Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Canavan’s dual citizenship imbroglio

The 45th parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia has more twists and bizarre turns than an Italian opera. So much so, doubts over the eligibility of a cabinet minister to even be a participant are now waiting for the fat lady to sing. In this case, Chief Justice of the High Court Susan Kiefel will play the soprano.

The fate of the stood-aside minister for resources and Northern Australia, Matt Canavan, is now in the hands of the High Court. It will determine whether, as an unwitting Italian citizen, he is automatically disqualified. As soon as the senate resumes in two weeks’ time, Attorney-General George Brandis will refer his case for adjudication. It will be a judgement of significant import that hopefully will give clarity to section 44 of the constitution, which in the space of two weeks has claimed three victims. The Greens’ Scott Ludlam and Larissa Waters are the other unsuspecting transgressors. Their cases, too, are sure to be referred by the senate to the court.

Already there is some natural justice in politics. The prime minister was quick to condemn the Greens for “incredible sloppiness”, while Trade Minister Steve Ciobo was even harsher, accusing the Greens of amateur-hour incompetence. Those assessments have now come back to bite them, though Ciobo refuses to acknowledge it. He says Canavan wasn’t born in Italy, whereas the other two were born overseas. That alone, apparently, should have triggered a warning light, given others have similarly been found to be ineligible in the past because of their failure to formally renounce their birthright dual citizenship.

Greens leader Richard Di Natale was unforgiving, though: he called on Canavan to do the ethical thing and quit the senate as his colleagues had done. Ignorance of the law is no excuse, he insists. But section 44 is throwing up some contemporary absurdities. The most obvious is the issue of a foreign country bestowing its citizenship on an Australian without their formal request for it, or, like Iran, refusing to accept a renunciation.

Italian dual citizens, such as journalists Emma Alberici and Mark Di Stefano, find Canavan’s explanation of how he got into this pickle curious if not baffling. For an adult to get Italian citizenship, they have to present themselves in person and sign forms. No one else can do it on their behalf. Di Stefano says a dual citizen getting an Italian passport is even more onerous. He wrote in BuzzFeed that the citizenship process has not changed in the past 20 years. Canavan claims his mother signed him up 11 years ago, without his consent, when he was a 25-year-old.

Looking confused and somewhat like a goose, he told a late afternoon Brisbane news conference: “I am a citizen of Italy. I was not born in Italy, I have never been to Italy, and to my knowledge have never set foot in an Italian consulate or embassy.” He said his mother lodged citizenship documents with the Italian consulate in his home city in 2006, coincidentally when his father, Bryan, was facing serious fraud charges and subsequently was sentenced to a seven-year jail term. Whether it was this family trauma that contributed to Canavan’s confusion is not clear.

Canavan’s leader and mentor, Barnaby Joyce, revealed that the Canavan family, including Matt, discussed this citizenship idea back then but Matt wasn’t interested and didn’t ask his mother to act on his behalf. She raised the alarm two weeks ago after the Greens senators’ debacle and told her son she had gained Italian citizenship for him. Canavan spoke to Joyce, who told him to check with the Italians to see if they had him on their books. They did. In the first instance, this raises the question “How?” Nationals insiders are pinning their hopes on a stuff-up or a bureaucrat ignoring protocols. The second question then would be, does this invalidate his Italian status? There is no evidence anyone faked his signature.

The manager of opposition business, Tony Burke, finds the explanation as puzzling as everyone else. He can’t understand why Canavan’s mother would have kept her actions secret from him. The headline writers at the Murdoch tabloids are equally bemused, splashing: “Mamma mia – here we go again.” But at this stage we can only take Canavan’s explanation at face value – the court might need more convincing. Burke makes the observation that the parliament is disturbingly precarious. He says, “It’s a year since the election and we still don’t know who is legally allowed to vote in parliament.”

