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Australian govt in crisis as deputy PM ejected in citizenship ruling

[CANBERRA] Australia's government was thrown into crisis on Friday after Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce was declared ineligible to sit in parliament because he was also a citizen of New Zealand when elected.

The High Court ruling wipes out Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's one-seat majority in the lower-house and will force Mr Joyce, who has since renounced his New Zealand citizenship, to re-contest the seat in a special election that could take about a month to hold.

Opinion polls show Mr Joyce is unlikely to lose and at least three independent lawmakers have said they'll back Mr Turnbull if the opposition seeks a vote of no confidence. Still the government now faces weeks of uncertainty that could further delay efforts to pass company tax cuts. The Australian dollar extended losses after the ruling.

"Turnbull faces weeks of queries over the validity of his government, which could undermine his leadership," said Jill Sheppard, a political analyst at the Australian National University in Canberra. "It's hard to see the government collapsing due to this but at the very least it will be a distracting mess that it can ill-afford."

Four other lawmakers, including Mr Joyce's Nationals colleague Senator Fiona Nash were also ruled ineligible to sit in parliament, because they too were dual citizens when they were elected, putting them in breach of the country's constitution.

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Senator Matt Canavan, who stepped down as resources minister when he found out his mother had applied for Italian citizenship on his behalf without his knowledge, was ruled to be eligible. Independent Senator Nick Xenophon also won his case.

The saga has sparked incredulity in the nation and raised questions whether the 117-year-old law is still relevant. Nearly half of Australians were either born in a different country or have at least one parent hailing from overseas.

If Mr Joyce loses the special election, Mr Turnbull would have to try to lead a minority government, bringing fresh political uncertainty to the nation where no prime minister has served a full three-year term in the past decade.

MR Turnbull would need the support of at least one of the five independent or minor parties to guarantee budget supply and confidence in the government. Three of those -Andrew Wilkie, Cathy McGowan and Rebekha Sharkie - have previously said they would support the government on those matters.

Still, with so-called by-elections usually taking about a month to hold, the short-term looks messy for the government and it can count on constant attacks on its eligibility from the main Labor opposition, which leads in opinion polls.

No Labor members were referred to the High Court, with leader Bill Shorten saying his party's vetting processes ensured all candidates had renounced their citizenship of any other nations before nominating.

Mr Joyce comfortably won his rural seat of New England in northern New South Wales state at last year's election, holding off a challenge from independent Tony Windsor. An Australia Institute poll held in the seat in September showed Mr Joyce had 44 per cent support and Mr Windsor, who is expected to run in the by-election, on 26 per cent.

Mr Joyce was dragged into the furor in August when he was advised by the New Zealand High Commission that he was a citizen of that nation by descent. The straight-talking lawmaker garnered international headlines in 2015 after threatening to put down dogs belonging to Johnny Depp after the Hollywood actor bypassed Australia's quarantine laws and brought his pets into the nation illegally.


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