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Referendum proposed in Australian lawmakers' citizenship crisis

Over a dozen parliamentarians have been brought down by constitution barring dual status

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull ordered a review on allowing dual citizenship in a crisis that has brought down more than a dozen parliamentarians.   © AP

MELBOURNE -- Australians would get to vote on allowing dual citizens in parliament under the recommendations of a review to address a crisis that has brought down more than a dozen politicians whose citizenship statuses were called into question.

In a report released Thursday, a parliamentary committee said the government should hold a referendum on repealing or amending Section 44 of the constitution, which disqualifies dual citizens from holding office. But no such referendum is likely to take place soon, the government has indicated.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull ordered the review in October after the High Court ruled that his then-deputy and coalition partner Barnaby Joyce was ineligible for office because he had inherited New Zealand citizenship from his father.

The ruling forced Joyce to formally renounce his foreign citizenship and re-contest his seat in the House of Representatives. Joyce resigned as deputy prime minister earlier this year after admitting he was expecting a child with a former aide.

Another ruling last week found that Labor Party opposition senator Katy Gallagher was also ineligible. That triggered the resignations of four other members of parliament whose citizenship statuses were in doubt.

Since July, the constitutional provision has ensnared 15 parliamentarians from both the government and opposition parties. All claimed to have been ignorant of their dual citizenship.

Australia's high proportion of first- and second-generation immigrants means more than half of the population could be ineligible for office under the law.

Linda Reynolds, a governing Liberal Party senator and chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, which conducted the review, said the law needed to be revisited because Australia's founders knew "circumstances and expectations of Australian society would change over time."

"Few today would argue with the intent of [Section] 44, but it is the impact that is at issue," she said. "Australian dual citizens can sit on the High Court or fight and die for our nation -- but not nominate as a candidate."

Reynolds said the committee had not taken a position on whether dual citizens should be allowed in parliament, but that the public should have the chance to resolve the matter.

"We believe it is one for Australians to determine as part of a wider debate in what qualities we want in our candidates standing for election and for those who are elected to serve in parliament," she said.

The government has indicated that no such referendum should be expected anytime soon, however.

"While the government is not inclined to pursue a referendum to change section 44 of the Constitution at this time, we will give due consideration to the findings and recommendations of the committee," said Special Minister of State Mathias Cormann on Thursday.

Cormann said the government would implement other suggestions by the committee, which acknowledged that the "preconditions for success" in a referendum would take time, before next year's federal election.

The other suggested measures include obligating all candidates to disclose their citizenship and that of their parents and grandparents; establishing an "online self-assessment tool" for prospective candidates; and more education for small parties and independents.

Last week, Turnbull downplayed the likelihood of constitutional change, suggesting it was "very hard" to win public support for a referendum. Just eight of 44 referenda in Australia have succeeded since since 1901.

"So I think the best advice, given that the election will be next year, is for everyone to get their act together and make sure they are not a citizen of anywhere else before they nominate," the prime minister told national broadcaster ABC.

Australian National University politics professor Ian McAllister said one hurdle to a referendum was a lack of public sympathy for the politicians affected.

"The majority view is that the politicians should abide by the law, and that is a better approach rather than amending the constitution," he said in an interview.

"Second, the political class also isn't keen, because referendums invariably fail unless the two main parties agree, and in this case they are divided and each may see a partisan advantage in it."

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