Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister was kicked out of Parliament yesterday thanks to the 19th century wording of the constitution.
Barnaby Joyce became a victim of the 19th century white Australia policy this week. The High Court had no other option than to remind the Deputy Prime Minister and other ministers that the words of the constitution cannot be altered unless through a referendum.
But when you look back to when the constitution was written, you will find that the very wording of section 44 of the constitution was deliberately written to uphold the Government’s White Australia Policy. At the turn of the century there were huge fears about the impact that immigration (especially from Asia) would have on Australia.
The government created very strict legislation that had the ultimate goal of limiting the numbers of immigrants that could come to Australia. These legislation’s also resulted in large numbers of migrants to be repatriated after Federation in 1901. This legislation also forced South Sea Islander slaves to be returned home however many of them were simply dumped overboard at sea.
Legislation wasn’t just restrictive on the public either. The Australian Constitution, in particular, section 44, had protective measures to make sure that people who may have allegiances to other nations could never hold a position in Australia’s Parliament.
In 1897, an alternative wording to section 44 was debated. This wording put the emphasis on the individual and whether or not they had made an effort to become a citizen or obtain rights from another nation. If this wording was agreed upon, people like Barnaby Joyce would still be in Parliament today. Unfortunately for Mr Joyce, this wording was not accepted and a more wide ranging rule was decided upon.
The final wording that still stands today doesn’t focus solely on the individual, it also covers the individual’s descent. This would have stopped any possibility of someone with Asian descent and a subsequent claim to Asian citizenship in countries such as Japan and China from ever reaching a position of power. Even if they were unaware of a their foreign citizenship their would have been fears that they could have been influenced by family members in Australia and from overseas.
At the time the constitution was being drafted, settlers in Australia and other Commonwealth nations were all deemed to be British subjects and it appears they didn’t have the foresight to realise this inflexible rule would eventually exclude their own people like we are seeing today.
So is it time for Australia to update its constitution? Section 44 isn’t the only part of the constitution that reflects the views of the White Australia Policy either. The constitution doesn’t even acknowledge Indigenous people and our 60,000+ years of history. You may have heard that we are in favour of constitutional recognition but there are many of us who prefer that these lands were governed under a completely new constitution that is written by us and reflects the views of our people.