FORMER federal Senator and senior cabinet minister Fiona Nash says nobody else is to blame and she’s taken “absolute responsibility” for the dual citizenship scandal that triggered her controversial disqualification from parliament.
The one-time Regional Development and Regional Communications Minister and Nationals deputy-leader has moved fast to rule-out a longer-term political comeback, at the next scheduled election in 2019.
However, she remains hopeful of a short-term return to the fray, with one potential but remote avenue being if her likely replacement, NSW Liberal Hollie Hughes, is also ruled ineligible over a potential conflict of interest that also breaches the constitution.
Other options for Ms Nash’s potential passage back to Canberra could be if a casual vacancy is created if any NSW Nationals or Liberal Senators decide to retire, or the citizenship saga claims more scalps within the Coalition government, triggering a full-scale federal election, as early as next year, where she could run for a Lower House seat like Eden-Monaro, with a half-Senate election not due until 2019.
Ms Nash has remained tight-lipped in media comment since the High Court ruled her ineligible for federal parliament late last month, along with Nationals leader and former Deputy Prime Minister and Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce, for breaching Section 44 of the constitution.
But she spoke in detail to Fairfax Media about the escalating and challenging citizenship ordeal.
Rather than being upset at any current or former party officials for any failed vetting processes or administrative flaws when filling out and signing her election nomination paperwork, she said “I take absolute responsibility”.
“It’s my parentage, it’s my life and it was my responsibility absolutely but it just never, never, ever occurred to me that I could have been a British citizen by decent,” she said.
Ms Nash is now assisting Mr Joyce - who she started out serving with in the Senate 12-years ago - in his by-election campaign, to win back his NSW rural seat of New England, leading up to polling day on December 2, as the dust settles on her shock disqualification.
Ms Nash said she was “absolutely devastated” when the High Court ruling came down, which ruled her ineligible for the Senate due to dual British citizenship, linked to her Scottish father’s birth-rights.
“We were hoping the High Court wasn’t going to rule that way, but anyway, that’s what they did,” she said.
“I’m devastated to be out of parliament because being in there means you can really make a difference for people in the regions.
“Not being in parliament any more means, through that avenue at least, I won’t be able to do that, which is really disappointing.
“But I’m an endlessly positive person so I’ll look for the positives, in whatever comes next.”
“I honestly haven’t turned my mind to what’s next.
“I’m in New England at the moment with the by-election and I’ll just let the dust settle for a while.
“But I’d dearly love to stay in a position to do things that makes the lives of regional people better; I absolutely would.”
Ms Nash said she’d now “ruled out coming back in the long term” to federal politics and wasn’t looking too far ahead, at what her next career choice may be, given there remained some chance she could find a way back to politics.
“Quite a few people have asked me ‘would I come back in 2019 or down the track?’ but I’ve ruled that out, so ‘no’ I won‘t be doing that,” she said.
“I really think, with that much time having passed and water under the bridge, politics moves on pretty quickly.
“We’ve got some really bright young people and some bright, not so young people in the National Party and I’ll think it’ll be time to make sure that the next generation have their chance in the party, by that point (2019).
“But having said that, if something did open up in the short-term, I would be very keen to go back in, absolutely.
“I really feel like it’s a bit of unfinished business and I’ve still got more to offer so in the short term I’d be very, very keen to go back in.”
Legal advice looking good for Hollie Hughes
It’s understood the Liberals and Nationals have sought expert legal advice to clarify whether Ms Hughes - a rural disability advocate and former political staffer to retired veteran NSW Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan - can fill the Senate vacancy created by Ms Nash’s disqualification, due to holding an ‘office of profit for the crown’ after being appointed to a part-time position on the Administrative Appeals Tribunal this year.
Ms Hughes was sixth on the NSW Coalition Senate ticket for last year’s double-dissolution election - having been lowered to a tougher, less winnable position, after a recontested pre-selection battle - after originally being chosen ahead of incumbent Liberal Senator Connie Fierravanti-Wells.
Ms Nash was third on the joint-ticket as the leading Nationals’ member, winning a six year term, ahead of John “Wacka” Williams who was elected in fifth position for a three-year term.
Liberal Jim Molan was next on the joint-ticket behind Ms Hughes in seventh place, and ahead of the Nationals’ Wes Fang who was recently appointed to fill a casual vacancy in the NSW Legislative Council, following Duncan Gay’s retirement.
Questions have also been raised but denied about potential dual Greek citizenship held by NSW Liberal Senator Arthur Sinodinos who was second on the state’s Senate ticket and is currently on leave from parliament undergoing treatment for cancer.
With the NSW Senate election recount result due Friday, Liberal Party sources - who asked not to be named - remained confident in legal advice showing Ms Hughes was eligible to replace Ms Nash, having now stepped down from the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.
“All of the legal advice `shows that Ms Hughes was eligible at the time of the election last year, she was eligible at the time of the polls being declared and she was eligible at the time of the recount,” a source said.
“The only way Fiona Nash could return to the Senate in the short-term, unless “Wacka” Williams retires earlier than 2019 to create a casual vacancy, is if any of the current NSW Liberals step-down, and the Liberals then allow the casual vacancy to go to the Nationals after some negotiations, which is highly unlikely.”
Ms Nash said she was unsure whether she could return to parliament if Ms Hughes was ruled ineligible and declined to comment when asked if the NSW Liberals were justified in holding their ground and blocking her return to parliament in favour of Ms Hughes taking the position, following the citizenship disqualification.
