[This article was originally uploaded on 12 November 2017 but has been reposted following restoration of the website.]
Controversy is currently swirling about the number of federal MPs who have been found in breach of Section 44 of the Constitution requiring that members of the national parliament should not be citizens of any country other than Australia. This provision has created tricky waters for intending candidates for political office to navigate, given the number who have evidently acquired dual citizenship unwittingly through the nationality status of migrant parents. Their situation is, moreover, for the most part very different to that which some members of the Commonwealth parliament found themselves caught up in during the early post-federation period.
In the very first national parliament elected in March 1901, there were two members who were not technically qualified to sit in either federal chamber, because they were in breach of the then requirement that candidates had to be subjects of the British crown—there being no concept at that stage that Australians even held separate nationality. One of these men was Chris Watson, who in 1904 became Australia’s third prime minister for the Labor Party, and arguably had little idea of his Chilean origins. The other was King O’Malley, who served as a minister in the second Fisher Labor ministry (1910-13) and the first Hughes Labor ministry (1915-16). In O’Malley’s case there was never any real doubt that he knew he was a U.S. citizen and simply lied to hide the truth.
Trowel in hand, King O’Malley (Minister for Home Affairs) lays a foundation stone during the naming of Canberra ceremony on 12 March 1913.
O’Malley’s deception became apparent from the first time he sought public office in 1896 by standing for election to South Australia’s House of Assembly, which also had a provision that candidates must be British citizens. His claim that he had been born in Canada but raised in the U.S. was challenged soon after he was elected, after a man who had known him in the U.S. published a statement that O’Malley was an American citizen who fled after embezzling funds. O’Malley sued but won only trifling damages, and focus fixed more on doubts over whether he had been involved in financial scandal than the question of his citizenship.
To silence his critics when he won election to federal parliament as a member from Tasmania, O’Malley claimed he was born on 4 July 1858 at Stamford Farm, Quebec, Canada. Records show his birth actually occurred in 1854 at Valley Falls, in the U.S. midwest state of Kansas. O’Malley’s concealment of the truth throughout his political career was brazen, since he was not afraid to vary and embellish the story as it suited him.
At one stage O’Malley insisted his parents were British citizens who were resident in the U.S., and that shortly before his mother was due to go into labour she very thoughtfully crossed into Canada so her son would also have British nationality. Clearly he did not imagine his listeners would have sufficient grasp of North American geography to realise that 1000 kilometres separated Kansas from the Canadian border.
Long before O’Malley died in 1953 (the last member of the first Commonwealth parliament to depart the scene), he had thankfully abandoned the pretence by admitting to the widow of a former political colleague: ‘I am an American’. Not that the admission counted for much, since according to Canberra historian David Headon everyone who mattered had been ‘in on’ O’Malley’s lie long before that. It seems Australians—both in and out of parliament—simply preferred his colourful showmanship, his ‘democratic extravagances’, and the ‘rich entertainment’ that his political appearances provided.
We might feel sympathy with recent candidates for political office who were unaware they possessed foreign nationality that they needed to renounce before nominating, but there can be little for those who, like O’Malley, knew or suspected that they held dual citizenship and chose to ignore or conceal the fact.