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With the dual citizenship crisis deepening, Bob Katter and others on the crossbench are using the chaos to push legislation the government has refused. By Karen Middleton.

Crossbenchers push agendas amid crisis

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce leaves the house of representatives on Wednesday.
Credit: AAP Image / MICK TSIKAS

In Kingston, a restaurant-heavy suburb not far from Parliament House, one of the longer-standing establishments is a cosy Italian joint called La Dolce Vita.

On Monday night, it hosted a convivial catch-up dinner between independent north Queensland MP Bob Katter and inner-city Sydney Labor frontbencher Anthony Albanese and their respective staffs.

Unlikely as it may seem, the friendship between Katter and Albanese dates back two decades to their early days in parliament. It came in handy for Labor when Albanese was managing proceedings in the house of representatives in Julia Gillard’s minority Labor government, and constantly needing to appeal to the crossbench for support on this vote or that. Now it’s coming in handy again.

Monday night’s prearranged dinner just happened to fall on the day Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce revealed there was a question mark over his eligibility to serve in parliament because he had discovered he was a New Zealand citizen by descent.

Both Katter and Albanese insist this wasn’t a meeting where future scenarios were discussed or agreements sought around the numbers in parliament. But it seems they did discuss the fact that losing Joyce would leave Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull without any majority at all, potentially presenting Labor with an opportunity to push through some of its own agenda or even to seize government.

Among what they say was mostly banter about rugby league, the subject of Joyce’s situation also came up.

Earlier, Katter had issued a statement suggesting Joyce’s “satirical” situation highlighted bigger issues. He quoted Albanese’s oft-made boast that the Gillard government had never lost a vote because it had persuaded the crossbench to support its agenda.

Katter said that while he didn’t like to win battles on technicalities, Joyce’s situation provided “a golden opportunity”.

The morning after the dinner, the former Nationals MP spelled out what he meant, revealing he was no longer guaranteeing support to the Coalition government in any no-confidence motion – the mechanism which could be used to topple a government on the parliamentary numbers – or in passing essential supply bills.

And Katter said that although he hadn’t yet received a call from Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, he confirmed he had discussed the situation with his dinner companion out the night before.

As he put it in a subsequent statement: “In light of the Deputy Prime Minister’s citizenship questions, all bets were off.”

Katter is appealing to fellow crossbenchers to be ready to seize the opportunity that Joyce’s exclusion from parliament may present, even if it is temporary.

He wants to ram through legislation the government doesn’t like, should the High Court find after next week’s job-lot hearing on six dual-citizenship cases that Joyce is ineligible to serve and must resign.

Labor wants it, too.

The manager of opposition business in the house, Tony Burke, has confirmed Labor is inclined to try to resurrect the two pieces of legislation that the house rejected by a single vote in recent months – a bill to set up a royal commission into the banks and another to overturn the Fair Work Commission’s abolition of Sunday penalty rates.

If Joyce is forced to resign from parliament and his seat is vacant pending a byelection – which he has confirmed he will contest, having now renounced his NZ citizenship – Labor will move to reintroduce both bills.

As he has previously, Bob Katter will support Labor on both issues. And he is appealing to the Nationals’ George Christensen, the one Coalition MP who supports establishing a banking royal commission and restoring penalty rates and has already demonstrated he is willing to cross the floor, to do it again.

But Katter himself is threatening more than that.

While the government does not numerically rely on Katter’s vote to remain in power, if it lost one of its own it may need to.

The Queensland MP is scathing about the way the prime minister has treated the crossbench since winning office last year.

He says Turnbull convened a single, truncated meeting with him after the election and although the government’s lower-house business manager, leader of the house Christopher Pyne, is in contact regularly, Turnbull himself has not maintained relations.

“He is one byelection away from needing my vote,” Katter told The Saturday Paper. “He treated me in the most shabby, cavalier manner.”

Katter’s anger only increased when he discovered on Thursday – from a journalist – that Joyce and Liberal MP Warren Entsch were convening a news conference in Katter’s electorate of Kennedy and had not let him know.

The Joyce issue has pushed other crossbenchers into action, too. Xenophon Team MP Rebekha Sharkie and independent Cathy McGowan secured a meeting with Turnbull on Tuesday and urged him, Sharkie says, to “show leadership” and have Joyce step down from cabinet while the court determines his future.

They did not go so far as to make it a condition of their guaranteed support for his government on confidence and supply. But they aren’t ruling out withdrawing support in future.

“Obviously if the High Court comes back and says he wasn’t entitled to be there and there has to be a byelection – well, we’ll have to rethink everything,” Sharkie told The Saturday Paper.

Thus far, officially at least, the government insists it doesn’t have anything to worry about.

Based on advice from the solicitor-general, Turnbull has expressed confidence that the High Court will find in Joyce’s favour. His firm declaration to parliament drew criticism that he was interfering in the court’s work – an allegation he and his cabinet colleagues reject.

