Australian opposition scoffs at 'Kiwis under the bed' plot

Australia's opposition Labor Party Penny Wong speaks during a censure motion against her in the Senate chamber at Parliament House, on Aug 16, 2017.
Australia's opposition Labor Party Penny Wong speaks during a censure motion against her in the Senate chamber at Parliament House, on Aug 16, 2017. PHOTO: EPA

SYDNEY (AFP) - Australia's opposition Labor Party on Wednesday (Aug 16) rejected extraordinary claims from the country's top diplomat that it conspired with New Zealand leftists to try to topple the government.

Labor's Penny Wong accused Foreign Minister Julie Bishop of "a Kiwis under-the-bed scare campaign" to divert attention from government woes, invoking anti-communist "Reds under the beds" fears of the Cold War.

"This sort of behaviour, I don't think is particularly good for democracy," Wong told reporters.

The international spat stems from Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce's revelation this week that he was a New Zealand citizen, meaning he may be forced to step down under rules barring dual nationals from sitting in Australia's parliament.

That would be a disaster for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's conservative government, which only holds a one-seat majority.

Officials in Wellington said Joyce's status came to light after queries from Australian journalists.

However, New Zealand Labour MP Chris Hipkins also admitted asking questions about the issue last week after talks with an Australian acquaintance, since revealed as Wong's chief of staff Marcus Ganley.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said Ganley's involvement showed "Penny Wong was up to her neck in it", along with Labor leader Bill Shorten.

She stood by an allegation made on Tuesday that the New Zealand and Australian opposition parties were trying to "undermine the government of Australia", even suggesting the plot could be global.

"I'd like to know if Bill Shorten is directing his troops to ask these questions in other parliaments around the world?" she told Sky News.

Wong conceded her staffer's actions were unwise but said they amounted to "a chat with a mate (Hipkins)" rather than a secretive attempt to bring down the government.

"That Ms Bishop can seriously suggest that there is some act of treason here is ridiculous," she said.

Wong said Bishop's "extraordinarily reckless and irresponsible" accusations risked straining relations with New Zealand, one of Australia's closest allies.

Joyce, whose Kiwi citizenship sparked the row, backed Bishop for "calling out" clandestine schemers.

"Obviously there's concern if you're sort of working in the background and trying to do something clandestine, that could affect our nation's government," he said.

"If there's a suspicion of that, you've got to be called out on it, and that's exactly what Julie did."

Australia-born Joyce renounced his New Zealand citizenship on Tuesday and has insisted he will stay on until the High Court determines his fate.

He has said he knew nothing about his New Zealand citizenship, which he automatically acquired from his Dunedin-born father.