ATTORNEY General George Brandis has defended Barnaby Joyce remaining in federal parliament and retaining his ministry roles like agriculture and Northern Australia in the Coalition government, while the High Court decides his eligibility.
In an explosive sitting of parliament, it was revealed yesterday that Mr Joyce - the Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals leaders - was a dual citizen of NZ with his father born there.
The matter has now been referred to the Court of Disputed Returns to assess the Agriculture and Water Resource Minister’s eligibility under section 44 of the constitution, relating to dual citizenships.
But Labor will continue a sustained attack on the government hoping Mr Joyce will buckle under pressure.
Senior power-broker and former Agriculture Minister Tony Burke yesterday questioned the government’s legitimacy, with a cloud hanging over Mr Joyce’s future as the member for New England and as the second highest ranking cabinet minister, in a one seat majority parliament.
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However, Mr Brandis said on ABC television he was aware of what the NZ government had said, with NZ Prime Minister Bill English yesterday confirming Mr Joyce’s citizenship, which he learned of last week, was held “unwittingly or not” due to the nation’s automatic process.
“It is a matter for the Australian system to decide how Australian law applies in his case and how they deal with this issue,” he told media in NZ.
Senator Brandis said the point of law to be assessed was whether in the circumstances of this case, when Mr Joyce “had no idea at all that he was a citizen of NZ, according to their view, at least, of events”, the disqualification applied to him.
He said the government had taken the Solicitor-General’s advice and on the basis of it, “we are confident that on the proper interpretation of Section 44, Mr Joyce, because of his unawareness of his status as a NZ citizen, if, indeed, that turns out to be the case, would not be disqualified”.
Senator Brandis said, in previous rulings, the High Court had made it “very clear” that Section 44 can't be read in broad terms because if it were, “it could operate in a completely irrational way”.
He said a country hostile to Australia could pass a law to say that every Australian citizen was deemed by the law, of that hostile country, to be a citizen of that country.
“Now, if Section 44 would be interpreted literally, that would mean that every single Australian citizen would be disqualified from being a member of the Australian Parliament, which is plainly absurd,” he said.
“The High Court has already told us that Section 44 cannot be given a black and white literal interpretation and, therefore, what we must do - and this is precisely where the grey area lies - is work out what the limitations are.”
Mr Brandis said there was a difference between Mr Joyce’s scenario and Queensland LNP Senator Matt Canavan who stepped down from the ministry recently while the Court of Disputed Returns assesses his eligibility to stay in parliament under Section 44, due to revelations he holds dual Italian citizenship.
He said the Prime Minister took the view that on the basis of the Solicitor-General's advice there was no “sufficient reason” for Mr Joyce to resign.
“Now, in the case of Senator Canavan, Senator Canavan made a decision that he would prefer to stand aside,” he said.
“Both the facts and the legal issues in Senator Canavan's case were entirely different from the facts and the legal issues in Mr Joyce's case.”
Mr Joyce assumed Senator Canavan’s ministerial roles for Resources and Northern Australia, after he resigned from the ministry, due to the citizenship matter.
Farm groups have backed his capacity to handle the extended work-load but declined to comment on the latest development regarding his eligibility to sit in parliament which may not be resolved until December.
Today on Sky News, Mr Joyce’s Assistant Minister and NSW Nationals MP Luke Hartsuyker said his party leader had acted “totally appropriately” in handling the matter which has now been referred to the High Court to gain “clarity”.
Mr Hartsuyker said based on the government’s legal advice the Deputy Prime Minister was within his rights to continue in his various roles.
He said the difference between the two High Court eligibility cases concerning members of his party was that Senator Canavan was “signed up” to be an Italian citizen without his knowledge, but Mr Joyce wasn’t listed on any citizenship register.
“We’re certainly confident the High Court will find in favour of the Deputy Prime Minister,” he said.
Mr Hartsuyker also defended questions about his own citizenship, with a Dutch born father who came to Australia in 1951 at age 17 with his mum being a fourth generation Australian.
“I never sought to gain a Dutch passport,” he said, adding that under Dutch law you may be regarded a national, until the age of 28 - but he was 43 when he entered parliament.
Mr Hartsuyker has also said he’s been advised by the Dutch Embassy in Canberra that he was no longer a Dutch National due to not taking any action to renew his Dutch nationality.
On Twitter, Sydney radio broadcaster Alan Jones said, on Mr Joyce’s latest issue, that if being born in Tamworth doesn't make you an Australian citizen “we may as well close the whole show”.
Mr Joyce told media reporters in Canberra this morning that he was born in Tamworth, as was his great grandmother.
He also said he found out last Thursday that due to an inquiry made in NZ, by reason of his father, he was a New Zealander and now he was doing everything he could to “fix it up”
“I’m sure the High Court who are vastly wiser than me, will come up with all the answers,” he said.