SYDNEY — Australia’s government is in chaos.
It turns out Barnaby Joyce, the leader of junior coalition partner the National Party and Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister, is ineligible to sit in Parliament because he is a New Zealand citizen by descent.
The High Court ruled his seat in Parliament to be unconstitutional, in breach of Section 44 of the Constitution which makes it illegal to sit in Parliament if eligible for the “rights and privileges” of another nation.
Six other MPs — all upper-house Senators — have variously be disqualified or ruled eligible to retain their seats, but the ruling that Joyce needs to re-contest his House of Representatives seat after renouncing any New Zealand citizenship rights plunges the Australian government into uncertainty for a period of weeks ahead.
The Liberal-National Coalition government has a one-seat majority in the Lower House of Parliament, so Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will now count on the casting vote of the Speaker to carry votes on the floor.
Deputy opposition leader Tanya Plibersek said “every decision” taken by Joyce since October last year was now “under a cloud”. She added that Labour would be considering the implications over the coming days, and recalled Turnbull’s insistence in the parliament that Joyce would be cleared to retain his seat by the High Court.
In a statement shortly after the High Court ruling, Joyce apologised to his electorate for the “inconvenience” of the coming by-election in the rural seat of New England, a sprawling country area to the north-west of Sydney.
“It’s a pretty simple story,” Joyce said. “We’re off to a by-election.”
“I had no reason to believe I was a citizen of any other country but Australia, and that’s the way it is.”
Joyce is expected on current polling to retain his seat, but he may face unexpected threats from challengers given the unprecedented nature of his removal.
The base case now is that Joyce will be returned and the government will retain its one-seat majority. But there is no doubt that this is hugely damaging to Turnbull’s authority and credibility.
Asked on Sky News if the opposition would grant Joyce “a pair” — a parliamentary convention of dropping an opposition MP out of a vote to respect the absence of a government MP during voting divisions — shadow transport minister Anthony Albanese said simply that Joyce wasn’t elected legally in 2016.
The opposition is playing hard-ball, raising the prospect that unless it manages to keep all of its MPs around the parliament at all times that it could start to lose votes on the floor.
Albanese added that Turnbull should go “straight to the [governor-general] and put an end to this farce”, suggesting that the prime minister call an election.
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