News National Labor asks legitimate questions as Barnaby Joyce adds to government woes

Labor asks legitimate questions as Barnaby Joyce adds to government woes

Barnaby Joyce
Barnaby Joyce has had a difficult few months. Photo: AAP
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Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce has dramatically added to the mess of the Turnbull government.

The doubts over its voluntary postal survey on same-sex marriage are one thing. Now the very legitimacy of the government’s majority in the House of Representatives is in jeopardy.

In both cases the High Court of Australia will be the final arbiter. But whatever its decision over the problematic plebiscite, if Mr Joyce is found to be ineligible to be a member of Parliament by virtue of his New Zealand citizenship then the government will fall.

At the very least it will go into minority and may need to demonstrate to the Governor-General that it still retains the confidence of the Parliament.

The situation is dire. A sure sign of that is the reaction of the Prime Minister.

In Parliament, under pressure from the opposition to stand Mr Joyce aside, Malcolm Turnbull did away with the convention that underpins the independence of the judiciary.

The PM told Parliament Mr Joyce is qualified to “sit in this House and the High Court will so hold”.

A direction? An opinion?

If Mr Turnbull is right, he is depending on the judges to be “activist” rather than “black letter” lawyers who do not make the law but apply it to the letter.

Greens advice suggests Barnaby Joyce  is in trouble

Greens leader Richard Di Natale says the high-powered legal advice to his two unwitting dual citizen senators was that they had no choice but to quit.

The constitution is crystal clear. But Mr Turnbull says it is “very clear that the operation of Section 44 (1) is not without limits and it must be read in light of its purpose and intent”.

Makes sense, but it’s not what those opposed to same-sex marriage believe about how laws should be understood and applied.

The embarrassment for the government is compounded by its sneering criticism of the Greens.

malcolm turnbull
Malcolm Turnbull might have learned his lesson about using dual citizenship to score political points. Photo: AAP

Mr Turnbull himself was completely unforgiving. He said these two senators, Scott Ludlum and Larissa Waters, “knew exactly what the rules are”.

It was beyond the Prime Minister, he said at the time, as to why they didn’t turn their minds to it.

In an effort to spread the blame Mr Turnbull wrote to Bill Shorten asking him to nominate any Labor politicians who may have fallen foul of the constitution.

Mr Shorten rejected the offer despite the Leader of the House Christopher Pyne naming a number of Labor MPs and singling out Tasmanian Justine Keay.

Labor is confident its strict vetting protocols ensure all its candidates comply with the constitutional requirements.

Ms Keay herself took documented steps to reject her British citizenship a year before the 2016 election.

Speaker Tony Smith told Parliament Mr Joyce is eligible to sit in Parliament and be a minister until the High Court determines otherwise.

So why then did Matt Canavan stand aside from cabinet? And why is he not voting in the Senate?

It creates an impression of arrogant defiance on Mr Joyce’s part, aided and abetted by the Prime Minister.

After childishly trying to score political points against the Greens, the humiliation delivered by Senator Canavan and now by the Deputy PM has forced the government to seek new case law from the High Court to help clean up the mess.

The House unanimously referred Mr Joyce’s pickle to the High Court.

Labor’s Tony Burke says this confirms that the government itself acknowledges that his situation is doubtful.

The government he asserts “doesn’t know whether or not it is acting lawfully” but is keeping its job anyway.

Mr Burke says the government is acting as though it is business as usual. Sadly the unusual has become the new normal for Malcolm Turnbull.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics. He tweets at @PaulBongiorno

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