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Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Time for Abbott to stop fudging on the citizenship issue

Time for Abbott to stop fudging on the citizenship issue


(image courtesy

The fudging, blocking and delaying from both conservative
governments, in Australia and Britain, suggest the date when Tony
Abbott renounced his British citizenship will be politically harmful to
the Prime Minister. Law lecturer, Ingrid Matthews, looks at the facts

IN THE U.S., being born in that country is a constitutional
requirement for standing for the Presidency. Anyone born outside the
U.S. is not eligible to stand. There was once some talk of changing this
so that Arnold Schwarzenegger aka the former governator of California,
would become eligible to run for president. A sex scandal broke, he
disappeared from public life, and so did the debate.


This is a constitutional matter. A legal fact. The political and
cultural requirements are numerous and complex. For instance, there is
no requirement in the constitution that a presidential candidate also be
a Christian. But the current political reality is that candidates are
compelled to state their adherence to the Christian religion and end
their speeches with ‘God Bless America’. This is so despite the fact
that the framers of the American Constitution were determined
secularists. Freedom of religion and freedom from religion is the
secular liberal tradition. The private letters of U.S. Constitution
framer Thomas Jefferson clearly show his secular outlook and contain the
phrase ‘separation of church and state’ to explain the First Amendment, which opens with this line:

‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof’

Atheists are usually required to demonstrate our knowledge of your
religion in order to refute it. In this tradition, Jefferson supported
his argument by quoting the gospel of Mark (12:17):

‘Then Jesus said to them, "Give back to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's." And they were amazed at him.’

Because Barak Hussein Obama is a black Democrat with a funny sounding
Muslim-ish name, a group of right wing conspiracists made up a story:
that Obama was not born in the U.S.

This is simply a lie. It gained traction in all the usual ways: via
the lie-spreading machine that is Fox ‘news’, funded by millionaire
Donald Trump, who donates generously to the Republican Party and
increases his already obscene wealth under the demonstrably terrible
‘economic policy’ measures favoured by the extreme right wing.

(image courtesy

The whole shrieking mess can be translated into a simple invalid
argument: Obama is black, therefore he is not eligible for the

The situation in Australia is different. Not for the first time, we
have a foreign-born Prime Minister. This is neither a legal nor
political problem. The constitution does not even mention the prime
minister, let alone direct that the person holding that office be born
in Australia.

The Australian constitution does, however, require all elected
members of Parliament to only hold Australian citizenship. That is, if
you want to take up an elected position in our democracy and become part
of the highest governing authority in the country, it is illegal to do
so if you also hold allegiance to a foreign power in the form of
citizenship of another nation. You must be neither a non-citizen nor a
dual citizen. You must be an Australian citizen and an Australian
citizen only. This is in section 44, which sets out the conditions and
requirements of election to the Commonwealth Parliament.

Section 44 of the Australian Constitution lists the grounds for disqualification on who may become a candidate for election to the Parliament of Australia. It states in particular:

44. Any person who -

(i.)  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 or privileges of a subject or
citizen of a foreign power: or

(ii.) Is attainted of treason, or has
been convicted and is under sentence, or subject to be sentenced, for
any offence punishable under the law of the Commonwealth or of a State
by imprisonment for one year or longer: or

(iii.) Is an undischarged bankrupt or insolvent: or

(iv.) Holds any office of profit under
the Crown, or any pension payable during the pleasure of the Crown out
of any of the revenues of the Commonwealth: or

(v.) Has any direct or indirect pecuniary
interest in any agreement with the Public Service of the Commonwealth
otherwise than as a member and in common with the other members of an
incorporated company consisting of more than twenty-five persons:

shall be incapable of being chosen or of sitting as a senator or a member of the House of Representatives.

Here’s the thinking behind the provision on foreign powers. While the
states run day-to-day internal matters such as health, education and
policing, the Commonwealth must deal with external affairs on behalf of
all Australians.

So if a member of the Commonwealth Parliament holds dual citizenship,
they immediately risk a conflict of interest where the Australian
government is negotiating, or going to war against, a foreign power.
This is an unacceptable level of risk, because of national security.

So to stand for public office as a dual citizen is in breach of our
founding legal document, the law that authorises all other Australian
laws. Again, this is not necessarily a problem.

If the constitutional breach is seen as inadvertent, a mere
oversight, we extend the principle of charity. This is the same rule
that gives the batsman the benefit of the doubt. People make mistakes
all the time. Where there are humans, there is human error. In the first
instance, we give them the benefit of the doubt. They said it was an
oversight, and it probably was. It’s a small problem with a simple

Renounce the other citizenship, become an Australian-only citizen, if
necessary hold a by-election. If you win the by-election after
renouncing the non-Australian citizenship – the citizenship of a foreign
power – both the legal and political problems are resolved. That’s it.

It is a different case altogether to repeatedly stand for public
office not once, but twice, or three or four or five times, while not
being eligible to stand under s44 of the Australian Constitution. It is
certainly a substantially different matter if the person who did this is
the Prime Minister, a person who holds qualification from an elite
university, a highly paid member of parliament who knows or ought to know that what they are doing is in breach of the constitution.

Someone in this position is attributed with constructive knowledge,
that is, if you say you didn’t know, the law says you ought to have
known, in this case on the basis of the responsibilities and
remuneration of your office, and the foundational principles of the
Westminster system, such as ministerial accountability.

There is no crazy conspiracy ‘birther’ movement in Australia. There
is a group of people on social (and now some traditional) media asking
whether the Prime Minister has stood for public office while ineligible
to stand, and if so, how many times.

Comparisons with the birthers should be dismissed out of hand as weak
analogy. That is, there are too few similarities, and those
similarities are very broad (both arguments are founded in political
oppositionism and use the constitution to make their case). There are
too many highly relevant differences, and the differences are very

The birthers simple seek to discredit the president and their
opposition is racist as well as political. In Australia, we are asking
whether the Prime Ministers tendency to lie goes all the way to his
election to public office itself.

The question is easily answered. The Prime Minister’s office tells us
he has renounced his British citizenship. It refuses to say when. The
fudging and blocking and delaying from both conservative governments, in
Australia and Britain, suggest the date will be politically harmful to
the Prime Minister.

My guess is that the date he renounced British citizenship is
relatively recent, and will show that he wilfully, not inadvertently,
stood for public office more than once, while being ineligible to do so.

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