The Breakdown: The Scandal Rocking Australia’s Lawmakers? It’s Their Passports

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The scandal emerged with the surprise resignation of a popular senator who’d been billed as the future of his party. A week later it claimed another leader, throwing the party into more uncertainty.

Now politicians throughout Australia’s Parliament are consulting family records and lawyers while journalists dig into decades-old travel documents. The potentially career-ending offense? Having citizenship in another country.

Two more politicians have recently come under scrutiny on suspicion of having dual citizenship. One is Senator Matt Canavan, a former minister of the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, who resigned from the cabinet on Tuesday after discovering his mother had registered him for Italian citizenship in 2006.

In a statement, he said that he would not step down from the Senate and would let the High Court decide whether he is in breach of the federal Constitution, which disqualifies dual citizens from running for Parliament.

Senator Canavan said in a statement that he would not resign from the Senate.

Lukas Coch / European Pressphoto Agency

“I’m very focused on letting the court do its job, which is to interpret the Constitution,” he said at a news conference on Thursday.

The other politician under scrutiny is Senator Malcolm Roberts of One Nation, the party led by Senator Pauline Hanson. Journalists at BuzzFeed and The Australian have uncovered documents that appear to show him traveling on a British passport.

Mr. Roberts has denied he is still a British citizen.

“Before nominating for the Senate I ensured that I was no longer a British or Indian citizen and have necessary documents,” he wrote on Twitter.

This month supporters and critics were shocked to learn that Scott Ludlam and Larissa Waters, deputy co-leaders of the Australian Greens party, had dual citizenship. Both resigned.

A former prime minister, Tony Abbott, entered the conversation last week to debunk the theory that he had never renounced his British citizenship. That continued to prompt a flurry of jokes on social media.

What does the Constitution say?

Here’s the provision, which is Section 44(i) of the Constitution:

Any person who:

(i.) 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 citizen of a foreign power

shall be incapable of being chosen or of sitting as a senator or a member of the House of Representatives.

In a twist of history, some of the people who wrote Section 44(i) were probably British. According to Anne Twomey, a constitutional law professor at the University of Sydney, only 35 percent of participants at the 1891 Constitutional Convention were born in Australia.

At that time, the British Commonwealth, which included Australia, Canada, New Zealand and a host of other dominions and colonies, considered only countries outside the British Empire as foreign powers.

“You didn’t have foreign allegiance if you were born in Canada or New Zealand,” Ms. Twomey said. “It was all fine because you all had one queen and one crown.”

That changed, of course, when Australia formally cut off its last constitutional ties to Britain in 1986.

The roots of Section 44(i) can be traced to Britain’s Act of Settlement in 1701. Plagiarism may be a frowned-upon behavior, but among constitution writers, it was accepted.

“If you’re a person who drafts constitutions, it’s one of the few instances where you’re allowed to plagiarize, so most constitutions are plagiarized from earlier,” Ms. Twomey said. “The disqualification provisions are some of the oldest that hang around.”

“And by the way,” she added, “we plagiarize bits of our Constitution from the U.S. Constitution as well, a bit of British, a tiny bit of Switzerland.”

The next step will probably be the High Court examination of Mr. Canavan’s case.

It’s unlikely to be the last time that conflicts between an old constitution and a new world will galvanize Australian politics.

“The older it gets,” Ms. Twomey said, “the more creative your highest court has to become to be able to interpret it in a way that has to fit in a modern age.”