Larissa Waters faces tough internal challenge for Greens spot in Senate

Race between former senator and activist Ben Pennings reveals divide between Queensland members who support established candidate and those who want a more radical one

Former Greens senator Larissa Waters faces a more complicated path back to Canberra, with the announcement that Ben Pennings will challenge her for the party’s lead Senate spot.

The incumbent senator, Andrew Bartlett, who replaced Waters in the Senate when she resigned over her dual citizenship, said on Friday he also planned to nominate.

Pennings was third on the 2016 Queensland Greens Senate ticket, before leaving his job as a party media adviser to help lead the Stop Adani group.

The race for the lead candidacy is being billed by party members as the most important preselection contest the Queensland Greens have faced, with a divide emerging between members who support the more “established” candidates, such as Waters, and others who want the party to take a more radical position.

Pennings has taken aim at fears the federal party was losing relevance.

“The numbers are clear,” he wrote in a statement posted to his Facebook page on Friday. “We must do at least 50 per cent better than our 7 per cent vote last federal election, when we were saved by a double dissolution election.

The constitution

Section 44 (i) of Australia's constitution bars "citizens of a foreign power" from serving in parliament, including dual citizens, or those entitled to dual citizenship. But the provision was very rarely raised until July 2017, when the Greens senator Scott Ludlam suddenly announced he was quitting parliament after discovering he had New Zealand citizenship.

That sparked a succession of cases, beginning with Ludlam’s colleague Larissa Waters, as MPs and senators realised their birthplace or the sometimes obscure implications of their parents’ citizenship could put them in breach.  

The Citizenship Seven

By October, seven cases had been referred by parliament to the high court, which has the final say on eligibility. They were Ludlam and Waters; the National party leader Barnaby Joyce, deputy leader Fiona Nash and minister Matt Canavan; One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts; and independent Nick Xenophon.  

The court found that five of the seven had been ineligible to stand for parliament, exonerating only Canavan and Xenophon. That meant the senators involved had to be replaced by the next candidate on the ballot at the 2016 federal election, while the sole lower house MP – Joyce – would face a byelection on 2 December in his New South Wales seat of New England. Joyce renounced his New Zealand citizenship and won the seat again

Further cases

After the court ruling the president of the Senate, the Liberal Stephen Parry, also resigned on dual citizenship grounds. Then MP John Alexander quit, triggering a byelection in his Sydney seat of Bennelong – which he won. Independent Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie became the next casualty and NXT senator Skye Kakoschke-Moore soon followed. Labor MP David Feeney also had to quit, but Ged Kearney won his seat of Batman back for the ALP.

Legal implications

The case of senator Katy Gallagher tested the interpretation relied on by Labor that taking ‘reasonable steps’ to renounce citizenship was enough to preserve eligibility. In May 2018 the high court ruled against her, forcing a further three Labor MPs – Justine Keay, Susan Lamb and Josh Wilson – to quit, along with Rebekha Sharkie of the Centre Alliance (formerly NXT). The major parties have agreed that all MPs and senators must now make a formal declaration of their eligibility, disclose foreign citizenship and steps to renounce it. But the constitution cannot be changed without a referendum.


“This requires change. Disaffected outer surburban and regional voters who supported us in 2010 have not come back, have instead flirted with the populism of Palmer and the horrors of Hanson.

Ben Pennings
Ben Pennings, who wants the Greens’ lead Queensland Senate spot, has taken aim at fears the federal party is losing relevance. Photograph: Michael Warrington

“We must appeal to these voters, many who now see the Greens as part of the ‘inner-city’ political establishment. With the right candidate we can get a senator elected, instead of a Hanson candidate. People living in outer suburbs, regional towns and rural communities will vote for us in large numbers if we focus on their needs and concerns.”

Waters became the second federal senator to resign over dual citizenship concerns last year.

Greens senator Larissa Waters resigns over citizenship

Former Australian Democrats senator Andrew Bartlett, who had been next on the Senate ticket, stepped into the role in her place, but it had been understood Waters would return as the lead candidate for the next election. However, Bartlett confirmed to Guardian Australia on Friday he would also nominate again.

The party’s federal leadership have stated their desire to see Waters returned to Canberra, but have repeatedly said the decision lies with the Queensland party branch members.

The Queensland Greens have experienced a small resurgence in popularity, with Jonathan Sri, known federally as “rainbow scarf man”, winning a Brisbane council ward from Labor in 2016, and Michael Berkman becoming the first Greens MP in state parliament after winning former Newman government minister Scott Emerson’s seat in the 2017 election.

Waters remains popular within the Queensland Greens, but the party has wrestled with some of the same issues affecting the New South Wales branch.

Bartlett, who may face a section 44 challenge of his own over his university work, depending on the outcome of a parliamentary inquiry into the contentious constitutional section, is yet to state his intentions for the preselection battle.

Waters has been contacted for comment. Preselection opens on Saturday, with a decision to be made in March.


Amy Remeikis

The GuardianTramp

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