No winner in Aussie war on dual citizens

It's time for Australian legislators and jurists to end a juvenile tussle about citizenship and who can serve in government. Their future depends on it.

There is almost daily hysteria in Australia over a formerly obscure clause in the Constitution that bars dual nationals from sitting in the federal Parliament.

The question is, which legislators are now disqualified because they did (or didn't) know that their birth abroad - or that of their parents - sometimes brought with it eligibility for, or outright granted, citizenship somewhere else.

Of course, the whole distinction is wrong-headed. For all that Australians like to see themselves as the envy of the world and a sophisticated bunch, parochialism may be making a comeback in this era of global populism.

The country has done very well from the expansion of international trade, finance and tourism, engineered by former prime ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating in the 1980s and 1990s.

Successive governments, both Labor and Liberal - the latter being the more conservative of the two parties - have trumpeted their commitment to an open global system.

It's hard to find an Australian politician or business leader who doesn't boast about the economy's formidable track record: 25 years without a recession. It's an achievement worth trumpeting. 

Any government ought to count on the best available Australians who are willing to serve, says the writer. Thus, instead of tussling over citizenship, the country should look at its role in the world and whether it wants to attract the best talent.
Any government ought to count on the best available Australians who are willing to serve, says the writer. Thus, instead of tussling over citizenship, the country should look at its role in the world and whether it wants to attract the best talent. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Despite its perch in the Group of 20, the economy is relatively small and the country thinly populated.

Any government ought to count on the best available Australians willing to serve. Many of those may have strong links to the global economy, have lived abroad or even have acquired an additional passport along the way. They can be just as patriotic about Australia, perhaps even more so for the experience.

You would never know it from the quality of the current political discourse. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who should know better and in many other ways has been a very effective ambassador for the country, has even taken to describing some sort of dark conspiracy - from New Zealand, of all places. She spoke of a cabal between the opposition parties in both countries somehow out to wreck the Australian government.

The constitutional policy barring dual nationals from Parliament also, by default, bars them from serving in the Cabinet. At last count, six legislators, mostly from the Liberal Party and its coalition partner, the National Party, may have fallen foul of the rule. The High Court will rule on the matter.

(Full disclosure: I am a dual national, born in Australia and now a US citizen. Members of my family also share Australian citizenship with at least one other country.)

Beyond legal issues, the fracas is also about Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's struggle with a legislature his coalition controls with a majority of one seat in the Lower House. If just one of his members is disqualified and a special election is called, it may be curtains for his two-year administration.

Take a step back and it's also about whether, in this global era of populism, the country still has the will to integrate deeper with the rest of the world.

Mr Keating used to say Australia was an industrial museum before reforms he drove opened, transformed and strengthened its economy. He's right.

As my colleague David Fickling has written, Australia has one of the highest proportions of foreign-born residents among democratic countries.

Time to make better use of that tremendous asset, and the country's sizeable diaspora.

National Party leader Barnaby Joyce, whose recently uncovered New Zealand citizenship was the catalyst for Ms Bishop's claims, is among the loudest opponents of foreign investment. Mr Turnbull has also imposed new restrictions on working visas.

Ultimately, it's up to the High Court. As we know from experience in the US, a nation's top court can largely do as it wishes. This isn't a dry piece of constitutional scholarship; it's about the country's role in the world and whether it wants to attract the best talent.

 For the sake of both nations and the global economy, let us hope that if a dual national like my daughter wishes to run for governor of Colorado or the Australian Parliament, that decision will be made only by her. Modern voters, not antiquated Constitutions, should choose among the candidates.

BLOOMBERG VIEW

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 21, 2017, with the headline 'No winner in Aussie war on dual citizens'. Print Edition | Subscribe