She said a process was now in place which kicked-in as a result of the High Court’s decision, ruling her ineligible to be in parliament and “that’s a process that needs to unfold”.
“Wacka has said he wants to go through to 2019 and I absolutely respect that,” she said of Senator Williams flagging his intention to retire at the next election but possibly being persuaded to go earlier, to create a casual vacancy for Ms Nash to return.
“He is doing a brilliant job as a Senator for NSW.
“He’s a terrific guy; he’s a very good friend; and has been a great colleague so I absolutely respect his decision to go right through.”
Ms Hughes was contacted for comment but did not return calls before deadline.
However, the NSW Liberals said they were awaiting an official decision, scheduled to be revealed this Friday by the High Court, to certify the process for determining the replacement for Ms Nash, through a recount of the NSW Senate election votes.
“A that time a lot of the known, un-knows will become known”, a Liberal spokesperson said.
Ms Nash also declined to comment on whether her replacement as deputy-leader would be filled, in a party-room vote due after the New England by-election, by senior party members and cabinet ministers Michael McCormack and Darren Chester.
“I’m not going to comment on the process – but we have fabulous depths of talent in the Nationals’ federal party room,” she said.
“I’m so proud of the whole team and I’m so proud to have been able to work with them.
“We really are a family and it’s been an absolute privilege to be able to sit in that Nationals’ party room.
“If the party at some point needs to elect a new deputy-leader, that’ll be a matter for the party room.”
With Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull now backing a process for all MPs and Senators to declare and prove their eligibility as per Section 44 of the constitution, despite saying it’s not an audit of their citizenship status, Ms Nash said internal processes would need to be sharpened in future, within political parties.
“Hindsight is a wonderful thing but I do think, now that there’s been this level of focus on candidates’ nominations and the party’s ability to vet those, from now on we’ll have an incredibly through process and I’d expect across all parties, to make sure this sort of thing doesn’t happen again,” she said.
With four Senators and Mr Joyce disqualified by the High Court ruling, and two Senators exonerated, Liberal Stephen Parry has also retired since then, due to shock revelations and confirmation of his dual British citizenship.
Others have also indicated they may also have eligibility issues, escalating speculation the issue could trigger an early election, if more government members are expelled from parliament or lost at any future by-elections, after failing the citizenship disclosure test that’s expected to allow 21 days to make a declaration.
“With my cabinet colleagues, I can announce that the government will be proposing, or is proposing that both the House and the Senate should resolve on additional means of transparency and disclosure on matters relating to citizenship,” Mr Turnbull said this week.
“Now as I’ve said repeatedly over recent times, every member of the House and every member of the Senate has a personal obligation to ensure that they are in compliance with the constitution.
“That obligation is continuing and if they have reason to believe they are not, then they should say so and take the appropriate action.
“What we have seen is a concern, a legitimate concern, that there is insufficient transparency about this matter.
“What this will do is ensure that the member's, or the Senator's personal obligation is brought squarely to the front of their mind and that they make these disclosures.
“Now that the High Court has clarified the interpretation of section 44(1) of the constitution, we need to be absolutely satisfied that every member is taking their obligations very, very solemnly and seriously and is in compliance with the constitution.
“I just want to say this is not an audit, there is no auditor.
“The obligation is on each member and each Senator to make a full disclosure as I have repeatedly said in recent times.
“I look forward to reaching agreement on this with the Leader of the Opposition.”
Mr Turnbull said he didn’t want to give legal advice on the run, “but there…may well be a number of line ball cases and it may be that they end up in the High Court”.
“I’m not suggesting that any of this is without difficulty,” he said.
“You know, the court made its decision in the terms it did.
“It may well give rise to more cases.
“We don't know, so let's not jump ahead of ourselves.”
Shorten – proposal ‘has to be fair dinkum’
Opposition leader Bill Shorten said the “citizenship circus” was “undermining Australian's confidence in the parliament” and Mr Turnbull had previously rejected his proposed solution to the issue but had not changed his mind.
“The problem of Australia is that we have uncertainty over the constitutional eligibility of parliamentarians to make laws affecting all Australians,” he said.
“I made my offer in good faith and I will stand by my offer to try and resolve this crisis together in a bipartisan basis with the government - I am prepared to meet with Turnbull on Wednesday and engage constructively.
“Of course, there can be no arrangement worth striking unless it is fully transparent, unless it's fair dinkum, unless it satisfies the Australian people that there are no remaining clouds over the eligibility of parliamentarians to sit in parliament.
“To that end, whilst I'm more than willing to be constructive and engage with the government on a bipartisan basis to resolve this crisis, I will do nothing which stops the High Court from arbitrating on matters, should the emerging facts and situations and parliamentarians require referral to the High Court.
“Whatever the proposal that we ultimately settle on, it has to be one that can be owned by the whole parliament.
“It has to be fair dinkum, it can't be a whitewash.
“I mean for instance, questions which I'll be asking Mr Turnbull on Wednesday; would his proposals mean that Barnaby Joyce would still have been able to illegally sit in parliament for over a year?
“Would Turnbull's proposals mean that the Stephen Parry cover-up would have gone undiscovered?
“There are plenty of questions here and what we've seen is pretty scant in the way of detail.
“I am interested to see what has triggered Turnbull's about-face.
“Are there more shock developments and news coming which Turnbull hasn't levelled with the Australian people, which has forced him into a pretty rushed proposition.”