Ludlam’s nemesis on scalps he’s claimed, others he’s after
Barrister John Cameron doesn’t come across as a zealot. When the bearded 78-year-old isn’t meeting clients for the few pro bono cases he chooses to take on, he’s dressed in shorts and sweatshirt, walking several kilometres a day as part of a solitary fitness regime.
But there’s no doubting his almost religious zeal for upholding constitutional law, or the political havoc he has unleashed since outing Scott Ludlam as a dual citizen in July.
There are more twists than a game of Snakes and Ladders to the story of this intensely private Perth barrister, who like Ludlam was born in New Zealand.
Anyone familiar with his career knows his nature — dogged, persistent and usually on the side of the underdog. So why his obsession with investigating the citizenship status of parliamentarians?
Cameron says it’s simply a point of principle, not personal malice or the “witch hunt” that Malcolm Turnbull described last week as a conga line of MPs stepped forward to admit their eligibility status was unclear.
By way of explanation, he offers a quote from 17th-century historian Thomas Fuller. “Be ye ever so high, the law is always above thee.”
If the Constitution requires a parliamentarian to have taken all reasonable steps to renounce foreign citizenship, “they should have done so”, he says bluntly. Any MP caught out on citizenship was “knowingly reckless — they didn’t check”.
Cameron has carved out an idiosyncratic career in New Zealand, Fiji and Australia, where he arrived in the late 1980s to assist the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
He’s fought for compensation for an Aboriginal woman who suffered burns while in prison and acted for asylum-seekers marooned in Australia’s detention centres.
He says he never set out to topple the careers, domino-like, of federal MPs, let alone destabilise a government.
It was just that his intimate knowledge of constitutional law — and perhaps his own conscious decision to retain his dual citizenship — preyed on his mind when he observed dozens of MPs with eligibility he considered suspect. It was why, earlier this year, with a bit of time on his hands, he asked the New Zealand Department of Internal Affairs to search its register in relation to Ludlam and senator Derryn Hinch. “I expected the ‘Human Headline’ may not have done it and Mr Ludlam would have done it,” Cameron says, “but it was the other way around.”
Cameron had last year voted for Ludlam — he quips it was “because he’s a fellow Kiwi” — but the Greens senator was not spared once the barrister became aware of his dual citizenship. He contacted a Greens acquaintance and told him he had discovered Ludlam was still formally registered as a citizen in New Zealand. If so, wasn’t his dual citizenship in breach of section 44 of the Constitution? Ludlam resigned 48 hours later.
‘I’m not interested in statements. I’m only interested in evidence’ JOHN CAMERON ON MPs WHO DENY DUAL CITIZENSHIP
Cameron has rarely spoken on the record to the media. He did so with The Australian on the day Ludlam stepped down, but now is prepared to disclose his actions spanning several years.
The story that precedes that fateful toppling of the first domino is a fascinating one. Cameron has claimed political victims before and he may claim several more. His bid for clarity began on August 12, 2010, with a simple email request to the British Home Office.
“Folks, do your records show that either of the following Australian citizens has renounced his/her British nationality? Julia Eileen Gillard, born Wales, 29 September 1961. Anthony John Abbott, born London, 4 November 1957. Thanks, John Cameron.”
The British official ordered to give a response may not have realised the two names were those of Australia’s newly installed first female prime minister and the Liberal opposition leader who had failed to win government.
Eleven days later, a reply came back from the UK Border Agency, Correspondence and Enquiry Team. “Dear John, Thank you for your inquiry. There is no record on our system, which goes back to October 1986, of a record of renunciation in the details you have provided.”
Cameron says he was intrigued. He sent the email to the leader of the House of Representatives, to Gillard and Abbott directly, and to successive federal attorneys-general. When, after several years, he failed to receive a reply, he turned to the High Court, seeking access to the only legitimate documents he says would confirm that Abbott and Gillard — or any MP in their situation — had indeed renounced their British citizenship.
According to the British Home Office, only “the copy of the (RN1) application form, which is officially signed and stamped to show that the declaration has been registered, will be formal evidence of the applicant’s renunciation”.
Last week Gillard repeated her statement that she had renounced British citizenship in order to stand for the Senate in 1996. She was unsuccessful in that election but was then elected to the seat of Lalor in 1998.
“What my personal experience shows is that more than two decades ago the Australian Labor Party was giving accurate advice to candidates on issues regarding eligibility to stand for federal parliament,” she tweeted.
In July this year, Abbott released a letter from the British high commission stating “that our records show that you renounced British citizenship on 12 October 1993”. He became an Australian citizen by naturalisation on June 26, 1981.
But Cameron says while that may be true, neither has publicly produced the only credible evidence — the stamped and dated applicant’s copy of the RN1 — that each would have received if their application for renunciation had been granted.
Without that form, he says, it is not possible to disregard the UK Border Authority email informing him it held no record of either person having renounced their British citizenship acquired by birth.
In 2013, with Abbott as opposition leader, Gillard announced elections would be held in September. Having exhausted all other avenues — and given the Home Office email was technically inadmissable in court — Cameron applied to the High Court for an order directing Gillard and Abbott to produce their RN1 forms.
In written submissions, Cameron claimed: “The electors could be faced with a choice for prime minister, between two candidates neither of whom may be capable under section 44 of the Constitution … of being chosen or sitting as a member of the House of Representatives.”
Judge Kenneth Hayne dismissed his request as “frivolous, vexatious, and an abuse of process”. That finding was confirmed by Susan Kiefel, now Chief Justice, and judge Patrick Keane.
Cameron has not been deterred. He says he is waiting for a response to further requests he has put to the Home Office, and appeals against denial of information lodged with the UK Information Commissioner.
He is no timid adversary; he has claimed scalps before in the pursuit of what he would claim is good governance and a voter’s right to know. While working as a barrister in Fiji in 1995, he was asked by Fiji’s opposition party to look into the citizenship status of a newly installed minister for Fijian affairs, Adi Samanuna Cakobau.
Cameron ascertained from the British high commission that she was a dual UK citizen at the time of her nomination.
She was forced to resign her portfolio and her seat.
She was closely followed by another; her successor to the ministerial job she had vacated was also revealed to be a British citizen. He too was forced to stand aside.
Cameron would say he’s carried out his duty to ensure Australia is “a country of laws”, not one in which the law is “viewed through the prism of ambition”.
He’s still waiting for formal evidence relating to several MPs who inherited British citizenship.
“I’m not interested in statements,” he says when asked if Gillard and Abbott’s declared renunciations are enough. “I’m only interested in evidence.”
Barrister John Cameron in the gardens of the Constitutional Centre of Western Australia, Perth