Bills

Turnbull government minister faces $500k in legal bills

A Turnbull government minister is facing up to $500,000 in personal legal bills to defend his job against a Labor High Court challenge.

While the government is covering the costs of the seven federal politicians referred to the court over their citizenship status, the eighth MP facing constitutional eligibility questions is not getting the same assistance.

Labor is challenging Assistant Health Minister David Gillespie’s right to stay on in Federal Parliament, putting the government’s slender majority at risk, because it believes he may have an indirect financial interest in the Commonwealth – grounds for disqualification under section 44(v) of the constitution.

As revealed by Fairfax Media in February, the Nationals MP owns a small suburban shopping complex in Port Macquarie and one of the shops is an outlet of Australia Post – a government-owned corporation.

The case appeared in court last Friday, with High Court Justice Virginia Bell referring the matter to the full bench for further consideration.

But if Labor’s case is successful, Dr Gillespie stands to lose more than just his job. Multiple Coalition sources have confirmed he is funding the case himself, with cost estimates ranging up to half a million dollars.

Dr Gillespie’s case differs from those of the other seven because the challenge was brought under the Common Informers Act by Peter Alley – the Labor candidate Dr Gillespie beat at the 2016 election.

The others – including Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce – were referred to the court by Parliament itself, under the Commonwealth Electoral Act. There is long-standing precedent the Commonwealth will cover the costs of such referrals.

If Dr Gillespie fends off the challenge he can seek to have his costs covered by Mr Alley. Dr Gillespie’s legal team has already indicated it may ask the court to order Labor provide security for its legal costs.

If Dr Gillespie is disqualified, it would spark a byelection in his NSW seat of Lyne. The Nationals MP could run again if he has disposed of the interest in the post office.

Either way, the Nationals would be well-placed to retain the seat, although it was previously held by independent Rob Oakeshott.

Dr Gillespie and his wife, through their company Goldenboot, lease the shop space in question to a woman who is an Australia Post licensee – meaning he has no direct financial link to the postal service.

Section 44(v) of the constitution says any person who “has any direct or indirect pecuniary interest in any agreement with the Public Service of the Commonwealth otherwise than as a member and in common with the other members of an incorporated company consisting of more than 25 persons shall be incapable of being chosen or of sitting as a senator or a member of the House of Representatives”.

The section is an anti-corruption measure, designed to stop people sitting in Parliament and at the same time making money through contracts with the Commonwealth.

The story Turnbull government minister faces $500k in legal bills first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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