The citizenship saga/imbroglio/brouhaha/scandal probably couldn’t have come at a worse time in Australian politics. There’s probably no good time for politicians, as a class, to be discredited by a widespread inability to fill out forms properly, even if the problem is mainly confined to members of minor parties. But at a time when the government is deeply unpopular, led by a man seen as disappointing all the high hopes that attended his ascension to the prime ministership, and when there is widespread disenchantment with the economic framework that has shaped the polity for the last 30 years, this is pretty much the last thing, other than say a major corruption scandal, that we need.
Worse, though, in a way that those of us inside the Canberra bubble probably won’t quite get, is that the stories on offer on the part of the MPs and senators before the High Court have changed significantly. In particular, the circumstances in which senator Matt Canavan became an Italian citizen appear to have changed radically. This was Canavan exactly a month ago, when he revealed his citizenship problem:
“In 2006, my mother lodged documents with the Italian consulate in Brisbane to become an Italian citizen. In doing so, it would appear that she made an application for me to become an Italian citizen as well. I was 25-years-old at the time. My mother was born in Australia but was able to obtain Italian citizenship through her parents, who were both born in Italy. While I knew that my mother had become an Italian citizen, I had no knowledge that I myself had become an Italian citizen, nor had I requested to become an Italian citizen.”
Now, however, his mother has disappeared from the account put to the High Court and he is an Italian citizen courtesy of a change to Italian law in 1983, when Canavan was two years old. Presumably the “citizenship by descent” angle is seen as more conducive to the government’s legal case that if you don’t know you’re a dual citizen, you can’t renounce it, than actions of which Canavan was aware in 2006, when he was an adult rather than a toddler.
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Malcolm Roberts’ story has changed as well, but his story has constantly changed since BuzzFeed’s Mark Di Stefano began unearthing documents about him, so continued flux is not unexpected; the empirical evidence may yet do for Roberts.
The changing nature of Canavan’s story smacks of sharp practice and of a government desperate to avoid what will be a hugely embarrassing legal defeat. Canavan, at least, resigned from the ministry and is not voting in the Senate until his status is clarified. But in the event the High Court accepts the government’s argument that you’re still eligible if you don’t know you’re a dual national, what signal will that send the electorate already convinced the system is loaded in favour of the powerful? You can breach the constitution with apparent impunity if you have good enough lawyers?
And what of Barnaby Joyce? His status won’t be clarified until November at least, leaving him as a kind of lame duck, especially when he has to fill in for the Prime Minister while the latter is overseas. Every day that goes by will demonstrate that it would have been better for the government to endure the short-term pain of his standing aside rather than have the lingering question over its legitimacy.
There’s the legal reality of all this that will be fought out in the High Court. There’s the political reality that politicians, journalists and commentators will debate and discuss. But there’s a broader reality out in ordinary households across the country filled with jaded, cranky citizens who think little of all of us and are convinced it’s one system for them and a different, much easier system for elites. That’s exactly the theme that Bill Shorten is hammering, knowing that it accords with what voters already think. No matter how the citizenship issue plays out, it will reinforce that sense of disaffection.