It's Probably Time You Learned About WTF Is Happening In Australia's Political Citizenship Scandal
Do you give half a fuck? This post is for you.
Friends, gather round. It's time to go back to a quieter, gentler time in Australian politics – that is, 2:12pm on Friday July 14, which is the minute before Scott Ludlam tweeted this:
Take a breath. Remember when we weren't constantly talking about citizenship?
Wasn't that nice?
It was nice, right?
OK, back to reality. When Ludlam, the former Greens codeputy leader and senator for Western Australia hit the tweet button, he triggered a scandal that has enveloped Australian politics for two weeks and counting, and ensnared more politicians than anyone might have imagined.
To start...let's go right back to January 1, 1901, when the Australian Constitution was enacted. Section 44 of the constitution, titled "Disqualification", outlines who can and can't sit in the Senate. Here it is:
The sub-section causing trouble at the moment is (i), which states that anyone who is "under any acknowledgement of allegiance, obedience, or adherence to a foreign power, or is a subject or a citizen or entitled to the rights & privileges of a subject or citizen of a foreign power" cannot run for, or sit, in the parliament.
The wording has the effect of banning dual citizens from entering the Australian parliament.
So, most politicians and political journalists had been travelling along just kind of assuming that everyone's paperwork was in order. But then Ludlam's announcement came completely out of the blue at 2:13pm on July 14.
Ludlam said he was born in New Zealand, left when he was three, settled in Australia by the time he was nine, and then was naturalised as an Australian in his mid-teens. He assumed that was the end of his New Zealand citizenship.
Ludlam resigned, effective immediately, and said he had "no wish to draw out the uncertainty or create a lengthy legal dispute, particularly when the Constitution is so clear."
Three days later, IT HAPPENED AGAIN. Greens Party senator Larissa Waters announced that she, too, had recently discovered she was a dual citizen of Australia and Canada.
Waters, who was born in Canada but left before she turned one, said Canada's citizenship laws, requiring her to actively renounce her citizenship, had changed literally the week after she was born.
So this was obviously a big deal. Not just one senator was a surprise dual citizen, but two.
Five thousand people on Australian Twitter riffed on a classic line from Oscar Wilde's play The Importance of Being Earnest with this joke: "To lose one senator may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness."
People began wondering who would replace the two Greens senators, with the most likely results being 22-year-old disability advocate Jordon Steele-John for Ludlam, and the former leader of the Australian Democrats, Andrew Bartlett, for Waters.
(Coincidentally, Bartlett, along with former Greens leader Bob Brown, had led various pushes to amend Section 44 through the late '90s and '00s.)
Then, in a development that would have seemed bizarre two weeks ago, politicians of all stripes started publicly proclaiming their citizenship status.
Some even posted citizenship documents online – including former prime minister Tony Abbott, who blew everyone's minds by dropping a letter from the UK department of visas and immigration confirming he had renounced his citizenship.
Everyone who had ever suspected Abbott of never having renounced his citizenship was extremely: "I...worked on this story for a year...and he just...he tweeted it out."
Finance minister Mathias Cormann, who was born in Belgium, also tweeted out documents.
The responses to both document mic drops were pretty incredible...and it was hard to tell at this point who was serious, who was trolling, and who was hovering somewhere in between.
So two senators were down, everyone was talking about Section 44, and journalists were DIGGING.
Who else in the parliament had no idea that they were a dual citizen? Were there politicians who DID know, but had gotten away with it this whole time? Wild theories about possible applications of Section 44 started flying around.
At first, the focus was on all MPs who had been born overseas, as Ludlam and Waters had been. But then Labor senator Lisa Singh raised the issue of automatic British citizenship.
"I was lucky the Labor Party did the work [to determine whether I was eligible] because, despite being born in Australia, I was shocked to find out that I was also a British citizen, through my father," Singh told BuzzFeed News.
"Because he had arrived in Australia from Fiji as a British subject - Fiji still being a British colony in those days - his British citizenship that he still held when I was born was conferred on me through birthright. So I had dual citizenship that I never knew about."
Singh renounced her British citizenship just prior to being elected in 2010. While she was in the clear, the information about British colonies only served to widen the media's net on other MPs who may have been similarly entangled in the citizenship mess.
Questions were raised about One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts, who was born in India to a Welsh father.
Roberts was adamant he was not an Indian citizen...but was he a British one?
So far, the drama had been restricted to the minor parties...but that all changed on Monday night when resources minister Matt Canavan stepped up for a presser.
Yes...it had happened again. Canavan said his mother had made him an Italian citizen without his knowledge when he was 25, and as a result he was stepping down as a minister.
Everyone was like, "Mamma mia!"
But unlike Ludlam and Waters, Canavan wasn't leaving the parliament. Why? Because the government had legal advice that Canavan was registered as an Italian citizen without his knowledge or consent, and therefore he may not have breached section 44.
Attorney-general George Brandis said the government would refer the matter to the High Court when parliament resumes next month to sort this out once and for all.
Meanwhile, people had a whole lot of other questions...mostly just...what? How, when you're a grown man, can your mum make you a citizen of another country without you knowing? Don't you have to sign something? Anything?
Oh, and Oscar Wilde reemerged, much to everyone's chagrin.
Let's put Canavan to one side for a second and return to One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts, who has been increasingly beleaguered by media clamouring for him to reveal his identity documents.
On Wednesday, BuzzFeed News uncovered some ship's logs (yes, seriously) showing that Roberts had travelled on a UK passport when he was a baby.
On Thursday, Roberts's staffer Sean Black told Fairfax Media that Roberts is "choosing to believe that he was never British".
"He is preferring to believe that he was never British because he has no allegiance or exercised any citizenship arrangement."
Of course, everyone got around the idea of #choosingtobelieve and it became yet another Twitter storm to do with the citizenship issue.
(To be fair it was slightly unclear if everyone on the hashtag was piling in on Roberts or just tweeting unrelated positive thoughts.)
Finally, Roberts said he would appear on a late night Sky News show with conservative pundit Paul Murray, where all would be revealed.
But as it turns out, that appearance only left everyone with more questions. It's still unclear whether Roberts was ever a British citizen, and if he was, whether he renounced said citizenship before the election.
You can read a full rundown of WTF is going on with Malcolm Roberts here.
Oh, and on Friday morning, Black threatened to report a journalist from Fairfax to the police for asking questions about Roberts's citizenship.
Come Friday it had been a solid two weeks of obsessing over citizenship. The clock ticked over to the afternoon and...
The Herald Sun reported that Liberal MP Julia Banks, who is of Greek descent, is being vetted for eligibility.
Banks is the first House of Representatives member to come under scrutiny in the citizenship scandal, and if she is found to be ineligible, a by-election could end the Coalition's one-seat majority in the house, thus putting it at the mercy of independents.
But Banks told the ABC she had never held Greek citizenship, and that her dad – who was born in Greece – had become an Australian citizen before she was born.
So what does it all mean?
How many MPs will be ensnared in this political scandal? Will the High Court vindicate Matt Canavan? Will the result have anything to do with Ludlam and Waters?
Will Malcolm Roberts ever provide empirical evidence of his citizenship claims? Will journalists be jailed over their polite emails to his office? When will Mrs Canavan and/or someone from the Italian Consulate face the press about how a 25-year-old is made a citizen against his will?
And will the government ultimately survive this intensely messy, confusing, legally murky situation?