IF you could sit down during a break in play to ask Barnaby Joyce whether he holds any regrets about the way he handled the dual citizenship drama that’s blindsided federal parliament lately, this is what he’d probably suggest.
He’d express remorse for not wearing an All Blacks guernsey into the House of Representatives to make his shock announcement about his Kiwi ancestry links, to kick-start federal parliament’s session on Monday last week.
If he had his time over again to tackle the issue, Barnaby could climb to his feet and stare down his Labor opponents, tongue out and eyes aglaze, wearing NZ’s ultimate cultural garment, and deliver his brief but politically disruptive confession, using an adaptation of the traditional Haka war dance.
He could have also splashed some war paint across his face to enhance the international spectacle and theatrics, just for good measure.
On the eve of the All Blacks v Wallabies Bledisloe Cup match on Saturday night, such a histrionic fuelled performance would have helped set the stage for the big international rugby Test match, which makes patriotic bloods boil.
And all the while, creating a handy political diversion.
The tactic may even have eclipsed any other strategy at the MP’s disposal, like his suggestive reference to the background inquiries by the NZ Labor party regarding his citizenship status.
For someone who willingly takes an annual political opportunity to make his state of origin rugby passions known - that he supports repeated winners Queensland despite currently living in NSW, but has served patriotic political forces in both states - the temptation must have been as irresistible as a David Campese goose step.
And for someone who likes to go “vaudeville at times” to create parody, deliberately, “because it gets the message out - makes people think”, especially on issues like foreign investment or country of origin food labelling, it’s curious as to why he took an alternative, shy approach on this occasion, to confront this Jonah Lomu sized issue.
But like the inevitable score-line at ANZ Stadium - 54 to NZ and 34 to Australia - it seemed nothing Barnaby did tactically, to publicly reveal his citizenship conflict, would have ever helped him and his teammates avoid the looming political massacre.
A bit perhaps, like the way England’s cricketers used to embrace the thought of playing Australia for the Ashes from 1989 to 2003.
And nothing the Agriculture and Water Resources Minister did could have ever halted the vicious tidal wave of social media sledges directed at his citizenship woes and tied into the rugby Test’s monumentally lopsided outcome.
“Barnaby was elected to the Australian Parliament in 2004 and we haven't won the Bledisloe since - you do the math,” said one such Tweet.
As the worlds of politics and celebrity increasingly collide, splitting previous realities like an atom, to generate new meanings and multiply realities, turbo-charged by the unhinged non-restriction of anti-social media (insert Donald Trump now US President and Barrack Obama ‘You’re fired’) the Nationals’ leader should have realised he had nothing to lose by donning an All Blacks jumper and heading for the try line to titillate the surplus of post-truth political barrackers.
He could have taken a leaf out of Nick Xenophon’s humorous political play book and gone for broke while mastering his own independent style of play – sort of like crossing the floor, to vote against your own party.
On Saturday, the cheeky and charismatic independent SA Senator and skipper of his self-titled party showed his good mate and former Senate colleague Barnaby how it’s all done; when you’re on the defensive, under pressure and facing a political scandal – but not sitting in government team of course – and you need to convert a goal or two.
Senator Xenophon chose to hold his media conference to confirm his recent discovery of dual British citizenship at the British Hotel in North Adelaide.
There, he told a decent sized media scrum, as he brandished a pint of Ireland’s legendary Guinness product, just to further dilute and questions of authenticity, that he’d be referring his legal case to the High Court, to determine his fate, when parliament resumes next month.
“So while this form of citizenship has been described accurately as ‘useless’, it appears to have been exhumed by my political opponents to try and render me not so much stateless but Senate-less,” the good humoured Senator said.
“To those politicians and their staff beavering away at this, presumably over many, many hours and days, I say, ‘Didn’t you have anything better to do with your time given the urgent and serious problems and challenges that SA and our nation faces?’
“No wonder so many Australians are disgusted by our current broken state of politics.”
Nick may not have played much rugby, or a single Test for Australia, or even one in Greek colours for that matter.
But his comments represented something akin to a nimble, political side-step to avoid a potentially injury-bearing heavy tackle; something he’s very good at.
“It just shows you how agile Nick Xenophon is, as a political operator,” one MP said.
However, if Barnaby used this same humorous approach to trivialise his citizenship issue, or kicked it off with a good old joke about staffers in opposing political offices having better things to do than call NZ politicians to check up on his citizenship ties, given his father was born there, one can only imagine the intense uproar and backlash from certain sections of the audience and specific commentary boxes.
