Given Julia Banks just pipped Labor to the post as Liberal MP for Chisholm at the last election, and the fact that the Turnbull government holds a majority of one seat in the lower house, it’s little wonder political adversaries were interested in whether she might have been caught out on Section 44 of Australia’s constitution; the ruling on disqualification for dual citizenship that has ended the careers of two senators, and possibly more if the High Court so decides.
The way some media covered the story made it sound like I wanted to divorce myself from my Greek heritage, and that’s so untrue. I found that very upsetting.
After 48 hours of intense media speculation, by last weekend it had been sorted. Having checked with Athens, Greece’s ambassador in Canberra had found no record of Banks ever having been registered as a Greek citizen. It was hardly surprising.
Born in Australia, to Australian citizens at the time of her birth, and having never sought to activate her entitlement to citizenship of her father’s former homeland, even the harshest interpretation of Section 44 – coupled with the fact that citizenship through descent has to be applied for under Greek law – means Banks’ single citizenship was never seriously in question.
The case was quite different to that of resources minister Matt Canavan who resigned from Cabinet after learning he was an Italian citizen, having been registered as such unknowingly by his mother.
Canavan, who remains in the upper house until his situation is reviewed by the High Court is the third victim of the dual citizenship ‘purge’, after Greens senators Larissa Waters and Scott Ludlam were forced to resign when their foreign citizenships came to light.
Under Section 44, a person holding office can be disqualified if he or she “…is under any acknowledgment 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 a citizen of a foreign power.”
In addition to deciding Canavan’s fate, the High Court will be asked to rule on what exactly being “…entitled to the rights or privileges of a subject or a citizen of a foreign power…” means. No doubt common sense will prevail, with ‘activation’ of entitlement being the key factor in a rational interpretation of the clause.
That’s where the Julia Banks case might be a useful appendix to the Court’s considerations. Speaking exclusively to Neos Kosmos this week, Banks reflected on her experience of the dual citizenship fiasco.
“Section 44’s basic premise is that as a member of the Australian parliament you can’t have a potential allegiance to, and legal status as a citizen of a foreign power, and that’s right and proper,” said Banks. “If you’re representing the Australian government there’s a potential conflict of interest.”
Always confident of meeting the requirements of Section 44 despite intense media speculation to the contrary, Banks feels much of the coverage painted a picture of her that was inaccurate.
“The way some media covered the story made it sound like I wanted to divorce myself from my Greek heritage, and that’s so untrue. I found that very upsetting.
“Like all Greek Australians, I’ll always be grateful to my parents who gave me the opportunity to embrace my Greek heritage, the language and culture. I’m so grateful for the legacy my father left me. No-one can take that away from me.”
Some have picked up on Banks’ comments of being a ‘true blue Aussie’ as some sort of rejection of her heritage. Nothing could be further from the truth she says.
“I believe you can be a ‘true blue’ Australian with a migrant heritage, absolutely. That can be said of the majority of Australians.
“I’m so proud of my heritage. I’m a ‘true blue Aussie’ because I was born and raised here, but my Greek heritage has been and will continue to be, an integral part of my life, and my heart.
“Regardless of whether you’re a migrant from Europe or Asia or wherever, the common bond for us is that we’re Australians able to celebrate our different cultures.”
Meanwhile, as MPs and senators scramble to check any lurking foreign citizenship entitlements, or active citizenships they may have overlooked, the debate over Section 44’s fitness for purpose continues.
An Australian parliament that wishes to grasp the nettle might look to go as far as amending the Constitution – perhaps for the clause to say simply that candidates must have Australian citizenship and that any dual nationality should be declared.
Given the clause’s intention to prevent potential conflicts of interest, particularly in relation to legislation on foreign relations, that’s not a likely scenario.
However desirable it may be to amend the constitution (written 116 years ago) to reflect modern Australia’s multicultural make-up, it’s a difficult process; the constitution can only be changed by referendum.
With that bureaucratic block in place it will be left to the High Court to come up with a sensible ruling that in future will be cited as a precedent, to make some overdue sense of what has become the dual citizenship circus.
WHERE THEY STAND
Arthur Sinodinos, Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science
A spokesman for Mr Sinodinos told Neos Kosmos that the minister did not wish to comment on citizenship and eligibility “beyond noting that the High Court is expected to consider these matters shortly, and is the appropriate body to interpret the constitution.” The spokesman added that Mr Sinodinos was born in Australia and has never taken Greek citizenship.
Steve Georganas, Labour MP for Hindmarsh
“I took all reasonable steps both in 2004 before I was elected, and again in 2015 before I was elected, by writing to the Greek government telling them I wish to relinquish any rights that I may have for Greek citizenship.
“This is now becoming a bit of a witch hunt . . . most people wouldn’t even be aware of any rights to their parents’ or grandparents’ original birthplace.”