Barnaby Joyce is on tenterhooks. Despite Malcolm Turnbull’s confidence that the High Court will find for him, Joyce’s parliamentary eligibility is a key to how the government finishes the year.
From Tuesday to Thursday, the court will consider what is surely one of the most extraordinary set of cases to come before it – the constitutional position of seven current and former MPs who were dual citizens.
All but Joyce are or were senators, which means that the only potential byelection that could be caused is for Joyce’s seat of New England. Three are Nationals: Joyce, Fiona Nash and Matt Canavan. Canavan quit the ministry (but not the parliament) when his issue arose; Joyce and Nash remain on the frontbench.
The two Greens, Scott Ludlam and Larissa Waters, resigned from parliament when they discovered their dual nationality. It was Ludlam’s departure that started the dominoes falling, as others checked their positions. Both Greens argue they were ineligible to sit – although the Commonwealth is actually saying Waters was eligible.
The remaining two are One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts, and Nick Xenophon.
Roberts, Ludlam and Waters were born overseas. The rest had foreign citizenship by descent. Joyce and Ludlam were New Zealanders; Nash, Xenophon and Roberts had British citizenship; Waters found herself a Canadian because she was born there during her parents’ brief stay; Canavan was Italian.
There have been some bizarre twists. Canavan said initially his mother had signed him up to Italian citizenship without his knowledge; later it was found she hadn’t had to – he already had it.
This latter fact is important for the Commonwealth’s legal argument. It is contending the constitutional provision about citizenship was only intended to exclude those who acted positively to obtain foreign citizenship or knowingly kept it. If Canavan’s Italian citizenship was gained by positive action, he wouldn’t be protected by that argument, as he would be if he were Italian by descent.
Xenophon had a very weak form of British citizenship, via his father, who had emigrated from Cyprus, which was a British territory.
The court has already declared that Roberts, who sent questions about his status to defunct email addresses, was a British citizen when elected, although it has not yet ruled on his eligibility.
Section 44 (i) of the Constitution reads clearly enough, on the face of it.
A person cannot be chosen for or sit in federal parliament if he or she:
… is under any acknowledgement of allegiance, obedience, or adherence to a foreign power, or is a subject or a citizen or entitled to the rights or privileges of a subject or citizen of a foreign power.
To clear themselves of this potential problem, an aspiring parliamentarian has to take proper steps to renounce a foreign citizenship.
It’s notable the major parties, which have good vetting, aren’t caught up in this case, although there have been allegations against some of their MPs.
The government is arguing that if the MP was Australian at birth (whether born here, or abroad to Australian parents) and wasn’t aware of their dual citizenship, they should not be found ineligible – in other words, that ignorance is a defence.
But if the MP was born overseas and later naturalised, the government argues, they were on notice about potentially being a foreign citizen, regardless of what they thought was the case. In this instance, according to the government’s argument, ignorance is not a defence.
If the court clears most of the MPs, it would be an effective rewrite, through interpretation, of the literal wording of this section.
The potential implications of the court’s decisions are wide and varied.
With Ludlam and Waters already out of parliament, the issue is just how they are replaced. If the court agrees with their own assessments that they were ineligible, their replacements will be the next candidates on the Greens 2016 tickets in Western Australia and Queensland, respectively Jordon Steele-John and Andrew Bartlett (a one-time Australian Democrats senator and leader).
If the court upheld the eligibility of one or both, the replacement or replacements would be chosen by the party. Ludlam has indicated he would not seek nomination; Waters, anxious to return to parliament, would be expected to do so.
It’s always possible, incidentally, for someone elected via a countback to then resign, leaving the way for the party to choose the replacement.
If Roberts is knocked out, the next on the One Nation ticket is Fraser Anning, who recently avoided another constitutional impediment: bankruptcy.
Disqualification of Xenophon would see Tim Storer of the Nick Xenophon Team (NXT) installed. But if Xenophon’s eligibility is upheld, he will leave the Senate anyway, to contest the South Australian election. In that circumstance, his party would choose who followed him.
The disqualification of Nash and Canavan would lead to candidates down their respective 2016 New South Wales and Queensland tickets replacing them. That would create some internal complications regarding the numbers between the Coalition parties.
Professor Anne Twomey, from the University of Sydney Law School, noted that if Nash were disqualified and a recount held, she would most likely by replaced by the Liberal who was next on the joint ticket. She said:
Even if that Liberal then resigned in an effort to pass the seat back to the Nationals, the constitution requires that the person who fills the seat is a member of the same party as the senator who was ‘chosen by the people’.
This would not have been Nash, as she was disqualified, and therefore never validly chosen. It would be the Liberal who won the seat on the recount. This would mean that she would have to be replaced by a Liberal, upsetting the balance in the Coalition.
The loss of one or both National senators would also mean a reshuffle of portfolios. This would fit with Turnbull’s desire for an end-of-year reshuffle, but test the Nationals’ talent pool. (Canavan is out of the ministry but Joyce is acting in his roles.)
But it is the finding on Joyce that has the big implications. If he were forced to a byelection, it would rock the government – even though he would almost certainly retain his seat.
The first issue would be whether he stood down from the ministry.
Twomey noted that while the constitution allows a person to be a minister for three months without holding a seat, the problem would be that Joyce had not validly held a seat since July last year – “which suggests that his three-month grace period is well and truly over. On that basis he would have to stop acting as a minister immediately.”
With Joyce out of parliament, the government would lose its majority on the floor of the House of Representatives. The result of particular votes would depend on the issue, the crossbenchers and – if it came to that – the Speaker’s casting vote.
Fighting a byelection would be distracting and disruptive for a government struggling in the polls.
The former independent member for New England, Tony Windsor, who is maintaining in the High Court that Joyce should be disqualified, has not ruled out running in a byelection. One Nation could be in the field, as could the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party, whose support will be tested in the NSW byelections this weekend.
The Newspoll quarterly breakdown, published this week, has found the government under pressure in regional areas. But a ReachTEL poll done last month for the Australia Institute found the Nationals polling 44.6% in New England, Windsor 26.5% and One Nation 9.8%, Labor 8.4%, and the Greens 2.4%.
The Queensland election, expected to be announced very soon, would be another dynamic in a byelection situation.
If, on the other hand, Joyce’s eligibility is upheld, Turnbull’s end-of-year reshuffle becomes much easier, especially with a strong win for the “yes” case now expected in the marriage ballot.
That still leaves the challenge of energy policy. Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg on Monday signalled the government was turning its back on a clean energy target, a reflection of the strength of the conservative voices within Coalition ranks – a combination of right-wing Liberals and the Nationals.
On the present timetable, the government is likely to take the broad outlines of its energy policy to the Coalition partyroom when parliament resumes next week.
But the situation is fluid, with the outcome in the High Court the known unknown. While the timing isn’t precise, the court is expected to be quick with its decision. It is obviously not driven by politics, but it is alert to the need to provide political certainly as soon as possible.
Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.