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Citizenship chaos threatens rudderless Australian government

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull walks with officials along a street before holding a media conference announcing Australia's national security plan to protect public places in central Sydney, Australia, August 20, 2017.

[CANBERRA] Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's government could collapse if a court rules that three of his lawmakers with dual citizenship are ineligible to hold office. Even if they stay, his handling of the constitutional crisis gripping Australia's parliament may have already sealed its fate.

The High Court will begin hearings on Thursday to interpret a 117-year-old law that bars dual nationals from sitting in parliament.

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce and two other Cabinet ministers are among seven lawmakers caught up in the fiasco that's sparked incredulity even in a nation that's grown used to political turmoil.

Instead of quelling the crisis, the government seems to have exacerbated it. By allowing Mr Joyce and Fiona Nash, the rural health minister, to remain in the Cabinet, even after Resources Minister Matt Canavan stepped aside, Mr Turnbull has opened himself to charges of double standards.

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Meanwhile his Foreign Minister Julie Bishop risked a diplomatic spat with close ally New Zealand, by accusing the main opposition party there of conspiring to bring down the government by helping reveal Mr Joyce's ancestry.

"Turnbull's inability to deal with the recent chaos has exacerbated existing views among voters that his government is rudderless," said Martin Drum, a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Notre Dame in Perth. "Controversies are always a lot worse when they affect governments already seen to have lost focus."

The drama began last month when two senators in the minority Greens party, one born in Canada and the other in New Zealand, resigned from parliament for unwittingly breaching Section 44 of Australia's constitution. The law says people are disqualified from becoming federal lawmakers if they are "a subject or a citizen or entitled to the rights or privileges of a subject or a citizen of a foreign power."

Mr Canavan quit Cabinet but stayed on as a senator when he found out his mother had applied for Italian citizenship on his behalf, without his knowledge. A One Nation senator and Nick Xenophon, who leads a block of independent lawmakers in the Senate, have also referred themselves to the High Court over possible British citizenship.

The 62-year-old prime minister's response to the crisis has put his political judgment under the spotlight at a time when the government, struggling to deliver a policy agenda, is trailing in opinion polls.

The Liberal-National coalition slipped further behind the main opposition Labor party in a Newspoll published Monday, 46 per cent to 54 per cent. Should that margin be replicated at the next election, due by 2019, the government, which holds a one-seat majority in the lower house, would be wiped out.

Its majority may disappear even sooner, if the High Court rules against Mr Joyce. In that scenario, Mr Joyce - who has now renounced his New Zealand citizenship - would have to re-contest his seat in a special election. If he lost, Mr Turnbull may be forced to lead a minority government. That could bring fresh political uncertainty to a nation where no prime minister has served a full three-year term in the past decade.

Australia's political climate has deteriorated over the past five years to reach the riskiest level relative to its peers since at least 2009, according to Bloomberg's country risk gauges. The country has lost ground in recent years when it comes to scores for government effectiveness and regulatory quality.

The citizenship saga "increases the sense of immobility that the government has been bedeviled by," said David Burchell, a political analyst at the University of Western Sydney. "We've been in a strange space for a while and it keeps getting slightly stranger. It makes Australia look less governable."

Mr Turnbull's leadership is also under scrutiny as the nation prepares to hold a voluntary postal vote on whether to allow same-sex marriage. While Mr Turnbull supports marriage equality, he risks alienating more-conservative members of his coalition and has shied away from legislating on the issue.

While Mr Turnbull has said he's received "very, very strong" legal advice that his lawmakers will be cleared by the High Court, the longer the issue drags on, the more damaging it could be for the government.

Labor leader Bill Shorten has said his party has strict vetting processes and none of his lawmakers have been caught up in the fiasco. Mr Shorten has questioned the legitimacy of the government and demanded Mr Joyce and Ms Nash step aside from Cabinet.


"This is a government that doesn't do the basic homework, doesn't check the eligibility of their candidates," Mr Shorten told reporters on Monday.

Nevertheless, Mr Turnbull still leads Mr Shorten as preferred prime minister, although his 10-point lead has narrowed from 15 points, according to Monday's Newspoll.

Mr Shorten, a kingmaker in the infighting between former Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard earlier this decade, has been attacked by Mr Turnbull for being beholden to corrupt unions.

Ironically, the constitutional saga may help Mr Turnbull stave off any challenge to his leadership from disaffected members of his own party. There's no obvious successor, and his job looks unattractive at least until the current crisis can be resolved.

"The government is clearly feeling harried but this crisis is unlikely to cost Turnbull his job in the short term," said Jill Sheppard, a political analyst at the Australian National University in Canberra. "The bleak long-term prognosis for Australian politics is that voters don't like the incumbent and don't like the alternative much more."