Australian court offers no quick fix for Malcolm Turnbull's dual-citizenship crisis

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at a media conference in Sydney, Australia, on July 30, 2017.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at a media conference in Sydney, Australia, on July 30, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

CANBERRA (BLOOMBERG) - A constitutional crisis undermining Australia's government will rumble on for at least another seven weeks after the High Court said it would not hear until October the cases of five lawmakers that face being barred from parliament.

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce and the other lawmakers must wait until Oct 10, when the court will hear whether they have breached the constitution by being dual citizens when they were elected to parliament.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has been seeking a speedy resolution to the crisis that has ensnared a total of seven lawmakers, including Mr Joyce and two other Cabinet ministers.

Mr Joyce is the only member of the lower house so far affected and his case is particularly troubling for the government, which faces the prospect of losing its one-seat majority if he is ruled ineligible.

The fiasco has sparked incredulity even in a nation that has grown used to political turmoil. It has 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.

Attorney-General George Brandis had been pressing for the case to be heard in September, but told reporters on Thursday (Aug 24) that was not possible.

The drama began last month when two senators in the minority Greens party, one born in Canada and the other in New Zealand, resigned from parliament for unwittingly breaching Section 44 of the 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".

It has since ensnared Cabinet members Mr Joyce, Mr Matt Canavan and Ms Fiona Nash, along with One Nation Senator Malcolm Roberts and independent lawmaker Nick Xenophon.

The cases of Ms Nash and Mr Xenophon, which are yet to be officially referred to the High Court by parliament, may also be heard in October, Chief Justice Susan Kiefel said on Thursday.

No members of the main opposition Labor party have been referred to the court, with leader Bill Shorten adamant its vetting processes ensured his candidates renounced citizenship of other nations before nominating at elections.

"This is a legal problem which has now become a parliamentary joke," Mr Shorten told reporters on Wednesday. "No wonder Australians are dirty about politics at the moment."

Mr Turnbull's Liberal-National coalition slipped further behind Labor in a Newspoll published on Monday - 46 per cent to 54 per cent - and should that margin be replicated at the next election due by 2019, the government would be wiped out.