Bill Shorten faces the toughest test of his leadership yet with four simultaneous byelections in Labor-held seats within weeks after the High Court’s latest ruling on dual citizens’ ineligibility to run for Parliament triggered a rash of resignations by MPs.
As Mr Shorten tried to turn the forthcoming campaigns into a referendum on the government’s company tax package, he was forced to defend his stubborn refusal to refer suspect MPs to the High Court last year so that a line could be drawn under the constitutional fiasco sooner.
Voters in the Queensland seat of Longman, Western Australia seat of Fremantle and Tasmanian seat of Braddon could go to the polls as early as June 16 following the resignations of Susan Lamb, Josh Wilson and Justine Keay who held dual citizenship. Labor was already facing a byelection in Perth caused by the resignation of frontbencher Tim Hammond for family reasons.
And the resignations give the government the chance to firm up its shaky parliamentary majority after the Centre Alliance member for Mayo, Rebekha Sharkie, was also ousted from a traditionally blue ribbon Liberal seat of Mayo in South Australia because of her dual citizenship. A possible Liberal candidate is Georgina Downer, daughter of former foreign minister Alexander Downer.
High Court boots Katy Gallagher
Ms Sharkie, Ms Lamb, Mr Wilson and Ms Keay all announced their intention to resign and recontest their seats within minutes of each other hours after the court ruled ACT Labor Senator Katy Gallagher was ineligible to sit in the Senate because of her dual UK citizenship at the time of the 2016 election.
The government seized on the ruling as a test case to demand the Labor MPs and Ms Sharkie immediately resign.
Labor’s attempts to hold the seats will see concurrent campaigning in Tasmania, Western Australia and Queensland, potentially just months before the next federal election.
The Opposition is most vulnerable in Longman, which it holds by a wafer-thin 0.8 per cent margin. One Nation preferences will be crucial, with Pauline Hanson to announce the party’s candidate on Thursday after indicating back in January the party was unlikely to preference Labor.
However, the government runs the risk of renewing tensions over Mr Turnbull’s leadership if a Liberal National Party candidate runs and suffers a heavy defeat.
Because of a family dispute, Ms Lamb was unable to provide the documents she required to complete the renunciation process and remains a British citizen, although Mr Shorten said he was confident she would be eligible.
“I’m sure she’s able to run. At the time of close of nominations, she would have followed this new test that we found out about three hours ago,” he said.
“She’s going to renounce her citizenship.”
Mr Shorten struggled to defend the opposition’s handling of the citizenship crisis before question time, saying the party had relied on its lawyers based on the understanding of a 1992 case.
“After asking all candidates to comply with the processes we thought were appropriate, the High Court has set a stricter test. We followed the legal advice we have been given. Legal experts said this decision surprised them,” he said.
Within Labor ranks, there is anger at Mr Shorten’s management of the matter. Ms Gallagher and some of the other MPs had wanted to refer themselves to the High Court earlier to clarify their status but were told to sit tight as Labor sought to exploit the government’s difficulties over its dual citizen MPs which triggered byelections in Barnaby Joyce’s and John Alexander’s NSW House of Representatives seats.
Some MPs believe if Labor loses any of the seats, Mr Shorten’s leadership will be untenable.
Mr Shorten said the byelections would allow “Australians to cast their view on Mr Turnbull’s proposal to give $17 billion to the big banks”.
“This is an early opportunity, it’s not one which we sought but we will take this opportunity to ask Australians and to explain to them that this hoax of a budget, presented last night, which is all about giving large corporations billions of dollars in taxpayer money which means that’s less money for schools, hospitals, debt and indeed income tax relief for lower paid Australians,” he said.
The government is yet to decide which of the seats it will contest. It may forego running in Fremantle, which is a safe Labor seat, while still tossing up whether to stand in Perth, which is marginal but been held by Labor since 1983.
But former prime minister Tony Abbott called on the party to run candidates in each of the byelections.
“It’s a good chance for us to improve our position in the Parliament and we have to go for it,” he told 2GB.
One seat where the Liberals will definitely run in is Mayo which has a margin of 5.4 per cent, with Ms Sharkie claiming the scalp of Jamie Briggs, a former minister who had to quit the frontbench after a drunken incident in a Hong Kong bar with a junior diplomat.
But with demise of Ms Sharkie’s political mentor Nick Xenophon, the Liberals are a good chance of picking the seat up.
Ms Sharkie vowed to fight on. “I don’t believe my job here is finished,” she said.
The government attacked Mr Shorten over his refusal to join it to refer suspect MPs to the High Court as a job lot, with the court ruling making a mockery of Labor’s claims to have a superior candidate vetting process.
“Last year, Bill Shorten faced a character test over the referral of members of the Labor Party under a cloud to the High Court, and he failed it,” Leader of the House Christopher Pyne said.
“He failed it quite spectacularly, and he proved that he couldn’t be trusted yet again.”
The Labor MPs will resign on Friday, with Speaker Tony Smith to then set the date for a “super Saturday” of byelections.