The Turnbull government’s hopes of getting its agenda through Parliament could be in trouble after a second senator was referred to the High Court.
A day after it was revealed the Senate would be asked to refer Family First senator Bob Day to the court over his eligibility to be elected, One Nation senator Rod Culleton faced a similar referral.
Senator Culleton said on Wednesday he would postpone any votes on bills in Parliament while the matter was investigated, but he would strongly defend the case.
The Coalition needs nine votes to pass bills and has been heavily relying on Mr Day, who resigned on Tuesday to deal with his housing business collapse, and One Nation’s four senators to do so since the July election.
Attorney-General George Brandis said the court would be asked to determine whether the WA senator was eligible for election because a larceny conviction stood at the time of the federal poll.
A former Culleton associate, Bruce Bell, petitioned the High Court in September to disqualify the WA senator over the NSW conviction which related to a $7.50 key Senator Culleton took from a tow truck driver who was trying to repossess a lease car.
The conviction has since been annulled.
Under the constitution, any person who has been convicted of an offence punishable by a jail sentence of a year or longer cannot be a senator.
Senator Brandis said the issue would come before the Senate on Monday.
Coalition still confident
The ABC reported that the Coalition remains confident its proposed industrial relations legislation – allowing the return of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) and the Registered Organisations bill – will pass Parliament.
“Senator Culleton has sent an email to the President of the Senate, copied to me and others, indicating that he doesn’t propose to exercise his vote on any contentious legislation while the constitutional validity of his position is in issue,” Senator Brandis told the ABC’s 7.30.
“Senator Culleton is a decent person, he finds himself in the middle of this unwitting constitutional maelstrom,” he said.
Senator Culleton told reporters in Perth there was a “dark cloud” over him and that he may either represent himself or not take part in the High Court case at all.
“I’m not sure whether I’m going to participate in any High Court jurisdiction, and if I do I’ll simply go down and shear a sheep, take the belly fleece, stick it over my head and I’ll represent myself,” he said.
Bob Day’s court day
Mr Day’s referral to the High Court relates to the validity of his election because he may have had a financial interest in an electorate office rental deal with the government.
Under section 44 of the constitution, a member or senator can be disqualified where there is “any direct or indirect pecuniary interest in any agreement with the public service of the Commonwealth”.
Mr Day said in a statement on Wednesday he had no agreement with the federal government on the lease of his electoral office and no rent was ever paid to the company that owned the building.
The South Australian businessman originally owned the building but sold it to Fullarton Investments Pty Ltd after the 2013 election to avoid any conflict of interest.
“But because Fullarton Investments owes me money, the department’s legal opinion says I have an ‘indirect’ interest in the lease,” Mr Day said.
Mr Day, who fought the government to use the office despite a perfectly good premises being vacant nearby, said he had been advised he did not have a pecuniary interest.
Asked about the future of the government’s agenda, Special Minister of State Scott Ryan said: “We deal with the Senate as it was elected – we now deal with the Senate as it was elected minus Senator Day, following his resignation.”
The opposition will support taking the matter to the High Court, but is concerned about what the government knew and when, especially given Mr Day’s strong record of supporting its legislation.
“This is a dodgy government propping up a dodgy senator and in return we’ve seen laws that have been voted upon possibly with dodgy votes.”
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten
If the High Court decides Mr Day was not duly elected, it will likely force a recount of the South Australian Senate vote which could deliver the seat to Labor or One Nation.
If Senator Culleton forfeits his seat, One Nation will fill the vacancy.