If the dual citizenship issue is purely about resolving potential conflicts of interest in terms of where a member’s national allegiances may lie, take time-out to consider other double standards in terms of scrutinising an independent member, versus those on the government team.
Or compare ambiguity in terms of the almost obsessive media hounding that confronted One Nation Senator Malcolm Roberts over his dual citizenship issue, almost as if willing an injury on a political player, versus the light touch questioning afforded to Senator Xenophon; despite holding three critical seats on the Senate crossbench and a powerful position in determining government spending and legislative outcomes.
A serious legal question of player eligibility
But all that aside, whether Barnaby likes it or not, the constitutional matter of his citizenship and eligibility for staying in parliament has been referred to the ultimate style of video referee – the High Court – to determine his future.
He’ll be joined by another party member - deputy-leader and Regional Development and Regional Communications Minister, Fiona Nash - who ended last week’s parliamentary sitting session by revealing her dual Scottish citizenship issue.
And no – Senator Nash didn’t wear a kilt into the Senate while playing ‘Scotland the Brave’ on the bagpipes to make her startling revelation, while citing her deep, culturally-driven hatred of spending taxpayers’ money - or genetically inspired tight-fisted attitude towards spending any money, for that matter.
Regardless, the front-row of Nationals’ senior leaders must now sit alongside their rising star team-mate and Queensland Senator Matthew Canavan as the Court of Disputed Returns assesses their cases and determines their parliamentary qualifications.
In the meantime, deeply divided opinions exist in voter-land and among politicians on whether Mr Joyce and Senator Nash should join Senator Canavan in the political sin-bin, out of cabinet and seated on the sidelines, while the referee decides their fate.
An exact time-line is unknown but most are hoping Mr Joyce’s citizenship matter will be resolved by the High Court in a couple of months while some have ironically raised Australia Day 2018 as another potential deadline for a decision to come down.
In the absence of a High Court determination, endless speculation abounds about potential impacts on the Coalition government’s fortunes or ramifications legally, for decisions made in the parliament, while they continue playing the game with potential red cards hanging over their heads.
Where this issue is most pertinent for the agriculture sector is in relation to the level of distraction it creates for Barnaby Joyce’s ministerial duties and ability to focus on farm policy outcomes instead of political games.
When Senator Canavan revealed he held dual Italian citizenship and stepped down from cabinet las month, Mr Joyce took on his colleague’s ministerial roles for Northern Australia and Resources.
He was already Agriculture and Water Resources Minister and Deputy Prime Minister – meaning he also sits on high level government committees like national security and the infamous ‘Razor Gang’ or Expenditure Review Committee that scrutinises taxpayer spending.
The government vice captain’s workload is now akin to him opening the batting, bowling first change, fielding in the slips and playing an assistant coach’s role while being expected to work with the marketing department to boost crowd numbers and player participation at grass roots level.
Not exactly mission impossible for Barnaby – who knows a thing or two.
But over time it’ll likely be proven he’s only human and it’s inevitable that less attention will be paid to specific vital jobs, like agriculture, which currently isn’t demanding a heavy policy workload, like perhaps resources is, due the national energy crisis.
However, the longer he holds the burden of trying to convert goals while playing other team mate’s roles, the more of a distraction it becomes for the farm sector, and the less time he’ll be able to dedicate to pushing a proactive agenda for his patch, with one eye on the here and now and other one on the future.
The National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) backed Mr Joyce’s capacity to handle his added ministerial workload, immediately after Senator Canavan’s resignation from cabinet.
But after last week’s turn of events, and the enhanced pressure on the leader and his party now following Senator Nash’s revelations, they have chosen to remain notably silent.
Given the NFF’s recent escalating concerns about bush internet, and Senator Nash’s pivotal role in that space, the peak national farm lobby group’s choice to stay media shy on the matter, while pressure intensifies on senior Nationals, can’t continue forever.
One of the biggest litmus tests facing Mr Joyce’s agricultural portfolio presently is whether or not he can pass the Regional Investment Corporation (RIC) legislation through the troublesome Senate.
Concerns have already been flagged about the RIC’s governance structure, as proposed in the bill – despite the Nationals leader already announcing earlier this year that it would be based at Orange in regional NSW, by mid-2018 – which threatens its passage through the Upper House.
