Leadership twist as report claims Peter Dutton could be ineligible to sit in Parliament
Advertisement

Leadership twist as report claims Peter Dutton could be ineligible to sit in Parliament

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton may be ineligible to sit in Parliament due to his family's financial interests in the Commonwealth, according to an explosive report that has added a dangerous new dimension to the leadership speculation gripping the Turnbull government.

Network 10 on Monday night reported Mr Dutton could be in breach of the constitution, which rules ineligible anyone who "has any direct or indirect pecuniary interest in any agreement with the Public Service of the Commonwealth".

The allegation comes amid fevered speculation Mr Dutton is considering a leadership challenge to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, and the report will trigger a frenzy of finger-pointing as to the origin of the story.

Peter Dutton in Question Time on Monday.

Peter Dutton in Question Time on Monday.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Fairfax Media understands Network 10 had been researching the story for weeks. Journalist Hugh Riminton affirmed on Twitter that the story was "not a leak".

Advertisement

A spokeswoman for Mr Dutton told Fairfax Media: "Mr Dutton’s legal advice clearly states there is no breach of Section 44."

Mr Dutton's register of financial interests shows he is a beneficiary of the RHT Family Trust, alongside his wife. The trust owns his wife's company, RHT Investments, which runs two childcare centres in Brisbane: Bald Hills and Camelia Avenue.

Since July 2, the centres have been receiving direct financial subsidies from the Commonwealth government, according to the Network 10 report. The trust of which Mr Dutton is a beneficiary profits from the childcare centres, giving rise to a potential breach of section 44.

Sydney University professor of constitutional law Anne Twomey said Mr Dutton could be in strife.

"I do think there is a danger for him,” she told Fairfax Media. "I think there is a reasonable case for his disqualification but he also has a reasonable defence. It is a real case and I would describe it as borderline."

However, Mr Dutton's eligibility could only be decided by the High Court, and that would require the government to refer one of its own cabinet ministers to the court.

University of NSW constitutional law professor George Williams agreed with Professor Twomey, saying it was arguable that section 44 would cover the receipt of childcare subsidies.

"Like the citizenship cases before it, it’s dealing with an area of law that the High Court had not decided," Professor Williams told Fairfax Media.

"The central challenge here is how you would get it into the High Court, because that would take a vote of the lower house to refer it there, which highlights a major problem."

Amid the fervent leadership speculation on Monday, Mr Turnbull said Mr Dutton "has given me his absolute support".

Since the July 2 change, which Mr Dutton supported as a member of cabinet, the federal government has paid childcare subsidies directly to centre operators, replacing the old system whereby benefits and rebates were paid to families.

Some childcare operators have reported an increase in enrolments since the new system took effect.

Kiralee Dutton is the sole director and shareholder of RHT Investments. Her childcare centre in Bald Hill is licensed to look after 76 children and the Camelia Avenue centre is approved for 91, according to the regulator.

Michael Koziol is the immigration and legal affairs reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based in Parliament House

Kylar is The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age's CBD columnist. He recently covered federal politics, business and NSW politics for News Corp.

Dana is a federal politics reporter, covering health and industrial relations. Previously, she was a reporter for The Australian.