Citizenship fiasco deepens, threatening Malcolm Turnbull's authority
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Citizenship fiasco deepens, threatening Malcolm Turnbull's authority

The citizenship cyclone raging through Canberra has developed a second front blowing straight towards Malcolm Turnbull.

As recriminations fly about which ministers knew about the dual citizenship of Senate president Stephen Parry and why the PM did not, the government's political machinery has been exposed as amateurish and, worse, deliberately deceptive.

The citizenship cyclone raging through Canberra is headed right for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

The citizenship cyclone raging through Canberra is headed right for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.Credit:Andrew Meares

Ministers ducked for cover on Friday with a slew confirming to reporters they had not known about Parry's situation, leaving an ever-shrinking list of those who might have.

Remember the driving question at the heart of the Watergate investigation? "What did the president know and when did he know it?"

This is easily reworked to: "what did the president say, and to whom did he say it?"

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For one thing, he told Attorney General George Brandis just after 10am on Monday, whereas Turnbull was not apprised until Tuesday via the media. Oops.

While a message was transmitted at staff level, it is unclear why Brandis, as government leader in the Senate, did not immediately phone or text the PM to say the government's section 44 woes were about to deteriorate. Sharply.

More concerning is the revelation that Parry had told some ministers weeks ago, and had been encouraged to await that High Court ruling. Again, Turnbull's office was clueless.

Criticise Tony Abbott's operation if you will, but imagine the s---storm from chief adviser Peta Credlin if he'd been similarly deceived.

The withholding of this information from Turnbull reminds us of the other seminal lesson from Watergate – the cover-up does more damage in the end than the original transgression.

On top of the doubts these matters raise about confidence, competence, and communication within the Turnbull cabinet, there's the erosion of public trust caused by the way citizenship stories keep tumbling out.

Greens Leader Richard Di Natale has called it a "constitutional crisis", saying it is now unclear if the government has the numbers, "or whether decisions by ministers are valid".

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Calling for an audit, Di Natale cited Swinburne University astrophysicist Colin Jacobs, who helpfully calculated the mathematical probability of there being additional "dual" citizens in the 150-member lower house as 99.96 per cent – based on five of 76 senators succumbing to the constitution's prohibition.

By late Friday, an angry Turnbull had doubled down on denying an audit while Bill Shorten had sniffed the breeze and opened the door to one.

Mark Kenny is the national affairs editor for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House