Dual citizenship saga: Aussie govt must wait till Oct for ruling

Liberal-National coalition's majority under threat over issue, with key lawmakers' cases to be examined by court

SYDNEY • Australia's conservative government will have to wait at least two months to discover if key members will survive a dual-citizenship crisis that has put its one-seat parliamentary majority under threat.

Seven lawmakers from across the benches have so far run afoul of an obscure constitutional rule which bars dual citizens from Parliament.

The Liberal-National coalition's slim majority in the Lower House is on the line after Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce discovered he had New Zealand citizenship. A court ruling disqualifying him could potentially topple Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's government.

Five cases - those of Mr Joyce, National Party senator Matt Canavan and three other senators from minor parties - were referred to the High Court, with the Chief Justice determining yesterday that they would be heard from Oct 10 to 12.

Attorney-General George Brandis told reporters: "There is an obvious public urgency in relation to this matter to clarify the situation.

"We look forward to the speedy resolution of the matter."

Mr Brandis said the court would examine the seven cases during the three-day seating in Canberra.

The total includes another two senators caught out by the law, the National Party's Fiona Nash and independent Nick Xenophon.

The government had hoped the hearing would occur next month to dispel uncertainty created by its biggest crisis since it was returned to power in the middle of last year.

The saga began last month, when Greens co-deputy leader Scott Ludlam resigned after revealing he had dual Australian-New Zealand citizenship.

Other politicians followed, including Canadian-born Greens senator Larissa Waters and Mr Canavan, who stepped down as resources minister after finding out that his mother had signed him up for Italian citizenship in his 20s.

Australia-born Joyce - the leader of the rural-based Nationals - earlier this month found out he had automatically acquired New Zealand citizenship through his Dunedin-born father.

Ms Nash, Mr Xenophon and India-born One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts have also been under a British citizenship cloud.

Mr Xenophon told Sky News on Wednesday that he wanted a citizenship audit of all lawmakers, adding: "If I'm in strife, then there will be dozens of others in strife in the Parliament."

Despite the cloud hanging over his government, Mr Turnbull has repeatedly expressed confidence that the High Court would not disqualify the politicians.

"I am very, very confident that the court will find that those members that have been caught up in this dual-citizenship issue by reason of descent will be found not to be disqualified," he told reporters on Wednesday.

The dual-citizenship rule was originally inserted into the 1901 Constitution to ensure parliamentarians were loyal solely to Australia. However, critics say it is out of step with the country's modern reality, where 50 per cent of the population are either foreign-born or the children of immigrants.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 25, 2017, with the headline 'Dual citizenship saga: Aussie govt must wait till Oct for ruling'. Print Edition | Subscribe