Australia is a country of migrants, built on migration, but you wouldn’t know it from the media responses to the forced exclusion of two senators for dual citizenship.
The responses from journalists and commentators to the retrospective exclusion of senators Scott Ludlam and Larissa Waters were a sort of superior knowing eye-rolling at the Greens’ failure to address what was dismissed as simply a matter of paper-work.
As is now notoriously know, section 44(i) of the constitution bars any political candidate 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 or privileges of a subject or citizen of a foreign power”.
Although the intent of the framers of the constitution was to preserve the Parliament for the British race, the High Court ruled in a 1999 case over the eligibility of One Nation candidate Heather Hill that, at least since the constitution was repatriated in 1986, Britain was a “foreign power” as far as the constitution was concerned.
When first Ludlam and then Waters announced they had never been validly elected, the media reactions in social media and talk shows fell into a narrow range from “those wacky Greens” to “how hard can it be?”. After a few days, this became leavened with just a grudging touch of “yeah, stupid, but rules is rules”.
Other than the blogging of the ABC’s British-born Antony Green, it was over a week before press gallery doyen Laurie Oakes brought his characteristic sense of history to the debate with his column calling for reform.
The commentary showed one thing we usually ignore: Australian journalists aren’t like most Australians. Most working journalists are what we might characterise as traditional settler Australians — overwhelmingly Anglo-Celtic Australians.
We don’t have a lot of hard data on race and ethnicity of Australian journalists. The major survey was conducted about 20 years ago by John Henningham of the University of Queensland. This found that journalists in the mainstream Australian media were overwhelmingly Australian-born (about 81%) with the remainder usually born in either New Zealand or the UK. More than 85% identified as being of British or Irish descent.
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Yet, as journalists know intellectually, that does not represent the broader Australia. About 28% of Australians were born overseas, three-quarters of them from countries other than the UK or New Zealand.
Australian journalists? Not so much.
This lack of diversity, this ethnic uniformity narrows the focus of reporting. Stories get missed. Voices get excluded. Not deliberately; it takes an effort to imagine something you don’t have.
We saw that blindness again when the government announced it was folding Immigration into the new Home Affairs ministry. Reporters broadly accepted the logic that migration policy should be subsumed by national security rather than focus on the millions of Australians affected.
Section 44(i) is a direct assault on diversity. It’s not just about dual citizens. Add to the foreign-born Australians about 20% of the population with at least one foreign-born parent, plus those with a foreign-born spouse, or a grandparent born in a country that transmits citizenship across two generations (such as Ireland) or Jewish Australians with a right of return to Israel, and more than half of all Australians could be caught. Only a minority of Australians can now safely nominate for election to the Australian Parliament without first making a significant sacrifice of part of their identity and their rights — often for their family as much as for themselves.
Should we be surprised that, in contrast to the Australian population, less than 10% of federal parliamentarians are foreign born?
There was a rush from those few foreign born MPs — mostly from Britain or the British diaspora — to declare themselves safe under 44(i).
Probably the most thoughtful response came from New South Wales Labor Senator Sam Dastaryi who, in assuring that he had taken steps to renounce Iranian citizenship, also sought to explain, to the extent that Twitter allows: “I engaged two teams of lawyers (Aus & Iran) spent 25K on legal fees (paid for myself). It was difficult, expensive, lengthy and precarious for my family in Iran.”
These are people who are already in Parliament. When we complain about the blandness of modern politics, let’s consider those many people stay out of politics because they refuse to make this sacrifice of their rights or potential rights.
There’s been at least two lengthy parliamentary inquiries in the 1980s and 1990s that have recommended reform of section 44. Almost all leading constitutional lawyers say things have to change. Perhaps a journalism that embraces the diversity of Australia would be better placed to report it?
Disclosure: Like over a hundred thousand other Australians, Christopher Warren is “entitled to the rights or privileges of a subject or a citizen of a foreign power” courtesy of an Irish-born grandfather.