August 24, 2017 / 5:48 AM / 4 months ago

Australian government faces uncertain two months after court delays citizenship hearing

SYDNEY (Reuters) - A citizenship crisis will loom over the Australian government for at least another two months after a court said on Thursday it would not begin hearings into the parliamentary eligibility of seven lawmakers until mid-October.

Australia’s parliament has been rocked by the revelation that the seven lawmakers, including the deputy prime minister and two other ministers in the coalition government, are dual citizens, meaning they are potentially ineligible to hold elected office.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s center-right government holds just a one-seat majority in parliament and its popularity is sitting at six-month lows in opinion polls, meaning its future could rest on the outcome of the citizenship crisis.

Turnbull’s government had asked for an expedited ruling on the eligibility of the lawmakers, but Australia’s High Court said on Thursday it would not begin the three-day hearing until Oct. 11.

The delay means the crisis threatens to further erode support for Turnbull. The next national election is not due until 2019 but political analysts say prolonged poor poll results could encourage a leadership challenge.

“Turnbull needs to urgently remove the doubt around the credibility of his government, which has already caused him great harm,” said Haydon Manning, a political science professor at Flinders University in South Australia.

The High Court ruling also threatens to create a parliamentary impasse for Turnbull if his deputy, Barnaby Joyce, is disqualified. Joyce, the leader of the rural-based Nationals, the junior partner in the ruling coalition, has said he was a joint New Zealand citizen when he was elected last year.

If Joyce is disqualified by the court over the citizenship rules, Turnbull would have to rely on the support of the often fractious independents in parliament to have any hope of passing legislation.

The possible deadlock also threatens consumer sentiment, analysts said, a bad sign for Australia’s somewhat sluggish economy.

Turnbull brushed away any suggestions that the court could deliver a ruling that would doom his government.

“We are very, very confident that our members who have been caught up in this will be held by the court to be eligible to sit in the parliament and therefore eligible to be ministers,” Turnbull told reporters in the rural town of Albury, 555 km (345 miles) south of Sydney.

A 116-year-old law demands an elected lawmaker only have Australian citizenship, but some have discovered they hold dual citizenship by descent of a father being born in another country, such as neighboring New Zealand, or Britain or Italy.

Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Paul Tait

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