Transcript - Radio Interview - ABC RN Breakfast - Tuesday 15 August

SUBJECTS: Barnaby Joyce dual citizenship


DR NORMAN SWAN: The Prime Minister is staring down demands to remove Barnaby Joyce from Cabinet over the latest citizenship scandal to rock Federal Parliament. The Government’s hold on power has been sorely tested by revelations the Deputy Prime Minister is a dual New Zealand national. A tit for tat response which could gridlock parliament, the Coalition is threatening to refer a handful of Labor MPs to the High Court to force them to prove they have renounced their own foreign citizenships. The Opposition’s charge against Barnaby Joyce has been spearheaded by Joel Fitzgibbon who is speaking here with political editor Alison Carabine.

ALISON CARABINE: Joel Fitzgibbon good morning.


CARABINE: Labor wants Barnaby Joyce out of cabinet and out of parliament. Aren’t you jumping the gun here? Why not wait for the High Court to adjudicate what is to many people a pretty archaic matter?

FITZGIBBON: Well Malcolm Turnbull and Barnaby Joyce themselves set the standard when Matt Canavan left the Cabinet in almost identical circumstances. I think the only differences you will find between Matt Canavan and Barnaby Joyce is that one - one sits in the House of Representatives and of course is critical to the numbers to hold Government and two - I think you will find Barnaby Joyce is literally holding a gun to the head of the Prime Minister. I think he is saying, well if I walk, some might walk with me.

CARABINE: As in other National MPs?


CARABINE: Okay, but there is a legal difference between the Matt Canavan situation and Barnaby Joyce’s. We had the Prime Minister expressing supreme confidence that the High Court will uphold his right to sit in the Australian Parliament. Isn’t there some legal precedent for the government’s line of argument that an MP can’t be disqualified under section 44 of the Constitution if he had no idea that he was a citizen of another country?

FITZGIBBON: No I haven’t heard one constitutional law expert put that point in any strong sort of a way. The exception of course is George Brandis, the government’s own attorney general who was desperately last night trying to cling to a minority decision of comment more than 20 years ago. I think the constitution is pretty clear and people are talking about this idea of acquiescing. Well silence can be a form of acquiescing. If Barnaby Joyce knew or suspected even that he was a citizen of New Zealand, silence in itself can be a form of acquiesce because if he had moved to further investigate his situation then of course he would have found himself in more trouble so I think his very non action is in itself is possibly evidence he is indeed in breach of section 44(i).

CARABINE: Labor obviously wants the High Court to interpret section 44 in a very literal way, but if that happens, wouldn’t as the Prime Minister pointed out yesterday render millions of Australians ineligible for parliament?

FITZGIBBON: No, unlike the Prime Minister, we are not asking the High Court to do anything in particular other than provide their interpretation of section 44(i) and more particularly to test Barnaby Joyce’s validity to sit in the Parliament. It was just extraordinary for the Prime Minister to be standing in the House of Representatives yesterday effectively directing the justices of the High Court to make a certain decision. You may have thought he might have learned something from the recent case when three of his Ministers almost faced, or did face, the Federal Court and were potentially at risk of being charged of that. It was extraordinary yesterday and it showed Malcolm Turnbull’s desperation.

CARABINE: Are you saying Malcolm Turnbull committed contempt of court with his statement to Parliament yesterday?

FITZGIBBON: No I’m saying that I was sitting in the Parliament while he was speaking and I was gobsmacked with what I thought was a clear direction to the justices of the High Court.

CARABINE: It’s pretty obvious though that the justices of the High Court will not be directed by any person including the Prime Minister. Barnaby Joyce is the fifth parliamentarian to be tripped up by the eligibility requirements in the past few months. Has the time now come to amend the Constitution to tidy up the citizenship laws which to many people have become quite farcical, especially when you consider that they are now interacting with the citizenship laws of different countries?

FITZGIBBON: Well first of all he is only the second MP in the Cabinet to be caught up by section 44(i) and he is the only member of Cabinet who hasn’t resigned or stood aside as a result. Barnaby Joyce today will be signing off on documents and making decisions as a Minister. He sits in the National Security Committee in the Cabinet making decisions which could at some point be challenged because of his potential invalidity as a Member of Parliament. On the second point, I don’t see a problem with section 44(i) personally. We are always happy to have the conversation but unlike section 44 (iv) the Office of Profit under the Crown Provision, I think the principles the founding fathers were looking towards here under section 44(i) still hold and that is there is an expectation that members of parliament will have an allegiance to one country only, so I think the principle still applies. Candidates only need to make sure they are complying with 44(i).

CARABINE: Joel Fitzgibbon, if Labor is so squeaky clean when it comes to candidates complying with section 44(i), why won’t you refer your own MPs whose eligibility is in some doubt to the High Court?

FITZGIBBON: Simply because we don’t believe there is a case Ali. We have a very rigorous process of vetting candidates. I have been through it myself of course except I’ve only been through stage one because I have not had to nominate that I have a parent that was born overseas so I haven’t gone to the next stage but I do know if I was to write, yes I have a parent  born overseas, then I would then go through a second phase of vetting by the Party. We are entitled to be absolutely confident we don’t have a problem.

CARABINE: There is a clutch of Labor MPs who were either born overseas or whose parents where and haven’t yet released the relevant documentation to prove they are not dual Nationals. Why can’t we see the paperwork to clear this up once and for all?

FITZGIBBON: Because we are not going to be distracted. That’s exactly what the Prime Minister wants and he wants to shift this conversation onto the Labor Party, the Opposition Party, when we need to be discussing what is happening within the Government. A government which holds majority by a wafer thin margin, but a government that now has a Deputy Prime Minister and a Minister covering about five portfolios, important portfolios including agriculture who might not be entitled to be sitting in the Parliament and therefore making those decisions now. Agriculture is at a critical point in its history and its progress. It’s a time of both opportunity and challenge and we need an Agriculture Minister who people can have confidence in, smacks of legitimacy and is respected in international markets and we can’t have that in Barnaby Joyce.

CARABINE: You obviously smell blood here, the political dividend could be a by-election and possibly even the fall of the Turnbull Government. How much gridlock and chaos are you prepared to generate in Parliament to try achieve that outcome and is that what we are going to see over the next few weeks until the High Court sits?

FITZGIBBON: We are prepared to do what the Australian community would expect us to do as the Opposition and that is to hold the Government to account and to test Barnaby Joyce’s validity as a Member of Parliament and to do all we can to make sure the decisions of government which are decisions for all of us are the right the right decisions and legitimate decisions and of course our Ministers are capable of talking on our behalf in the global community and do so from a position of strength and respect.

CARABINE: Just finally, this case first came up after the Labor MP in NZ, Chris Hipkins, lodged a written question in the New Zealand Parliament. Did Labor in this country have anything to do with that process? Were you getting your counterparts in New Zealand to do your dirty work for you?

FITZGIBBON: I can honestly say that I have no idea Ali.

CARABINE: So it’s possible that happened?

FITZGIBBON: I just have no idea but does it matter to people out there in the Australian community at the moment how Barnaby Joyce got caught out? It’s becoming fairly apparent Ali that Barnaby Joyce has known about this for some time. He has kept it quiet because in a sense he had no other options. There is nothing you can do to fix the problem once you have been elected.

CARABINE: Is this a legitimate way for Labor to try and get power?

FITZGIBBON: I think the Australian community will be more concerned about whether Barnaby Joyce has known about this for some time and decided to keep it quiet.

CARABINE: Joel Fitzgibbon, thanks for your time.

FITZGIBBON: It’s a great pleasure.

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