Abbott ally could take seat after Hollie Hughes ruled ineligible

News. Retired Major General Jim Molan next to a Long Range Patrol Vehicle in the Conflicts 1945 to Today Gallery at the n War Memorial. 26 December 2012 Canberra Times Photo by Jeffrey Chan Senator Fiona Nash during Question Time in the Senate at Parliament House in Canberra on Monday 4 September 2017. Fedpol Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

A close ally of Tony Abbott is poised to take up a Senate seat after the High Court ruled disability advocate Hollie Hughes ineligible to replace former cabinet minister Fiona Nash.

Experts say the ruling also puts fresh doubt over the eligibility of new Greens senator Andrew Bartlett and Jacqui Lambie’s anointed replacement, Tasmanian mayor Steve Martin.

The court disqualified Ms Hughes under section 44 of the constitution because she held an “office for profit under the crown”: a government-paid job with the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. Attorney-General George Brandis appointed Ms Hughes to the tribunal after she failed to win a seat at last year’s election.

Ms Hughes resigned the seat within an hour of the High Court ruling that knocked out Ms Nash, but that was not enough to protect her from the section 44 wrecking ball.

That means the seat – made vacant because of Ms Nash’s British dual citizenship – is most likely to go to retired n Army major general Jim Molan, a key backer of Mr Abbott. A conservative hardliner, he was the author of the Abbott government’s hardline boat turnback policy and the former commander of allied troops in Iraq.

However the court has not yet made it clear how the spot will be filled, fuelling hopes among the Nationals that they could be able to parachute Ms Nash back into Federal Parliament.

The court will take submissions and possibly hold a further hearing on how to fill the spot through another countback – which would elect Mr Molan – or give the Coalition a choice through what is known as a casual vacancy.

If it’s the latter option, the Nationals would fight hard for Ms Nash’s return, setting up a clash between the Coalition partners.

However it’s understood Mr Molan is keen to take up the seat and would have no intention of standing aside for Ms Nash, or anyone else, if he was elected.

Constitutional law expert George Williams said the court’s ruling was “harsh” but expected. But he does not know how the court will now rule on the replacement, given it is once again uncharted legal territory.

“This has never happened before so I really don’t know what will happen. There’s just no precedent on this,” he said.

If it is a countback, the seat will go to Mr Molan who is next on the Coalition ticket. But if there’s a casual vacancy, he believes it will only be a Liberal who can fill it – potentially blocking Ms Nash.

The constitution clearly states that a casual vacancy must be filled by a person from the same political party.

He also believes Mr Bartlett and Mr Martin should now be referred to the court. Mr Bartlett worked for a university and Mr Martin is mayor of Devonport – putting them both in a “grey area”.

“They both potentially suffer from the same disqualification. It’s nowhere near as obvious in their case, but the court should consider it,” he said.

The NSW Liberals had expressed confidence that Ms Hughes would be eligible for the seat. The party said on Wednesday it respected the decision and would await further direction.

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