PM braces for citizenship jolt
SHORTEN REFUSES TO REFER FOUR LABOR MPs WITH ELIGIBILITY DOUBTS TO THE HIGH COURT
Malcolm Turnbull is fighting to keep control of federal parliament as a key Liberal MP considers whether to resign within days, weakening the government’s numbers as it tries to escalate pressure on Bill Shorten over the citizenship crisis.
The government is bracing for an official ruling on Liberal backbencher and former tennis champion John Alexander that could trigger a referral to the High Court or an immediate resignation if British authorities declare him to be one of their citizens.
With Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce out of parliament while he fights a December 2 by-election, the nation is heading towards a hung parliament for a crucial period when the Coalition could hold only 74 of 150 seats.
As the Coalition faced the possible loss of a second lower house MP in the dual-citizenship fiasco, the Opposition Leader yesterday resisted calls to refer four Labor MPs who held British citizenship at last year’s election to the High Court. Despite Labor’s Justine Keay yesterday admitting she “delayed” her move to renounce British citizenship before the election and now acknowledged a High Court referral may be the only way to decide her status, Mr Shorten declined to answer a direct question on such a move.
“Let’s be very straight here, we are not ruling out that anyone shouldn’t go to the High Court,” he said. “What we are saying is for every parliamentarian to put all their facts on the table. Let’s have a common disclosure standard. Upon the survey of that evidence, the parliament can make the next decision.”
Mr Turnbull declared it a “fundamental principle” that MPs should leave parliament if they were satisfied they were ineligible, setting a benchmark for Mr Alexander to quit if the UK Home Office rules within days on whether he is a British citizen.
Speaking at a community event in his electorate yesterday, Mr Alexander said he was still waiting for confirmation of his citizenship status. “When I find out what I find out, I will make a full statement — I will not make any other statement,” Mr Alexander said.
A Liberal insider at the Eastwood charity event in Sydney said he thought it possible, even likely, that a result would be known on Mr Alexander’s citizenship status over the weekend, due to the time difference with Britain.
The Prime Minister, who is attending summits in Vietnam and The Philippines, will move to shore up his position this weekend by citing new legal advice that shows at least two Labor MPs, Ms Keay in Tasmania and Susan Lamb in Queensland, should be disqualified because they held British citizenship at last year’s federal election. The advice from David Bennett QC, a former solicitor-general, concludes that MPs will be disqualified if their attempts to renounce British citizenship do not take effect in time.
Mr Bennett, one of the successful advocates in last month’s crucial High Court ruling on the issue, draws on the recent case to con- clude that crossbencher Rebekha Sharkie of the Nick Xenophon Team should also be disqualified on the same grounds.
The findings send a clear signal to other federal politicians caught in the same trap, with Labor exposed to claims that two of its West Australian MPs, Josh Wilson and Madeleine King, also moved too slowly to renounce their British citizenship.
“All of the statements of the court are consistent only with the view that, where a foreign law, such as British law, provides a relatively simple path to renunciation, that renunciation must actually take effect prior to nomination for election,” Mr Bennett writes.
“In such circumstances, it is not sufficient merely to apply.”
Ms Keay has admitted that Britain’s Home Office did not register her renunciation until July 11, weeks after the nomination date for candidates, the key date used by the court to decide if an MP was a foreign citizen when elected.
The Labor MP said she had advice from Ray Finkelstein QC and barrister Simona Gory finding she was eligible to sit in parliament because she had taken steps to renounce even though the process did not conclude until after the election.
The government’s slim majority hangs by a thread as it risks losing Mr Alexander and fights to save Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce at a December 2 by-election in New England, cutting its numbers in the lower house from 76 out of 150 to 74 instead. Mr Shorten could exploit the government’s weakness by moving motions on penalty rates or a banking royal commission when parliament resumes on November 27 for its final sitting fortnight of the year, when it is meant to be deciding samesex-marriage legislation.
The Opposition Leader is arguing for a December 1 deadline for all MPs to disclose their citizenship status to the parliament, while Mr Turnbull proposes December 7. Both deadlines set up a process to hold a “super Saturday” of byelections early in the new year if MPs are referred to the High Court and are disqualified.
While Mr Shorten insisted the four Labor MPs were qualified to sit in parliament, constitutional experts were divided on whether MPs should be disqualified if their renunciations do not take effect until after the close of nominations.
ANU professor Kim Rubenstein said it would “go against the essence” of the High Court judgment if Australian citizens had to wait for the foreign process, while University of Sydney professor Anne Twomey said it was unclear if MPs such as Ms Keay and Ms Sharkie had taken “all reasonable steps” to renounce.
The advice from Mr Bennett, provided to the Liberal Party and not paid for by taxpayers, sharpens the dispute over the reading of the constitutional ban on dual citizenship. Mr Bennett acted in the re- cent High Court case for Resources Minister Matt Canavan, one of only two of seven politicians who were referred to the court to keep their places in parliament.
Labor MPs facing questions over their eligibility are refusing to clarify when they ceased to be dual citizens, as ACT senator Katy Gallagher’s name was again added into the mix.
Senator Gallagher, whose parents were British and whose mother was born in Ecuador, has conceded she never took steps to renounce UK citizenship before she was first elected to federal parliament in 2015.
She only began the British renunciation process in April last year — one day after Ms Sharkie — but would not clarify to The Weekend Australian whether it was effective before she nominated for last year’s election.
Ms Sharkie acknowledged on Thursday her renunciation was not registered until after nominations closed.
Ms King said she completed her British renunciation form on March 29 last year, but again would not say when her foreign citizenship ceased being effective.
Ms Lamb and Mr Wilson were both travelling and did not respond to The Weekend Australian’s request for comment.