The government has been thrown into a fresh crisis, with Senate President Stephen Parry announcing he may be a dual British citizen as a result of his father having been born in the UK.
Parry’s bombshell comes after Friday’s High Court decision knocked two Nationals ministers, Barnaby Joyce and Fiona Nash, out of parliament, triggering a byelection in Joyce’s New England seat.
Attorney-General George Brandis, asked on Sunday whether he could provide an assurance there were no other Coalition MPs sitting in parliament who were foreign citizens, told Sky: “I have absolutely no reason to believe that there are”.
Parry, a senator from Tasmania, is the first Liberal to be caught in the dual citizenship debacle.
He said in a statement issued late on Tuesday that he had examined his situation after Friday’s court decision which gave “absolute clarity” about Section 44 of the Constitution.
Parry did not explain why he did not check his citizenship earlier, notably when Nash announced she had British citizenship via her Scottish father.
Parry has now sought clarification from the UK government. He said if he were found to be a British citizen he would resign from parliament without waiting for the outcome of any referral to the High Court because “I believe the High Court has made it abundantly clear what action is required”.
Parry said his father was born in the UK and moved to Australia as a boy in 1951. “He married my mother in 1960 and I was born that same year in Burnie. I have always regarded my late father as Australian, particularly as he undertook his national service and participated as a member of the Australian Army Reserve and voted in every Australian election since adulthood.”
He said he wrote to the British Home Office on Monday to seek clarity. “This was the first opportunity to do so since the High Court ruling,” he said. The Home Office had sought further details from him on Tuesday, which he had provided, and he was waiting for a response.
“Depending upon the outcome, I may seek further legal advice before reporting back to the Senate.”
Even if Parry quit parliament before a High Court ruling on his eligibility to have been elected, the court would need to clarify his status to determine whether the vacancy would be filled by a countback or a casual vacancy, with the Liberal Party choosing the candidate.
The next candidate on the ticket in a countback would be former Liberal senator Richard Colbeck, who was pushed down the ticket at the 2016 election in a factional power play involving fellow Tasmanian Eric Abetz.
Colbeck, a former minister, scotched any suggestion that if he were elected in a recount he would resign to allow Parry to return. He told The Conversation he was waiting to see what the situation was but if the seat came to him “I’d take it in a heartbeat”. He added that his parents and grandparents were born in Australia.
Abetz said in a statement he was shocked by the Parry news. “Senator Parry has a long and distinguished career of service to the people of Tasmania and Australia. If he is found ineligible, his departure would be a huge loss and I am hopeful that any advice from the United Kingdom will allow him to remain in the Senate.”
Parry, who turned 57 on Tuesday, has been Senate president since July 2014. He was elected at the 2004 election, entering the Senate in 2005. He is a former policeman and a former funeral director.
In his maiden speech he told parliament: “I am a descendant of the First Fleet convicts who arrived on January 26, 1788, onboard the ships the Scarborough and the Prince of Wales.”
Brandis told a news conference on Tuesday that Parry had first informed him of his situation on Monday morning. “Evidently, before the High Court’s decision, it wasn’t something that he’d appreciated may be problematic for him and we still don’t know whether it is problematic until the inquiries, which he has initiated of the UK Home Office, have been completed,” Brandis said. He said Parry expected an answer in the next day or so.
Brandis continued to fend off calls for an audit of all MPs. “If anybody wants to make an allegation that a member of parliament was not duly elected because of Section 44 or for any other issue for that matter, then let them make that allegation.
"But in relation to the government members, and also others including the two Green senators, people have acted honourably, they have come forward as soon as they’ve identified they may have a problem,” he said.
Brandis said the issue of Section 44 of the Constitution, prohibiting dual citizens being elected, needed to be dealt with “one way or another”.
“It may be the issue can be dealt with legislatively without putting the public to a referendum,” he said.
“Where 51% of people either were born overseas or have a parent who was born overseas, it sits oddly with the notion of a multicultural democracy that operation of Section 44 as we now understand from the High Court could potentially disqualify millions of Australians from standing for parliament.”
Acting Labor leader Tanya Plibersek said it was “extraordinary that the president of the Senate – who oversaw several High Court referrals – did not reflect on his own eligibility until just days ago”.
“Malcolm Turnbull must tell Australians whether he knew there were doubts over senator Parry’s eligibility,” she said.
Greens leader Richard Di Natale renewed his call for a comprehensive audit of MPs’ citizenship status.
Turnbull, who is in Israel for the Beersheba commemoration, was asked (before the Parry story broke publicly): “Do you ever feel you’ve had enough? You’d just like to – it’s all been too much? You’ve just had enough of the whole political scene?”
He replied: “I have never had more fun in my life”.
Liberal backbencher Craig Kelly has told the ABC’s Lateline there should be a comprehensive audit; he suggested it should be done by the Australian Electoral Commission.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra