Australian senator resigns over Scottish ancestry

Jacqui Lambie . Picture : Getty
Jacqui Lambie . Picture : Getty
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An independent Australian senator who is Scottish by descent became the eighth lawmaker to leave Parliament in recent months over a 116-year-old constitutional ban on dual nationals running for office that threatens to bring down the government.

Jacqui Lambie tearfully resigned a day after the Senate set a Dec. 1 deadline for Australia-born senators to provide documented evidence that they had not inherited the citizenship of an immigrant parent or grandparent.

Lambie said the British Home Office advised her on Tuesday that her Scottish-born grandfather had not renounced his citizenship after migrating to Australia, making her and her father British.

“It is with great regret that I have to inform you that I had been found ineligible by way of dual citizenship,” Lambie told the Senate.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s conservative coalition could lose two seats in by-elections next month after government lawmaker John Alexander resigned from Parliament last week because he had likely inherited British citizenship from his English-born father.

READ MORE: Leader comment: The perils of being unintentionally Scottish

Kristina Keneally, a Las Vegas-born former New South Wales state premier, announced on Tuesday that she would run as a candidate for the opposition Labor Party against Alexander in a Dec. 16 by-election for his Sydney-based seat, having renounced her U.S. citizenship. Alexander must shed his British citizenship by then.

Australia is rare if not unique in the world in banning dual nationals from sitting in Parliament. Pressure is growing to reform the constitution amid the growing uncertainty over how many by-elections might result from the current crisis and which party might end up forming a government.

The eight lawmakers who have lost their jobs so far were dual citizens of Britain, Canada and New Zealand. Like Australia, those countries are members of the British Commonwealth and share a head of state, Queen Elizabeth II.

When the constitution came into effect t in 1901, decades before Australian citizenship existed, any British subject was entitled to stand for the Australian Parliament.

Suvendi Perera, a professor of cultural studies at Curtin University, said the lawmakers snared by the dual citizenship ban indicated that “white people have a sense of entitlement” to stand for Parliament.

That entitlement was a “central assumption” when the constitution was drafted, she said.

An Iranian-born lawmaker spent 25,000 Australian dollars ($19,000) ridding himself of that nationality because such multicultural political candidates “couldn’t assume that they were entitled,” Perera said.

The House of Representatives is expected to also set a deadline for its lawmakers to prove they are solely Australian when it next sits from Nov. 27.

Any lawmakers who remain under a cloud after declaring their citizenship status would be referred to the High Court to decide whether they were legally elected. A series of by-elections that could change the government could be scheduled for a single weekend early next year.

The High Court last month disqualified Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce because he had inherited the citizenship of his New Zealand-born father. He immediately renounced his New Zealand citizenship and will contest his seat in a Dec. 2 by-election.

The dual citizenship ban was a rare issue until recently, but the High Court last month disqualified five lawmakers, including Joyce, in a rejection of the government’s argument that ignorance of an inherited nationality was an acceptable excuse.

Senators are usually replaced from the same party without elections, but most crucial are the fates of lawmakers in the House of Representatives, where parties need a majority to form a government.

Before losing two seats, the government held a single-seat majority of 76 in the 150-seat chamber.

Many argue that the dual citizen ban is increasingly inappropriate for a migrant nation where half the population was born overseas or has an immigrant parent. But changing the constitution requires all registered voters to cast ballots in a referendum, which rarely succeeds.

READ MORE: Australian politician facing disqualification from office - because father is Scottish