Citizenship Fiasco Reaches Endgame as Aussie Court Ruling Looms

(Bloomberg) -- Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will learn on Friday whether his deputy Barnaby Joyce will be removed from parliament after a dual-citizenship blunder that could cost the government its one-seat majority.

The High Court in Canberra will rule from 2:15 p.m. on whether as many as seven lawmakers should be disqualified because they were also citizens of another country when they were elected, contravening section 44 of Australia’s constitution.

In addition to Joyce -- who is also leader of Turnbull’s coalition partner, the Nationals, and agriculture minister -- the future of two other senior members of the government rests in the hands of the court: former Resources Minister Matt Canavan, and Fiona Nash, who is in charge of the regional development and local government.

Losing any of his ministers would be a black eye for Turnbull, 63, whose Liberal-National government trails in opinion polls after disappointing voters with its scattershot policy agenda. A ruling against Joyce would also cost the government its wafer-thin majority in the House of Representatives and force Turnbull to rely on the support of a handful of independent lawmakers.

Joyce, 50, who is no longer a dual citizen, won his seat comfortably in last year’s election and could be expected to win it back in a special election. An Australia Institute poll held in the rural New England constituency in September showed support for Joyce on 44 percent and independent Tony Windsor on 26 percent. The opposition Labor Party is not expected to run a candidate if a special election is needed.

While the prime minister has repeatedly said he believes the court will clear Joyce, an adverse ruling would mean a messy year’s end for Turnbull and likely force a ministerial reshuffle. After a decade of chaos in which no prime minister has served a full three-year term, the nation can ill-afford fresh political turmoil.

“Depending on what the court decides, this could mean business-as-usual for Turnbull’s government, or at least a month of uncertainty and turmoil,” said John Warhurst, an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University in Canberra.

“Should senior ministers like Joyce go, at the very least it will be another embarrassment for the nation and make governing it harder,” he said.

‘Serious Issues’

The Labor Party has vowed to pressure the government in parliament should it lose its one-seat majority. No Labor members were referred to the High Court, with leader Bill Shorten adamant that his party’s vetting processes ensured all candidates had renounced their citizenship of any other nations before nominating.

If the coalition “doesn’t have the numbers, then there are serious issues for Malcolm Turnbull and the government that he is leading,” Labor’s deputy leader Tanya Plibersek said in a Wednesday radio interview.

The dual-citizenship fiasco began unfolding in July when two senators in the minority Greens party, one born in Canada and the other in New Zealand, resigned from parliament for unwittingly breaching Australia’s constitution.

The law 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.”

The saga has sparked incredulity even in a nation that’s grown used to political turmoil. It’s also raised questions about whether the 117-year-old law is still relevant, when nearly half of Australians were either born in a different country or have at least one parent hailing from overseas.

Joyce was dragged into the furor in August when he was advised by the New Zealand High Commission that he was a citizen of that nation by descent. The straight-talking lawmaker garnered international headlines in 2015 after threatening to put down dogs belonging to Johnny Depp after the Hollywood actor bypassed Australia’s quarantine laws and brought his pets into the nation illegally.

The two other lawmakers to have their fate decided on Friday are minor-party senators. The High Court will rule separately on each of the seven lawmakers, which could see some forced out of parliament and others allowed to remain.

“We are going to have to expect there will be different outcomes for different members of parliament,” said Donald Rothwell, a professor of international law at the Australian National University. Should Joyce be ruled ineligible, “the confidence in the government could possibly be tested" when the lower house resumes sitting on Nov. 27, he said.

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.