Citizenship expert Kim Rubenstein, a professor at the Australian National University’s College of Law, believes Turnbull’s confidence may be misplaced and that Barnaby Joyce will likely be ruled ineligible.

“The regular ways of becoming a citizen are either by birth or descent, so if you have some knowledge that you or your parent was born in another country or is a citizen of another country, I think the court will say they had an obligation to check,” Rubenstein told The Saturday Paper.

Late in the week, Nationals senator and deputy leader Fiona Nash joined those referred to the High Court, due to her possible British citizenship through her Scottish father, though she said the prime minister has backed her decision to remain in her roles as minister for regional development and regional communications.

In the face of sustained opposition pressure over Joyce’s situation, the government is threatening to refer at least four Labor MPs to the High Court who are also theoretically entitled to foreign citizenship by birth or descent.

Labor insists all have renounced their foreign citizenship but is refusing to produce the documentation to prove it.

“We don’t want Australia to go down the path of what happened in America with the birther movement,” Tony Burke told The Saturday Paper. “As soon as President Obama produced his birth certificate, the extremists claimed it was a forgery.”

Labor is also refusing to support calls from the Greens for a full audit of all MPs’ citizenship.

“I’m not going to start reversing the onus and treating everyone as guilty until proven innocent,” Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said.

Burke declined to demand proof from government MPs whose status has been queried in the media, including Justice Minister Michael Keenan, who responded to speculation about his own eligibility by declaring he had renounced British citizenship as required before nominating for parliament in 2004.

Burke also indicated that the six parliamentarians whose eligibility is now before the High Court were referred by their own parties, and it would be an extraordinary precedent for the government to refer Labor MPs without Labor’s agreement.

The government accuses Labor of hypocrisy, after it was revealed that a conversation between an adviser to opposition senate leader Penny Wong and his friend and former colleague, New Zealand Labour MP Chris Hipkins, played a role in Joyce’s situation coming to light.

The conversation led to Hipkins putting a question on notice in the New Zealand parliament, asking about the citizenship status of a generic Australian who had a father born across the Tasman.

That occurred at the same time as Fairfax journalist Adam Gartrell was asking the New Zealand government specific questions about Joyce’s status.

One New Zealand minister said it was Gartrell’s question and not Hipkins’ that triggered examination of Joyce’s status and led to Joyce receiving an unwelcome confirmation phone call from New Zealand’s high commissioner to Australia late last week.

Another minister has since said Hipkins’ inquiry, coming after Gartrell’s, prompted a speedier investigation.

The embattled Australian government seized on the Hipkins question to accuse Labor of “treachery”, overlooking the extent to which the Liberal Party regularly collaborates with like-minded parties abroad, especially in Britain, Canada and the United States.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop declared the incident meant she would now not trust a New Zealand Labour government – an extremely unorthodox declaration at any time but especially a month out from a New Zealand election.

Her comments surprised and alarmed even seasoned commentators, with The Australian’s foreign affairs editor, Greg Sheridan, calling it ridiculous and damaging.

Undeterred, Treasurer Scott Morrison accused Labor of “dodgy” tactics, “faux outrage” and “sneaky” behaviour.

“They’ve looked like, frankly, a bunch of children carrying on at a Christmas pantomime,” he told ABC Radio. “All the chortling and all the carrying on that we’ve seen by the Labor Party – it’s all part of a tactic.”

The sustained attack-as-defence in the face of ridicule from the opposition indicates the danger Joyce’s situation presents to the Turnbull government’s stability.

Independents in the senate are making their views known, too – and they aren’t terribly favourable to the government.

Tasmanian independent senator Jacqui Lambie believes Joyce should resign.

“I think it’s absolutely disgusting that they’re sitting there in denial,” Lambie told Radio National. “There’s a problem … I think he should stand down. He should stand down as deputy prime minister and he shouldn’t be allowed to take a vote. And that’s how they all should be done until this has been rectified or they have been cleared.”

Liberal senator turned founder of the Australian Conservatives party, Cory Bernardi, is calling for parliament to be suspended until the sprawling citizenship saga is cleared up.

“I believe there is only one way forward for this parliament and that is for the prime minister to prorogue the parliament – effectively end this session pending the outcome of the High Court, pending any byelections that may be necessary,” Bernardi said on Thursday.

At time of press, Labor was expecting Barnaby Joyce to resign from cabinet because the issue was overshadowing everything the government tried to do.

But Coalition sources were equally adamant he would not.

Turnbull’s main defence has been to attack Bill Shorten.

“The Australian people elected the government,” Turnbull told coalition MPs on Tuesday. “Bill Shorten wants to steal government by entering into a conspiracy with a foreign power.”

On Thursday, Shorten said: “The prime minister is so desperate I almost feel sorry for him.”

Parliament has now risen for a fortnight, during which time Malcolm Turnbull will hope the status of his deputy prime minister in particular can be resolved and the debate can move on.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 19, 2017 as "Blame Joyce unless he’s...". Subscribe here.

Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.