Today I’m going to talk to you about our constitution. It was the first document of its kind to arise from the power of debate, not the power of war. Many Australians came together from every colony to determine how this country would run and to determine the principles that would act as the foundation of our new nation. After eight years of convening, of debate, of sparring on the nation’s future, the question was put to the people; do we pass the Commonwealth Constitution Act. Two years later, on the 9th of July 1900, the Act was passed by the British Parliament and signed into law by Queen Victoria. As the act makes clear, the states had “agreed to unite in one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth under the Crown of the United Kingdom”. We had done it. And on the 1st of January 1901, fireworks shot from the rooftops of parliament buildings, signs plastered around our capital cities reading “One People, One Destiny”, at that moment the Commonwealth of Australia was born.
But, in a way Australia had always been here, what took place then was that our collective belief in our own national identity was solidified. Our own right to be governed by Australians, for Australians.
I’ve told you this because it’s essential for us in understanding a small section of small chapter in our Constitution labelled “Section 44: Disqualification”. The delegates at that convention deemed that some individuals are ineligible to run for office. Bankrupts, criminals, and individuals with monetary conflicts of interest were ineligible to be members of our parliament. These provisions were in place to stop individuals abusing their position to improve their own personal circumstances over those of the entire nation. But the main part of this section that has stirred trouble is subsection (i). I’m going to read it to you, and I want you to think of the language present. Get into the mindset of those who authored it, and try to understand their vision for the country and what they wanted to protect.
“Any person who: is under any acknowledgment of allegiance, obedience or adherence to a foreign power, or is a subject or citizen or entitled to the rights and privileges of a subject or citizen of a foreign power; shall be incapable of being chosen.”
There are a few key words that are vital for our understanding and interpretation.
Firstly, there is the term foreign power. At the time of writing the constitution citizens of western-nations who were a part of the Commonwealth such as the English, Kiwi’s or Canadians weren’t considered a foreign power.
It was only in 1998, 97 years after the Constitution was written, in a legal case called [Sue v Hill] the High Court found that Britain was officially a foreign power. After that point, only Australian citizens were eligible to hold office.
As you can see, despite the Constitutions language being set in stone, it’s meaning is fluid and changing with society.
Secondly, we have “subject or citizen”. These three words have caused 11, and counting, politicians to lose their job. The Senate, one of the houses of Parliament, hasn’t had full membership for the longest period in its history, a full 250 days, due to this!
While citizen is an easy to grasp term, you should turn your head at the word subject. When was the last time someone was referred to as a subject? It feels old, and that’s because it’s a remnant of an imperial past and a belief in the power of monarchy to rule. All of us present here today are subjects of the Queen of Australia, Queen Elizabeth the 2nd. This word shows us the historical circumstances that framed the writing of our Constitution.
And finally, we come upon the word “incapable”. You see, the original writing of our constitution makes it clear in absolute terms that any individual who is a citizen of a foreign power would find it impossible to do their job, that they are completely incapable of representing the interests of the people, of the nation.
In the case of myself, my family comes from an array of foreign countries. The United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Greece. Would being a citizen of these nations change the way I would behave in Parliament if I were an MP? Would I have campaigned to bail out Greece even if it hurt Australia’s national interests? Would I have favoured New Zealand apple farmers when Australia was sued for their importation? Would I have publicly tried to influence the result of Brexit as a member of the Australian Parliament, removing Australia’s impartialness in other nations democracy?
These are the issues the delegates wanted to address back in 1890 as they drafted our Constitution. Would those elected by the people, truly look out for the interests of the people.
So when you break Section 44 down to the principle it wants to state, it’s asking of our representatives. Are you here for Australia? Do you want to see this country become its own beautiful, self-determining creation? Or will you lead us all astray for your own personal gain?