Exposing Barnaby Joyce: The heroes of Section 44

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(Mark David Cartoons / @mdavidcartoons)

The Labor staffer responsible for inquiring into the citizenship status of Barnaby Joyce ought to be lauded, because parliamentary integrity has been advanced. Dr Binoy Kampmark reports.

“How many other foreign governments, or foreign political parties in other countries, has the Labor Party been colluding with to try to undermine the Australian Government?”

~ Manager of Government Business Christopher Pyne, House of Representatives, Aug 15, 2017

Not the most romantic, true, and certainly lacking the pathos that might accompany the sacrifices made for an entrenched bill of rights. But the Australian Labor Opposition staffer responsible for inquiring into the citizenship status of the Australian Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce ought to be lauded. Not in any model sense, but certainly lauded for keeping up constitutional form.

It all stemmed from a set of actions arising from Senator Penny Wong’s office, spearheaded by her chief of staff, Marcus Ganley, a New Zealand citizen himself. According to Wong, Ganley had held discussions with New Zealand colleagues about matters touching upon citizenship. New Zealand Opposition MP Chris Hipkins subsequently raised the issue in parliament seeking clarification on the issue of citizenship by descent, though never mentioning Joyce by name. These, she insists, did not propel the ultimate train that outed Joyce as a New Zealand citizen.

Terms more akin to the description of war, sewerage and cleaning up an oil spill have been used

The Attorney-General George Brandis attempted to move a censuring motion, charging Senator Wong with

“... engaging in conduct which makes her unfit to hold the office of Foreign Minister.”

The motion laid out a stiff and so far unproved thesis. (Wong prefers the political vernacular of a “grubby, baseless smear”.)

The Senator, it was claimed, had caused

“... her chief of staff to engage in in appropriate conduct with a foreign political entity for the purpose of causing damage to Australia.”

The fumes of anger stemming from Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s front bench were belligerently comic, even, dare one say, Trumpesque. New Zealand had gained a curious mantle, becoming a “foreign political entity” more in the league of a subversive heavyweight state than a fraternal ally. 

Moving the motion into the realm of farce, the charge that “damage” had been caused to Australia could only be understood if Joyce had, in fact, been unduly targeted and falsely accused as being unfit under section 44 of the Australian Constitution to hold office.  But this was not the case. There was damage to the Government, but a just outing in the interest of Parliament.

The biggest culprit here was not a New Zealand politician, a Labor staffer, or Senator Wong. It is, more to the point, section 44’s broad and entrapping power. Read in originalist, strict terms, as Australian judges have done so over the years, Australian politicians can only hope that a more generous interpretation is offered.

These constitutional niceties, and the fact that they need to be observed, was of little concern to a furious Foreign Minister untethered from diplomatic graces. Julie Bishop even went so far as to fire warnings as to the future relationship between Canberra and Wellington, should it transpire their Opposition is elected. (The Foreign Minister’s understanding of New Zealand’s democratic processes teetered on the patchy.)

Said Bishop:

“New Zealand is facing an election. Should there be a change of government, I would find it very hard to build trust with those involved in allegations designed to undermine the government of Australia.” 

It’s all there, the conspiratorial markers in bright red: the “design”, the lack of “trust”, the intent to manipulate the internal politics of a sovereign state. 

Stridently exaggerated, Bishop would insist on protocol that has no play – let alone relevance – to this affair: the

“... principle of international law that nations do not seek to interference in the domestic political processes of other countries.” 

Students of the UN Charter will be rolling about the floor over this one.

The show of desperation continued with Minister for Defence Industry Christopher Pyne, who channelled Trump’s Russiagate into his criticism, drawing out the conspiratorial demon in suggesting that Labor had been promiscuous in its foreign collusions:

“The Leader of the Opposition [Bill Shorten] has shown he is quite happy to plumb new depths, to collude with other political parties, this one in New Zealand, to undermine the Australian Government.”

These paroxysms compelled NZ Labour leader Jacinda Ardern to speak to Australia’s High Commissioner, Peter Woolcott

Ardern assured Woolcott that the actions of Hipkins were inappropriate, though not, it would seem, in need of an apology:

“My intent in making that call was to be absolutely clear that the NZ Labour Party’s relationship with the Australian Government is incredibly important to us.” 

Politics is politics.

The Senate sensed that the Government’s flailing efforts against Wong were less to do with any action on the part of either the Australian or New Zealand Opposition than with the Government’s own state of terminal decline. 

“I don’t think anything wrong has happened here,” mused Australian Conservatives Senator Cory Bernardi, who has sounded eerily sensible of late. 

The Government, he suggested, had simply overcooked the case,

“... and it might be their own goose getting cooked.”

Why, posed Senator Bernardi, did a journalist and the Labor Party know about it, leaving the Government in blissful ignorance? 

A counter-conspiracy might well be advanced: were they trying to cover something up?

Even if we are to assume a causal merit linking Ganley’s queries to the questioning undertaken by the Opposition Labour Party in New Zealand, let alone whether Wong was involved, parliamentary integrity, far from being tarnished, has been advanced in true glossy fashion. 

Another view is also appropriate: that a parliamentarian, as with other Australian citizens, would be duty bound to expose any infractions of section 44. Such is the nature of constitutional heroism. 

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge and lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. You can follow Dr Kampmark on Twitter @bkampmark.

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