Citizenship rules 'stuck in the past'

Angus Livingston, AAP Senior Political Writer

Most Australians are ineligible to sit in parliament thanks to a section of the constitution written when the idea of "Australian citizenship" didn't exist.

Section 44 of the constitution also bans former bankrupts and even public servants.

A cross-party committee of MPs wants a referendum to change a constitution it believes is stuck in 1901.

"In the constitution it still reads that you have to be a bloke, you have to be over 21 and you have to be subject of Queen Victoria (to run for parliament)," committee chair Linda Reynolds told AAP.

Parliament was able to change those rules without a referendum - but the disqualifications need a majority vote of the Australian states and voters to change.

"Section 44 is stuck in 1901," Senator Reynolds said.

The committee's report gave an example of a woman whose father gave conflicting stories about his ancestry before he died, leaving her unsure if she is perhaps a dual citizen.

Or a local volunteer who works on community organisations and gets some money for being on a board of a government-funded nursing home, who falls foul of the pecuniary interest laws.

Bankrupts are banned from running from parliament, but the report found that includes young entrepreneurs who might have paid back all their obligations after an early business went bust.

Someone working as a courier with several government contracts would have to sell their business to run in an unexpected by-election.

"Do we think it is fair that everyday Australians have to lose so much just to nominate as a candidate?" Senator Reynolds said.

The report found the constitution was written at a time when Australian citizenship did not exist and when 'foreign power' meant those beyond the borders of the British empire.

It also found more than half of all Australians were likely ineligible to run for parliament.

"(It would leave) only eight million Australians eligible to nominate for election without having to take additional measures, and losing something they may not be able to afford to lose," the report said.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull says there is not enough time for a referendum before the next general election, and Senator Reynolds agrees.

"We have noted that the pre-conditions for a successful referendum don't yet exist," she said.

"It will take some time, maybe many months, if not years."