Third Australian politician admits to holding dual nationality

Minister to take court case on basis he did not know his mother signed him up for Italian citizenship

Australian resources minister Matt Canavan. Photograph: Lukas Coch/EPA

Australian resources minister Matt Canavan. Photograph: Lukas Coch/EPA


A hundred years ago, unionists derided the desire for an Irish free state by saying home rule was Rome rule. A century on, the possibility of Rome rule has cost an Australian government minister his job.

Resources minister Matt Canavan resigned his portfolio on Tuesday after becoming the third politician to admit to holding dual nationality – in his case Italian as well as Australian – in the past two weeks.

Section 44 (i) of the Australian constitution states that “any person who is under any acknowledgement 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”.

It seems pretty clear-cut, but unlike the other two senators tripped up by section 44, Canavan has not resigned from parliament, just his ministry. He is challenging the constitution in the high court on the basis that he did not know his mother had signed him up for Italian citizenship when he was 25.

There might be more sympathy for Canavan’s predicament – most newspapers on Wednesday used “Mamma mia” in their headlines – if the Liberal-National coalition government had not gloated so much when the other senators, Scott Ludlam and Larissa Waters, both Greens, admitted their oversight.

Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull accused the Greens of “extraordinary negligence” and “incredible sloppiness”, while attorney general George Brandis suggested Ludlam and Waters might have to pay back all the money they earned in their years in parliament.

Test case

Greens leader Richard Di Natale said his party would seek advice on whether its senators should join a high court test case, but that in the meantime Canavan should resign from parliament.

“The advice we received was that ignorance is no excuse,” Di Natale said. “If you’re a genuine Italian, you’re a real Italian, you never blame your mum for anything ... so that might be his only defence in this case, I reckon.”

At least three current Labor MPs with Irish parents – Brendan O’Connor, Deborah O’Neill and David Feeney – had to renounce Irish citizenship in order to run for federal parliament. But the situation is different at state level, Dublin man Stephen Dawson, who is Western Australia’s environment minister, told The Irish Times.

“There’s no requirement for Western Australia state politicians to give up their citizenship so it hasn’t been an issue for me, but I did work for former Labor senator Jim McKiernan, a Cavan man, in the past and he’d had to renounce his Irish citizenship before he ran,” Dawson said.

Former prime minister Tony Abbott, who was born in London, was hounded on social media for years to prove he had renounced his British citizenship. He finally did so last week, tweeting a picture of his renunciation document. But there are many other MPs who were either born abroad or have foreign-born parents, which is not surprising in a country where 49 per cent of the population was either born abroad or has a parent who was.

If Canavan fails in his high court bid to retain his seat it will not make a massive difference in the senate, where the government is already in the minority. But in the lower house, the government’s majority is just one seat, and Turnbull will be hoping nobody else suddenly discovers their mum signed them up for foreign citizenship unbeknown to themselves.