Citizenship crisis: John Alexander resigns and triggers byelection

The Liberal MP John Alexander will resign from parliament, triggering a snap byelection, and increasing the precarious position of the Turnbull government.

After days of speculation, Alexander confirmed his intention to resign, a development which reduces the government’s numbers in the lower house to 73, minus the Speaker, because Barnaby Joyce is already contesting a byelection in New Englandcourtesy of having been ruled ineligible by the high court.

Alexander said after checks with the British Home Office, he no longer had sufficient certainty that he was a sole Australian citizen, so he had no choice but to resign.

Alexander said on Saturday he intended to seek the support of the Liberal party to re-contest his seat of Bennelong, which he holds by a 9.8% margin. A contest in the seat could be underway before Christmas.

The New England byelection is scheduled for December 2.

The Liberal MP holds a press conference after becoming the second Lower House Coalition MP to resign over the citizenship debacle.

“My right to remain in parliament depends on my belief that I am solely Australian,” Alexander told reporters in Sydney.

“Given what I have learned about the constitution and understanding now of the high court decision just a couple of weeks ago, I can no longer, with sufficient certainty, maintain the belief that I have held through my 66 years,” he said.

“Therefore, it is my obligation that I must resign. That’s what I will do. I think there is a great need for certainty, to clarify the situation and to do so as expeditiously as possible.”

He said Australians were tired of the uncertainty associated with the citizenship imbroglio.

The loss of Alexander means the government no longer has a majority in its own right in the House of Representatives.

Of the 148 remaining members of the House, 74 are from the government, including the Speaker, Tony Smith. Labor has 69 members and there are five crossbenchers.

That means the government cannot win a vote on the floor of the House without the support of at least one crossbencher.

This is because winning a vote amongst the 148 remaining members requires 75 votes.

On the other hand, if Labor and the crossbench voted together, they would have a combined 74 votes, which would be enough to defeat the government. This is because the Speaker only has a vote where there is a tie on the floor of the House.

Shortly after Alexander clarified his status, the prime minister spoke to the media in Da Nang, Vietnam, and ratcheted up pressure on Labor MPs currently facing questions to clarify their status.

Overnight, the prime minister’s office released legal advice from David Bennett QC which concludes that that the Xenophon MP Rebekha Sharkie, and Labor MPs Justine Keay and Susan Lamb, are ineligible because the high court’s “citizenship seven” decision sets a strict test that dual citizens cannot nominate unless foreign law “irremediably” prevents them giving up their citizenship.

Turnbull said the Labor leader Bill Shorten had “wanted to draw me in to some kind of protection racket for Labor MPs who were clearly UK citizens at the time they nominated, and knew they were”.

“If we believe that there are members of the parliament, whether they are on the government benches, the opposition benches, or the crossbenches, where there are substantial grounds for believing they are in breach of the constitution, then they should go to the high court and they are free to make their arguments in defence of their position there,” Turnbull said.

“But the idea that Labor members, where you have senior counsel’s advice saying that they are ineligible to sit in the parliament, should not go to the high court is extraordinary – but that’s what Bill Shorten asked me to do.”

The legal advice from Bennett indicates that Alexander, in order to contest the byelection in Bennelong, will also have to successfully renounce his British citizenship before nominating.

Turnbull said he would not abandon his current trip to two international summits and return to Australia to deal with the imbroglio because the government retained the support of the cross bench on matters of confidence and supply.

Asked what assurance he could give Australians that the Coalition could continue to provide stable government throughout this period, Turnbull said: “Well, we absolutely are providing stable government and delivering.”

While a number of MPs are now under a cloud, the government’s problems go beyond Alexander and Joyce. The chief government whip Nola Marino is also facing questions about her eligibility to be in parliament after it was revealed she may have Italian citizenship through marriage.

On Saturday Fairfax Media that Marino’s husband Carmelo Marino was born in Italy in 1950 and emigrated to Australia with his parents the following year.

According to the consulate general of Italy “foreign women who married an Italian citizen prior to 27 April 1983 automatically acquired Italian citizenship on the date of marriage”.

Marino married her husband in Western Australia in 1972. Whether she is an Italian citizen will depend on whether her husband became a naturalised Australian citizen prior to their marriage. Under Italian law, “children who were naturalised Australian citizens along with their parents prior to 16 August 1992 would lose Italian citizenship at the time”, the consulate general’s advice says. This would mean his citizenship could not have been passed on to Marino.

Guardian Australia has contacted Marino’s media spokesman for comment.

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