How a 117-year-old law cost Australia’s PM Malcolm Turnbull his majority

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Published: October 27, 2017 3:14:56 PM

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull sought to shore up confidence in his government after Australia’s High Court ejected his deputy from parliament, wiping out his one-seat majority and spooking investors.

Australia's PM Malcolm Turnbull, Australia, PM Malcolm Turnbull, Malcolm Turnbull, Australia High Court, Australia newsIf Joyce loses, Turnbull would have to try to lead a minority government, bringing fresh political uncertainty to the country. (Reuters Photo)

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull sought to shore up confidence in his government after Australia’s High Court ejected his deputy from parliament, wiping out his one-seat majority and spooking investors. The court ruled Friday that Barnaby Joyce and four other lawmakers were ineligible to sit in parliament because they were dual citizens when they were elected, in breach of the constitution. Joyce, the leader of Turnbull’s coalition partner the Nationals, has since renounced his New Zealand citizenship and will re-contest his seat on Dec. 2. In a hastily-organized news conference, Turnbull told reporters he was confident Joyce would win, and that in the meantime the government had the backing of independent and minor party lawmakers. The local dollar and stocks fell after the ruling, on the prospect of renewed political turmoil. “The last thing the Australian economy needs is more political uncertainty,” said Andrew Charlton, director of consultancy AlphaBeta in Sydney. “Nearly A$3 billion ($2.3 billion) was wiped off the stock market after the High Court’s decision and the longer term impact will be further headwinds to policy progress and business confidence.”

The Australian dollar extended losses after the ruling, while the benchmark stock index closed 0.2 percent lower after tumbling as much as 1 percent. Senator Fiona Nash, deputy leader of the Nationals, was also ruled ineligible for parliament, and Turnbull swiftly rejigged his cabinet to plug gaps. “The decision of the court today is clearly not the outcome we were hoping for, but the business of government goes on,” Turnbull, who leads the ruling Liberals, told reporters in Canberra. He took only one question and declined to say who will replace Joyce as deputy prime minister. It was also unclear who would be acting prime minister during Turnbull’s scheduled trip this weekend to Israel. Seven lawmakers have been caught up in the dual-citizenship fiasco, which began unfolding in July 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 Australia’s 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.” Senator Matt Canavan, who stepped down as resources minister when he found out his mother had applied for Italian citizenship on his behalf, won his case in the court Friday and was ruled eligible to remain in parliament. Independent Senator Nick Xenophon also won his case.

Canavan was reappointed minister, while Turnbull takes over Joyce’s agriculture portfolio. Nigel Scullion will lead the Nationals in parliament in Joyce’s absence. Joyce, 50, was dragged into the citizenship furor in August when he was advised by the New Zealand High Commission that he was a citizen of that nation by descent. The straight-talking lawmaker, who garnered international headlines in 2015 after threatening to put down Johnny Depp’s dogs when the Hollywood actor breached quarantine rules, is popular in his New England constituency. Opinion polls showed he was likely to win a special election if he ran against Tony Windsor, the independent politician who previously held the seat. Windsor said Friday, however, he would not stand against Joyce. With nominations open until Nov. 9, it’s unclear who he will face.

If Joyce loses, Turnbull would have to try to lead a minority government, bringing fresh political uncertainty to the country. No Australian prime minister has served a full three-year term in the past decade. The citizenship saga has sparked incredulity in the nation and raised questions over whether the 117-year-old law is still relevant. Nearly half of Australians were either born in a different country or have at least one parent hailing from overseas. No Labor members were referred to the High Court, with leader Bill Shorten saying his party’s vetting processes ensured all candidates had renounced their citizenship of any other nations before nominating.

“Joyce broke the law and as a result, we now have a minority government” Shorten said in a tweet. “Turnbull should’ve stood him aside; terrible judgment once again.” With Joyce out of parliament, Turnbull, 63, will need the support of at least one of the five independent or minor parties when the lower house resumes sitting on Nov. 27 to guarantee budget supply and confidence in the government. Three of those — Andrew Wilkie, Cathy McGowan and Rebekha Sharkie — have previously said they would support the government on those matters. Still, the short term looks messy for the government. It can count on constant attacks on its legitimacy from Labor, which leads in opinion polls, and possible challenges to policy passed while Joyce was technically ineligible for parliament. “Turnbull faces weeks of queries over the validity of his government, which could undermine his leadership,” said Jill Sheppard, a political analyst at the Australian National University in Canberra. “It’s hard to see the government collapsing due to this, but at the very least it will be a distracting mess that it can ill-afford.”

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