The irony of Australia's constitutional crisis

As an absurd citizenship crisis rages on in the Australian Parliament, First Nations people and refugees see the irony.

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    In late October the Australian High Court ruled that Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce was a dual citizen of New Zealand, and was thereby disqualified from Parliament
    In late October the Australian High Court ruled that Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce was a dual citizen of New Zealand, and was thereby disqualified from Parliament

    "We have apparently imagined the whole thing."

    So said Greens Senator Scott Ludlam, the first to fall in what many have dubbed "the world's most ridiculous constitutional crisis"  at his final presser as a member of the Australian Parliament in July. Ludlam had discovered that he held citizenship of New Zealand as well as Australia, and, under Section 44 of the 116-year-old constitution of Australia, it is forbidden for dual citizens to hold public office due to the possibility of treachery or the influence of a foreign power.

    If it seems curious that (a) an Australian politician would not have checked their constitutional compliance before seeking public office and (b) nobody else did so throughout Ludlam's nine-year tenure as an elected member of the federal Parliament, the surprise has continued apace: Up to 30 other parliamentarians have since come under scrutiny for possible breach of the rule against dual citizenship and government. Opposition leaders have given senators until December 1 and members of the House of Representatives until December 5 to declare that they are not a citizen of any country other than Australia.

    Meanwhile, nine officials have resigned or been ruled ineligible. They include Fiona Nash, deputy party leader in the coalition government, and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, who only last year threatened to have the pet dogs of actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard killed because the dogs' entry to the country had breached Australian customs policy. In late October the Australian High Court ruled that Joyce was a dual citizen of the foreign power across the ditch, New Zealand, and was thereby disqualified from parliament.

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    As Heard also pointed out in a series of tweets, this failure of Australian parliamentarians to manage their own citizenship status is strikingly ironic. It comes amid their own continuing efforts and policies to exclude others from their "imagined" definition of Australianness.

    An 'imagined' community

    The criteria for legally belonging to this country, which is enshrined in the Australian constitution, has always been narrow. Australia was founded in 1788 on the fiction that it was once a "terra nullius" (nobody's land). First Nations people, who had sovereign belonging to the land for at least 60,000 years prior, were not permitted to become citizens of the nation until 1967, and the country operated with a "White Australia" migration policy for most of the twentieth century. Under the White Australia policy, marked in particular by the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, people of non-European descent were systematically deterred from migrating to Australia.  

    This racialised gate-keeping has had a particular character in recent years. 

    Indeed, at the very same time as the dual citizenship palaver was really gathering pace, the Australian government outright rejected a proposal, that they had invited, for substantive recognition in the constitution for Indigenous peoples. The Uluru Statement called for "the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution", to be realised as an assembly of First Nations people that would advise parliament. Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull dismissed the proposal on the grounds that it would give preferential treatment to Indigenous people and thereby would not be agreed to by the Australian public.

    The deliberative conference of First Nations people at Uluru was widely viewed as "the last attempt for meaningful change for Indigenous Australians", as law professor Megan Davis said in August. Its rejection by the government is considered an extraordinary act of hostility towards the nation's first people, who continue to face oppression through the 229-year-old settler-colonial Australian state.

    Barnaby Joyce had been a particularly strident proponent of the nation's white settler history, recently demandingfor example, that Sudanese-Australian TV presenter, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, be sacked by the national broadcaster for a social media post perceived to be disrespecting ANZAC Day, originally a commemoration of Australian soldiers fighting for Britain in World War I. The witch-hunt that ensued, led by Joyce and others in the Australian parliament, led Abdel-Mageid to leave the country. 

    To be sure, Joyce and the majority of his parliamentary colleagues have also overseen a regime of immigration detention where refugees have been refused settlement in Australia on the grounds of illegal entry to the country. In recent years, they have been consigned instead to offshore camps that have been sites of unmitigated human rights abuse.

    This policy, primarily applied to people who arrive by boat and request asylum from Australia, has been used in rallying the Australian people around an essential Australian-ness and cited as necessary to preserve the national culture and character. In the words of former Prime Minister John Howard, "we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come."

    The costs of the policy have been high. As I write, Kurdish journalist and refugee Behrouz Boochani reports from one of the camps on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, where those detained by Australia for the past four years are in their 117th day of peaceful protest, asking for safe resettlement. They have endured prison conditions that have been denounced as cruel and abusive by multiple human rights and humanitarian authorities. 

    Refugees on Manus Island certainly see the irony here - the very politicians keeping them from reaching Australia are themselves not "Australian enough". The members of parliament falling foul of the Australian constitution's citizenship requirements are doing so on the very terms of belonging through which many of them have aggressively rejected others. With Australian politicians being forced to give themselves the boot, can we say that this particular imagined community even exists?

    Editor's note: A previous version of this piece mistakenly identified the Australian constitution as 166-years-old. The constitution took effect in 1901.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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