CANBERRA -- It was something of an understatement that ushered in Question Time on Tuesday.
"The Deputy Prime Minister does not claim to be a constitutional expert," Malcolm Turnbull said, to howls of laughter from the Labor side, as the PM tried to explain why the government is fighting hard to keep Barnaby Joyce in the parliament despite the Member for New England himself recently saying it was "black and white" that you can't be an MP while also a dual citizen.
"What a strategy!" jeered one Labor MP.
It set the tone for a wild and continually surprising debate between Australia's federal parliamentarians, where Joyce confirmed he had renounced his Kiwi citizenship, Christopher Pyne speculated whether Labor may have been "colluding" with major trading partners including China, Britain and Indonesia, and the opposition rolled out some of the zingers they have kept on the shelf for some time.
The craziness carried right through to the end of the day. As Tuesday wound down to a close, Labor sprung another trap. Just as they had in September, when they noticed only a few government MPs in the House of Representatives, the opposition took advantage of the numbers to spring a vote -- in this case, on the Great Barrier Reef marine park -- and embarrass the government, leading a sitting majority government to lose a vote for what is reported to be only the second time in 50 years. After much to-ing and fro-ing, the result ended 69-61 to Labor, leaving many on the government benches red-faced.
Earlier, in Question Time, It took just two minutes for Labor MP Terri Butler to be ejected from the chamber, as the opposition carried on in mirth after Turnbull admitted his deputy was no legal eagle. She would be followed by a further five Labor MPs over the hour of Question Time, as Matt Keogh, Nick Champion, Tim Watts, Stephen Jones and Brian Mitchell were told to take an early mark by the Speaker.
"The point of the matter is what the Deputy Prime Minister said in that interview was not a correct interpretation or description of the way the law operates," Turnbull said, to roars from the Labor side.
The PM again accused Opposition Leader Bill Shorten of "conspiring" with the Labour Party in New Zealand to undermine the Australian Government, repeating comments from Foreign Minister Julie Bishop which have been slammed across the Tasman, but it would be frontbencher Christopher Pyne who would take this even further.
"How many other foreign governments or foreign political parties in other countries has the Labor Party been colluding with to try and undermine the sovereignty of the Australian Government?" Pyne railed.
"Has [Shorten] been talking to the people in Indonesia? Or China? The Chinese Communist Party, potentially? Or in Japan? Or the Labor Party in the UK?"
It is unclear how Australia's biggest trading partners in China, Indonesia and Japan, and our oldest ally in Britain, would feel about being roped into this debate, or alluded to by Pyne as nations which would potentially engage in "collusion" to bring down a friendly government.
Nonetheless, Pyne continued.
"The Labor Party, the Leader of the Opposition stands condemned, Mr Speaker, because he has been prepared to collude with foreign political parties to undermine this Australian Government about which he should be ashamed," the Minister for Defence Industry said.
Labor MP Tony Burke came through with a zinger of a question for Bishop:
the minister announced that Australia's relationship with New Zealand would be determined by the partisan politics of New Zealand's next election. If the Foreign Minister won't be able to work with the New Zealanders, how will the Foreign Minister work with the Deputy Prime Minister?Tony Burke
The question wasn't allowed to stand, but his point had been heard.
Turnbull, a qualified and celebrated barrister before turning to politics, argued that the constitution was "not to be read literally" in defending Joyce. The deputy PM rose and answered the question many have wondered since he announced on Monday that he was a Kiwi dual citizen, confirming that he had since worked to renounce that status.
"Over the course of the weekend, we went through the process of renunciation. We received verbal communication from New Zealand before question time that that has now been accepted and we're looking forward to the written advice turning up, pronto," Joyce said.
Labor has been trying to use Joyce's secret citizenship as a reason to force him from the government, or at least from his position as deputy PM, and this admission added further fuel to the fire.
"He confirmed that he had renounced a foreign citizenship, which you are ineligible to nominate for Parliament if you hold. Why is he still a member of your cabinet? Why is he still voting in this Parliament, when, by his own admission, it's against the constitution?" Burke asked.
Turnbull answered again that "the advice we have from the Solicitor-General is very strong", and that Joyce -- who had no idea he technically held dual citizenship -- would not be rubbed out under the constitution by the High Court. The government's case rests on the provision in section 44 of the constitution which holds that someone under "allegiance" of a foreign nation cannot sit as an MP, and that Joyce's circumstances mean he was not under the allegiance of a country he didn't know he had any links to.
Despite the fiery exchanges which lit up the rest of Question Time, the session ended not with a bang, but a whimper, as several procedural motions and votes stalled the action and eventually saw things wind down quietly.
Nevertheless, it was some of the most frenetic action seen in the Parliament for some time, and even though Labor ended the hour with a handful fewer MPs than they entered with, they would have been happy with their performance.