The government has agreed to Labor’s December 1 deadline and tougher conditions in a deal on MPs citizenship disclosure clinched between Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and deputy Senate leader Mathias Cormann on Monday.
The agreement comes after last week’s haggling over timing and the terms of disclosure, and a meeting and an exchange of sharp letters between Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Shorten. It paved the way for an immediate motion in the Senate and one in the House of Representatives after it returns on November 27.
Under changes obtained by Labor, MPs will have to go back as far as their grandparents and say what steps they have taken to confirm that they did not inherit foreign citizenship from their parents and grandparents.
The original proposal by Turnbull only went back as far as parents. It required only that MPs stated when they nominated they were not, to the best of their “knowledge and belief”, a citizen of any other country.
The resolution includes a provision requiring an MP who at the time of nomination was a foreign citizen (or is currently) to state on what basis they contend they should not be disqualified under Section 44(i) of the Constitution.
This covers the situation of several Labor MPs, who took steps to renounce their foreign citizenship but did not receive confirmation before they nominated. Labor has legal advice these MPs are safe; the government has advice they are breaching the Constitution.
Labor claimed it got all it wanted in the deal; the government claimed the ALP wished to include further clauses designed to clear MPs on the basis that they had taken “reasonable steps” to renounce dual citizenship.
The government compromised twice in bringing forward the date of disclosure. Most recently it was saying it should be December 7.
A later disclosure date would have required a special recall of parliament to consider any referrals to the High Court. These will now be able to be dealt with in the last week, starting December 4, of the current timetable.
The government is flagging it will refer up to four Labor MPs to the court, although it is not clear whether it will wait to do this until the December 4 week, or seek to move the week before.
In the Senate, Australian Conservatives leader Cory Bernardi claimed a senator was ineligible to sit and the government was aware of it. The senator in question is not a member of the government. Tasmanian crossbencher Jacqui Lambie’s eligibility has been questioned in recent days.
Meanwhile, a ministerial vacancy has opened with the elevation of Scott Ryan to the Senate presidency on Monday morning. Ryan has been special minister of state.
Turnbull will reshuffle his ministry at some later point, in what are expected to be quite extensive changes. The High Court’s recent disqualification of the Nationals Fiona Nash has opened another vacancy. In the meantime, Cormann will take over responsibility for the special minister of state portfolio.
The byelection for the seat of Bennelong, vacated by John Alexander who believes he had dual citizenship, will be held on December 16. Alexander will have to free himself of his UK citizenship before nominations close for the byelection.
Shorten told a meeting of Labor senators that Labor was “behind the eight ball” in Bennelong, where the Liberals have a margin of nearly 10%.
“But we are going to give it every effort,” he said, defining the battle as “about the direction in which the nation is headed.
"One point we will be making in Bennelong is that because of the increasing and disturbing closeness and proximity between One Nation and the Liberal Party, that a vote for the Liberal Party in Bennelong is effectively a vote for One Nation on the national stage.
"When you look at One Nation’s voting record in the Senate, nearly 90% of the time they are voting with the Liberals.
"So for the voters who think they are voting for One Nation as a protest against the Government, they are not. And for people who vote Liberal because they don’t agree with some of One Nation’s extreme views, they are, in fact, endorsing them,” Shorten said.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra