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Matt Canavan resignation: why this latest citizenship discovery is a major blow for Coalition

Mark Kenny

Published: July 25 2017 - 7:35PM

Where will it end? The silver lining in this latest forced resignation from the cabinet (and potentially from the Parliament) is that it involves a senator.

Had it been a lower house MP, where the Turnbull administration clings to power by a wafer-thin one-seat majority, the outcome might well be catastrophic. Certainly enough to raise questions about the government's command of the House of Representatives and therefore its legitimacy.

Embarrassingly, the Coalition had not held back when the Greens lost first one senator, then a second in recent weeks, to the arcane provisions of section 44 of the constitution prohibiting dual citizens in Parliament. Punchy frontbenchers teed-off on the Greens, branding the minor party amateurish, and unprofessional, for not having ensured Scott Ludlam and Larissa Waters met basic eligibility requirements. Malcolm Turnbull was among those critics calling it "incredible sloppiness".

Of course, older heads in Canberra immediately sensed the risk. Other MPs must surely be caught up in a similar bind. If the Greens had lost two from a party room of just 10, the argument went, then at least a few more technical breaches would turn up among all those other federal representatives. 

Matt Canavan's membership of the government has ended summarily, pro-tem. His membership of  the legislature must now be regarded as terminal - a reality confirmed by his removal from the executive. On paper, he's in breach - a fact nobody is denying. Yet his claimed ignorance, regarding dual Italian-Australian citizenship, highlights how absurd this singular allegiance requirement in the constitution is today.

Consider it: if he literally did not know of any allegiance to Rome, then it is unlikely he could be in any way compromised or even be seen to be compromised by links to that foreign power. Underlining this truth is the fact that he has shown so little interest that he has never even visited Italy. Compare that to the NSW Liberal senator, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, who is quasi-Italian royalty - holding the rank of Knight of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic 1998.

Whether Canavan's ignorance matters at law will be determined by the High Court. And the adjudication of that, may affect others - not least, the fellow Queenslander, Larissa Waters, who claimed to have been unaware of her Canadian citizenship, but resigned nonetheless.

It seems there will be others. More evidence of a constitution in need of an update.

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