Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull says he is “disappointed” after a court disqualified the deputy prime minister from parliament for holding dual citizenship.
The High Court of Australia yesterday barred deputy PM Barnaby Joyce and four senators from sitting in parliament in a unanimous ruling that could cost the government its slender majority.
Critics have condemned as outdated the 116-year-old constitutional ban on “a subject or citizen of a foreign power” standing for parliament in a country where almost half the people are immigrants or have an overseas-born parent. However, the court said the lawmakers’ foreign family ties were knowable.
The seven judges rejected the government’s argument that five of the lawmakers, including three government lawmakers, should be exempt from the ban because they had not voluntarily acquired or retained citizenship of another country.
While the judges said it may be harsh to disqualify Australian-born candidates who had no reasons to believe they were not exclusively Australian, “those facts must always have been knowable”.
The judges also pointed to the “difficulties of proving or disproving a person’s state of mind” if ignorance of dual citizenship was recognised as an excuse.
The decision to disqualify Mr Joyce means a by-election will be held for his rural electoral district on 2 December.
Mr Turnbull said Mr Joyce was “ready and raring” to go to contest the by-election after renouncing the New Zealand citizenship he unknowingly inherited from his father.
“Barnaby Joyce is the best person to continue to deliver for ustralians living in regional remote, rural areas,” Mr Turnbull said.
“He has a passion for representation. It is as though he has been let out of the turnstiles.”
Mr Turnbull also flagged the possibility of changes to section 44 of the constitution, which bans dual nationals from parliament. The decision is to be referred to the joint standing committee on electoral matters.
His conservative coalition has a single-seat majority in the 150-seat House of Representatives where parties form governments.
Mr Joyce apologised to his electoral division for the inconvenience.
“I’m going to make sure that I don’t cry in my beer,” he said. “I’m going to get back to work and work hard for the people of my electorate.”
The court also disqualified four of the six senators whose qualifications to be elected were debated in a three-day hearing earlier this month.
The disqualified senators included government minister Fiona Nash – Mr Joyce’s deputy in the National party – who inherited British citizenship from her Scottish father.
Another government minister, Matt Canavan, whom the court heard might have inherited Italian citizenship through his Italian grandparents, was allowed to stay in parliament.
Independent senator Nick Xenophon was also allowed to stay. He was born to Cypriot and Greek parents and later found he was British because his father left Cyprus while it was a British colony.
Disqualified senators are replaced by members of their own parties without an election so the balance of power is not altered.