Australia former DPM Barnaby Joyce's by-election win boosts embattled coalition

Australian politician Barnaby Joyce reacts as he speaks during a media conference in the New South Wales town of Armidale in Australia, on Dec 3, 2017.
Australian politician Barnaby Joyce reacts as he speaks during a media conference in the New South Wales town of Armidale in Australia, on Dec 3, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY (AFP) - Australia's former deputy prime minister has easily won a crucial by-election triggered by a dual-citizenship crisis that threatened the ruling coalition's grip on power.

Barnaby Joyce's emphatic re-election in the Saturday (Dec 2) poll cleared the way for his return to parliament and brought relief to a government which lost its slim parliamentary majority over the citizenship saga, and as it battled falling voter support and internal division.

"This has been a stunning victory," Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told supporters late Saturday in Tamworth, a city in Joyce's largely rural seat in New South Wales state.

"Barnaby Joyce has been re-elected member for New England with what appears to be the largest swing to the government in the history of by-elections in Australia."

Counting was ongoing but Joyce had so far picked up 64.6 per cent of the vote, with his closest rival Labor's David Ewings at 11.3 per cent.

Several members of the ruling Liberal-National coalition were turfed out of their seats after the High Court in October reaffirmed a constitutional provision barring dual citizens from serving in federal parliament.

In the lower House of Representatives, where the coalition held a narrow one-seat majority, Joyce and former tennis star John Alexander had to recontest their seats in by-elections.

The loss of Joyce and Alexander pending the by-election outcomes cost the government its majority, although Turnbull said he could continue ruling with the support of independents.

Alexander, whose by-election is on Dec16, could restore the coalition's majority with victory, but faces a tougher fight than Joyce for his Bennelong seat in Sydney where the main opposition Labor Party hopes to capitalise on Turnbull's problems.

Voter support for Turnbull has eroded in recent months, with the Liberal leader having to bat away calls for him to step down, even from within the coalition.

Joyce, leader of the National Party, reaffirmed his support for Turnbull as prime minister late Thursday, saying Australia needed "someone who has the skill set of this fella here".

"Running a country is a little bit harder than running sheep through a gate," Joyce said as he stood beside Turnbull.

"Some don't agree with him, put that aside, ask a clear question: Who do I want running the country? Malcolm Turnbull or (Labor leader) Bill Shorten?... I'm going with this one."

Turnbull's headaches are set to continue next week, with a self-imposed deadline of Dec 5 for all parliamentarians to disclose their citizenship status that could further destabilise his government.

The dual citizenship rule was originally inserted into the constitution to ensure parliamentarians were loyal solely to Australia.

However, critics say it is out of step with the modern reality of the country, where half the population are either foreign-born or the children of immigrants.