The NFF has backed the RIC as a commonwealth vehicle to enhance drought support delivery to farmers in need and cut red tape, by removing state bureaucracies.
But if it falls over in the Senate, due to the current minister’s lack of focus or failed crossbench negotiations while other issues cloud his mind, it’ll be hard to overlook the weight and influence of current political distractions, in tormenting that agenda.
Solid legal advice or not?
But the most pressing answer on whether Mr Joyce and Senator Nash should stay in the cabinet while the High Court assesses their citizenship matters came from one rural MP who said the government really had no alternative response; given the quality of the Solicitor General’s legal advice.
“If Barnaby Joyce and Fiona Nash stepped down from parliament, while the High Court determines their eligibility, the Nationals would have to elect new leaders, then they’d need to decide who sits in cabinet for the government, given they have five cabinet members, and then there’d have to be a cabinet reshuffle,” the MP said.
“But then in eight weeks’ time the High Court could say ‘There’s no issue here’.
“So why create that sort of upheaval, when the Solicitor General’s legal advice is sound?
“There’s no question it’s a distraction but it’s not an issue that has people too worked up and they’re not crossing the street to say it’s a disaster.
“I can’t see any other alternative way to handle it.”
None of the rural MPs spoken to by Fairfax Agricultural Media or other sources said they’d seen the actual legal advice on the matters - but it’s understood the Solicitor General’s view is based on the probability of a court clearing Senator Nash and Mr Joyce of breaching Section 44, regarding citizenship rules and eligibility for parliament.
Another MP said they wanted to see all of the citizenship issues “dealt with sooner than later, so that it doesn’t fester”.
“It’s a total pain for us yes but the public isn’t in total outrage and they don’t think Barnaby Joyce has committed a huge crime however they do want the issue dealt with properly so it doesn’t keep coming up,” the MP said.
Another member of the government said it had become a “ginormous distraction” for the government.
“If we don’t start fighting for the things voters care about, like job security, national security and energy security, we may as well hand over the keys to the lodge to Bill Shorten now,” the MP said.
Another said they believed the matter would be dealt with more expediently once the High Court provided clarity, with its first ruling, setting out basic principles of law, to guide the way forward on the other citizenship cases.
A directions hearing is due to be held by the High Court in Brisbane today where Attorney General George Brandis has asked that all matters be dealt with in four weeks.
The hearing will also determine the order of cases, with Mr Joyce’s case to potentially be heard first, given others are also on the list, including One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts and two Greens Senators who’ve already resigned over their dual citizenship revelations.
“If they make a vague ruling, they’ll be in court for months and it may drag on,” one MP said.
“But citizenship by descent caused by the rules in place by other nations could be ruled out early.”
Last weekend, Senator Brandis said “because of the intrinsic urgency of the matter, the Commonwealth will be asking the court to deal with the matter urgently”.
In the matters concerning Senator Nash and Mr Joyce, he said he did not believe there was a problem “and I don’t think there’s any doubt”.
“I heard Nick Xenophon say that as well,” he said.
“Of course, strictly speaking, you don’t have to be a member of parliament, even to be a minister for a period of time.
“Under Section 64 you can be a minister without being a member of parliament for three months.
“And indeed, in 1968 Sir John Gorton was the Prime Minister and yet he was not a member of parliament between the 1st and 24th of February until the Higgins by-election, which elected him to the House of Representatives after he stepped down from the Senate.”
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has also said, based on the legal advice, he’s also “very confident” the High Court would rule that those members facing matters relating to citizenship by descent, would not be disqualified from parliament.
“I’m confident that in cases where a person is born in Australia, is a citizen by reason of being born in Australia, but has by virtue of the law of another country, citizenship by reason of some ancestral relationship, that will not be found to disqualify them from sitting in parliament, unless of course they’ve acknowledged that foreign citizenship in some way,” he said.
“You know, like taking out a foreign passport or something of that kind.
“So I think you all understand the advice that we have, the substance of it.
“We’re confident in that advice and we look forward to the court resolving or dealing with the matter and clarifying it as soon as possible.”
No automatic returns for Nash and Canavan
But if the High Court did rule Senator Canavan and Senator Nash ineligible, it would trigger a series of responses to fil the vacancy, starting with a recount of votes from the last poll, but also by the parties themselves.
