Just how difficult is it to nominate for election as an MP or senator? Given how many MPs and senators have struggled to comply with the constitutional requirements for electoral eligibility, we thought we’d check to see if the paperwork for putting your hand up for election is the kind of thing that most of us would struggle to do accurately, which could give us a mite more sympathy for busy MPs and senators who’ve been caught out as foreigners.

Well, not so difficult, as it turns out. The forms to nominate as a candidate for election to the House of Representatives and the Senate are models of clarity. Just seven questions and a declaration, where would-be candidates are required to indicate that they are eligible under the constitution.

The Australian Electoral Commission also provides a handy set of tips for filling in the form. “Your attention is drawn in particular to section 44 of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia” the AEC says in bold, before showing exactly what section 44 says.

Which makes it sort of hard to miss. Half a dozen or more politicians have been unable to fill out a seven-question, one-declaration form that specifically tells them: “Candidates who have any doubts about their eligibility, by virtue of section 44 of the Constitution, are advised to obtain their own legal advice.”

It is, needless to say, a different story if instead of putting your hand up for a $200,000 a year parliamentary position, you want to claim the age pension (around $20,000 a year for a single person). That’s 94 questions plus declarations over 20 double-column pages, including acknowledging that giving false or misleading information is a serious offence. Plus supporting documentation, of course. 

But pensioners get off lightly compared to people claiming the Disability Support Pension ($22,000 for a single person). That’s 182 questions and declarations over 32 double-column pages. But wait, there’s an Income and Assets form — that’s another 50 questions, thanks. And if you’re a carer, things are marginally easier — you can get a carer payment after answering just 46 questions

Of course, claiming welfare payments should require demonstrating that you’re eligible for them in appropriate detail. But what if you don’t want any money, you just, say, want to register a company? The Australian Securities and Investments Commission requires you to fill out a form with six questions — but they’re all much longer than the tick-a-box question would-be MPs have to answer, running to ten pages including a 2-page guide to what financial and identifying information you need to provide.

Hell, even if you’re registering your pet in NSW you need to fill out a form with more questions than the AEC form.

As the Human Services welfare claim forms always remind claimants, there are serious consequences for giving false or misleading information when filling out forms. And as Human Services’ robo-debt scandal has shown, bureaucrats now adopt a “demand first, check whether they’re right later” approach to claimants. For MPs and senators who have failed to fill out the AEC’s simple form correctly, the government is offering to pay their High Court costs.

The other point is this: Matt Canavan, Barnaby Joyce and Fiona Nash were/are all ministers with carriage of important portfolios — portfolios involving the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars. They’re also people who can’t fill out the simplest forms properly. As anyone who’s ever recruited staff knows, if someone lobs in an application with a major error in it, that’s usually a good sign to scratch them off the list immediately.