View from The Hill

View from The Hill

No, it wasn’t a conspiracy that caused Barnaby’s problem – it was himself

Barnaby Joyce has now renounced his New Zealand citizenship but his future is yet to be determined. Mick Tsikas/AAP

Let’s get one point straight. The crisis around Barnaby Joyce has been caused by one simple oversight by one person. Joyce was careless in not properly checking whether he complied with the citizenship requirement of the Australian Constitution.

He was not landed into this pickle by Bill Shorten, the New Zealand Labour Party, the media, or anyone or anything else. If he had acted years ago with abundant caution – or his party had – he wouldn’t have had a problem.

And the government’s over-the-top efforts on Tuesday to find a conspiracy begs the question: does it think an MP’s alleged breach of the Constitution, if suspected, should be just ignored?

At the extreme, wouldn’t there be a risk that, in such circumstances, an MP could be open to an attempt to compromise them?

A few weeks ago the Greens’ Scott Ludlam resigned when he found he was a citizen of New Zealand, which he left as a child. His dual citizenship came to his attention when a barrister started poking around. Ludlam accepted the situation with grace.

Of course much more is at stake politically with Joyce. It’s unsurprising and entirely appropriate that the government fights for him in the High Court – although it is another matter that he is not standing aside from the ministry.

But the government’s attempt to paint this as a “treacherous” Shorten executing a dark deed involving a foreign power is desperate distraction politics. After a bizarre attack by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop on the New Zealand Labour Party, it morphed into a diplomatic own goal.

Joyce’s dual citizenship came to light after two lines of inquiry in New Zealand: questions from Fairfax Media, and a blogger, to the Department of Internal Affairs, and questions on notice from Labour MP Chris Hipkins, following his conversation with Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s chief-of-staff Marcus Ganley, who’s a Kiwi.

Bishop’s accusations and language at Tuesday’s news conference were extraordinary for a foreign minister, although they were just at the extreme end of the script used throughout the day by Malcolm Turnbull and others in the government.

“The New Zealand Labour leader, Jacinda Ardern has revealed that Bill Shorten sought to use the New Zealand parliament to undermine the Australian government,” Bishop claimed.

“Bill Shorten has sought to use a foreign political party to raise serious allegations in a foreign parliament designed to undermine confidence in the Australian government.

"This is highly unethical, at least, but more importantly, puts at risk the relationship between the Australian government and the New Zealand government,” she said.

According to the NZ minister for internal affairs, Peter Dunne, it wasn’t the Labour questions that set the ball rolling to the outing of Joyce’s NZ citizenship.

Dunne tweeted:

But when this was put to Bishop, she said dismissively: “I don’t accept that”. That is, she rejected the word of a minister in a fraternal government.

Further, “New Zealand is facing an election. Should there be a change of government, I would find it very hard to build trust with those involved in allegations designed to undermine the government of Australia,” Bishop said.

And again: “I would find it very difficult to build trust with members of a political party that had been used by the Australian Labor Party to seek to undermine the Australian government”.

Here’s Australia’s foreign minister, in a fit of collective government pique, saying before the NZ election she’d have problems with the possible winners.

This was egregious on several fronts. It is both harmful and offensive. The Australian and New Zealand governments, of whatever complexion, should and need to be close. Bishop’s sweeping claims go well beyond what seems to have happened. And her attack on NZ Labour buys right into the electoral contest – her accusation of foreign interference in our politics could be turned back and levelled at her.

Ardern met Australian High Commissioner Peter Woolcott – soon to take up the role of Turnbull’s chief-of-staff – to express her disappointment at Bishop’s remarks, but also to stress the importance she attached to the Australian relationship.

In very measured remarks, contrasting with Bishop’s tone, Ardern told a news conference she first knew of the situation when it broke in the media on Monday.

When she saw the reference to the NZ Labour Party she’d immediately inquired and learned Hipkins had asked two questions. Hipkins shouldn’t have done so, she said, a point she’d made “absolutely clear” to him, and he’d acknowledged.

Hipkins had told her that when an ALP acquaintance had called him asking about citizenship “he had no context for who the question might relate to”.

Ardern said she would be happy to talk directly with Bishop (not that she had her phone number).

“The relationship between the New Zealand Labour Party and the Australian government is too important for politics to get in the way,” Ardern said. “Australian domestic politics is for them, not for us. We should not be involved.”

Later, Wong said her staffer had “informal discussions with New Zealand friends” about the Section 44 debate.

“At no point did he make any request to raise the issue of dual citizenship in parliament … In fact, neither I, nor my staff member, had any knowledge the question had even been asked until after the story broke.”

It was a day in which the Turnbull government looked more than a little unhinged. It caused a lot of angst across the ditch, got into an absurd barney with New Zealand Labour, and even had the New Zealand conservative government correct it.

In its attempt to throw mud at Shorten, the Turnbull government managed to do itself more harm.

And at the end of it all Joyce, who has now renounced his New Zealand citizenship, still must have his future determined. It was announced that his case will come up on August 24 for a directions hearing, together with the two senators and two former senators also caught on the sticky paper of Section 44 (i).

Help combat alt-facts and fake news and donate to independent journalism. Tax deductible.