In NSW, Liberal Hollie Hughes - who is a staunch rural advocate and former staffer to former farming veteran Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan - could then be elected given she was sixth on the Liberal/National state ticket, at the 2016 federal election.
While the Liberals are Nationals are not formally merged in NSW, denying the Nationals a Senate place they believe is theirs, based on their agreement ahead of last year’s poll, it would create intense internal divisions, if Ms Hughes stood her ground.
For now, she’s staying out of the media.
But Senator Nash could also return to the Upper House if NSW Nationals Senator John “Wacka” Williams retired early, and she won pre-selection, to fill the casual vacancy.
The situation of a recount in Queensland could also potentially trigger an outright war between the two merged parties in the LNP.
In Queensland, former Liberal Senator Joanna Lindgren could be returned as Senator Canavan’s replacement.
But according to rules of the merger, the Senate position that saw Senator Canavan elected last year belongs to the Nationals and is not for the Liberals to meddle.
How that matter would be resolved by the LNP remains unclear but early indications are Ms Lindgren would sit in the Nationals party room in Canberra and would be accepted; despite having previously sat with the Liberals.
But either way, it’s a highly touchy subject that hits some sensitive political nerves around the Coalition camps that even the High Court would have trouble resolving.
While the Court of Disputed Returns could rule Senators Nash and Canavan ineligible for parliament – once they removed their citizenship question marks, like Mr Joyce, they’d be free to nominate for another election, as per section 44 of the constitution.
Mr Joyce’s case is also problematic, if ruled ineligible.
He could nominate for a by-election contest in New England representing the Nationals and word on the street is he’d increase his margin against his arch political nemesis and former member Tony Windsor.
Tamworth Regional Council Deputy Mayor and Nationals’ New England electorate council Chair Russell Webb said it was “questionable” as to whether Mr Windsor would contest any by-election and run again against Mr Joyce.
Mr Webb also said the Nationals leader had “grown on the electorate” and predicted his vote would be better than last time.
“It was 60-40 last time around and I’d be as bold as to say if he didn’t go to 65-35 I’d be surprised,” he said.
“Tony Windsor would hopefully see the writing on the wall and some of his supporters who spoke to me a couple of days ago said they’d find it difficult to run again and lose again in the way that he did the last time.”
But alternatively, some reports say the High Court could rule for a re-count of last year’s election result which could see Mr Windsor returned as the replacement.
That would mean he’d sit on the crossbenches and the government’s one seat majority would be lost and a hung parliament situation would re-occur, bringing into play other rural independents like Cathy McGowan, Bob Katter and NXT’s Rebekha Sharkie.
Meanwhile, given the citizenship issue has only stumped one Lower House MP – the one and only Barnaby Joyce – two Nationals Senators, a One Nation member, Senator Xenophon and two Greens, all eyes are now fixed on Labor, to see who the next player may be to face the third umpire’s scrutiny and potentially dismissed from parliament.
Opposition leader Bill Shorten’s name has been raised as one potential citizenship culprit who could fall foul of the rules.
Others with longer names than Shorten which are harder to spell have also been thrown into the mix, not just for Labor.
That search for dirt has also raised a question of double standards whereby Coalition members are being asked to produce documents clearing their name – given the intense media scrutiny – but Labor has been directed to not play the game, according to those same rules.
For the purposes of clarity, some members have issued statements like NSW Liberal Senator and Federal Industry Minister Arthur Sinodinos did this week, declaring he’s a legitimate, paid up member of team Australia.
“Media reports today that I hold dual Greek citizenship are false - categorically, I am not a dual citizen,” he said yesterday.
“I have never held Greek citizenship.
“I was born in Newcastle and have lived all my life in Australia.
“My citizenship status has never been in question.
“I have recently confirmed with the government of Greece that I have never held Greek citizenship.”
Last week in his first speech in parliament, One Nation WA Senator Peter Georgiou - who replaced his brother-in-law and ex-farmer Rod Culleton who was ruled ineligible under section 44 of the constitution due to bankruptcy earlier this year – couldn’t resist the temptation to declare his non-dual citizenship status.
“Despite the rumours, I was not born in Athens Greece, but in Perth, Western Australia on 13 January 1974 to Greek migrants, Dimitrios and Margarita Georgiou,” he said.
Audit for all members’ citizenship status?
But just like the furore that would play out if obscure claims around eligibility rules for state of origin rugby were unearthed, it seems nothing is off limits.
