause. It prevents many Australians from standing for office, and treats people who commit criminal offences inconsistently and, in my view, unwisely. This week I wrote in the Canberra Times that section 44 needs to change to allow dual citizens to run for office. But that is just one part of a broader overhaul for which section 44 is long overdue.