Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was forced to defend his embattled deputy Barnaby Joyce on Monday as Labor demanded the Nationals leader’s resignation.
In a development that could threaten the government’s one-seat majority, the Deputy Prime Minister revealed on Monday morning he might hold New Zealand citizenship – a fact later confirmed by NZ Prime Minister Bill English.
Amid Labor claims that the government had now lost its legitimacy, Mr Turnbull defended Mr Joyce’s decision to remain in his job, confidently declaring that the High Court would find in his favour.
“The Leader of the National Party, the Deputy Prime Minister, is qualified to sit in this House and the High Court will so hold,” Mr Turnbull told Parliament.
But constitutional law experts were less convinced, and Labor quickly demanded the Deputy step aside and withhold his vote from Parliament until the High Court had ruled on his eligibility.
“This is a government without legitimacy,” Labor’s Manager of Opposition Business in the House Tony Burke said.
Mr Burke said it was remarkable that the Prime Minister had suggested to the High Court “
Sydney University constitutional law expert Anne Twomey said few constitutional lawyers would share the “same confidence” expressed by the Prime Minister on Monday.
“To assert with absolute confidence that the High Court is going to make a finding like that is indeed just a trifle optimistic,” she told Sky News.
At the start of Parliament on Monday, Mr Joyce revealed he had referred himself to the High Court.
He said he was “shocked” to learn from the NZ High Commission that citizenship had been conferred on him via his father, who was born in New Zealand.
But he refused to stand aside, claiming the government had strong legal advice that the court would rule in his favour.
That was in contrast to former Cabinet minister and Nationals senator Matt Canavan, who has resigned from the ministry as he faces his own High Court battle to stay in Parliament.
If Mr Joyce was found ineligible, the Nationals would need to win the resulting by-election, or the government would lose its lower-house majority.
Monash University political expert Dr Zareh Ghazarian said he was not surprised the opposition was now questioning the government’s legitimacy.
“That’s something the opposition will be very active on and very vigorous on because they really can smell blood,” he told The New Daily.
“This is going to really damage the Turnbull government.
“If they lose that seat and he’s out of Parliament then they would no longer hold a majority and the government may collapse. It’s a problematic time for Turnbull.”
Labor was confident on Monday that none of its MPs would be impacted by the citizenship crisis, despite the government’s claims that Tasmanian MP Justine Keay’s eligibility was under a cloud.
Ms Keay has said she renounced her British citizenship before nominating, but will not release supporting documents to the public.
Labor’s National Secretary Noah Carroll said Labor candidates were required to “declare the citizenship status of their parents and grandparents”.
Parliamentarians are prohibited from holding citizenship of a foreign power under Section 44i of the Constitution, the law that forced the resignations of former Greens senators Scott Ludlam and Larissa Waters.
The court has also found that they may remain eligible if they have taken all reasonable steps to renounce citizenship.
The High Court will next week hear the cases of One Nation Senator Malcolm Roberts, a former British citizen, and Senator Matt Canavan, who claims his mother signed him up for Italian citizenship without advising him.