Labor on the citizenship debacle: 'If Turnbull wants to fire this missile, we've got the ammo to go nuclear'

Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten. Photo: Stefan Postles/ Getty Images.

Labor is threatening a campaign of mutually assured destruction unless Malcolm Turnbull drops his threat to refer opposition MPs to the High Court.

After Mr Turnbull ramped up his threat to send up to four Labor MPs to the High Court if Opposition Leader Bill Shorten did not act, Labor named another five Coalition MPs who have been previously subject to suspicion, saying they would seek the numbers to refer them.

The so-called foreign five are Julia Banks, who holds the Victorian seat of Chisholm, and has Greek heritage but was cleared in July by the Greek embassy of having Greek citizenship.

The others are Nola Marino, from Forrest in WA, who married an Italian and may have become a dual citizen; Alex Hawke, from Mitchell in NSW, whose mother is Greek; Tony Pasin, from Barker in SA, whose father was Italian; and from the NSW seat of Gilmore, Ann Sudmalis, who has rejected claims she was a dual British citizen. However, Labor maintains the case against all five is “compelling”.

“If Turnbull wants to fire this missile, we’ve got the ammo to go nuclear,” said a Labor spokesman.

“If I were Julia Banks, Nola Marino or Alex Hawke, I’d be sweating bullets whenever he talks about referring Labor MPs. He is locking and loading the gun at his own MPs.

“We’ve been doing our work. The case against these MPs is compelling. We know there are even more Liberals to come out of the woodwork.”

The tit-for-tat threats may come down to who can woo enough crossbenchers to support a referral in the Lower House of the parliament. The government lost its majority on Saturday when the Liberal member for the Sydney seat of Bennelong, John Alexander quit in the belief he was a dual British citizen.

On Sunday, Mr Turnbull conceded the government may have to wait until its own disqualified MPs were re-elected before it used its numbers to refer suspect Labor MPs to the High Court, a scenario which could extend the crisis even further into next year than anticipated.

With Labor refusing to refer its own MPs based on legal advice they took all reasonable steps to renounce their dual citizenship, the government ramped up its threat.

“I think that the pressure is really on Bill Shorten now. Is he really going to say that it’s the Labor Party that decides who sits in the Parliament and not the High Court?” Mr Turnbull said in Hong Kong.

“There is no question that Labor has a number of members who not only were, but knew they were, foreign citizens at the time they nominated for parliament. That makes them ineligible.

“Now, if they believe they can persuade the court to take a somewhat different tack, good luck to them. But the place to determine that is in the court. Bill Shorten has got to stop running a protection racket for his own dual citizens.”

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Photo: Stefan Postles/ Getty Images.

But the government is set to spend to last two sitting weeks of the year in minority after Mr Alexander’s resignation, triggering a byelection.

With former Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce also out of action trying twin back his seat of New England, after he was dismissed for being a dual new Zealand citizen, the government will have only 73 out of 150 MPs on the floor of the House of Representatives for the final two sitting weeks in December.

There will be 69 Labor MPs and five crossbenchers, totalling 74. One of the crossbenchers, Rebekha Sharkie, who represents Mayo in South Australia for the Nick Xeonpohon team, is under the same dual citizenship cloud as Labor MPs Susan Lamb from Queensland, Justine Keay from Tasmania and Josh Wilson from WA in that they renounced dual British citizenship but didn’t get confirmation until after they either nominated or were elected.

Asked if the government would seeking the support of at least one crossbencher to provide the numbers to refer the Labor MPs, Mr Turnbull suggested instead it would be better to wait for Mr Joyce to return, presuming he wins his seat back, and even Mr Alexander, who faces a much tougher task to win back Bennelong.

Mr Turnbull said he expected the Bennelong byelection to be held before Christmas, most likely on December 16. Campaigning in the seat began Sunday.

Nonetheless, if both were returned, the government would have recall Parliament or wait until it resumed in February to refer the Labor MPs, further prolonging the legal and political processes which already threaten to run until at least March.

Campaigning in Bennelong, Labor frontbencher Tony Burke accused Mr Turnbull of a “desperate, born-to-rule approach”. He insisted the Labor MPs were safe because they had taken all reasonable steps to renounce.

“If anyone has dual citizenship and has failed to take reasonable steps by the time they nominate, they have broken the law. I don’t care what party they’re from,”‘ he said.

He said the Nationals and Liberals who were dismissed or have resigned made no effort to renounce in the first place.

However, the High Court ruling which dismissed Mr Joyce and five others on October 27 cast in doubt the reasonable steps defence.

Ms Sharkie and another crossbencher Cathy McGowan in the House of Representatives have guaranteed the government supply and confidence, meaning it should be able to cope with the final two weeks of the year without collapsing.

“Sure it will be a confusing couple of weeks on issues to do with procedure but the government will not change, we have supply and confidence with support from the crossbench,” said leader of the House, Liberal minister Christopher Pyne.

“There is no reason for the parliament not to serve its full term until July 2019.”

This article was originally published by the Australian Financial Review. Read the original here, or follow the AFR on Facebook.

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