The Turnbull government is facing minority status and a difficult by-election after the High Court found the entire leadership of the National Party — Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce and Nationals deputy leader Fiona Nash — ineligible to stand at the 2016 election, due to their citizenship status under section 44 of the constitution.
The decision — which the Prime Minister strongly insisted in Parliament would not happen — plunges his government into another crisis in a week in which Employment Minister Michaelia Cash has faced pressure to resign in response to the AWU raid debacle.
The Court, sitting as the Court of Disputed Returns, found that South Australian senator Nick Xenophon was eligible despite acquiring British citizenship via his Cypriot father. Xenophon, however, has already decided to leave federal politics for a tilt in the South Australian election next March. Nationals minister Matt Canavan, who stood aside from the ministry when he revealed he had Italian citizenship, was also found eligible, and can now return to the frontbench, presumably in his former role as Minister for Coal.
The remainder of the “citizenship seven” have been found to be ineligible. Former Greens senator Scott Ludlam, who has since left politics, and former colleague Larissa Waters, were both found ineligible. One Nation Queensland senator Malcolm Roberts was found to be ineligible due to his failure to take action to renounce his British citizenship.
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When Scott Ludlam began this extended political storm over citizenship on July 14, no one would have expected that it would end with a beleaguered government hanging onto power with the help of the crossbench. Ludlam declared that the matter was black letter law and that he had no alternative but to resign over his New Zealand citizenship, which he immediately did.
As it turns out, his handling of the matter — then the subject of criticism by the government and many in the media — proved to be the most principled and correct one. Barnaby Joyce and Fiona Nash — not to mention angry conspiracy theorist Malcolm Roberts — should all have taken note of his example and resigned on the spot. Instead, the government has been subjected by the Nationals to a distracting period of citizenship chaos, culminating in what will likely prove a messy by-election in New England and — potentially — a ugly Coalition stoush in NSW over who takes Nash’s spot.
The retention of Matt Canavan is a small win for the government but for now the impression that the Turnbull government is notable only for its chaos and instability has been massively reinforced — through no fault of Turnbull or the Liberal Party. This one’s all on the Nationals.