Australian lawmakers born in another country have to ensure that they were not dual nationals at the time of their election.
New Delhi: Malcolm Roberts, an Australian far-right member of parliament, will be presenting documents next week to clear doubts about his citizenship, after being accused of filing his nomination for the upper house while still technically being a citizen of UK and – ironically, given his party’s position on immigration – of India too.
The Australian constitution directs that any person who 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” cannot be a member of either of the two chambers of parliament.
The application of Section 44(i) means that Australian lawmakers born in another country have to make sure that they were not dual nationals at the time of their election. The timing of the renunciation of their nationality is critical, as it should have happened before they stood for elections. A 1992 high court ruling also decreed that candidates must take “all reasonable steps” to renounce their citizenship before their nomination.
Since mid-July, three Australian lawmakers, including one cabinet minister, have failed these constitutional provisions after they admitted to being citizens of Canada, New Zealand and Italy, in conjunction with their Australian nationality. While two of them are from the Greens party and resigned from the parliament, the minister from centre-right Liberal National Party in Queensland has resigned from the cabinet.
The quick falling down of lawmakers led to questions being raised about other MPs, with most of the foreign-born lawmakers rushing to clarify their citizenship status.
This is not surprising since a substantial number of MPs have been born outside Australia, mirroring the general trend in the country. In the current Australian parliament, 24 members were born outside Australia, including ten in the UK.
According to the 2016 Census, over a quarter (26.3%) of the Australian population was born overseas, with England remaining the top source. The survey also found that for the first time in Australian history, the majority of people born overseas were from Asia, not Europe.
The extreme right One Nation emerged first in the 1990s with an anti-immigration platform against the so-called ‘Asianisation of Australia.’ In her maiden speech to the parliament in 1996, founder Pauline Hanson said that Australia was being “swamped by Asians.”
Suspicions surrounding citizenship of Malcolm Roberts
Therefore, the question mark hanging over the citizenship of Roberts – one of the four One Nation senators – has attracted special attention.
The 62-year-old MP initially had to grapple with suspicions of being an Indian – or at least, of being an Indian national at some point of time in his life.
Roberts was born in 1955 in Disergarh in West Bengal, India, where his father, a Welshman, was managing a colliery. He apparently stayed in India for his first seven years, but in an 2016 interview for The Australian, claimed to have no memory of those early days.
A climate change denier, Roberts was elected to the senate in July 2016.
Three months later, Roberts first stated in a reply to a question on Twitter that he didn’t “have, and never have had, Indian citizenship.”
In answer to a media question, Roberts’ spokesperson told The Guardian in October 2016 that he had “never held any other citizenship other than his Australian citizenship.” “He’s had to obtain visas when he’s travelled to the United Kingdom and to India, and people who are citizens do not have to get visas,” the spokesperson added.
After the resignation of two Green MPs and a cabinet minister, Roberts was among those lawmakers who scrambled a statement to clear doubts on their nationality. He stated that he had contacted Indian authorities in 2014 who confirmed that he was “not an Indian citizen.”
A few hours after the July 18 statement, Roberts posted another to show that he had no connection to anything remotely Indian.
While most called him out for his ‘racist’ remarks, several others also pointed out that the ‘chucker’ was likely a reference to former bowler Muttiah Muralitharan, who is Sri Lankan.
Meanwhile, even as One Nation backed Roberts, his party leaders called on lawmakers of other parties to provide evidence of their qualification under Section 44.
Questions over British citizenship
On July 20, BuzzFeed Australia published a report which speculated that due to the “complex” nationality laws of UK, Roberts could actually have been a British citizen through his Welsh father. The lawmaker’s adviser Sean Black responded by sending an email with a list of countries divided into two columns, with only Australia in column A that was “the country Senator Roberts is a citizen of.”
Another report on the same day in The Australian had a statement from the Indian high commission in Canberra that a child of foreign parents born in India were “most probably going to be foreign national.” It also pointed out that as per Indian law, any Indian national who became a citizen of another country had their citizenship automatically withdrawn.
A day later, The Weekend Australian, published a report that Roberts’ name was on the general register office’s Register of British Nationals Born Overseas between 1818 and 2005. This was interpreted to mean that the senator had been a British citizen sometime in his life. BuzzFeed News followed with documents to show that Roberts had travelled on a British passport as a one-year-old toddler in 1956.
The previous statements by Roberts and his spokesperson that he had “never” held citizenship of any other country came again in the spotlight in light of the reports that he had been listed as a UK citizen.
In response to these media reports, Roberts released a statutory declaration that he was not a citizen of either Britain or India.
“As part of my investigation I analysed if I was a British (United Kingdom) citizen by decent (sic) of my father, who was born in Wales, The United Kingdom, or if I was an Indian citizen. I can confirm I am not a citizen of the United Kingdom, nor am I a citizen of India. I am a citizen of Australia only,” he affirmed. Under Australian law, an intentional false statement in a statutory declaration could lead to a jail of four years.
His party’s leader, Hanson, also declared that Roberts had shown her documents to prove that he had renounced his UK citizenship before he became a candidate. Claiming that the media was conducting a ‘witch hunt’, she assured that Roberts will prove his case in the parliament.
Roberts then went on a TV channel to say that he had taken “reasonable steps” to double check with British high commission if he had got citizenship. Getting no response, he claimed to have “renounced” British citizenship with a letter on June 6, three days before the close of nominations.
However, the British high commissioner confirmed his renunciation only on December 5, 2016. According to his spokesperson, Roberts is “choosing to believe that he was never British.”
While the British citizenship continues to gather momentum, there are still doubts in Australian media whether Roberts is still connected to the republic of his birth. In that Sky News TV interview, he claimed that he had visited India twice on a working visa and therefore could not be a citizen.
Independent Australia claimed that with the 1955 Citizenship Act, India turned every person born between January 1950 and July 1987 into an Indian citizen. It claimed that Roberts’ Indian citizenship would have had to be renounced “voluntarily” after he became an adult.
It also alleged that Roberts’ case was weakened by a Supreme Court judgement which said that unless a person “acquired the citizenship of a foreign country, he should be presumed to be an Indian citizen.” This was apparently the ruling of the apex court when Rajiv Gandhi’s citizenship was challenged due to his marriage to Sonia Gandhi.
An ‘explainer’ of the The Guardian, about the twists and turns in the citizenship saga, pointed to this ambiguity. “It would be just the type of thing Roberts would believe in, were it not about him,” it said.
The Australian lawmaker’s office threatened to report journalists to the police for “stalking” after constitutional experts raised fresh doubts about his eligibility.
The Australian parliament resumes from Monday, August 7, where the opposition is likely to target Roberts for not having taken “reasonable steps” before nomination.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Australian government was considering referring Roberts’ case to the high court through a motion supported by several parties.
The Australian revealed that the One Nation senator was “receiving advice from a QC”. Next week, One Nation promised, Roberts will present documents in the senate “that his party claims will clear him of any doubt over his citizenship status.”