(Bloomberg) -- Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull says he’s confident the High Court will rule that three coalition lawmakers with dual citizenship can remain in parliament, as the growing constitutional crisis threatens to undermine the legitimacy of his government.
“Our legal advice is very, very strong,” Turnbull told reporters in Canberra on Friday, a day after Senator Fiona Nash, the rural health minister, revealed she is unwittingly also a British national. She’s the third Cabinet minister, and sixth lawmaker, in potential breach of a 117-year-old law that bars dual citizens from sitting in parliament.
The fiasco is an embarrassment for Turnbull’s government, which is already trailing in opinion polls as it struggles to deliver a policy agenda from company tax cuts to new media ownership rules. Worse still, the government could lose its one-seat majority in the lower house if the High Court rules that Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce -- who has now renounced his New Zealand citizenship -- must quit parliament.
Section 44 of Australia’s constitution says people are disqualified from becoming federal lawmakers if they are “a subject or a citizen or entitled to the rights or privileges of a subject or a citizen of a foreign power.” Dual nationals are required to renounce citizenship of other nations before entering parliament.
Two senators in the minority Greens party, one born in Canada and the other in New Zealand, resigned from parliament last month.
Senator Matt Canavan stepped down as resources minister when he found out his mother had applied for Italian citizenship on his behalf, without his knowledge. A One Nation senator has also been embroiled in the fiasco, and referred himself to the High Court over possible British citizenship. The court will begin hearing five of the cases in Brisbane on Aug. 24.
Turnbull, 62, said Friday that Section 44 was designed to prevent politicians from having conflicts of loyalties or split allegiances. He questioned how anyone could have “conflicted loyalty” when they had not acknowledged, accepted or even been aware they were also the citizen of another country.
The prime minister is a former lawyer, who in 1987 gained international prominence in the so-called Spycatcher case, when he successfully defended a British expatriate’s right to publish a book on his history in MI5.
The citizenship fiasco has seen lawmakers across all the major parties check their parentage to see if they may be in violation of Section 44. Nick Xenophon, a left-leaning independent who controls three seats in the Senate, told reporters on Friday he was checking to see if he may hold British citizenship through his father. He called the issue a “train wreck” for the parliament.
The nation’s financial markets have so far paid little attention to the issue, though may “be a little complacent,” according to Su-Lin Ong, head of Australian economic and fixed-income strategy at Royal Bank of Canada.
The nation faces a “small but not insignificant” risk that parliament could be dissolved in coming months and face an early election before it is due in 2019, she said in a note on Thursday. “The complexity of this situation and possible lack of clarity for some time will add to an already fractured government.”