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Explainer: Matt Canavan and the process of obtaining Italian citizenship

Matt Canavan says he did not know he was an Italian citizen, claiming his mother signed him up on his behalf. AAP/Lukas Coch

Explainer: Matt Canavan and the process of obtaining Italian citizenship

Matt Canavan says he did not know he was an Italian citizen, claiming his mother signed him up on his behalf. AAP/Lukas Coch

Queensland senator Matt Canavan’s claim that his mother signed him up for Italian citizenship – without his knowledge or consent – is a convenient justification for an embarrassing oversight that could cost him his political career. Australia’s Constitution bars dual citizens from standing for, or sitting in, federal parliament.

Canavan says he did not know he was an Italian citizen. He was not born in Italy and he has never lived in Italy – yet he was seemingly able to obtain Italian citizenship. How?

Blood matters

Italy’s citizenship policy is considered one of the most generous among European countries. Based on the ius sanguinis principle (law of blood), it allows Italian descendants to pass on Italian citizenship to family members.

The policy does not put any limitations on Italian citizenship acquired in this way. If a person can demonstrate they have an Italian ancestor, they are entitled to apply for Italian citizenship and acquire full citizenship rights. This includes voting rights and a pension, together with a European Union passport.

Over the years, people with Italian blood have started what’s been described by former Italian prime minister Giuliano Amato and others as the “ancestor hunt” to demonstrate their “Italianness” to Italian authorities.

Exploitation of Italian citizenship policy

Italian authorities have, in recent years, noticed an increasing number of citizenship applications coming from countries outside the Schengen Area (a collection of 26 European countries that allow visa-free travel).

This has raised questions about the possible exploitation of the policy by some Italian descendants who are not interested in actively becoming part of the Italian community. Instead, they are interested in gaining an EU passport.

In 2015, there were roughly 4.8 million Italian citizens living outside Italy. In 2016, the largest presence of Italians abroad was in Argentina.

The South American country was one of the most popular destinations for Italian emigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries, but it is not a destination country today. However, it remains the country with the most Italian citizens living abroad, with an increasing number of applications lodged by Italian descendants to obtain an Italian passport.

Australia has the tenth-largest number of Italian citizens abroad; it is home to 148,483 Italian citizens. However, potentially thousands of Italian descendants (second-, third- and fourth-generation Italians) living in Australia could demonstrate to Italian consulates and embassies that they have “Italian blood” and obtain an Italian passport – as Canavan’s mother seems to have done.

Are all Italo-Australians Italian citizens?

Not all Italo-Australians are de-facto Italian citizens. For example, despite his Italian background, Greens leader Richard Di Natale is not an Italian citizen.

To obtain Italian citizenship, a formal request must be submitted to an Italian embassy or consulate. This process requires a significant number of steps and documents attached to the application. These include birth certificates and other documents related to the main applicant and their relatives to prove the claim to citizenship is valid.

Most importantly, the main applicant (if 18 years of age or older) needs to sign these documents. This point is very important in relation to Canavan’s case, as he claims his mother applied on his behalf, despite him being older than 18 at the time.

Italo-Australians with dual citizenship can also renounce their Italian citizenship.

The right to dual citizenship

Allowing people to have more than one citizenship is considered the norm in the majority of Western countries. Having more than one citizenship is no longer considered a violation of the trust between a country and its people.

A passport has lost its original meaning over time, too. It has largely become a mere tool to facilitate people movement and give greater opportunities to those who have more than one citizenship.

It might be perceived as a great privilege or undeserved gift, as in the case of Italy’s generous legislation – especially when the gift is an EU passport. But since this is a right, why should people renounce it?

Australia allows its citizens to have dual citizenship. And it cannot control the regulation of other countries’ policies.

The Italian government is not even remotely considering revising the existing policy regarding Italians abroad. The pillar of the policy remains the ius sanguinis principle, and people with Italian blood will always be Italian – if they want to be.

While Australia’s High Court will need to rule on Canavan’s eligibility to continue his political career, in the eyes of Italian law he will always be Italian – with or without citizenship.