The political eligibility issue has also cast a shadow of doubt over the 1766 federal parliamentarians who’ve served, since it was formed in 1901.
Some senior political operators scratching their heads over the issue say an audit of all members’ citizenship status would help to restore some of the lost public confidence in the system, with a requirement to produce documentary evidence.
As the different parties have varied systems in place, to vet their candidates, you can rest assured those processes have been tightened recently and will be for the future.
In answering questions on the audit topic, Senator Brandis said “If members of parliament do the right thing, then an audit is unnecessary”.
Labor power-broker Penny Wong referred media questions to Senator Brandis’ comments, saying it “shouldn't be a partisan matter”.
But while she said Senator Xenophon had done the right thing along with Pauline Hanson in referring Senator Roberts, she questioned the timing of Senator Nash’s revelations, in attacking the government.
“This is a very serious question of eligibility and we take these matters seriously,” she said.
“If there is evidence that people become aware of, or that is presented on the public record, as to their citizenship, then that needs to be acted upon.
“But in the absence of that, if people are clear that they have no issue, I don't think it is legitimate for there to be a partisan debate about this.
“The only body that can resolve this is the High Court and what parliamentarians should do is ensure that their matters are in order, their citizenship status is clear, and if they become aware, as (Nick Xenophon) has, of some questions around that, they need to do the right thing and self-refer.
“To date, the parliament has done that and that is the appropriate way to handle the matters.”
Liberal MP Craig Kelly has been running the audit issue up the flagpole – and one can only wonder if it’s an Australian flag that’s being hoisted.
Senior Liberal MP Christopher Pyne spoke about the matter in relation to Labor power-broker Anthony Albanese, who he said had released his citizenship documentation.
“If it’s good enough for Anthony it should be good enough for everybody else and the question here is why would Bill Shorten be refusing to release his documentation?” Mr Pyne said.
“Well the answer is, obviously, that he is worried that there are Labor MPs who don’t have documentation and so if he releases his, others will be forced to release theirs, and we’ll discover potentially that there are Labor MPs who should be referred to the High Court, so I guess he doesn’t want to break the dam wall by releasing his.
“But I notice Anthony’s released his birth certificate showing that he didn’t know that he had an Italian father and that’s the end of that matter from his point of view.”
Mr Albanese said he hadn’t released his papers and “don’t get sucked in by Christopher’s absurd spin”.
He said he’d released a book which outlined “in a great deal of detail my origins and that’s what I’ve pointed people towards”.
“I don’t have citizenship papers, people who wanted to see my birth certificate - I haven’t released it, but people have seen it,” he said.
Senator Sterle’s word
WA Labor Senator and leading rural voice for the opposition Glenn Sterle said “If you have nothing to hide, provide the proof”.
“I’ve been questioned many times,” he said.
“I know the paper work I had to fill in and know the forms I had to sign.
“I don’t think everyone should be made to pull out all of their paper work to prove their citizenship.
“But it’s up to those who have doubts to take care of it.
“The majority of the members of parliament are decent hard working, honourable people but don’t think we should be all thrown into the same view, that we’re a pack of lying bastards.”
Senator Sterle said the citizenship issue had become a “massive distraction for the government – my bloody oath it is”.
He said it consumed almost all of last week’s stretch of four days sitting in Canberra and was only displaced by One Nation leader Pauline Hanson’s stunt of wearing a burqa into the Senate.
“They can’t get any clean air,” he said.
“It is a massive distraction.
“Hollywood couldn’t write a b-grade mini-series that had this many twists and turns.”
Senator Sterle said he didn’t think it was right for Senator Nash and Mr Joyce to continue in the ministry with a cloud hanging over their heads due to “double standards” given Senator Canavan’s resignation from cabinet duties.
But asked about Senator Xenophon’s case he said one the High Court ruled on its interpretation of section 44, and it was proved there had been a “stuff up” or oversight he wouldn’t be the one “screaming out for back-pays and to overturn all votes”.
“If they’re suspended or dealt with accordingly, that’s punishment enough,” he said.
“But if there is a cloud hanging over people who, through only fault of their own and not doing due their diligence, have failed to do the proper paperwork or there is a question mark, I believe they should be paired out and they should not be voting on legislation and that goes for a minister, or backbenchers,” he said.
“And I’d have the same view if it was anyone from our side of politics.
“They can step aside and continue to do the community work they do but they should not be voting in parliament.”