Australian court says no guarantee of speedy ruling on citizenship crisis

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[October 12, 2017]  By Colin Packham

CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia's High Court said on Thursday it was aware of the need to rule on the eligibility of seven lawmakers quickly, but warned it could not guarantee a speedy resolution to a case that threatens the government's one-seat majority in parliament.

Parliament was rocked in August when seven lawmakers, including the Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce and two other cabinet ministers, said they held dual-citizenship, potentially ruling them ineligible to hold elected office.

The uncertainty has put the government's future under the spotlight.

"The court is aware of the need for a speedy decision, but it is not always possible to do so immediately," said chief justice, Susan Kiefel.

The court's decision will determine whether Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull can maintain his shaky grip on power.

Should the court rule that Joyce, the sole lower house lawmaker caught up in the crisis, is ineligible, Turnbull will need to win the support of one of three independent lawmakers to keep his minority government.

The remaining six politicians embroiled in the case are senators and their seats would be assigned to alternatives from their political party.

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A sign stands outside the High Court of Australia in Canberra, Australia, October 15, 2014. REUTERS/David Gray/File photo

A potential deal with an independent politician would allow Turnbull's government to continue until a special election for Joyce's seat can be held, most likely in November.

Joyce, popular among rural voters who dominate his local constituency, has already indicated he will stand for re-election after renouncing his New Zealand citizenship in August.

"Special by-elections are extremely volatile but it is lucky for Turnbull that it is Joyce that may have to stand, as country Australians seem not to trust the prime minister," said Nick Economou, senior lecturer in Australian politics at Monash University in Melbourne.

Support from rural voters, who overwhelmingly backed Turnbull in his razor thin re-election last year, has fallen to its lowest level in more than two years, a Newspoll for The Australian newspaper on Monday showed.

(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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