PM braces for cit­i­zen­ship jolt



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.

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