The Turnbull government will lose its majority in the lower house because Liberal backbencher John Alexander is resigning from parliament because he is “most likely” a dual citizen. His departure will force a by-election for his Sydney seat of Bennelong.
The former Australian tennis player’s father, Gilbert, was born in the UK and came to Australia as a child, but British authorities have been unable to find any records of him renouncing his citizenship, meaning the MP is probably a dual-British citizen by descent.
With the loss of Nationals leader and deputy PM Barnaby Joyce, who is contesting a by-election for his old seat of New England on December 2, Alexander resignation means the government no longer has a majority in the lower house. The implications for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and the Coalition are unclear at this point, although the government will not fall as a result.
The House of Representatives is due to sit from November 27 – the week before the New England by-election, leaving the Coalition with 74 MPs, Labor with 69 and five cross-bench MPs. Legalising same-sex marriage is meant to be on the agenda as part of a pledge by Turnbull if this Tuesday’s announcement of the result of the postal survey is a “yes”.
Alexander says he will contest a by-election for his seat of Bennelong, but no date has yet been set. If he resigned by Monday, the earliest possible time voters would head to the polls is December 16 (a election campaign must be a minimum of 33 days). The following weekend is December 23 – the start of the Christmas holidays.
He faces the additional complication of needing to renounce his UK citizenship before standing, which may delay the election until 2018, most likely after Australia Day.
The MP held a press conference on Saturday afternoon saying he informed the Prime Minister of his intention to resign yesterday, adding that he’d always believed he was “solely Australian”.
“Given what I have learned about the Constitution and understanding now of the High Court decision just a couple of weeks ago, I can no longer, with sufficient certainty, maintain the belief that I have held through my 66 years,” he said.
“Therefore, it is my obligation that I must resign. That’s what I will do.”
Uncertainty about his status first emerged on Monday, just hours after Malcolm Turnbull announced new disclosure rules for MPs and said the Liberals federal director had told him “all of the Liberal Party members believe that they are in compliance with the Constitution”.
He is the fourth Coalition politician forced from parliament for being in breach of Section 44 of the Constitution, which makes dual-citizens ineligible to stand for office. Nationals senator Fiona Nash and Joyce were ruled ineligible by the High Court. Former Senate president Stephen Parry resigned last week following the court’s decision and now Alexander will go.
Alexander was born in Australia in 1951, just two years after the Australian citizenship began. His late father would have had that two-year window to renounce his own British citizenship to remove any doubts
Alexander said his status was “not absolutely conclusive” and he was most likely a dual citizen based on “the probability of evidence”.
“I think I simply got to the point I couldn’t hold the belief with the level of certainty that I think I needed to have,” he said.
Alexander held Bennelong by a margin of nearly 10%, having increased his lead in former PM John Howard’s old seat at last year’s election, but Labor won the seat from Howard in 2007 before Alexander regained it for the Liberals in 2010. But in the volatile current political climate, even a 10% buffer is no longer considered a safe seat.
And the citizenship woes for the government continue with Fairfax Media reporting that Western Australian Liberal MP Nola Marino, may have Italian citizenship through marriage.
Foreign women who married an Italian citizen prior to 27 April 1983 were automatically given citizenship when they married. Fairfax says Marino, the Chief Government Whip in the House of Representatives, has yet to clarify her position.
There’s also doubt over the eligibility of the women set to replace former Nationals deputy leader Fiona Nash in the Senate, who may be in breach of another section of the Constitution. Hollie Hughes took a government role after she did not win a Senate slot.
Hughes was appointed to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal by the government nearly five months ago.
The Section 44(4) of the Constitution bans public servants and anyone who “holds any office of profit under the crown” from Parliament.
Yesterday, her case was referred to the High Court for consideration of her eligibility.
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