Dual Citizenship: Make a Date with Democracy and Let the Public Decide

Mark Evans

Professor Evans is the Director of the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, University of Canberra

Gerry Stoker

Gerry Stoker is Professor of Governance at University of Southampton and the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis

Is it any wonder that trust in Australian politicians is at an all-time low when the Australian Parliament is not representative of its citizenry?

The dual citizenship saga has dominated political debate for weeks but probably the two most important questions in terms of the health of our democracy have been largely ignored. Is the dual citizenship constraint appropriate in today’s multicultural Australia? And if so, is it democratic to rule out almost half the population from standing for election? Yet that is the debate that our focus groups – conducted in Queensland this month – tell us that large sections of the public would be happy to have.

Let us first acknowledge the arguments of those in the focus groups who understandably want to see the scrupulous application of current constitutional rules. Fair enough a rule is a rule and should be applied to the letter. It’s also reasonable to express disquiet with politicians who appear to place themselves beyond constitutional requirements that on a strict interpretation (reinforced by the judiciary) appear fairly straightforward to understand.

Some individual representatives caught up in the debacle have acted with dignity but the political class as a whole has not raised its game in response to this challenge. It has predictably descended into a cacophony of name calling, duplicity and a rather silly version of the chicken game; all of which is observed by the public with resigned frustration. “They’re obviously not doing their job if this is what they’re all worried about,” as a young member of one of our Brisbane focus groups put it.

But if frustration with the political class is a popular reaction, so too is a sense that applying a rule on dual citizenship is just plain odd in contemporary Australia. We know from the census that: three in 10 Australian residents were born overseas; one in three Australian adult citizens were born overseas; nearly half (49%) Australian residents have at least one parent born overseas; and, nearly 45% of Australian adult citizens have at least one parent born overseas. Issue number one then is whether it is in keeping with our democratic values to disenfranchise such a large proportion of the population from standing for election at a time of deepening mistrust with the political class. 

We also know that other countries that would largely be regarded as long-term friends and partners of Australia do not have such restrictive rules. Dual citizens are currently welcome — with a few caveats and clauses — in the parliaments of the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Germany and New Zealand, among others. Public servants and political advisors many of whom exercise significant power in Australian governance are not subject to such strict rules about dual citizenship. Hence our second issue – having dual citizenship could be seen as a boon in a globalised world giving Australia greater capacity for developing strong collaborative relationships (soft power) and influence in international diplomacy.

Among many in the focus groups there is also a sense of bewilderment about why such a strict rule aimed at dual citizens is considered appropriate in today’s Australia:

“We’re talking about countries that are in the Commonwealth anyway. It’s not like they’re aligned with some enemy. They’re Canadians and UK citizens, most of them. Or from New Zealand. Seriously?”

“It’s not Russia.”

“Or North Korea.” (Focus group with Australians 18 to 24 years of age, Brisbane).

For many this section of the Constitution is out of touch and does not reflect the reality of Australian society. As a result, they believe the Constitution should be changed.

“Just drawing a blanket rule of dual citizenship is ridiculous because there are so many cultures and countries that have come together to make Australia what it is today.” (UK-born Australian citizen, female, late 20s, workplace trainer, Brisbane).

“I believe that Section 44 should be changed in the Constitution. I think it’s crazy. It needs to be updated.” (Retired male, Townsville).

There were some who felt that it was right to have a strong line of dual citizenship:

“I agree with the rule. I wouldn’t want someone coming from another country, might be China, might be Russia, becoming a dual citizen, running for parliament and running our country.” (Retired male, Brisbane).

On the whole there is a pattern to the responses, with younger voters being much more willing to change to a more flexible approach and older voters not so sure. Seems familiar? Of course a similar pattern could be observed in the postal vote on same sex marriage. Australia is changing but politicians appear to be slower to waking up to that fact than many citizens.

That is why we would argue that it is time for throwing the dual citizenship problem and a range of other issues aimed at bringing Australia’s democracy up to date to a constitutional convention of citizens mixed with a cadre of politicians. In 2011, the Republic of Ireland successfully modernised its constitution and rebuilt trust with the Irish citizenry using this democratic innovation. Indeed, it would be a courageous and far sighted act of statesmanship for the Prime Minister to make a date with Australian democracy and initiate a constitutional convention next year. Even better, let’s hold it on the 20th Anniversary of the 1998 Constitutional Convention on the Republic at Old Parliament House but this time make the change to a more equal democracy.

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