Whatever happens to Canavan, it won’t affect the government’s numbers in the senate. The Queensland Liberal National Party will ensure that its next candidate on the senate ticket, former Liberal senator Jo Lindgren, will take his place in the Nationals’ party room. Malcolm Turnbull may not be so lucky if his assistant minister for health, the Nationals’ David Gillespie, is found to be ineligible to remain in parliament. Gillespie sits in the house of representatives and his departure would rob the government of its majority. Labor has launched a High Court challenge on the same grounds that led to Family First’s Bob Day being excluded for an indirect pecuniary interest with the Commonwealth. A Gillespie tenant had apparently sublet a shop to Australia Post.

While all of that is akin to grand opera, the power struggles within the Liberal Party continue to resemble a TV soap. No matter how hard the spin doctors try to conceal the rivalries inside the party, they keep bursting onto the screen. Last weekend a picture opportunity at the Liberals’ plebiscite convention was arranged to show Turnbull and his chief antagonist, Tony Abbott, were on speaking terms. It failed to persuade. Abbott looked sour, much like Kevin Rudd in a 2010 meeting with Julia Gillard, which was televised for the same purpose during the election campaign. And even though Turnbull matched Abbott’s call to give party members more say in the preselection of candidates, the result was seen as an overwhelming victory for Abbott. The former prime minister’s urgers in the media claimed the rank and file had given him a rousing internal victory.

That was on the same day Newspoll found most Australians, including Liberals, prefer Turnbull to Abbott. A JWS poll in The Australian Financial Review found most voters found Turnbull much closer to the sensible centre than his vanquished predecessor. But neither finding did anything to close the opposition’s six-point lead over the government, which now seems cemented into Newspoll and the Essential survey.

Some of Turnbull’s allies in the party room are shaking their heads at his political tin ear. One veteran can’t believe the PM would call Opposition Leader Bill Shorten immediately after the Labor leader’s appearance on the Insiders program to offer broad support for the idea of four-year fixed parliamentary terms. Shorten’s office made sure the media got to hear of the call, which wrong-footed the prime minister’s media people. They had been dismissing Shorten’s musings as a distraction. They had to regroup, confirm the call and admit the two leaders agreed to discuss the matter further when they meet. There was a weak denial that this amounted to bipartisan support.

But it allowed Shorten to be seen setting the agenda. In fact, Turnbull’s intervention pushed the story into the new week, with front-page treatment in some major papers and extensive radio and TV coverage. Turnbull says he’s sorry Shorten didn’t keep the call private. For his critics, this is simply more evidence of naivety. Never mind that in the present climate voters would be highly unlikely, in a referendum, to give politicians more time to escape their judgement at an election. Especially as the hostility to the idea on the right of the Liberal Party would make the whole thing futile.

It remains to be seen how hard Shorten will push the issue. He accepts that without Liberal backing it would be doomed. He is not so sanguine about his economic agenda. This weekend, at the New South Wales Labor state conference, he will unveil his latest policies for tax reform in the context of delivering fairness “for the many”. The Labor leader is convinced Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn has tapped into a sentiment that is not restricted to Britain.

Ten years of flat-lining wage growth, increasing energy costs, housing unaffordability and insecure employment while corporations post record profit growth has persuaded voters that “bizonomics” is not working for them. The term, coined by Fairfax economics editor Ross Gittins, is meant to undermine the credibility of the argument that tax cuts for the top end will trickle down to the bottom. Worse, analysis by the Parliamentary Budget Office shows it will be wage and salary earners who are called on to pay for the generosity to business.

So Shorten gets on with a politically risky agenda, apparently leading a united party, while Turnbull struggles to push his agenda through his. Abbott spent much of this week in Queensland trying to torpedo the clean energy target.

Come to think of it, let’s leave the Italians and go to the Germans: you would need to reach for the darkness of Wagner’s Ring Cycle to find a suitable metaphor.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 29, 2017 as "Dualling ban grows". Subscribe here.

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a regular commentator on ABC Radio National Breakfast.