TASMANIAN Liberal senator Eric Abetz is set to face an extraordinary High Court challenge to his legal right to sit in the Australian Parliament.
Wealthy Tasmanian antique dealer John Hawkins claims ( On Tasmanian Times HERE, although you would never know it from Mercury ) Senator Abetz’s nomination, lodged yesterday with the Australian Electoral Commission seeking re-election for another six years as a Liberal senator, may not be valid.
Mr Hawkins alleges Senator Abetz, who has sat in the Senate since February 1994, still holds dual citizenship of both his birthplace Germany and Australia.
The Australian Constitution prevents anyone who is a citizen of a foreign country - which includes holding dual citizenship - from being elected to, or sitting in, the Australian Parliament.
But an angry Senator Abetz yesterday hit back at the allegations.
He branded Mr Hawkins’ legal challenge as “grubby” and personally motivated.
Senator Abetz said that when he first became an Australian citizen in Hobart in 1974, aged 16, he was told the move automatically cancelled his previous German citizenship.
He says he also has documents to prove he took further steps to ensure his German citizenship had been completely relinquished before becoming a senator in 1994.
The senator, now leader of the Liberal Opposition in the Senate, promised last night to provide the Mercury today with a carbon copy of the letter renouncing his citizenship sent to the German embassy in 1993.
A landmark precedent was set in 1999 when the election of Queensland’s newest One Nation senator Heather Hill was declared invalid by the High Court because she held dual British and Australian citizenship.
Under Australian law, any citizen has 40 days to challenge the validity of the election or re-election of any political candidate through the High Court, sitting in its capacity as the Court of Disputed Returns.
Such a challenge does not incur legal fees or costs.
If a challenge to the validity of the election of any senator is upheld by the High Court, it has the potential to quash any votes taken in the Senate during the period the disqualified parliamentarian sat in the Senate, if his one vote was crucial to an outcome.
But Senator Abetz, who was a lawyer and University of Tasmania graduate before beginning his 16-year political career aged 36, says claims of a parallel with Ms Hill’s situation are without foundation.
“After representing the people of Tasmania for 16 years in the Senate, Mr Hawkins is welcome to challenge my right to sit in the Senate in the High Court,” Senator Abetz said.
He moved with his family from his German birthplace of Stuttgart to north-western Tasmania in 1961, when the young Erich was aged just three.
On becoming president of the Tasmanian Liberal Party in 1990 and first standing for the Senate in 1993, he said yesterday he took further precautions to ensure his nomination did not contravene Australian law.
Senator Abetz said he wrote to the German embassy in 1993, renouncing any lingering claims to German citizenship he might have.
“I renounced my German citizenship in that letter, full stop,” Senator Abetz said last night.
“That letter said that I understood my German citizenship had been forfeited back in 1974 when I became an Australian citizen, but that they should let me know if there was anything further that I needed to do.”
Senator Abetz said he never heard anything further, leaving him convinced he did not hold dual citizenship that could make his Senate nomination invalid.
He said he had never held a German passport or European passport.
He was not elected to the Senate in the 1993 election but filled a vacancy in February 1994 after the sudden resignation of Tasmanian Liberal senator Brian Archer.
Within three weeks he was sitting in the Senate, before being re-elected again for second and third terms as a Tasmanian Liberal senator in 1998 and 2004.
Senator Abetz is the number one candidate on the Liberals’ local senate ticket at this year’s August 21 federal election, ahead of Senator Stephen Parry and Senator Guy Barnett.
Mr Hawkins said former nomination forms submitted by Senator Abetz and the Liberal Party to the Electoral Commission at previous elections lacked mandatory information such as his date of birth and birthplace.
Mr Hawkins, who has a long-running dispute with Senator Abetz relating to his role as federal Forestry Minister during the Gunns pulp mill controversy, said he had officially raised the issue with the President of the Senate in 2007.
But he was told that the question was “not relevant” at the time, because the validity of a senate candidate could only be challenged in the High Court when nominations were lodged prior to an election, during a 40-day legal window.
“That time is now and [today], once Senator Abetz’s nomination for re-election is made public by the Electoral Commission [at noon], I will proceed to have the matter listed before the High Court of Australia,” Mr Hawkins said yesterday.
“The matter relates to the qualifications of Senator Abetz and his right to represent me, as a Tasmanian, in the Senate of the Commonwealth of Australia.”
A spokesman for the German Consul said yesterday abandoning German citizenship was not always clear-cut and its ease had been a “matter of timing” in the past.
He said that while citizenship was now automatically cancelled when a former German citizen took another country’s nationality, the same laws had not always applied.
At times in the past 40 years, including the period between 1974 when Senator Abetz became an Australian citizen and when he entered the Senate in 1994, the consular official said it had been necessary for documents to have been signed and returned by the German Government before German citizenship was formally relinquished.
A spokesman for Opposition Leader Tony Abbott did not return calls last night about the potential challenge to Senator Abetz’s Senate renomination.
But Tasmanian Liberal Party state secretary Jonathan Hawkes backed Senator Abetz to the hilt.
“The Liberal Party has no reason to doubt that Senator Abetz is eligible to be elected as a senator,” Mr Hawkes said in a statement.
“Like many Australians, including Julia Gillard, he was born overseas and moved to Australia with parents and subsequently became a naturalised citizen.
“Senator Abetz has spent 16 years fighting for the best interests of Tasmanians, was a senior minister in the Howard government and is now Leader of the Opposition in the Senate.”